“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This edition of Hungarian Review, a bi-monthly journal from Middle Earth – sorry, Central Europe – goes to press just as Peter Jackson’s new film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is filling cinemas across the globe. It is a little known fact that the Shire, a region exclusively inhabited by Hobbits in the north-west of Middle Earth, has a surface area estimated by the author at 47,000 square kilometres, almost exactly half the size of modern Hungary.
One can gently explore other contrasts and parallels between Tolkien’s oeuvre and the state of the region and the wider world at the start of 2013.
In his thoughtful essay “Europe without Europeans” in this edition, the Slovene poet Ales Debeljak praises the European project, but laments its impersonality. “Alas, the current negotiation on the shape and character of “Europeanism” is to a large degree guided by a profound distrust of particular and national identifications,” Debeljak writes. “Such distrust may be understandable, but…(if) one wilfully avoids engaging the relevance of the cultural habits and values of the various nationalities of Europe, one’s ‘Europeanism’ will end up looking hollow, simulated, and insubstantial.” Among many other useful and thought-provoking observations, Debeljak also points to the lack of jokes about what it is to be European.
His essay is preceded by a cannon-ball from one of the Review’s regular authors, the Ankara-based British historian Norman Stone. He too prods and pushes the idea of Europe, but rather more roughly, to try to find how much life is left in it. “For all the talk of the continent as some sort of third force, the fact is that European unity is an American idea,” he writes, and concludes: “If in 1990 the Germans just automatically thought that the answer to the problems of post- Communism was for Hungary and the others to join Europe, it is understandable. The one thing that one might add is that Europe should not attempt too much. And perhaps that is the problem now.”
Both Boris Kálnoky and Ágnes Gereben cast their eyes eastwards – to Turkey and Russia, respectively. Kálnoky contemplates the existing and potential growth of trade and tourism, and produces an astonishing fact worthy of the best pages of Tolkien – that the flourishing relationship between Hungary and Turkey in the twenty-first century may depend to no small degree on the effort of archaeologists to trace a small casket containing Suleiman the Magnificent’s heart, buried where he died, of natural causes, besieging the Hungarian town of Szigetvár, in 1566. He was 71. Although the town finally fell to the Turks later the same month, the heavy losses on the Turkish side and the death of Suleiman prevented any further Ottoman progress on the road to Vienna, which they did not resume until the disastrous campaign of 1683. The French statesman Cardinal Richelieu called Szigetvár “the battle that saved civilisation”.
Ágnes Gereben looks at the fate and ambitions of a more modern empire – Russia. “The energy sector,” she writes, “is much more than a question of resources: it is seen as one of, if not the only, effective tool to recover the great power status lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” From her essay it also becomes clear that even a clairvoyant in matters of oil and gas from the Caspian area would be hard to put to guess what the kaleidoscope juggled by Azeri, Kazakh, Turkmen, Russian and American interests, with Iran and Turkey also involved, will throw up next. Was it also a game of the big powers in the early 1990s which prevented the bringing to justice of the main culprits of the brutal revenge against civilians by the Kádár regime in Hungary in 1956–61? Gradually, the long suppressed details are becoming known to families who never dared to talk of their losses, or knew as little of the exact stories as the entire silent majority. Tibor Pethő quotes victims and eye-witnesses of the Salgótarján massacre of December 1956. Frigyes Kahler outlines the political and judicial wrangling and the desperate public debates since 1989, in an effort to clarify what happened on the streets and in the summary courts after the Soviet army re-occupied Hungary on 4 November 1956.
In an essay memoir, retired British Ambassador John Gordon fondly evokes the beginnings of his diplomatic career in Budapest in the late 1960s, and the warm reception he and his wife Elizabeth received from Hungarian friends when a political thaw made society somewhat more open and relaxed.
From an Abraham Lincoln anniversary essay by Árpád Kadarkay, a 1956 refugee to the US, we learn with what modern intensity the words of the great 19th century statesman hit home for someone who learnt the love of books from an illiterate grandmother, a peasant woman in Hungary in the 1930s.
A similar human greatness in humble circumstances transpires from The Biography of a Woman, a deceivingly straightforward poem about his own mother by the poet Ferenc Juhász whose powerful imagery is masterfully translated by another remarkable poet, Clayton Eshleman.
After such encounters with the gritty side of life it is not easy return to the lighter profundity of Tolkien. The arts, however, can transform terror and the nausea of decay into meaning and beauty. The last section of our present issue begins with Juhász’s ultimately triumphant portrayal of his mother, the joy in organic and cosmic forms of sculptor Ádám Farkas, and Zsigmond Károlyi’s love of the broken down fragments of city buildings.