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Colours and YearsColours and Years by Margit Kaffka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most ‘English’ of the Hungarian books I’ve read in translation. At first I thought this was because of Cushing’s exhaustive translation: there are no Hungarian terms and phrases to remind you where you are, just proper nouns. But then I realised that the shades of Austen and Wolf were there because of the tight domestic round which circumscribes Magda’s life. There really isn’t much local colour to cleaning the house and raising the children. There was however sharp psychological realism. I paticularly enjoyed the last part of the book detailing a love match collapsing under financial pressures and the demands or raising children. There is so much mental illness in Magda’s family – alcoholism, suicide and even psychosis – that you have to wonder about her sanity. To what extent she is reliable narrator? And to what extent is she the architect of her own destruction? Also interesting that in a literature full of sexually manipulative women, Magda, who delights in her own attractiveness, refuses to use her sexuality to advance herself, realising that men often hate the object of their desires. A note on the translation of the title, yes ‘színek’ does mean ‘colours’, but it also means ‘scenes’ which seems to suit the narrative better as it skips with increasing pace through the years to the scenes which illustrate Magda’s life.

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Comrade BaronComrade Baron by Jaap Scholten

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not a great book, but for me a very compelling one. Jaap Scholten’s relationship with Hungary parallels my own. In the early 1990s Hungary underwent a system change, from a Soviet-style political-economy to a western-style one. Like Scholten, I took advantage of the system change to live and work in Hungary. I too married a Hungarian woman, and decided that Hungary would be a fine place to raise a family. And I too find myself, beyond the point of no return, somewhat disappointed with my decision and Hungary’s subsequent development. Though not, it has to be said, as disappointed as Scholten:

“A few years ago I thought that Hungary and Romania would resemble the Netherlands within about twenty years … Now I think it will take at least a century” (pg 312).

I too, think Hungary’s political-economy will take longer to flourish than I did in the 90’s: I think it’s possible it may not flourish at all. But my reasons for thinking so are different to Scholten’s.

Comrade Baron is written in three sections named after the books of Miklós Bánffy‘s Transylvania trilogy. These sections cover pretty much the same ground as Between the Woods and the Water, Banished Families and 89 The Unfinished Revolution respectively. They replicate the same limitations of these books without adding anything other than Scholten’s personal experiences, though I expect the material is new to the Dutch market.

It is not a very clear book; it is episodic and impressionistic, and has a large amount of material drawn from interviews with survivors from Hungary’s pre-Trianon aristocracy. These interviews were conducted in the main as part of Scholten’s academic thesis “From Ballroom to Basement. The Internal Exile of the Hungarian Aristocracy in Transylvania”. For this reason Comrade Baron has an excellent bibliography, chronology, glossary and potted biographies of the interviewees. I wish I’d studied them before launching into the text itself. Even so, it’s hard to determine what Scholten’s thesis was. It is difficult to sort out what Scholten thinks from what his interviewees think, and it is not clear whether this book is an elegy for, or a defence of the Hungarian aristocracy.

If it is a defence of the Hungarian aristocracy, then his argument would seem to be that;

“By systematically crushing, exiling and killing the bearers of tradition, morality and fairness for over half a century, a society makes itself unstable.” (pg 192).

And that the problems the successor states of Hungary and Romania face today are a result of the destruction of it’s aristocracy under communism.

I disagree with this, I think the problems that Hungary faced at the system change were due to the destruction of it’s middle class since the end of the first world war. The consequences of the loss of a middle class are well articulated by one of Scholten’s interviewees, Count István Pálffy de Erdőd [bold my own]:

“The worst thing about fifty years of communism isn’t the sweeping away of the aristocracy, the worst thing is the wiping out of the old civil society, of all the people and classes with a long tradition of honest work, service, independence of mind, merchants, farmers, entrepreneurs, academics, professionals. In their place we have generations filled with cynicism and an attitude of “what the hell, we’re just doing what we can to survive”. They know nothing about the underlying concept of a civil society familiar to happier, Western countries. That is the great tragedy here” (pg 349)

Scholten seems to agree with Francis Bacon that:

“[an] aristocracy has a moderating effect on the holder of power, standing between ruler and people. As early as 1222 the Golden Bull gave the Hungarian nobles the right to depose a king for misrule. The removal of that buffer had far reaching consequences. The destruction of a cultivated elite and an increase in brutal terror went hand in hand.” (pg 141)

Well, the Hungarian aristocracy was still extant in the first half of the twentieth century, in fact the Horthy regime was largely an aristocratic regime. As far as I have read, it did conspicuously little to thwart the Red Terror, the White Terror, the atrocities that happened on the re-occupation of territory as a result of the Vienna Awards, or the Hungarian Holocaust itself. This argument simply isn’t supported by the facts.

I also beg to differ with Count Pálffy in that I see the destruction of Hungary’s middle class starting earlier, with the sudden rise and fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of Béla Kun. From the middle of the 19th century, Jews constituted a disproportionate part of Hungary’s middle class, of its intellectual, professional and commercial life. So much so that in The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary the English historian, Bryan Cartledge, divided his analysis of Hungarian society of that time into three parts – the nobility, the Jewish bourgeoisie, and peasants and workers.

Jews also played a disproportionate role in Béla Kun’s government, so that they were treated with suspicion by the aristocratic government of Horty that followed it. Jews, especially talented Jews began to leave Hungary even before the Numerus Clausus seriously restricted their educational and professional opportunities. Sir Alexander Korda, for example, left Hungary after making films for Béla Kun’s nationalised film industry. This process of reducing the role of Jews in Hungary climaxed in the Holocaust in 1944. Because of the disproportionate role Jews played in the middle class, the Holocaust was also destructive of the middle class in Hungary, a process that was continued under the Communist regime.

The lack of clarity about Scholten’s position arises because the material he quotes often seems to be making the case against the aristocracy, such as this from Banffy’s They Were Divided [bold my own]:

““There is nothing wonderful at all marvellous or wonderful about it, my boy, and especially there is nothing to boast about. What has happened has been entirely natural. Long ago, when the country folk were all serfs, everything belonged to the landowner, the so-called noble who himself held it from the king. It was therefore nothing less than his bounden duty to take care of everything , to build what was necessary and to repair what needed repairing. That our family have only done this shows that they have done their duty, nothing else. Let this be a lesson to you! … That members of our family often obtained great positions in the state was no accident and no particular merit to them. Such places were naturally offered to people of high rank, nobles whose fortunes and family connections were necessary if they were to do a useful job . We can be proud that our forebears honestly carried out what was expected of them, and that is all. Family conceit because is not only ridiculous but also dangerous to the character of those who come believe in it.”” (pg 84)

Maybe we are not to take this literally, as a case of ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’, but to regard it as example of the modesty and magnanimity of the aristocratic mind.

When Scholten discusses the case against the aristocracy, which he very briefly does:

““In general the Hungarian semi-feudal aristocracy was the most corrupt and decadent in Europe and could only be compared with that of Russia of the Romanovs, in the twilight of the Czarist Empire”” (pg 216)

rather than explore whether this claim was fair, he simply dismisses its source, a Communist sympathiser – “as not simply gullible, but also malicious, … one who legitimizes torture and murder…” (pg 218). But even a source on the right side of Scholten’s political and social fence, an English aristocrat of the mid 19th century, remarked on the enormous privileges of his Hungarian peers:

““If an aristocrat harboured an ambition to hold public office he could simply have himself appointed deputy governor of a province; if he chooses to devote himself to agriculture, thousands of hectares of land were waiting for him … and if he wanted to work for a good cause, then there was the peasantry, which depended on him from practically everything and looked up to him.”” (pg 87)

In this situation, there sees to be plenty of opportunity for corruption and decadence to arise. But Scholten doesn’t examine or even compose the evidence he assembles.

This weakness in critically examining his sources highlights a suspicion I frequently had of Scholten: instead of being attracted to the Hungarian aristocracy’s ‘fairness and morality’, he is attracted to their culture – the decor, the dress, the manners. Scholten’s snobbery is given away by thoughts such as

“the sartorial impoverishment of the aristocracy in Eastern Europe is a belated triumph of communism” (pg 347)

and

“The thought of hundreds of square metres of castle being renovated in its entirety … in medieval style by a nouveau riche Romanian oligarch makes my imagination run riot” (pg 300)

The book was originally written in Dutch, and so grating did I find this kind of remark, I had to wonder whether I, or the translator had missed some aspects of Dutch irony.

I’m not familiar with Transylvania or Romania, but suspect that Scholten is wrong in lumping Hungary and Romania together

“fear is something you learn. The dictatorships in Hungary and Romania did a good job of teaching it to the people … you see it in the submissiveness of schoolchildren” pg (374).

Kádár’s regime in Hungary for far less brutal than Ceausescu’s was in Romania, and remembered as such. I put down the submissiveness of my Hungarian schoolchildren to bored indifference rather than fear.

Scholten and I agree that Hungary has not developed as quickly or in the way we would have expected in the 1990s. But I put that difference in our expectations down to European Accession in 2004 rather than the destruction of the Aristocracy in the 1950s. In the nineties, foreign capital had to come to Hungary to exploit Hungary’s cheap, talented labour. As it did so, a new middle class of professionals and business people emerged. Since accession that cheap talented labour now moves west to exploit foreign capital. The Hungarian population is declining, and those that are leaving take their honest work, service and independence of mind with them.

The global economic downturn has accelerated this destruction of Hungary’s middle class, which I still see as the great tradegy here. The flows of talent and capital may again work in Hungary’s favour, which will lead to the development of a middle class, but that seems to have little to do with the presence or absence of the Hungarian aristocracy.

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In Praise of Older WomenIn Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this as smut when I was a teenager, and was very surprised to see it again in a ‘Penguin Modern Classics’ cover, so I re-read it though this time as a study of Hungarian manners. I suppose it comes as no surprise that this book would be written by a Hungarian. I even have a close friend who claims that he has only had affairs with older women – it’s not true, but he obviously finds the idea attractive. The fictional memoirist’s, Vajda’s interest in older women starts from his involvement with his widowed mother’s circle of female friends. From an Anglo-Saxon perspective mothers play a disproportionate role in the affairs of people in Hungary. And tellingly, the only time Vajda cries for a woman he has left, it is for his mother, after his flight from Hungary in 1956.

What engaged me this time was the role played by the other men in the lives of these older women. For the majority of Vajda’s older women there was one, but only in Anglo-Saxon Canada did he feel the need to hide his interest in their fiancées and wives. In the main part, these men had a ‘best of luck to you’ approach that I had some experience of here in the 1990’s. At the time, I speculated that this might have some connection with Communism in a way alluded to the The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But thinking back over the Hungarian books I’ve read since, a relaxed approach to sexual immorality was well established here well before Communism: Gyula Krúdy made a whole ouevre out of it. But the pattern would seem to be that sexual transgression is diverting rather than dangerous. I’ve yet to read the Hungarian equivalent of Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence. As a result there is the realisation that Vajda is some sort of sexual parasite, exploiting women whose lives and relationships have gone wrong, but not offering himself as a way of making them right. I’m just not sure that the writer sees it that way, there are observations about Hungarian history and patriotism here that seem quite sincere and serious. It’s just sex that deserves this superficial, sensual approach.

Vizinczey is a fine stylist, and manages to write about sex without vulgarity. One sentence I recognised from my first reading; “Paola behaved more like a considerate hostess than a lover: she raised and twisted her body so attentively that I felt like a guest for whom so much is done that he can’t help knowing that he’s expected to leave soon.” What effect that had on my emergent sexuality, I have no idea; but the whole story of Paola is positive, where sex seems to solve problems rather than simply provide some distraction from them. However, this book would not be on my list of classics, modern or otherwise. It simply doesn’t tell me anything interesting about the human condition, though I can understand why it would be popular among those looking for an angst free attitude to sexuality – teenage boys for example!

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What Was Left: Stories and NovellasWhat Was Left: Stories and Novellas by Iván Mándy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must have bought this book by mistake. I read Hungarian Quartet and enjoyed the short story ‘Logbook’, but it was dedicated to Ivan, not written by him. I should have been more careful, flicking back through Hungarian Quartet, it quite clear that Mandy’s short story ‘Left behind’ is written around the writer, ‘János Zsamboky’. I hate fiction about writers – “Write from experience” must be the least productive literary advice ever given. The author struggles to avoid autobiography rather than write fiction, and what results is an avatar not a character. Géza Ottlik, he’s your man; not Mandy.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sequence of stories about Mandy/Zsamboky’s trip to London, from which I have gleaned the following (of cultural significance if not of literary merit):

An allusion to ‘The English lawn’ joke, a significantly different version of which I have heard in conversation. In this book, an English lawn tended by an old Hungarian lady in exile is turned into a moment of self-loathing – “the cultivation of wretchedness”. As an middle-aged Englishman tending a Hungarian lawn I can empathise, but more about that later.

Also satisfying was Mandy/Zsamboky’s contrast of 1944 with 1956. The former a scene of physical and moral horror, “lost in a filthy sky”; the latter something that could be slept through. Last Wednesday I discovered another of my friend’s grandfathers had been sent to a Soviet labour camp. As Mandy points out Hungarians like to celebrate sadness, “Drinks and conviviality. But never a loud word spoken! Instead a deep pervasive sorrow.” but they don’t celebrate 1944 – too much misery, even for the Magyars.

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Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We WriteBallpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write by Gyoergy Moldova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“There was a time when I also used to think that there was order in the world, but since then how many times have I seen manipulation and intrigue emerge victorious and genuine achievement go unrewarded?”

So remarks Andor Goy, the less well remembered Hungarian developer of the ballpoint pen. It seems a fair conclusion to draw from this, another story of Hungary’s exhausting 20th century. Moldova wants to us realise that Laszlo Biro lost his rights to the ballpoint through manipulation and intrigue under the rule of law in a free market economy, and Andor Goy lost his likewise under a communist regime; neither system rewarded ‘genuine’ achievement, both rewarded manipulation and intrigue.

It is not clear though, whose ‘genuine’ achievement the ballpoint pen is. As German manufacturers remarked – there didn’t seem to be anything essentially new about the pen Laszlo Biro was touting to them in the 1930s. It took incremental steps in development of the product – Goy’s refinement of the ink feed, Biro’s discovery of an appropriate ink, and ultimately György Meyne’s public relations and advertising campaign – to make the ballpoint pen the everyday item that it is. Further evidence for me against a ‘winner takes all’ economic system. The weakness of this book as history is that it doesn’t look critically enough at who did what in the development of the ‘biro’.

But written by a Hungarian novelist, I don’t think that was one of the intentions behind the book. It seems to be addressing the “Should I stay, or should I go” question which must have haunted Hungarians all through the 20th century. A question that Hungarians are again asking themselves.

The focus is on the characters of Biro and Goy, as they deal with both the demands of the ballpoint project and the vagaries of Hungarian history. I prefer Goy, and find his incredible stoicism and commitment to ‘genuine’ work inspiring. He strongly reminds me of his coeval and co-professional, Kadar. Biro is too flighty, and Moldova’s delicate analysis of his response to Hungarian anti-Semitism, suggests that he was damaged in way Goy wasn’t by his own persecution as a class-enemy of the communist regime.

It also contains yet another portrayal of Hungarian refugees living in France before WWII – as treated fictionally in The Invisible Bridge, and somewhat less fictionally in My Happy Days in Hell. I’m increasingly intrigued by this community.

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Background to English PronunciationBackground to English Pronunciation by Ádám Nádasdy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book excited me. Hard to credit I admit, and perhaps most easily explained by the free seminars I was able to attend. It was written by a Hungarian academic who had taught my closest Hungarian friend and colleague, so the reading of it was accompanied by many long and detailed discussions in the pub.

That being said there were three other good reasons why this was such a good read for me. One, it was written for Hungarian teachers of English and so gave me good insights into both teacher training and language education in Hungary. This challenged, but ultimately affirmed the notions about language and how it should be taught that I have garnered from my own training and teaching experience. Two, it contained the most detailed information I have seen about spoken Hungarian, and that in itself was manna for a struggling student of Hungarian. And three, it added immensely to my knowledge of English speech, strangely reaffirming my beliefs both that even ordinary speech is complex and beautiful, and that poetry is the ultimate expression of language. In the rest of this review I will limit myself to a discussion of language education.

In the debate that contrasts skills with knowledge, Hungarian education is definitely in the knowledge camp. So here the trainee teacher is presented with many rules and detailed lists of exceptions. Though frequently given the advice that we can choose what we should teach, the understanding is that we should know all this ourselves. Coming initially from a more skills friendly background I was shocked that there was very little instruction of how to get the student to articulate the sounds of English. I thought better of this, remembering the Hungarians are schooled in the production of speech early in their education. Nádasdy obviously felt that this ground wasn’t worth going over again. There are plenty of ad-hoc tips on how to get Hungarians to produce English like sounds, and detailed explanations of why it is occasionally difficult for them to do so.

A more lasting worry is the presentation of language as a system of rules, and those rules as a series of binary contrasts: voiced/voiceless, soft/hard, short/long, weak/full, tense/lax, free/covered, stressed/unstressed, neutral/non-neutral. It is worth pointing out that each speaker of a language has his own realisation of that language – an idiolect. And although I am pretty much a speaker of standard English with received pronunciation, there were many of his examples which simply didn’t work for me. In the classroom too, teaching simple phonetic and intonation exercises, often results in lack of conviction on my part because the recorded examples simply don’t illustrate the teaching point they’re meant to. I’ve resorted to teaching through my own voice to avoid confusion. Corpus linguistics has shown us that language is a question of more or less rather than yes or no, teaching otherwise simply flies in the face of our own and our student’s own experience.

Likewise I object to the characterization of everyday language which doesn’t conform to the ‘rules’ as ‘exceptions’: I believe there is a reason for everything. The ‘exceptions’ really do expose the inadequacy of the ‘rules’, and not “prove” them (From the proverb which is itself misunderstood due to the change in the meaning of ‘prove’ over time). The issue of language ‘rules’ really comes to a head for me in Násdasdy’s treatment of spelling. He believes that if students manage to learn a strikingly complex set of spelling rules and lists of exceptions, it is possible for learners to predict the pronunciation of an English word from its spelling. I do not, and Nádasdy’s long account of tense and lax vowels does not convince me otherwise. If he had produced some statistics to support his arguments – e.g. the percentage of words that are actually are pronounced regularly, they might of carried some weight. He doesn’t. There is an important difference here to highlight, the difference between a rule and reason, there are reasons why English Words are spelt the way they are, and to be fair he mentions some of the most important; conservatism, foreignism and morpheme identity, but these cannot be used by learners to predict the pronunciation of the word – they don’t know how a word was pronounced in the past, or where it was borrowed from, or its morphology – this is information they don’t have. To find it out, they would have to go to a dictionary, they can usually find the pronunciation there too.

Later on, Nádasdy remarks that “advanced learners [and native speakers] are generally able to place the stress on words they have never pronounced before. Obviously they possess some knowledge which enables them to do so”. Generally, but not completely true, I still encounter new words that my intuitive pronunciation of is different to the one given in the dictionary. It may be difficult for a Hungarian to grasp, because they are given lists of rules in primary school, but native English speakers generally are not. The ‘knowledge’ Nádasdy writes of isn’t a knowledge of rules, its skill in assigning written words to models of pronunciation, these patterns I was given in primary school.

In the absence of statistics, I would hazard a guess that the more unusual a word is, the more likely it is to be spelt regularly – the converse of Nádasdy’s observation that the most common words in English are the mostly spelled irregularly. The most common words in English also have multiple pronunciations (strong and weak forms). Nádasdy describes this thoroughly without reflecting on why it should be the case. I suggest that there are two things going on here: language is not homogeneous, but an amalgam of discrete systems which have to interact for language to work. The interaction of these systems can often result in conflict – therein comes the other thing, a language has to have a system of preferences so that compromises can be made. This makes language much more of an engineering problem than a logical problem. A discussion of this sort of interaction in the context of language evolution can be found in Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution.

So in any language there are lexical systems, and syntactical systems and phonological systems, and so on. For example, lexically a word consists of a particular vowel but in some utterances it is difficult to realise that vowel within the syntactical and phonological constraints that are placed on it. Sometimes it can be realised with the full vowel, sometimes with a reduced vowel. Hence the formation of strong and weak forms of the same word. Obviously, English doesn’t give a very high priority to the pronunciation of vowels, so they can be changed within a word without any loss of meaning. Regional accents are another example of this, and perhaps the low priority given to vowel production is one of the reasons for English’s international success. In Hungarian vowels are given a much higher preference, so my sloppy pronunciation of Hungarian vowels does lead to the breakdown of communication. Nádasdy is aware of the sort compromises a Hungarian speaker of English has to make in making his phonetic systems conform to English, but is often wrong about what is and what is not acceptable to other English speakers. The issue of preferences within a language is not one I’ve ever seen discussed, yet it is one that would seem to be very important to language education.

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The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries: Reactions and RepercussionsThe 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries: Reactions and Repercussions by János M. Rainer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fills a gap left by Twelve Days Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters by looking at primarily reactions to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Longer term repercussions are given much less coverage.

The most dissappointing paper is the one from Poland, and a consequence of the successful reform movement known as Polish October. Most of the Polish security apparatus had been dismantled at the time of the Hungarian uprising, and was unable to compile reports on how the Polish populace reacted to events in Hungary. The way in which Poles and Hungarians may have seen themselves travelling on a common path is more fully treated, albeit fictionally, in Under the Frog.

The most interesting aspect in these papers for me was how differing Communist regimes responded to events in Hungary in the light of their historic national conflicts with Hungary and the presence of ethnic Hungarian minorities in their own territories. In Czechoslovakia and the Subcapathian Soviet Union, the regimes actively utilised Hungarians as translators and emissaries to Hungary to promote the pro-Soviet line. In Romania, by contrast, the Hungarian minority was actively surpressed, and the borders firmly closed. The Romanians feared that they were going to find themselves caught between the Hungarians and the Soviets, should the ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania join a ‘Nationalist’ rebellion in Hungary.

When student demonstrations were planned both in Transylvania and Bucharest the regime anticipated them and arrested their leadership before the demonstrations took place. One can’t but wonder what would happened if Ernő Gerő had been able to similarly nip the October 23rd demonstrations in the bud. The problem was that he didn’t have control of the country at whose head he stood, Hungarian soldiers and police brought in to disperse the crowds ended up handing over their weapons to the demonstrators. I suppose the flip side of having a minority in your country that may be disloyal, is that you also have a majority willing to keep them in line.

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Twelve Days: Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet MastersTwelve Days: Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters by Victor Sebestyen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sebestyan is best in the middle section of this book. A fast-paced but heavily detailed narrative presented on a day-by-day structure that was well suited to events. I enjoyed the little journalistic flourishes that brought the personalities to life: Cardinal Mindszenty tucking up his cassock so that he wouldn’t be identified as a priest; Defence Minister Maléter patting his holster as he remarked the uprising didn’t mean end of Socialism in Hungary. This sort of detail is either imagined or researched, the cross referencing of accounts suggests it is researched. Excellent.

The problem is in the Prelude and Aftermath sections where he tries to replicate this one day at time approach. It doesn’t work: the causes and effects of the uprising can’t be distinctly packaged into events. What’s more trying to squeeze them into a diary format means that some important things have been left out.

For example, many of the Hungarian combatants were teenagers and would have been small childen when Budapest was besieged in 1944. During that time over 48,000 Axis, 70,000 Soviet and 76,000 Civilians were killed. Afterwards 400,000 Hungarians were sent to the Gulag, and 30,000 were raped. It makes the 2,500 combat deaths, 2,500 executions and 22,000 arrrests of 1956 pale into insignificance. Would the uprising have happened at all if a generation of Budapest’s children hadn’t been utterly brutalised? For a blistering fictional account of this time see Under the Frog, for the facts see Battle for Budapest.

The Aftermath is a mere sketch, mostly concerned with the immmediate implications for Hungary and the conduct of the Cold War – America is of disproportionate interest to Sebestyan. He remarks that in 1989 the post-Soviet republic was created on October 23rd, yet there is no analysis of the how current Hungarian politics is caught in the shadow of ’56. Which is strange seeing as I found his research enlightening here.

The uprising was spontaneous and leaderless, or at least conducted by small groups whose only common ground was a hatred of the Russians. At one stage the teenage rebels of the Corvin Cinema were exchanging fire with the patriotic soldiers at Killian Barracks. There was a strong element of civil war that Sebestyan doesn’t linger on. Yet, the hatreds of the civil war are apparent today in the frequent disorder that occurs on the anniversary of the uprising, and the attempt by the current Government to rewrite the 1989 settlement. 1956 is still a very divisive event in Hungarian politics, and I can’t even guess why it is given the prominence it is. If we want to celebrate a national tragedy, shouldn’t we be looking at ’44 instead?

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