19 September 2017

Hungarian Voices on 1956: Down Fell the Statue of Goliath

Why a collection of prose and poetry by Hungarian writers in English translation about the Revolution of 1956? By now, almost three decades after the fall of Communism, the meaning of 1956 is surely a relatively settled matter, however vigorously it may have been falsified for decades by the Kádár regime. If the outbreak of the First World War marked the end of the long nineteenth century and the fall of the Soviet Union the end of the short twentieth, 1956 was the moment when this end became clear. Stunned in particular by the brutal reprisals in the wake of the uprising, even the staunchest believers in Communism questioned their faith, and the world was compelled to recognise the Soviet Union for what it was, another incarnation of empire garbed, as empires are, in a cloak of ideals. 1956 rent this cloak, and, as one says from the privileged position of retrospect, it was only a matter of time before the entire mantle frayed. In the last long chapter of the epic struggle of the twentieth century, 1956 was the moment, brief but pivotal, which sealed the fate of the Soviet empire. And thus, one has wrapped the story up quite neatly, offering a respectful gesture to the martyrs of the Revolution and acknowledgment of the importance of their sacrifice. They were only a handful of people compared to the millions who perished in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, but their place in the history book is secure.

And yet, as the poems and prose texts of Down Fell the Statue of Goliath: Hungarian Poets and Writers on the Revolution of 1956 make clear, 1956 was a great deal more than a pivotal moment in the fall of the Soviet Union. Certainly 1956 represented a challenge to Communist thought and a refutation of the narrative of Soviet liberation. 1956, however, was not (merely) about ideology. It was not (simply) a rejection of Communism (or Stalinism, or whatever -ism best captures the system). Nor was it (simply) a struggle for national independence. It cannot be reduced to a point on an ideological framework, however hard even the Hungarian Communist regime itself strove, disingenuously, to do. As the poems and prose texts in Down Fell the Statue of Goliath poignantly remind us, for those who waged it, watched it, and lived in its wake, the Revolution of 1956 was much more than a crucial moment on the timeline of the rise and fall of empires in the twentieth century. It was many things, from a bitter condemnation of the failures of the West to an affirmation of shared values. But as many of the writings in this collection suggest, perhaps most crucially, 1956 was testimony to the determination to resist oppression and arbitrary brutality, even against all odds.

To begin, however, with the political and ideological, unquestionably no small share of the importance of 1956 lies in that fact that it provided a clear refutation of the narrative of the Soviet liberation of Hungary and the rest of Central Europe. This narrative, however cynically expedient it may seem in retrospect, was not without foundation or even its own shades of truth. When the Red Army arrived on Hungarian soil, the country was under the rule of a puppet government with the backing of the occupying German Army, and hundreds of thousands of Hungarians had been deported to their deaths in the extermination camps. Yet the replacement of one occupying army with another hardly merited the term liberation, and 1956 made vividly clear to the world (or at least the parts of the world to which it was not yet clear) that the Soviet Army was an army of occupation. Perhaps most famously, Jean-Paul Sartre, who even in the 1950s remained an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union and a member of the faithful in the international Communist congregation, denounced the return of Soviet forces to Hungarian soil in early November 1956. Writing in the French magazine L’Express, he insisted “I condemn the Soviet invasion wholeheartedly and without any reservation. […] And the crime, to me, is not just the invasion of Budapest by army tanks, but the fact that this was made possible by twelve years of terror and imbecility.”

Sartre was one of many intellectuals in the West who had strong Communist sympathies at some point in their careers, but for whom the events in Hungary constituted irrefutable proof of the criminal nature of the Soviet occupation of Central Europe. At his side stood other prominent writers, including Marguerite Duras, Albert Camus, e. e. cummings, Archibald MacLeish, and a host of others. Camus and Donnadieu (better known by her penname, Duras) had been members of the Communist Party, though by the early 1950s neither cherished any delusions about Communism or the Soviet Union. Others, however, like Sartre, had continued to consider the Soviet Union a liberating force until the autumn of 1956. English novelist and poet Kingsley Amis was a member of the Communist Party up until he learned of the suppression of the Revolution and the cruel measures taken in its aftermath. Famously, in February 1957 he wrote a letter to the Communist periodical The Daily Worker in which he declared, “I used to say that some of my best friends are Communists. I can’t after Hungary.”1 Similarly, poet, dramatist and political essayist Aimé Césaire, who had been elected mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945 running on the Communist Party ticket, resigned from the party in 1956. In his letter of resignation to the secretary general of the French Communist Party, he made specific reference to the events in Hungary. Indeed, he even founded his own party, the Martinican Progressive Party, to distance himself from the Communist Party.2

1956 not only prompted even stubborn Communist sympathisers in the West to question their faith, it also was met with an outpouring of poems expressing horror at the events and compassion for the victims. Cummings’ “Thanksgiving (1956)” is a familiar example, but one might also mention examples from other national literatures of Western Europe. In a poem entitled “Politische Drucksache” (Political Pamphlet), for instance, German poet Heinz Winfried Sabais likened 1956 to the French Revolution:


Seid getrost, ihr Unterdrückten, Verzweifelten: Jede Bastille ist noch abgebrochen worden.

Seid getrost, irgendein Morgen wird wieder Der vierzehnte Juli sein.


(Be consoled, you oppressed, you desperate, Every Bastille will eventually be torn down.

Be consoled, eventually some tomorrow Will be the July 14.)


In a poem entitled “Aux poètes hongrois” (To the Hungarian Poets), French poet Georges-Emmanuel Clancier compares Budapest to other cities that became iconic through devastation:


Jeunesse, sang de la liberté,

Ta lumière est celle de l’amour Et leur hideuse nuit est la même

À Budapest que l’ombre d’Oradour Et la ténèbre de Guernica.


(Youth, blood of liberty,

Your glow is the same as that of love And their hideous night the same

In Budapest as the shadow of Oradour And the darkness of Guernica.)

These references to Bastille Day, the bombing of Guernica by German planes in 1937, and the massacre of the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 represent more than an assertion of the historical importance of 1956. They constitute a very clear challenge to the entire Soviet narrative of liberation. The poets liken the events in Hungary to the iconic moments in European history which were used as tropes in the Communist tale of a struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution, but they locate 1956 on the other side of the ideological pole.

Of the Western intellectuals who at one time or another showed interest in Communist ideology, it is perhaps Archibald MacLeish who, in the aftermath of the Revolution, captured the meaning of 1956 for the world. In an article published in Time-Life magazine on 10 December 1956, he made very clear his conviction that the Soviet Union could no longer present itself as a liberator:

It is understandable, certainly, that we in the United States should feel shamed by our inability to act in this nightmare. Nevertheless, we should not forget, in all the suffering and pain, that we owe the people of Hungary more than our pity. We owe them also pride and praise. For their defeat has been itself a triumph. Those Hungarian students and workers and women and fighting children have done more to close the future to Communism than armies or diplomats had done before them. They have given more and done more. For what they have done has been to expose the brutal hypocrisy of Communism for all of Asia, all of Africa, all the world to see. So long as men live in any country who remember the murder of Hungary, Soviet Russia will never again be able to pose before the world as the benefactor of mankind. The Hungarian dead have torn that mask off. Their fingers hold its tatters in their graves.

MacLeish’s words are both poignant and prescient. The Soviet Union did not fall until eight years after his death, yet as early as December 1956, a mere month after the fighting had essentially ceased, he already foresaw its demise.

Yet as moving a tribute as these poems and proclamations may be, they illustrate all too clearly how, for the outside world, 1956 was already history in the writing. For cummings, it gave the lie to American bombast about defending democracy. For MacLeish, it heralded the fall of an empire. For Clancier and Sabais, it was historical allegory. The people who took to the streets in Hungary to protest and then fight the regime became, as E. A. Robinson describes poets and kings, “clerks of Time, Clipping the same sad alnage of the years”. They are the protagonists or, rather, heroes in a tale about global political confrontation, about ideology, about the past, even the future, but not, fundamentally, about them. “We” (the Western world literate in the major languages of the Western World) know what their fates meant to us. We know less about what their fates meant to them.

With the publication of Down Fell the Statue of Goliath, this has changed, and it has changed dramatically. A very fine anthology of poems about the struggle against Soviet rule was published by István Csicsery-Rónai in 1957. The title of the anthology itself is telling: Költők forradalma: Antológia 1953–1956, or “The Poets’ Revolution: An Anthology, 1953–1956”. As the poems in the collection illustrate, the simmering ideas which contributed to the outbreak of the uprising found expression in the works of poets, as indeed had been the case a century earlier with the outbreak of the Revolution and War of National Independence of 1848–1849. Yet as Timothy Garton Ash noted almost three decades later in an article on what he terms the “maze” of cultural life in the late Kádár era, “I am told that the finest contemporary Hungarian poetry and fiction are written and published in the maze. Their artistic quality I cannot judge, because so pitifully little is available in translation (my emphasis).3 Csicsery-Rónai’s anthology, alas, was accessible only to a Hungarian-reading audience. A fan of Hungarian literature cannot help but be reminded of the plaintive closing lines of Dezső Kosztolányi’s poem “Még büszkén vallom, hogy magyar vagyok”, or “Yet I Proudly Insist that I am Hungarian”:


néma gyermek minden kismagyar, s a Nagyvilág nem érti a szavát.


In my admittedly weak translation, these lines are:


every Hungarian is a child mute,

and the world does not understand his tongue.4


To reiterate, with the publication of Down Fell the Statue of Goliath, this has changed dramatically. The English-reading world now has a huge wealth of poems and prose texts on which to draw in order to begin to grasp what 1956 has meant and continues to mean for Hungarians. These meanings are many, and it would be an absurd effort to attempt to capture them all here. But there is one which merits specific mention in part because it cautions us, non-Hungarians and members of generations for whom 1956 will always be history, to be cautious when attempting to fit the Revolution into either a political or ideological framework (as so many of the writers in the West have done). This meaning is captured perhaps the most pithily by novelist, dramatist, and essayist László Németh. In the excerpt from “Nation Ascending”, Németh writes of his astonishment: that the nation could unite like this in torment and humiliation; that students, workers, soldiers, through their mutual determination, without any prior organising, could stand up like this that wonderful sight of an uprising without a leader exceeded not my hopes, but my wildest fantasies (55).

uprising without a leader”, fought by people united “in torment and humiliation”, cannot be made an episode in an epic struggle of competing economic systems or worldviews or civilisations. It is not a fight in the name of a political ideology. It is a fight against, simply, torment and humiliation. It belongs neither to “East” nor “West.” It belongs to humanity. Similarly, in his “Letter to Vienna”, novelist István Fekete emphasises, “there were no lieutenant-generals, no strategies and tactics, there were just fourteen to twenty-year-olds going to their deaths” (72). In his “Hymn to Budapest”, novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer István Örkény likens Budapest not to a city emblematic in the history of ideas. Rather, in his perception, “Budapest is today synonymous with attacking a tank with one’s bare hands” (66).

Yet there is far too much to cite in the collection, and this is one of its many virtues. Another is the quality of the translations. The editors merit high praise for having assembled an impressive array of very fine translators, among whom I am humbly proud to have been included. Examples of exquisitely poetic translations abound. I will limit myself to two. Peter V. Czipott, who distinguished himself as co-translator with John Ridland of the complete works of poet Miklós Radnóti, shows his resourcefulness and sensitivity to sound and rhythm in his translation of the poem “Snowfall in Budapest” by Ferenc Buda, of which I cite the first four lines:


The snow is falling on Budapest, It eddies, churns and swirls Onto the Danube’s ripples

Onto the soulless rubble (181).


Another example to which Csilla Bertha, the general editor of the collection, called my attention, is Péter Balikó Lengyel’s translation of László Nagy’s poem “Christmas, Black Glory”:


Herald of no peace from God, you bull-headed angel!

You brought a tree reeking of blood

glory! –

and caskets for a manger (175).


A more pedestrian translation of the last line (“aggatva iszonyattal”) might be “hung with horror”, but Lengyel’s translation captures the rhyme in the original, if with a slight slant, and incorporates a powerful image entirely appropriate to the tenor and context of the poem.

The best lack all conviction”, William Butler Yeats wrote with chagrin in the wake of the First World War, “while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”.

Undoubtedly these lines from “The Second Coming” capture the pale spirit of the twentieth century, a wasteland populated by attendant lords who hardly dared eat a peach. And yet in October 1956, in the middle of a century of scepticism and hesitation, in a world wearied by two devastating conflagrations, by taking up arms against an overwhelmingly superior occupying army, a handful of people in Hungary gave poignant testimony to the fact that at least in one small country wedged between cynical superpowers, the best lacked no conviction. In his 1925 essay “The Dehumanisation of Art”, José Ortega y Gasset writes with similar chagrin on the loss of the past as a repository of values. “We feel”, he writes, “that we actual men have suddenly been left alone on the earth; that the dead did not die in appearance only but effectively; that they can no longer help us. Any remains of the traditional spirit have evaporated. Models, norms, standards are no use to us. We have to solve our problems without any active collaboration of the past [...] The European stands alone, without any living ghosts by his side; like Peter Schlehmil he has lost his shadow.” The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is a refutation of the dour visions of the Irish poet and the Spanish philosopher. The best bear strong conviction, and we stand not alone on the earth, but with clear examples of courage and compassion. As the poems and prose texts in this collection make clear, 1956 was and is many things, one of which is eloquent affirmation of humankind’s ability to stand up, without ideological pretext or pretence, against torment and humiliation.


1 Kingsley Amis. The Letters of Kingsley Amis. Edited by Zachary Leader. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000, p. 503.

2 See Aimé Césaire. “Lettre à Maurice Thorez.” In: Aimé Césaire: Œuvres complètes. V. III: Œuvre historique et politique. Éditions Désormeaux. Paris: 1976, pp. 463–473.

3 Ash, Timothy Garton. “The Hungarian Lesson”. The New York Review of Books. Vol. 32, No. 19. 5 December 1985.

4 I am dissatisfied with this translation in part because it does not capture the allusion in the original poem to a Hungarian saying, “néma gyermeknek anyja sem érti szavát”, or “even its mother cannot understand what a mute child says”, i.e. if you do not speak up, you will not be heard.

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