A couple of days ago a stunned Hungarian public learned that the Orbán government will bestow on Imre Kertész, the sole Hungarian Nobel Prize winning author who until now has been the target of scorn from the far right and the object of studied neglect on the part of Fidesz, the highest state decoration, the Order of St. Stephen.
In November 2011 I wrote a post entitled “New Hungarian regime, new or not so new decorations.” The Order of St. Stephen was established by Maria Theresa in 1776, and it was abolished in 1946 when Hungary was declared a republic. Actually, no Order of St. Stephen was given out between 1920 and 1940 because by law the Grand Master of the Order had to be the Hungarian king. So for twenty years Horthy did not feel at liberty to bestow the order. By 1940, however, he no longer had any compunctions about taking over the role of the king. Once the order was reestablished, the recipients included Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister; Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Italian foreign minister and son-in-law of Mussolini; and Hermann Göring, marshall of the German Reich. It is this order Imre Kertész that will receive–and this company that he will keep.
It is difficult not to suspect that the Hungarian government’s sudden interest in Imre Kertész has something to do with Viktor Orbán’s efforts to improve his self-image abroad after the fiasco of the Holocaust Memorial Year. How many people will he manage to fool? I have the feeling not too many. The whole scheme is so obvious and cheap when, for example, only a few weeks ago Viktor Orbán was ready to appoint the anti-Semitic Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to be Hungarian ambassador to Rome, the same man who consistently called Kertész “Imre Kertész” instead of using the proper Hungarian word order “Kertész Imre,” indicating that he does not consider him to be a Hungarian.
I suspect, and I’m sure that I am not the only one, that it is Mária Schmidt who is behind this devilish idea. She “discovered” the deeply anti-communist Imre Kertész. Last Thursday Heti Válasz published a fairly lengthy article by her about the greatness of Imre Kertész, which bears little resemblance to the Kertész most of us know. The Hungarian original is not yet available, but thanks to the website Mandiner an English translation of it made its appearance online.
But before I talk about the Schmidt essay I should say a few things about Kertész’s attitude toward Hungary. Kertész has lived in Berlin for ten years. He loves the city and is grateful to the German reading public that discovered him. He also appreciates Germany’s efforts to face the country’s past as opposed to his own country’s reluctance to take even partial responsibility for what happened in Hungary during the spring and summer of 1944. He went so far as to deposit his archives in Germany instead of Hungary.
Given the fact that Kertész is a very ill man–he is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease–it is difficult to know how much he understands about what’s happening around him. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to receive the highest Hungarian decoration in person. In the last two years he has not appeared in public. One thing is sure. In 2012 when he gave an interview to Florence Noiville of Le Monde, which was republished in part in The Guardian, he had a very bad opinion of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He was dismayed by the Hungarian people’s enthusiasm for Orbán. He felt that “the current situation is nothing but a further illustration of that tendency [of Hungary] to choose wrong.” After talking about Orbán’s anti-EU attitudes and about the majority of Hungarian young people at the university who sympathize with the extreme right, he concluded that “Hungarians are holding on to their destiny. They will undoubtedly end up failing, without understanding why.”
As for the official attitude toward him, Kertész was aware that some of his right-wing friends kept in touch with him only in secret. “It not well seen for them to be friendly with me. Remember the unleashing violence when I won the Nobel Prize–people were angry to see me become the only Hungarian Nobel when I was not glorifying “Hungarian-ness. After my novel Someone Other, I was attacked because of my dark portrayal of the country. Some even wondered if I was a real Hungarian writer….”
In January 2013 an article appeared in The New Yorker entitled “The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown” by Hari Kunzru, himself a writer. When Kunzru heard about Kertész’s decision to house his archives not in Hungary but in Germany, he thought it was “a profound gesture of reconciliation.” The friend corrected him:
I’m afraid there is something more to it: he has also good reasons to believe that in Hungary his legacy wouldn’t be treated with as much respect as in Germany, as he is regarded by the current political elite as an “unHungarian” and then I’ve been euphemistic. For example, currently his work is not part of the Hungarian national education program, due to some changes in school material in which, at the same time, three famously antisemitic writers have been included.
The article ends with these words:
Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all. Kertész’s own reaction is to quote Karl Kraus: “The situation is desperate, but not serious.”
All in all, it is unlikely that Kertész would accept any kind of decoration from Viktor Orbán’s government if he were in perfect mental health. Mária Schmidt and Viktor Orbán are taking advantage of an old, sick man.
To justify honoring Kertész Schmidt paints a very different portrait of his views. She uses three sources. All three appeared in the last few years when Kertész was not entirely himself. When he said a few things that perhaps were not only not fair but were dictated by resentment and suspicion of his liberal friends. In typical Schmidt manner, she presents a one-sided image of a very complex man by concentrating on a small segment of his output. She picks statements of Kertész which to her mind supports her own highly flawed thesis of the Holocaust. She is using Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Fateless, to justify her own House of Fates. Despicable.
Tomorrow I will give a taste of Schmidt’s revisionist description of Imre Kertész.