Of those of my generation who became involved with belles-lettres in one way or another, I was probably the only one to have been reared on the works of the so-called “populist” writers. Even as a university student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this peculiar background made me look like an oddball, or less charitably a redneck with obsolete tastes who had fallen irreversibly behind somewhere along the way. I do not recall receiving glances of pity but I certainly elicited plenty of astonishment and incomprehension, even from my peers who had also grown up in the countryside. It seemed that works created decades before by such noted populist writers as Péter Veres, Pál Szabó, Géza Féja, even Gyula Illyés or Zsigmond Móricz, struck a chord and resonated within me. The hands-on emotional knowledge, the experience of being touched, had all but vanished without a trace by then; the intimacy of recognition was no longer really available as a memory let alone as an actual option, not even for those of my own ilk.
I was born and lived for the best part of twenty-two years in a tiny village of only a few hundred souls, far from the capital city. As a child of peasant stock but familiar with the traditional rural way of life only from scraps of memory or, rather, through its scattered but still surviving fragments and relics, I did not feel deprived any more than I felt privileged in that environment, but simply took my circumstances for granted as one acknowledges the existence of clean air or the starry sky. In short, my childhood bore no resemblance to a “fairy tale” or a “state of bliss”. Neither did I contemplate the “sustaining power” of the rural community at the time. Later in life I had even less reason to entertain such recollections, and I am still somewhat baffled by people who, well advanced in age and lost in reverie and gratitude, talk about some bygone miracle or the uniquely formative moment of finding their own identity.
Of course, I do maintain a storehouse of instructive memories, which began to form an unbroken chain sometime in the early 1960s. A cart drawn by horses or oxen which I was eager but hardly ever allowed to board on account of the extra burden my weight would have meant for the animals; a harvest of wheat using a scythe and a sickle, on what was still a privately owned field (and I swear no one would sing a single tune while doing it!); the free-run must trickling down the side of a century-old wooden wine press; and hoeing, hoeing, and then hoeing some more in the vineyard, in the fields of corn and spuds, later also as a day labourer in the estates of others – in short, hoeing everywhere, interminably. This is indeed what I remember most sharply, having been put to work at the age of nine or ten, starting at the break of day. (My phobia of getting up early may go back to those days.) “To hoe the world: this is the poor man’s destiny”, I might have quoted the poet Attila József between two gasps for air, had I known who he was at the time. For we were poor. I felt this fact on my skin day by day and had it spoon-fed to me for years on end. Yet I am certain that this awareness of poverty stirred in the generations of my mother and grandmother no sentiment whatsoever that could be termed political or linked to some kind of atavistic identity. With only three small plots of land, none larger than an acre, left in the hands of my family, in my child’s mind I regarded our toiling destitution as an immutable condition given by God, and I do not think most of those around me thought differently about it. “You must labour hard to get ahead in life”, some were wont to say; others were hoping that “it will work out somehow in the end”. And all kept toiling away tenaciously as commanded by their ancient blood, not regarding as work anything but manual labour, working from daybreak until sunset during the fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five years of communist rule in Hungary.
Other memories abound, of course, including those of feather picking, corn shelling, and all the other customs of collective labour bequeathed from one generation to the next. All the while the women would talk, mostly about things incredibly boring to me, and so would the men as long as there was some wine on the table. I would invariably find the men’s stories more interesting, although their psychological structure was hardly different from that of the typical “female narrative”. The women liked to chat about practical things and about relationships, marriage, family – the “who, with whom, and how” of daily affairs – while the men’s conversation would revolve mainly around military service, war and adventures in remote lands. Yet all of these stories would be shrouded in a veil of gloom. It was as if I eavesdropped on so many aborted or bitten-off tales that proceeded in fits and starts, propelled forward by a passionate impulse only to flounder in shyness the next moment. This was the true character – or this is what became – of the people deeply rooted in rural life whom I knew, who always quietly suffered their destiny instead of shaping it on their own. Never a thought carried to its logical conclusion, never anything specific, only hints in thin air, whenever they drove at something. They would never talk about themselves, only others, particularly when a touchy subject, whether of private or historical interest, came up. What kind of shame befell whom was one of those topics, but every time the conversation turned to an incident like this – and it often did – the private affairs of those present would always remain taboo. The mindset I am trying to describe must have been a curious amalgam of the reticence forced by history upon the soul and of the abstinence from the kind of loud-mouthed smugness that may prompt one to say, “Nothing like this could ever happen to me!” Quite possibly, it was a form of psychological determination that combined the irresistible urge to scandalise others with the crazy fear of being scandalised oneself.
I believe that this manner of speech and habit, smitten with inescapable apprehension and proffered in self-defence, was nothing but the rearguard action of a shattered, possibly distorted ideal that had once surely marked the communal ethos, but which had gradually come to paralyse the individual instead of helping it unfold its true potential. Whenever their selfish interests or the exigencies of protecting the good reputation of their own families so demanded, people around me no longer hesitated to tweak or sugarcoat the truth; in fact, they did not shirk from telling point- blank lies. As I think back to those days and even later times, I recall with a smile how my own family provided ample evidence for the consistency-in-randomness, for the spasmodic uncertainties of values, behaviour and mindset with which the unravelling of traditional rural communities cursed the Hungarian village while laying it perfectly bare to the treacherous allure of the future.
For the brave new world, which alternately banged on or sneaked through village portals, may have been startlingly formidable, but it could also be captivating in more ways than one. Most people a decade or two my junior could not be counted on to imagine the incredulity with which the members of my mother’s and grandmother’s generation first took in the sight of electrical light. Someone just reaching for a switch in the wall to let there be light? I swear more than one of the old women crossed themselves and fell to prayer. Yet this was only the beginning, to be followed shortly by the electric iron, the fridge and, that greatest of miracles, the television. Some of my folk would circle the set warily, at a loss to comprehend how all those people could fit in such a small box. Others would close their eyes and mutter something, unable to bring themselves for days or weeks to even look at it – at the thing to which they would soon be fettered for life. The Box turned out to possess magic powers. Many in the village would pay anything to own one, and no antenna could appear on a rooftop without triggering wide-spread speculation as to how that neighbour could afford it. I remember vividly the sense of anxiety mixed with hope and tentative reverence with which I and the other kids, each with a stool under the arm, knocked on the door of this or that lucky neighbour down the street, and I also remember how we shuddered whenever our “TV host” of the day suddenly yawned in boredom. It seemed as though we were being invaded by a different world the very existence of which had been unknown to the simple village folk. Not only did this other world seduce with lulling experiences, but it brought with it patterns that would quickly permeate all nooks and crannies of our existence, including fashion, hairdos, manner of speech, culture, customs, desires and life styles. In the span of a few years, centuries- old paradigms of behaviour and self-conduct perished, while the proliferation of the “new” gave us the illusion of unbridled freedom. Witnessing the upheaval of their lives – lives perhaps barely passable but at least trodden into a recognisable, predictable shape – the old folk nearly went insane. “I can no longer tell the child what to do and what not to do”, they lamented in helpless desperation. Indeed, no one really knew how to deal with the phenomenon whereby everything designed to make life easier also somehow subverted it. The only ambition remaining was to live better and live more comfortably day by day, no matter the cost. I believe this was when something went wrong irretrievably in the rural society of the Hungarian countryside – in the Hungarian village, if you will.
I have been harping on about this for a long time, to no avail. Sociologists, historiographers, and even the few survivors from the left wing of the populist movement keep coming up with things like social mobility in those days, the “progress” of civilisation, and the Hungarian agricultural miracle that conquered the world, while my parents and the slightly younger generation consider my contention as an act of questioning the very meaning of their industrious, struggling lives. This is hardly surprising. For them, the world did take a turn for the better then, and this change is something they still relish remembering – especially now, well into their old age. And indeed, most of the facts are indisputable. Having been created in a drive of forced collectivisation, some of the large cooperatives and even the tiny private parcels began to flourish, and by the early 1970s Hungary had become a world leader in the manufacture of several agricultural products. The block houses that sprang up like mushrooms in villages everywhere boasted at least two windows on the street front, two or three rooms, and concrete, later hardwood floors instead of the old dirt floors they replaced. The back yards filled up with motor bikes; after a while two-stroke, East German-made cars like the Trabant and Wartburg followed. The outhouses, with their doors flapping in the wind, vanished or fell out of use. We made the acquaintance of the bathroom, the washing machine, the Hoover, the electric iron, and had meat on the table not just at the weekend. “Progress”, for whatever it was worth, was undeniable. In the matter of a few years, or a decade at the most, the shape of the traditional village was overhauled, along with a grinding change of mores and living strategies that often engendered hilarious or grotesque situations. Eating and drinking rose to prominence as core values which, to indulge in a bit of pedantry, came to serve as cornerstones of real-world self-identity and self-image for many people. The recognition of finally having enough to eat cemented one’s self-esteem but also encouraged haughtiness and obtuse complacency. Veri az ördög a feleségét (English title Rain and Shine), the superb 1974 film by Ferenc András, is more instructive in this regard than any scholarly article of history or sociology. The beatific smile with which the character played by Erzsi Pásztor (a hard-working matron bent to keep her eye on everything but incapable of uttering a sincere sentence without an ulterior motive) makes her grand announcement: “Comrade Vetro, lunch is being served” – well, this smile is the most eloquent testament to the sycophantic, hypocritical psychological foundation of the “true” Kádár era, which began out in the second half of the 1960s.
It was around that time, and in the land presided over by Kádár, that the seeds were sown of the country’s recent consumer psychology that would culminate in the frenzy for western-made refrigerators in Vienna in 1989. This was also the hotbed of greedy calculations, selfishness and jealousy. Not only did we envy the neighbour’s TV, but our kids began to eye one another with envy, too. Back in the old days, village lads had sought to distinguish themselves in folk dance and, naturally, manual work; now what really seemed to matter was who had the bigger boom box, the really authentic pair of jeans, or maybe a motor bike if you were lucky. What I insist on tenaciously is that, despite its undeniably salutary aspects, this “progress” was a Janus-faced phenomenon that managed to irrevocably confound everything responsible for maintaining a well-proportioned order in life, in the village as elsewhere. The flood of the new, be it material goods (which it mostly was), cultural products, experiences or “gifts”, inundated a starved and intimidated society that had barely survived the multiple twists of history and, by the late 1960s, had not only become incapable of preserving its own traditions but began to look with a confused ambivalence at the fragmented vestiges that remained of those traditions. People grew uncertain of their values, their ability to recognise and identify those values, and they grew less and less fit and willing to take notice of all this proliferating confusion itself, let alone cope with it in a purposeful, reflective manner. In fact, much of the population rather liked these developments, just as they began to warm to the political system itself which had crushed the Revolution and its moral memory, building its power on this very amnesia, stuffing the holes with cottages at Lake Balaton, ubiquitous block houses, weekend hobby plots, music festivals and folk talent shows.
Truth be told, one of those shows, Röpülj páva (“Fly Peacock Fly”), must have been the collective television experience par excellence of my childhood. In the fall of 1969 and the spring of 1970, myself and a dozen or so kids from the village would importune the neighbours who had a TV set and watch each new round, which followed after episodes of the first run of a popular family cartoon. Now that I think about it, daily life in those days could have yielded very useful lessons for the expert student of sociology and value theory. My mother and people of her age did watch the song festivals, mostly for its bells and whistles. But the Páva folk festival and talent show was different, for it was about their own culture, about the rediscovery and vicarious experience of their own recent traditions.
I was unaware of this at the time, but my mother, who had just turned forty, and the generation slightly before her, made their choices and preferences among the contestants based on a taste that attested to the crisis of values I have been trying to describe. What they liked best was the mulatós style – commercialised, upbeat, up-tempo pseudo-folk music designed to entertain at gatherings. By contrast, they could not stand those entrants who did and went on to do the most to salvageandre-conceptualisegenuinefolklore.Inshort,theyneverblinkedan eye as they mixed up the weighty with the superficial, the invaluable with the worthless, the authentic folk song with the magyar nóta, as the watered-down simulacrum of the folk song is known in Hungarian. In any event, I remember clearly how they were enchanted by anything kitsch, whether in an inscribed wall hanging, a picture postcard or a film. I also recall that one out of three households would have its front lawn adorned by a garden gnome.
What I have had to say so far may seem frivolous and callously disrespectful of my own roots, but I cannot be blamed for remembering these things the way they were, and my early memories have been corroborated, rather than negated, by experience and knowledge I gained later in life. The Hungarian village lost its own identity and sense of mission in preserving and passing down values without taking notice of, if not downright delighting in, the disintegration. In fact, words of concern – such as those of Gyula Fekete about the plummeting numbers of live births – went either unheeded or, what is worse, dismissed as strait-laced, obsolete traditionalism or irksome preaching. The rural soul chose to shrug off or suppress the traumas that accompanied the revamping of mores, the falling apart of the framework that used to support the rural way of life. István Szabó, perhaps the finest novelist of the era, died the way he lived and wrote his works: in complete oblivion. His oeuvre stands as perhaps the most eloquent and most authentic literary representation of the brutally ambivalent process whereby the Hungarian village became entrapped by history. The vision emerging from that oeuvre is one of twofold tragedy, in which the helpless, dogged clinging to a narrow, ancient world that paralyses consciousness is just as detrimental to character and just as irreconcilable with life as the unscrupulous, relentless chasing after the new. Szabó shows us how these two, murderously antagonistic attitudes coexisted in the village, often within the same family, leaving behind on the battlefield deviances, shattered lives, and cynical, jaded souls loitering about without any sense of purpose and value.
Nothing was unheard of in those days. We had exodus, revolt, subletting, generational conflict, commuting, the Black Train, the “youth problem”, gangs, parents wringing their hands dementedly, perfunctory shrugs from children, and hordes of uprooted people everywhere, even – or, come to think of it, particularly – among the newly urban intelligentsia. For many tried their luck in the city, in search of a way to escape the stifling rural life and its legacy that no longer held out even the semblance of a promise of advancement, only to lose themselves in the chaotic urban jungle, deprived of any intimacy but tempted to sullen, surrogate acts of self-destruction. Then, crippled and dishevelled, they would return to seek refuge in the village, which had acquired a golden sheen in their memories, but in reality had ceased to exist and was nowhere to be found any more. Once again, a masterpiece by István Szabó comes to mind. The protagonist of the short story Minden olyan, mint régen (“Everything is as it used to be”), a university student marvels at the village he had only recently left behind as if he contemplated a completely strange world, and is unable to feel at home in either place. We know that it was this sense of uprootedness that killed Szabó at the age of forty-five, and he was not the only one. Other poets and artists who had come from a rural background died prematurely in those days. It was as if a quietly calculated grenade had smashed into the heart of the Hungarian countryside in the 1970s, obliterating a certain way of life along with its moral trappings, so conclusively that even the possibility of interrogating that bygone ethos had disappeared with it. New ideals and trends sprang up with great speed everywhere, on the screen, on the stage, in literature, at the universities. All the while, at least until the end of the decade, we simple countrymen lived more comfortably and contentedly each year, sometimes even waving aside disgruntled voices.
I was severed from my village conclusively in 1978–1979. I cannot be certain whether the elemental attraction to the rurally grounded populist literature that took me by storm as a pre-enrolled university student was rooted, beyond my apparently predestined encounter with the eminent professor and literary historian Mihály Czine, in a sense of void and my searching for an identity to fill it. What I do know is that formerly, while I was living in the thick of it, the environment embraced by that brand of literature had not meant anything to me. If anything, I had found it repulsive. Having to read through novels by Pál Szabó and Ferenc Sánta had been utter tedium; now, practically overnight, the very same writings unfolded before my mind’s eye an embracing world strangely new yet familiar to the bone. I am confident in saying that, in three or four months, I devoured more novels and critical literature on the subject than all my other reading combined until then. Far more than mandatory curriculum or even sheer aesthetic revelation, this literature became to me a personal moral mission so profoundly felt that I could stake my very existence on it. The great let-down came when I found out, soon enough after moving to Budapest, that hardly anyone in my generation was interested in it all any more. As I said before, no one in academia scorned me for my curious, incomprehensible “specialisation”, but I did find myself in a vacuum and had nowhere to turn to apart from a few professors, older friends, and the occasional extramural venue, event or club conducive to my bent. And, yes, there were a handful of students slightly my junior who had come from the countryside and joined the Eötvös College. Yet I always felt something was missing. What was I to do? The treasure I had come into I wanted to bring back home to re- naturalise it, as it were, in its native habitat, the source of all the experiences I would need to later recognise that treasure for what it was. To make a long story short, this enterprise turned out to be the greatest disappointment of all. I had to realise that the village I had re-conjured up in my mind from my readings no longer existed in reality – indeed, it may not have existed twenty years before – and that no magic could ever bring it back. I felt out of place in both worlds that I thought I knew, if you like.
Later on, what we have come to refer to as the “democratic transition” after the downfall of communist rule found a village that had deserted its own values, shed its former identity, and just idled along with little desire to do anything other than to consume all things consumable, with a ferocity assigned to them by the powers that be. For the village people were no different from the city dwellers in the way they besieged Vienna for refrigerators and VCRs. The young people who passed through grammar school in the second half of the 1980s – the time I tried my hand at popular education – could not possibly have had any personal memories about traditional rural life, and their elders no longer had the time of their lives either. The steady rising of prices was only matched by the skyrocketing of people’s cravings and desires, fuelled partly by the satellite broadcasts that took off around then. Reading, erudition and the cult of traditions as such became the preserve of the few laughably backward local historians, such as István Szakál, my former mentor. In its fundamental structure, the blessing of globalisation that inundated us fit in perfectly with the priorities prevailing in the halcyon days of the Kádár era, rallying people under the banner of “Consume and covet as much as you can, never mind the country and the community”. The once ubiquitous, state-run cooperatives vanished, leaving in their wake unemployment, swelling prices, bewilderment, and much lamentation and mourning for the old, care- taking regime. The youngsters took no interest in anything that belonged to the past. Those who entered university toward the very end of the 20th century had never heard of Péter Veres, Pál Szabó or Géza Féja, nor could be counted on to recognise János Kádár from a photograph.
Today, Hungary no longer has the settlement type we once called village, in the sense the adherents of the populist movement and the guardians of rural values used the word. If it exists, I certainly have not seen it. Admittedly, opportunity and potential living standards vary widely from region to region within the country, but it seems universally true for Hungary that the word “village” today denotes little more than a category of settlement with very few inhabitants. Villagers do not differ in any meaningful way from urban residents in terms of their needs, expectations and desires – no longer in their customs or entertainment preferences even. Gone are the traditional, local communal events, collective work, the gathering in the village tavern to watch a football game. (Granted, back in the seventies there used to be such a thing as Hungarian football.) Even the old-world, incurable grudge between certain families is gone. There is not even gossip any more. Nobody is scared to death of being scandalised by others, except perhaps the old folk, but there is no sense to it any more. Fewer and fewer children see the light. There is often no school, and if there is one, it is slowly suffocated to death. There is a shortage of priests and physicians, and those taking an interest in the land – once the sustaining primal force that meant life itself – are few and far between.
The process that commenced a little over sixty years ago and accelerated about ten years later has reached its complete and logical conclusion. This final outcome is the disappearance, disintegration and total debility of the village as a definable, identifiable and recognisable unit and way of life that once encompassed a broad diversity of human endeavour from the quotidian to the metaphysical, and provided each member of the community with a sense of security and continuity even in the darkest days of destitution. Needless to say, some people in the country still manage to prosper and are willing to get involved on behalf of the local community, but the continually shrinking opportunities, financial or otherwise, make the future of the village uncertain at best.
The Hungarian village is now searching for itself. Or is it?
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel