27 July 2018

“Surviving with Honour” – Notes about Géza Páskándi

The figure of Géza Páskándi will always remain for me the one I remember from Budapest in early 1974, shortly after his expatriation from Romania.

Forty-one years old then, he could have been, in appearance, an artist from anywhere in Western Europe, in his black leather jacket and his black corduroy jeans and turtleneck sweater. He could also easily have been an exotic exile from Paris, with his dark yellowish complexion, clear features, slightly protruding dark brown eyes and dense, dark hair. Modern Paris had always been hospitable to the most adventurous and most original talents of many lands – as it was to Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, two writers who clearly figured as fixed stars of the constellation in which the early mature work of Géza Páskándi was born.

Written between 1965 and 1973, when Páskándi was 32 to 40 years old, these delightfully funny and rich dramas owed inspirations to the masters I have mentioned, though they were filtered through an individual sensibility and a locus very different from anything Parisian. Beckett and Ionesco may have helped Páskándi to bravely release his own talent for the absurd, the grotesque and for verbal invention. But the peculiar base of his experience was that of a Hungarian artist from Transylvania, urbane and speculative in spirit, yet schooled in the Gulag of the budding Ceaușescu dictatorship.

The personal impression of that night when I first saw him was, as I suggested, to remain a mythic image for me, the decisive imprint a man leaves in you, to which you return in later years in renewed attempts of interpretation: a mythic image which appears whole in its intensity though it is perhaps partial. Probably, it was only a part of the larger truth of a personality. Yet it certainly gives a clue to the mature Páskándi of the absurd and grotesque plays of the Seventies.

Páskándi appeared elegant in his composure on that first night when we met in a small circle of writers. He exuded a mix of spontaneity and restraint, openness and a generous wit. Though he had a reputation approaching a cult by then, there was something slightly melancholy about him: a welcome lack of self-assertion, behind which lurked a profound but unobtrusive knowledge of the seamy side of life, of evil, and of the precariousness of all things human in a dictatorship.

This knowledge of evil and precariousness, as I have hinted, was gathered by Páskándi during six years in prisons and labour camps during the second wave of Communist terror in Romania. The first, Stalinist phase had subsided somewhat from early 1954 on. A second phase began when Nicolae Ceaușescu, still a general of the secret police, was preparing for his silent takeover of power in the Romanian Communist Party. Soviet troops withdrew from Romania in 1958, after a sojourn of fourteen years, and as an obvious reward for the terror, Romanian Communists waged on their own Hungarian citizens following the Soviet re-conquest of Hungary in November 1956.

As late as 1958, more than 25,000 ethnic Hungarians were arrested in Romania for political reasons. But we do not know the exact figure for 1957, the first wave of the arrests, when Géza Páskándi, a writer of 24, was taken into custody. The charge was sympathy with the Hungarian Revolution and “nationalism”. Indeed, Páskándi was a spokesman at the Bolyai University in Kolozsvár (Cluj) for the students who demanded academic reform and a wider use of the Hungarian language in the fervent autumn of 1956. He also refrained later from signing a public declaration, instigated by the Romanian Communist Party, and enforced on ethnic Hungarian intellectuals, condemning the Revolution in Hungary.

These acts were proofs to the authorities of Páskándi’s intellectual independence and moral integrity, qualities that proved as dangerous for the new Ceaușescu era as for the Stalinist era in the recent past. Ceaușescu was setting to work of realising his own Pol Potian vision of Communism, ironically advertised in the West as a better version of the Soviet model. Romanian middle classes, dissenters and rivals in the Party, ethnic Germans, Jews and the numerically most significant Hungarians were the prominent targets. The backbone of the Hungarian elite had to be broken, physically and mentally, as the major obstacle to Ceaușescu’s vision of an ethnically pure Romania. By 1958, probably more Hungarians were imprisoned in the Romanian retaliation campaign, out of a group of less than three million, than in ten million strong Hungary itself, where János Kádár was waging his campaign of revenge well into 1961.

Páskándi himselflike most of the survivors – hardly ever talked or wrote of the conditions in captivity during the remaining 30 years of his life. He kept to himself the details of the humiliations, the fatigue, the starvation and the diseases. Once he mentioned to his wife that they had been kept in covered steel prison barges on the Danube, unbearably hot in summer and cold in winter, infested with rats. This was a reference to the infamous Danube Delta project, where a canal connecting the Danube and the Black Sea was being built mainly by prisoners in 1949. The details came to light slowly even after 1989, and then mostly in the West. Apart from memoirs of Romanian survivors printed in the West, a comprehensive book published in Paris in 2000 – Le Siècle des camps, The Century of Gulagsgives a few telling accounts of the conditions in the Danube Delta. In this book, Joël Kotek and Pierre Rigoulot quote a Romanian Interior Ministry document from February 1954, when after Stalin’s death some attempts were made to alleviate the worst crimes of the keepers against the inmates. In the document, the Military Prosecutors’ Office instructs the guards that certain procedures have to be abolished in the treatment of the prisoners. Among them, the following:

The refusal to give medical treatment to diseased prisoners, and to force them to work”;

The forcing of naked prisoners to work at barrage/dike constructions in winter, and to make them stand in icy water until noon”;

and to top it all, “[t]he burial of prisoners alive”.

One can surmise from Páskándi’s chance recollection that conditions were hardly better between 1958 and 1963, in the early Ceaușescu era. The total death toll of Romanian camps during Communism is entirely uncertain, since official documentation, especially during Stalinism, was often lacking, and documents were continually destroyed, entries falsified. Survivors and historians talk about between 180,000 and half a million deaths.

Hungarian Review has made a point of publishing accounts of the Danube Delta camps notably by Anna Sebők Páskándi, the author’s widow (in November 2011) and by Zoltán Tófalvi (September 2017 and March 2018).

Páskándi was released in 1963, at the age of thirty, with tuberculosis, which took many years to heal. He received an editorial job, and, from 1965 on, the prison experience surfaces in intricate, transposed works of great artistry. In reading these plays, a third name can be added to the previously mentioned masters, that of George Orwell. One might speculate, knowing that all such speculation is forced, that Páskándi’s theatre of the absurd is what George Orwell might have written, having been an inmate in the world of his famous novels Animal Farm and 1984. There are two Orwellian touches about the Danube Delta project. One is that no records ever mentioned an engineering purpose. The second is that secret records and party propaganda described the activities of the inmates there as “re-education through work”, phrases that were to be used later by Communists in China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Let us add to this spiritual constellation the names of the other literary relatives of Páskándi: Franz Kafka, Slawomir Mrozek and Václav Havel, – all hailing from East Central Europe. Páskándi adds to this distinguished company a sensibility and a fate all his own. For it does make a difference that Havel was not exposed to Danube Delta conditions in his captivity.

His elaborate transpositions of prison experience, and indeed life under a totalitarian dictatorship, were in great part a strategy to circumvent the vigilance of censorship. As he later recalled, he then adopted “a stylistics of existence”, a style of “figurative speech, the absurd, parables, allegories, fables, the grotesque, and symbols”. This “stylistic existence” is a strategy for survival – for “surviving with honour” as he was to say later. Páskándi showed a rare strength among survivors by transposing the prison experience, but also transcending it at the second time. These works demonstrate Páskándi’s genuine, inherent talent for the fantastic, the speculative and the absurd, matched by a keen eye for observing human behaviour. He calls these plays absurdoids – not only to disassociate himself vis-à-vis marxist criticism from the label of “bourgeois decadence” (like that of Beckett or Ionesco), but also to indicate, I believe, a genuine difference. Whereas the theme of alienation connects all these writers, Beckett’s, Ionesco’s and perhaps even Pinter’s absurd is metaphysical, in Páskándi’s absurdoids the taste of real life absurdities is more richly felt, it is more politically defined. Indeed, they are Orwellian absurdoids from a real, and not imagined, nightmare. The real violence and brutality is also presented by Páskándi in grotesque but oppressive plays – like in The Line, where a man of slightly off-beat appearance is made scapegoat and is then being lynched by a mob forced to queue gratuitously in front of an inscrutable state office of complaints. An explicit treatment of sadistic violence is rare in Páskándi’s work – like in the short story The Map of Europe.

But most of the plays appear lighter on the surface, occasionally going to the extremes of farce, and it is the underlying mental realities that lend them a starker colour, a more profound dimension. The world in which he lived in Romania from 1963 on was not significantly different from the world of the labour camps. As he remembered many years later the first moments after his release from the labour camp in the Danube Delta, “I regarded all that as a liberation then, although it was no more than leaving that particular place behind, since I had not stepped into real freedom… After all the people who waited for me out there were not free.”

Out there, as suggested by these plays, the grotesque games played among citizens and between the citizens and the representatives of power may have been more sophisticated than those in the prisons, but still it was a world dominated by the arbitrary rituals of brutal power, by the aggressiveness of alienation... Reality itself was absurd, as anyone spending a few days in such a country could recognise.

Writing about this nightmare proved an insufficient cure. No amount of grotesque invention and vicious irony resolved the double crucible of Páskándi’s situation: being a free soul and being an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaușescu’s Romania. His writings were banned, and in 1971 he decided to expatriate to Hungary. He succeeded after many hardships eventually in early 1974, but his wife and daughter could only join him later that year.

The move brought a considerable change for Páskándi, beyond the obvious gain of living in a country where he was not persecuted for his mother tongue. Also, a country where Communism allowed a more bearable everyday existence to citizens. The difference between Ceaușescu’s nightmare and Kádár’s goulash Communism can be suggested by a comparison of two secret police stories coming from the Páskándi family’s treasure of anecdotes.

In Romania, the police officer might ring the doorbell any day, any time, ask for a meal from Mrs Páskándi, switch on the TV set from an armchair, and ask absent-minded but ominous questions about the whereabouts of Mr Páskándi, how he fares, and what he thinks.

In Hungary, agents worked in a manner more anonymous and more discreet though often transparent. So much so, that on one occasion Páskándi invited a lonesome plainclothes man taping their conversation from a neighbouring table, over for dinner. After a good chat, he invited him to their home and offered him home-distilled walnut brandy. The man got so drunk that he had to phone a colleague for a drive home – and they never saw his face again in his favourite restaurant. This is a unique story that needed Páskándi’s deadpan humour to steer it toward such a hilarious ending – but it could happen in Kádár’s Hungary and could have never happened in Ceaușescu’s Romania.

In Hungary Páskándi’s art branched out profusely into new forms. Most remarkable among them is his renewal of Hungarian historical drama from the mid-Seventies on. Not represented in our present selection these longer plays closer to traditional drama also hinged on his original themes: freedom and responsibility, totalitarian thought, the importance of true communication, and loyalty to a community. He also continued to write his absurdoids almost to the day of his death. Many of the latter were played in off-off-Broadway theatres in New York and London, and given a very warm reception by audiences there in the late Eighties and early Nineties. His own untimely death in 1995 and a change of focus in the life of his director and translator, Eugene Brogyányi, no doubt cut short a promising career for his plays on the English-speaking stage.

The themes, for which he suffered so much in his life, have remained with us ever since. One is the dismal historical irony of totalitarian ideologies evolving from the excesses of the French Revolution into the nightmares of the 20th century. The other is the question of accountability. Crimes against communities, against humanity must be explored and revealed, and the ringleaders pointed out. The goal is not punishment, but the telling of the truth. Where crime against communities remains hidden and facts falsified, a society becomes unstable morally and politically. Páskándi never failed to warn us of that.






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