Tag Archives: literature

You don’t want to be a grade 11 student in Hungary

At this time of the year, when life more or less comes to a standstill for a few days, it is refreshing to do something different from my usual daily fare. I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the so-called “experimental” textbooks the government foisted on teachers and students in certain schools.

I settled for a textbook on Hungarian and world literature for grade 11 students together with its companion volume of literary texts. The textbook is only 168 pages long. Its main staple is plot summaries, but it also includes a list of terms, a pronunciation guide to foreign names, and a short bibliography.

The text covers the period between 1849 and “the first decades of the 20th century,” but this cut-off date is somewhat arbitrary. A lot of contemporaries of the authors discussed in this volume ended up in the textbook for twelfth graders.

Acting as if I were a conscientious student, I followed the first set of instructions in the text. After reading a short introduction to the era following the lost war of independence marked by political resistance, I dutifully proceeded to do my homework. I was supposed to read the first chapter of The New Landowner by Mór Jókai (1825-1904), “which one can find on the website of the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár.” It was not included in the companion volume, so I don’t know what happens if the student has no access to a computer. I guess the textbook authors didn’t think of this “small” problem. In addition, I was supposed to group together all the foreign words “on the basis of their roles and meanings.”

I got as far as reading the text which, given the archaic language full of bastardized Latin and German, was not an easy task. And if I had taken the assignment seriously and tried to do something with the hundreds of foreign words, I’m sure it would have taken me more than three hours.

My second homework assignment was just as strange. I was told to read about forty lines of an epic poem by János Arany (1817-1882). I was certain that this time at least I will find the text of the poem, or at least its relevant passages, in the companion volume. No such luck, although a great number of Arany poems are included in the collection. In fact, most of the reading assignments are not readily available to the students.

There are “interesting puzzles” hidden in the book. Among the homework questions I found a curious reference to a contemporary poet who expressed sentiments similar to Arany on a certain subject. Apparently, the student can find this contemporary poem “in the collection of literary texts.” Which collection? Perhaps the one the student will use in grade twelve?

Especially annoying are the clumsy efforts to make nineteenth-century literature relevant. One of Arany’s ballads is about a woman who has gone mad but who is in denial. The students are supposed to view the 1999 American film “Girl, Interrupted” and write an essay on “Where strangeness ends and where madness begins.” I do hope the film is available in the school so students can watch the “relevant scenes.” Continuing with the theme of madness, the authors suggest taking a look at John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia” on Wikipedia.

When it comes to prose, the “collection of literary texts” contains only short stories. Yet it seems that students are supposed to be thoroughly familiar with Kálmán Mikszáth’s The Siege of Beszterce (1896). Again, the authors resort to an American film, this time “Argo” about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, because they see parallels between the two stories. The suggested title of the assigned essay is: “Is there any practical use to looking at fictive films or novels?”

Until yesterday I thought that I knew Hungarian literature pretty well, but this grade 11 textbook proved me wrong. Here is a text that considers only a handful of presumably remarkable writers. Among Hungarians, it pays a great deal of attention to János Arany, Imre Madách (1823-1864), and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910). Briefly mentioned are János Vajda (1827-1897) and Gyula Reviczky (1855-1889). And then comes the mystery man. Or at least for me he was a mystery man: István Petelei (1852-1910). Eventually I came to the conclusion that his inclusion has something to do with his being a Transylvanian who wrote mostly about village folks and the countryside. On the other hand, the much better known Sándor Bródy (1863-1924) is not mentioned, even though the “collection of literary works” includes one of his short stories. It’s no wonder that the teachers are not exactly thrilled with this thrown-together “experimental” textbook.

As for foreign authors, Russians are well represented: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, although it is unlikely that the students will have the time to actually read any of these great Russian authors. The textbook gives considerable (of course, “considerable” is a relative term here given the brevity of the text) space to French literature: Flaubert, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. From German-language literature only Rainer Maria Rilke made it. From Great Britain Dickens’s David Copperfield was included, but there is no sign of any work by Dickens in the “collection of literary texts.” However, the students are supposed to read the fourth chapter of the book, on the basis of which they are to draw a comparison between the fate and humiliation of David Copperfield and that of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish pharmacist in a Hungarian movie. Sorry, but these forced comparisons really turn me off. Walt Whitman is discussed for a page and a half and the two of his poems appear in the collection of literary texts. The plot of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck is summarized in considerable detail.

I really don’t know what students are supposed to learn from such a superficial, ill-constructed textbook. Certainly not to enjoy literature.

By the way, anybody who’s interested in Hungarian literature might want to consult Lóránt Czigány’s A History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Mid-1970s, available online. At least I know that you have a computer.

December 26, 2016

The fate of the Radnóti statue in Abda

The name of Miklós Radnóti has been all over the news in the last week or so. Radnóti, who lost his life in the Holocaust, is considered to be one of the great poets of Hungary. He died on November 10, 1944, during a forced march of a Jewish labor battalion from Bor, Serbia, through Hungary toward the German-Austrian border. Most of the battalion died en route in one way or the other. Radnóti was most likely shot and buried in a mass grave in a small village, Abda, adjacent to the city of Győr. In 1980 a statue was erected in his honor at the site where he was killed.

Why all this sudden interest in Radnóti? First, because on November 15 in Miskolc a neo-Nazi group called the Hungarian National Front decided to make a bonfire of books that were not to their members’ liking. Among the books journalists on the scene discovered was a volume of the complete works of Miklós Radnóti.

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

Some people found that shocking enough, but two days later the country learned the sad news that an unknown perpetrator had destroyed the statue of Radnóti in Abda. A local paper, Kisalföld, first reported the news. When MTI picked up the story, the agency decided to be extremely cautious in its wording: “The Radnóti statue broke.”  Yes, just broke. I guess by itself. The decision makers at MTI liked this description so much that they repeated it every time the fate of the statue came up. Exactly three times.

Soon enough, however, it became known that the statue didn’t just break by itself but that a car hit it with such force that the statue actually broke in half. In fact, the damage is so great that it will have to be replaced by a replica of the original.

The Hungarian left immediately assumed that the destruction of the statue was deliberate and that the motive behind it was anti-Semitism. The politician who is the district’s socialist candidate for next year’s election expressed his opinion that the “guilty ones” will soon be found and that they will get what they deserve.

Meanwhile, the police began to investigate and came to the conclusion that it was a simple car accident. However, if it was an accident, why did the driver flee the scene without reporting it? 444.hu, an investigative Internet paper, immediately raised doubts about the police’s description of the likely events. The journalist pointed out that the statue is at least 10 meters from the main road. In order to run into it one would have to break through a guard rail and drive across a ditch. Here is a picture of the spot and a Google map of the same.

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

Radnoti szobor2Cink.hu, on the other hand, accused the left-liberal media of manipulation, which they said began already with the local paper that first reported the incident. After all, the reporter of Kisalföld called attention to the fact that this is not the first time that Radnóti’s statue was defaced. A couple of years back someone poured red paint all over it. So, their assumption was that it was a deliberate political act. Cink.hu also found fault with ATV’s reporting of the case and complained in general that the left-liberal media had already decided the case without having any concrete information of the circumstances. The reporter also mentioned that at the time of the accident, around 2 a.m., there was dense fog in the area and it was therefore quite possible that the driver accidentally drove into the statue.

Gépnarancs, a left-wing blog, is also certain that the destruction of statue couldn’t have been accidental. It must, the blogger surmises, have something to do with the Miskolc book burning.

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

Within a day the police found an abandoned and badly damaged black Mercedes in Öttevény, a village west of Abda. The next day, on November 19, Szabolcs P., a twenty-five-year-old from Pápa, went to the police and told the following story of accidentally driving into Radnóti’s statue. The car was not his, it was borrowed. He and a friend of his were on their way to Győr to a bar when in the fog he lost his way and accidentally drove across the evergreen shrubs behind the statute and crashed into it. He got scared and drove away, but then he ran out of gas, which is why he abandoned the car in Öttevény. He and his companion hitched a ride to Győr from where they took a bus to Pápa.

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The Győr police  seems to be satisfied with this story. However, another local online paper,  inforabakoz.huhas serious doubts about the veracity of Szabolcs P.’s story. According to the driver of the Mercedes they were traveling to Győr, but what remains of the evergreen shrubs indicates that the car hit the statue traveling from the other direction–that is, it was hit by a car traveling away from Győr. From the direction Szabolcs P. claims he hit the statue there are no tire marks. Moreover, the car was found in Öttevény, which is not on the way to Győr where the two men were allegedly heading.

I would also like to add my own observation concerning the damaged car. As one can see, it is the left side of the Mercedes that had to come into in contact with the statue. But if Szabolcs P. was driving toward Győr, it should have been the right-hand side that got damaged.

Interestingly, the website of the Győr police which, by the way, has very little useful information on the accident itself, has a small news item asking people whether the future replacement statue should be surrounded by some kind of barrier, like an iron railing. The article also says that members of the Győr police driving at 50 km/h reached the place where the statue once stood in 7 seconds. And, yes, they were driving from Győr toward Abda and not vice versa as Szabolcs P. claimed he was driving. So, perhaps the police after all know something that they haven’t bothered to share with the public.

These delaying tactics of the Hungarian police are regrettable. It would be much better to inform the public of police findings as soon as possible. Otherwise doubts remain, just as they remain in the case of the Baja video.