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Budapest Gadfly

While most of his peers associate their heritage only with suffering, G

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The longtime editor of the cultural monthly Szombat (Sabbath), Gábor Szántó was born in Budapest in 1966 and came of age as it became possible to envision a life without Communism—or the awkward shame his parents’ generation felt toward their own Jewishness. His first volume of short stories, A tizedik ember (The Tenth Man), was published in Hungarian in 1995, followed by Mószer (The Informer) and Keleti pályadvar, végállomas (Eastern Station, Last Stop). Anthologized in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary, Szántó spent two months last year at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

When did you start writing?

I started to write poems when I was 17, and in my early twenties I began to write short stories. Later I wrote The Informer, my first novel. It was about a rabbi who becomes an informer for the Hungarian state police and the German Stasi in the Sixties and Seventies.

My novel Eastern Station, Last Stop, is about the dictatorship—about the 1949 trial against Laszlo Rajk. There were several false trials under the Communists. Rajk was a minister of interior who was killed by his “comrades.” The novel is about different ways of Jewish survival. One of the characters becomes a state security officer. Another is a religious Zionist who wants to leave and help others leave for Israel. The third main character is a middle-class man, a lawyer who is also a survivor of the Holocaust, and his daughter marries the state security officer. Behind these three story lines, I give a picture of Jewish-Hungarian life under the dictatorial regime in 1949 and how the Jews positioned themselves: how they suffered under the Communist regime, and also how they participated in it.

How did they participate in it?

After the Second World War, there weren’t other so-called “clean people” who could be installed in the state administration, so they hired Jews who were Nazi victims. Before the Second World War, no Jews could work for the state. So it wasn’t just getting justice, but a chance to get careers, to be a part of that. About half of the Jews were middle-class—shopkeepers, owners—and they participated in the Communist regime mainly because it would protect them against the far right.

Your story collection, The Tenth Man, also includes Jewish characters.

This was my very first connection to Jewishness. There was no religious sentiment in my family. My parents weren’t Jews in a religious sense, not even in a national sense. The only Jewish instruction I got at home was that my father said, “If someone hits you because you are a Jew, you must hit back.”

In my first two books I wrote about much older men. My present work is much closer to me.

You also edit Szombat, a Jewish cultural publication. Were you a founding editor?

No. I became the editor in 1991. I was 25, the youngest editor in Hungary, and have been editor since then. It was part of my identity, to get some Jewish knowledge. Of course, this was rebellion. My parents were not involved in Jewish life. Nothing religious. In the Communist era, there was no chance to create a real Jewish community. But I participated with friends in alternative movements. That is when I became a practicing Jew. It was some kind of self-emancipation.

You became Orthodox?

No, nondenominational. It started out of a communal thing in the early Nineties. Later it became cultural, and later more spiritual. And in working with the magazine, both identities became one.

In Szombat, we have had several articles about Jewishness, and the post-Communist period. We wrote about new anti-Semitism in Europe, which is a sort of anti-Americanism too, and about anti-Israel policy and feelings in some EU countries. Many European nations accepted their responsibility about the Holocaust, but that doesn’t resolve their deeply rooted anti-Semitism. So Israel is a surrogate target of their old prejudices.

László Fehér, a Jewish painter, made a portrait of you. Are you two friends?

He took a photograph of me, and painted a big picture from this photograph. It was shocking to see, because it was much darker, sadder, more depressed than I felt myself. And there could be two things: that he painted into the picture his own inner fears, or he saw my inner world, and it is darker than my daily world.

Does this darkness permeate your books?

They are quite dark, yes. About dictatorship, about suffering. I am among the very few Jewish writers in Hungary who write about how things were after the Second World War. The Holocaust is not the only problem.

I’ve analyzed in several essays Jewish and Hungarian coexistence in the past 100 years. One of Hungary’s neuroses comes from the World Wars, the loss of two-thirds of territory. The Hungarian identity is very fragile. There is a constant fear of disappearing as a nation. On the other side, on the Jewish side, you also see a constant fear of the Other.

Hungarians are afraid of Jews because of their prejudices, and because they had bad experiences with some Jews in the Communist regime. Of course the Jews are a minority—there are approximately 100,000 Jews, but most of them are afraid of their Jewishness. They have a negative identity.

How many are practicing?

Practicing? There are 5,000 members of the official Jewish community, approximately 1,000 Jews that keep kosher and the Sabbath. The biggest problem is they associate Jewishness only with suffering. They don’t feel it as a culture, they don’t feel it as a religion, the feel it as a fact for which they can be murdered, or blamed.

Are you hopeful that the Jewish identity will become positive?

I’m not a good man for being optimistic. But chances are open. Right now Hungarian Jews are so assimilated that they don’t accept they are Jewish in an ethnic sense. It could be that in one generation, the fears will relax and there will be more chances to be Jewish in religious terms and ethnic terms.

How has your work been received in Hungary outside the Jewish community?

It is very difficult. From a literary viewpoint, I am bit of a loner because I call myself a realist, which is an old term. I’m not postmodern. I use some tools of the postmodern, but I’m traditional. Things that I feel close to—community, religion—are foreign to my generation. Add in the fact that I criticize the left and the liberals and the conservatives and nationalists; that alienates me in political camps. To be analyzed by literary critics, at least in Hungary, you need to be with them, or have contact with them, to be on their side. Everything is very political. I call myself a conservative liberal. But a writer, a real writer should be outside. To be a writer is always more than to be part of a particular political group or belief. Of course, I’m often criticized because I am critical of the Jewish community. I write about Jews, their weaknesses, my weakness. But to be a writer you have to harmonize the particular and the universal. Sometimes a writer has to write about things which are shameful.

What you are working on now?

I’m working on poems now, after not having written poems for ten years. I have a short story book, some essays. My future project is a novel about a childhood under Communism.

Read a PDF sampler of Gábor Szántó’s writings.

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Budapest Gadfly

While most of his peers associate their heritage only with suffering, G

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