In case you think that we will be talking about the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (Hungarian National Library), you are wrong. This “national library” (nemzeti könyvtár) is a planned book series that will eventually consist of 100 volumes. The government is getting into the publishing business. The philosophy behind this venture is that, according to the ideologues of the Fidesz government, the oppressive left-liberal regimes ever since 1945 have forced their “literary canon” on Hungarians and have oppressed all those who didn’t share their liberal worldviews. Thus many writers of great talent were not only neglected but suppressed. Now that the right has practically unlimited power Hungarians will become reacquainted with the silenced greats of the past.
The idea for this publishing venture came straight from Viktor Orbán. We know that from Imre Kerényi, who was named “commissioner” in charge of cultural matters. And since Kerényi was already entrusted with erecting statues of the heroes of the right, he decided to combine the two tasks: so far one statue, seven books. The first statue that already stands is that of Cécile Tormay, a fiercely anti-Semitic and very conservative woman writer whose most famous work is a pseudo-diary allegedly written during the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. I call it a pseudo-diary because the book was in fact written after the events.
As for Kerényi, on September 24, 2011 I wrote an article devoted entirely to his person. There I described his alleged background and indicated that I don’t believe most of the details about his family and professional life. I highly recommend going back to that piece because my detailed description there will be useful in assessing his current activities.
The opposition papers consider this publishing venture a propaganda move that will cost a lot of money and that will flop just as Imre Kerényi’s other propaganda efforts have. Looking at the first seven titles, I was baffled by the selection. Cécile Tormay’s A régi ház (The Old House) is already in print and retails for 2,099 forints; the government publication will cost 2,500. Mind you, some people, perhaps children, will receive the books gratis. Károly Gundel’s book, A vendéglátás művészete (The Art of Entertaining) is also available in another edition. The ornithologist Ottó Hermann’s 1901 book on the usefulness and harm of birds (A madarak hasznáról és káráról) doesn’t sound like an instant bestseller to me. I also have my doubts about the popularity of a book published in 1934 giving a detailed description of Lake Balaton and its environs (A Balaton vidék részletes kalauza) by Béla Dornay and János Vigyázó.
So far I find no rhyme or reason in the selections that were made by Kerényi, András Bencsik (editor-in-chief of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and one of the organizers of the Peace March), and Gábor Szigethy (who seems to be an expert on 1956). The next few volumes that Kerényi announced are also rather peculiar choices, including a novel by Zsigmond Móricz that is currently in print.
If the series is eclectic, the statues that Kerényi is planning to erect manifest a definite political ideology. Kerényi calls the five politicians and writers who will have statues in Budapest “the witnesses of Trianon.” Cécile Tormay’s bust was unveiled a few months ago. The statue of the conservative politician István Bethlen will be erected soon as will that of János Esterházy, who was a Hungarian politician in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Two Transylvanians will also be honored by a statue: Károly Kós, an architect in Transylvania, and Miklós Bánffy, a writer and politician originally also from Transylvania. In brief, representatives of the Hungarian minorities from the surrounding countries and conservative politicians of the interwar period.
The whole idea of a “national library” is ill conceived, but it was interesting to listen to Kerényi’s explanation of the rationale behind the venture. He was interviewed this morning by György Bolgár and from this interview it became clear what motivates him and the regime he serves. He doesn’t believe in a balanced political landscape where at fairly frequent intervals governments come and go as a result of popular will. According to him, this democratic tradition is alien to the Hungarians where there is a tradition of “central power.” In the middle is a strong political force and on the fringes a weak opposition. Thus the strong center can remain in power for eight or twelve years, or perhaps longer. This way what one political grouping achieves is not torn down in four years by the antagonistic political formation. This is how it was throughout Hungarian history, from the Middle Ages to Rákosi and Kádár. Admittedly, this central force can be in good or bad hands, but I assume Kerényi is convinced that currently it is in the hands of a wise leader.
As for propaganda, naturally Kerényi denies that he is the head of a propaganda machine that during the Kádár regime used to be called “agitprop osztály” (agitation and propaganda department). According to him, every government’s duty is to inform people of the laws it enacts. “Every political power promulgates its own philosophy.” In fact, this proclamation of its philosophy is really compulsory. “This is the aim of every state, be it good or bad. It wants to manifest itself in public buildings, in statues, in book series.” It is a normal practice and it is the right practice.
At this point Bolgár interjected that this is the kind of state philosophy that advanced western European countries broke with after World War II. In those countries the governing parties don’t want to force their ideology on the whole population. Kerényi’s answer was that those states could afford such generosity because they are stronger. In East-Central Europe the states are weak and therefore they have to implant their ideology firmly in the minds of the subjects.
At least Kerényi is not trying to hide the intentions of the government he serves. Meanwhile the brainwashing continues, although I doubt that this attempt will be successful in the long run. The Rákosi and to some extent the Kádár regime also tried to change literary taste, but their efforts were only superficially successful. They could throw out all the books they considered to be either worthless or antagonistic to the communist regime and they could replace them with socialist realist books from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, but people didn’t become enthusiastic readers of third-rate literature drawing a false picture of the reality they could see for themselves. And if that couldn’t be done in the 1950s and 1960s, it surely cannot be done today when the choices are so great.
A waste of effort, waste of money. The only result will be that the population will hate the government more and more. I already see the shift to outright hatred of the aggressive ways in which Fidesz-KDNP operates. Viktor Orbán knows that he could easily lose the elections in 2014 and is working very hard to rig them. But that could also backfire. And then what on earth are they going to do with the 100 volumes?