Natur och Kultur, 2017.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Non-Fiction
‘The Austrian Minister of Culture […] rang to ask if he could send Salman Rushdie to me. […] So we became friends, and he and his wife came to live here in the [wine] cellar. Mostly he’d be down the village boozing with the farmers. They spoke no English, Salman spoke no German. They’d drink together, they couldn’t speak each other’s language, but they had a good time. […] Everyone said, “We can keep him, he’s a real Austrian”.’
Curious anecdotes such as this aperçu from dramatist Peter Turrini abound in Cecilia Hansson’s compilation of interviews with eighteen writers, artists and film-makers from Austria, Hungary and Romania. Originally conceived as a declaration of love to Vienna and to art, her project expanded into an ambitious examination of the artist’s role in response to political pressures and constraints. This thread – the common experience of dictatorship and repression – draws together what might otherwise be a collage of disparate portraits from the three central European countries.
The denial of complicity in wartime Fascism emerges in all three cases. Austria adopted a comfortable view of itself as Nazism’s first victim. It was not until the Waldheim Affair of the 1980s that the country really began to face up to its Nazi past. Performance artists – the Vienna Actionists, including the controversial painter Hermann Nitsch, and Valie Export, with her ‘Touch Cinema’ – sought to unmask hypocrisy and shock society out of its complacency. One legacy of Nazism referred to by several interviewees is extreme male chauvinism. Peter Turrini remarks that Nobel prizewinner Elfriede Jelinek was marked by growing up in a society in which ‘women were considered to be of no value’. Novelist Marlene Streeruwitz speaks of the ‘drawn-out punishment of being in an obstetric clinic’ where attitudes to women still reflected Nazi values.
Hungary and Romania’s experiences of post-war dictatorship appear to have resulted in literary cultures in which much meaning was conveyed ‘between the lines’, to evade the censors. In the words of the Hungarian novelist Péter Esterházy, ‘We developed ways of conveying a great deal through silence, and of speaking by not speaking. We had techniques for survival, but when the time came to live, we became insecure.’ According to the Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu, everything was censored in Ceaușescu’s Romania – including recipe books. Censors who admired particular writers would advise them to add a few pages of surplus material which could be censored without damaging the work. Small wonder, then, that writers and artists in these countries turned to the fantastic and the grotesque and used humour as a means of surviving their harsh surroundings. Quoting the symbolist poet Bacovia, Mircea Cărtărescu describes Romania as ‘a sad country full of humour’.
Yet Romania now seems to be on a positive trajectory, whereas Hungary – once so hopeful after the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship, has become what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself calls ‘an illiberal democracy’ since his conservative nationalist party Fidesz came to power in 2010. According to the sociologist and essayist Eszter Babarczy, Fidesz has channelled the feelings of vulnerability and bitterness nursed by many Hungarians: ‘You see your life hasn’t turned out as well as you hoped, so who can you blame? The EU, the US, the IMF or migrants – anyone, as long as you have a scapegoat. The Government can represent itself as the sole defender of true Hungarian culture.’
In September 2015, Péter Esterhazy – now terminally ill – wrote to Cecilia Hansson, quoting the sardonic saying from the time of the double monarchy which gives the book its title. He added ‘Over a hundred years later, the picture looks gloomier; the situation is hopeless, but serious. Perhaps its serious nature will nonetheless lead us to something that we might almost be able to call hope.’