Address by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the opening of the Kertész Imre Institute
10 October 2020, Budapest
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Director General, Dear Mária,
I welcome this fine garland of leaders responsible for the institutional management of cultural life in Hungary. Thank you for being here with us. Mária pointed our thoughts in two distinct directions. One direction was Budapest. When one sees things like this villa, such beautiful works of art, such fine architectural works, the thought that always springs to mind is, “Why can’t Budapest be like this again?” I may have got the number wrong but, as I recall, in Budapest since 2010 there has been development and investment of more than 4,000 billion forints. It’s no surprise that the difference between this city now and what it was a decade ago is perhaps not only clear to visitors who rarely see it, but also to those who live here, and who can see the changes day by day. The other direction in which Mária pointed us was culture. If you look at the numbers – which only a few undertake to do – you’ll come to the conclusion that today and in recent years Hungary has almost exceeded its own strength – at a higher rate than seems logical at first sight – in committing to cultural financing, cultural expenditure and cultural responsibility. I only need to look around the gentlemen in attendance here. Here is Professor László Baán, representing the whole Városliget Project and the Museum of Fine Arts. The President of the Hungarian Academy of Arts representing the refurbishment of the buildings placed at the Academy’s disposal. Csaba Káel, who’s responsible for leading or coordinating the management of the entire film industry, could tell us some stories about how much money has gone into his industry. Then we have Szilveszter Ókovács here. The entire Opera House is undergoing a radical refurbishment project on a scale that happens or can be afforded only once a century, and another new attraction linked to the Opera has been created in the outskirts of the city. As prime minister one can never look at actors in cultural life without thinking about how much money they’ve taken in recent years for productions, for investment, for development. So we can confidently say that without an appreciation of Hungary’s historical past built on culture, on cultural achievement and on the concept of a culture-based nation, we’d be unable to justify spending so much money on culture in Hungary, even in difficult times. So we’re a culture-based nation: if we ask a Hungarian how they define who they are, who they belong to, what their nation is, what their community is, sooner or later they would conclude – probably based on our language, but perhaps also independent of it – that they belong to a great culture-based nation. And there’s no better proof of this than this fantastic capital city of ours called Budapest, which is in itself a unique cultural achievement and spectacle.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This isn’t why we’ve gathered here today, however. I only mentioned this because I couldn’t resist the temptation provided by Mária. In fact we’ve gathered here because of Imre Kertész, and because of what is symbolised by his life’s work and literary works. I’ve gathered some of my memories related to Imre Kertész. The first of these dates from 2010, although in 2003 – after his Nobel Prize, and during the government of Péter Medgyessy – I was present when he received his well-deserved Hungarian state decoration. After the 2010 election I gave an interview to a German newspaper, and they asked me if I appreciated the work of the Hungarian author and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész. At first I thought they were trying to insult me: after all, I’m Hungarian, Imre Kertész is Hungarian and he was a Hungarian Nobel laureate for literature; who deserves respect if not someone from one’s own country who has won a Nobel Prize for literature? But then I remembered that I was talking to a German: he was acclimatised to Kulturkampf, and so wasn’t accustomed to being able to show pride in major international recognition being bestowed on someone whose cultural preferences differ from one’s own. I realised that this journalist must have had friends in Hungary who probably told him that over here Imre Kertész wasn’t appreciated – particularly by those in the Hungarian right. And I realised that the fact this question could be conceived at all revealed a truth, and that there had to be some reason for it. When I think back to when Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize, here in Hungary there were rather heated debates. I remember that among the Right in particular – perhaps more so among its more radical part, but perhaps the entire Right – there were some who took a certain view on this. They said that of course this was an enormous achievement which we shouldn’t call into question, but everything is relative and other great authors didn’t receive the same honour: between the two world wars, Ferenc Herczeg and several others hadn’t received the same honour, but Kertész did. I remember these not very high-quality debates that were in the air at the time. And some also said that he’d clearly won it because it was for a novel concerned with the Holocaust, following which Fatelessness got all that public attention around the world, and these things are connected: one can receive a Nobel Prize for such a work, but the great Hungarians of the past couldn’t get one for the themes they dealt with. This debate pigeonholed Imre Kertész, effectively locking him in one place, in a drawer he had never wanted to be in; and there was no reason for him to be locked into such a drawer. Therefore when Mária asked me to come here and recount my memories, I remembered that debate. My attitude was that of course every debate can slide into exaggeration, but there’s some reality in this historical view. Then in 2012, when as prime minister I delivered an address at a business forum in Berlin, I contacted Imre Kertész and sat down to talk with him. This was my first really serious conversation with him, and I realised that here was a man of truly great intellect. It wasn’t the case that a book had come out of someone’s pen which then happened to earn them a Nobel Prize for literature. No, this was a man of great intellect, who was able to share with young people like me the most profound thoughts, wonderful advice and insights about existence according to the logic of various existential schemata.
So when Mária approached me with the idea that we should gather together items of the Kertész legacy not kept elsewhere, that was the Imre Kertész that came to mind, and that is the Imre Kertész I’m happiest to remember: a man who has no place in the pigeonhole that so many have tried to put him in – simply because no pigeonhole is big enough for him. His intellect was so broad and deep that it cannot be forced within boundaries. And from that point on there was no question in my mind that we had to build up his legacy not in Berlin, but in Budapest. This city is his city, and even during our conversation in 2012 he mentioned Budapest several times. I realised that he knew every street – at least in its central area – like the palm of his hand. This was his city: he never wanted to leave it, he never wanted to write anywhere else, and I believe he wouldn’t have been able to write sentences with such profound meaning in any other language than Hungarian. And as proof of this, I found some quotations or thoughts that could release him from this pigeonhole.
First of all, before coming to the quotations, I’d also like to draw everyone’s attention to his life, because he was a unique character, and under communism he chose a unique strategy. Communism was also a test of character, and through oppression and poverty everyone needed to develop some kind of strategy with which to survive it. As we’ll see later, this was particularly true for someone like Imre Kertész, who believed that the communist system would not come to an end in his lifetime. Incidentally, this thought also brought to mind some of my personal memories about our establishment of Fidesz in 1988. Our names were published in the newspaper, and my relatives immediately got together and told me that I had to understand that the Russians wouldn’t leave Hungary in my lifetime, communism wouldn’t collapse in my lifetime, so I wasn’t acting rationally, and I’d need to choose some other strategy to fight and attack the system, to plot the regime’s overthrow. And if that was what my parents thought, then Imre Kertész, who was even older than them, must have had even stronger thoughts about this. So he had to choose a life strategy centred on the thought that his place in life would never change. There were very few who trod the path that he chose, because his strategy was to remain a complete outsider. He wanted to live with honour and he didn’t want to be compromised. He obviously saw little sense in open resistance, and didn’t join any opposition political movements. But he thought that one mustn’t take part in this: a lofty intellect, a man always striving for the essence of the matter, could not take part in what was going on. So he chose to remain an outsider – he chose to be an internal émigré in Budapest, if you like – and followed this path right up until the fall of communism. If a man of great talent chooses to be an outsider in a communist system he must face up to one great dilemma: what to do with his talent and with the feeling of that talent being neglected. Because in the communist era very many didnt choose an outsider status, because they were talented and believed that if they did their talent would be lost. And after all someone of great talent, particularly if that talent is underpinned by hard work and erudition, demands some kind of recognition – or at least that’s part of life’s normal order. One doesn’t write for oneself, but for the reader, and while naturally writing itself gives pleasure, the writer wants some kind of recognition. It takes moral strength and greatness for a talented man – and as the Nobel Prize shows, a man of world-class talent – to endure settling for internal exile, and not be able to expect any recognition. At such a level of achievement, rejection is humiliating every time it’s experienced, because others less talented than yourself who faithfully serve the regime are given all the credit and you’re given none. It takes moral strength and greatness to endure living with this realisation, and living with it while thinking that it will be true throughout your life, and perhaps someday you will be seen in a different light. And beyond the fact that he was an outsider, he adjusted well to being sidelined: he didn’t become embittered, he didn’t shake his fist, he didn’t disparage others, he gave everyone their due, and he was a respectable citizen. He spent thirteen years writing the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The first publisher rejected it in Hungary – this was, of course, in the old days. The second publisher released a very limited number of copies. Despite receiving no recognition, he stayed and endured.
Well, let’s see now! The following quotations will be like atomic bombs. Minors should be shielded from them. In today’s political climate these statements dont qualify as politically correct. “National Socialism and communism spring from the same roots; the Gulag and the Nazi network of camps were created for the same purpose, and millions of victims prove that they fulfilled that purpose.” Then this: “Communism is beyond redemption”. Then: “Ridding themselves of communist oppression, how much good can the countries of Eastern Europe bring to European civilisation?” So back then Central Europe was not seen as some free-rider allowed on board the European Union; according to Imre Kertész, we didn’t arrive empty-handed, but brought important values which Europe’s western half must respect. He quite simply described anti-Semitism as a contagion, a pandemic, an ideological disease which he saw flooding Europe time and again. “Anti-Semitism is the recreation of corrupted spirits which spirals into murder.” Back then the Left werent yet even thinking of nominating anti-Semitic parliamentary candidates. And finally, as someone opposed to migration himself, Kertész’s harshest and most powerful statement was related to migration, then further strengthened in other forms. I think it is the key to understanding his life’s work. It is this: “That species of animal known as ‘a multicultural society’ does not exist.” This was his vantage point on the world. He took the view that while European civilisation has serious problems, the answers to this civilisation’s problems may only be sought within its own civilisational boundaries – and that’s where we will find them. Solutions imported from outside – whether about spirit or about human beings – do not work. This civilisational challenge that Europe is facing – and which it was already facing in his lifetime – must be resolved from within. I shall quote him again: “That civilisation which fails to clearly proclaim its values, or betrays its proclaimed values, sets out on the road to perdition and terminal decay.” These were the quotations not for the ears of the under twelves. Now for the ones not for the ears of the under eighteens. In an interview with another provocative German journalist – but we know what he said because it was published in the Hungarian weekly ÉS – he was asked about the novel which won him the Nobel Prize. He said that “Those who read this book must immediately notice that the author knows the present, and hates that also”. When asked whether communism was a more important and more painful experience for him than his experiences in Nazi camps, he said the following: “Yes, it is more important because it suffocated me, every day it nauseated me, every day I woke up like a prisoner, so I wanted to write about the present. Those who see Fatelessness as a Holocaust novel are on the wrong track.” This is what Imre Kertész said about his own work. And then a quotation for those over twenty-five: “The liberal spirit, which originally wanted the best, developed a postmodern lack of principle and led the intelligentsia into nihilism, and the masses into bewilderment.” How true this is: it seems as if this is the very point at which Europe stands today!
Now let me say a few words about the institute. Mária, we’re grateful that it was essentially through your smooth powers of persuasion that you gently squeezed from us the funds needed for the establishment of this institute. But now I see and feel the worth of the many debates I had with you about the what, the how and the how much. And it’s right that this Kertész Institute has been realised so well, because once I read – perhaps in that same German interview – a comment by the man whom it is named after, in which he spoke about how successive generations of writers reinforce one another. He said that “Literature is the intellectual space across which writers reach out to one another in infinite time”. Well, now it is right that in this institute we’re not only showcasing the legacy of Imre Kertész: congratulations, Mária, on the fact that this is not only a place of memorial, not simply an exhibition preserving memories, but that others can also be found here. There are other legacies here, there are other intellectual giants here who make a visit here worthwhile: Pilinszky, Petri, and János Sziveri, who’s not as well-known; but there are also items here relating to Arthur Koestler. And this is how it should be, because this validates the words of Imre Kertész, the man after whom this building is named: “Literature is the intellectual space across which writers reach out to one another in infinite time”. Mária, may you all prove to be equal to this mission.
Thank you for your attention.