19 July 2017

They Played at Truth…

When word came that they had been shot into a heap outside the Parliament building, in a bottomless moment – as if I myself were dying – I saw his life until then before me as a single, swirling image: he was twenty years old – or still is, if he is alive. What has he done so far?

A scholar. He studied, tutored junior students, and wrote. At sixteen years of age he wrote his first novella – condemned to a grave in the bottom of a drawer – with a grave sense of responsibility and a conviction, already growing into an obsession, that the truth is still the truth, even if nobody can say it out loud.

The novella was about a sixteen-year-old boy called upon to answer a question in front of his class. The journey from the desk to the teacher’s desk is only a few steps, but on the way an army of thoughts rushes through his head. He knows the exercise perfectly as explained in the lines of the book, and runs through it in his mind. But he is torn by the realisation that he does not believe a word of the answer he is supposed to give. Were he to state his true opinion rather than revealing the knowledge obtained from the thrice-rewritten textbook, he would fail; but it is essential for him to get top marks. So he will lie. But if he were to lie, if he compromised his principles out of self-interest, if he did not stand by his convictions, then that would betray a lack of moral fibre. Amidst this merciless wrangling with his conscience, it occurs to him that the teacher does not believe what he is teaching either; he probably holds exactly the same views as Kovács, Fekete, Hanák, Juhász and most of the class. But they have to lie: Kovács because his father’s doing time, Fekete because he is a “Kulak” kid, the teacher in order to earn his twelve-hundred a month… But still he cannot bring himself to lie, the consciousness-splitting barbed hook of doublethink can gain no purchase; to hell with the consequences, if he fails, if he is expelled, so be it… But upon reaching the teacher’s desk, the hero of the novella finds himself unable to speak. His voice catches in his throat, and in his embarrassment an amorphous, billowing poem wells up inside him. The teacher hears only the stammering, and fails the boy… And now he is gone to speak the truth, to scream the truth at the top of his voice in front of the Parliament building. When I urged him to take care of himself, he called me a coward. Two mothers from the neighbourhood already know for sure that theirs will not be coming back from that place where the suppressed words broke out from their throats with the force of divine judgement. At around six in the evening there is a phone call saying he is alive, he has been seen: the crowd has disbanded, and now the waves of another tide of people are carrying him to some embassy: to speak, to speak, to speak out, to bawl out the truth.

By the time he stumbles home, he has no human voice left. I do not ask; I touch him. He is alive. Then someone crashes in through the door. Looking for someone to transport his son’s body. Next week he would have been fourteen. The twenty- year-old boy reels. His former student, Árpád Endrei, fourteen years old, a fallen hero. A hero? But little Endrei, known as Muki to everyone in the area, was naughtier, more mischievous and determined than all the kids in the Paul Street Boys gang, from the popular children’s novel of the same name, put together. More daring and fearless was he than the little partisans promoted so eagerly by the Communist Youth Guard. A thickset, blue-eyed little Magyar. He had the best button-football team in the district. If he had paid attention for five minutes in class he could have been a top student, because his mind was as keen as a sharpened dagger. But Muki was always on the verge of flunking, because he did not pay attention; he could do the maths without trying, but when it came to literature or history he “paid no mind” to all that “mumbo jumbo”. His father had once had him tutored by the older boy, to get him in the habit of paying attention. Not even physical force would have been enough to hold Muki down and force him to focus on what had already driven the attentive, older boy to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Muki did not discriminate between honourable and dishonourable subjects, but condemned every written word. The older boy explained in vain that “dictation” is spelt with “ti”; Muki answered: “I couldn’t care less how you spell it!”, and when the older boy asked him nicely to attend his private lessons anyway, he said: “I haven’t got the time for that, daddy-oh.”

Muki did not have time. He had some urgent playing to do, which could not wait. On Wednesday of the “Holy Week” of the revolution, he and three mates drilled the oil tank of a tracked vehicle, then off he went to look around for just an hour, honest! He even signalled “back in an hour” to his mother through the window, with his stumpy little index finger. When he was downed by a machine gun in Magyar Street, he could still say his name, address and their telephone number. He lived for half a day after that. He said to tell his father and mother that he was sorry for bunking off. His shin was twisted outwards, his lung and liver shot through. He asked in wonder if he was going blind, because he could not see. Then he sang. His voice was ragged now. Was he singing the song that had rang out in the streets for two days? The words were no longer intelligible. The last thing he asked for was to be turned on his other side, because “there’s no sound coming from this side”. And finally: “I’m just dreaming aren’t I, miss?”

Muki lies in the hospital behind Bakáts Square. His father pulls the coffin, cannibalised from the dining room table, on a hand cart so he can put him in it and bury him in a separate grave. And there is no telling him that Muki cannot be buried in a separate grave; that Muki is buried in us. Just as the truth of that other Hungarian revolutionary, György Dózsa circulated, and continues to circulate, in the veins of the peasants forced to eat his flesh, so the terrible tide of the Children’s Crusade continues to live in us and affect us. Is that why they were born? By playing, to do what we cannot carry through ourselves, lest it leave us broken, withered, mad? Who taught them to do this? Where does action begin and thought end? If my brain comes up with an idea, does my hand carry it out? Does the revolution spring from the mind of the thinking person, while it is the worker, the soldier, as the metaphorical limb of society’s collective body, who strikes the blow? That I would understand. Because I am the same as a person who carries out, in the form of actions, what I myself am thinking. But I stand uncomprehending before the child who played at fighting to the death and, with this game, gave back to us what we thought had been lost forever: our national self-esteem.

26 October 1956

Translated by Daniel Nashaat

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