Literary roundup: Reliving the 1930s

British novelist Hari Kunzru has an excellent and chilling article at the New Yorker’s Page Turner on the extreme lengths the current authoritarian right-wing government in Hungary is going to consolidate its hold not only on the country’s political life but on its cultural life, ensuring that theater, film, art and the rest remain Christian, nationally pure and right-thinking in ways that are all too familiar. Most frightening of all is how reluctant the cultural figures he spoke to were to put their names to their opinions for fear of reprisals.

“Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all.”

Then again, what might be even more terrifying is the fact that Hungary is hardly the only country in the region celebrating its former fascists and generally reigniting the scapegoating and posturing typical of the 30s. So much for knowing history helping you to avoid repeating it. It turns out we’re condemned to repeat it either way.

Hungarian pulp fiction

There is a bright side to being sent back to the 1930s though. After all, the interwar years were a vivid, exciting time when people marveled at the newly invented telephone rather than playing Angry Birds on them or writing inane text messages or finding embarrassing ringtones. It was an especially fascinating time for writers and artists, many of whom are still much lesser known than they should be.

One of these is profiled at Hungarian Literature Online (HLO). Jenő Rejtő was a pulp fiction writer who wrote under the name of P. Howard, and whose life story – “longshoreman in Hamburg, a fisherman in Sweden, a construction worker in Genoa” with time in a traveling circus and a trip to Africa on the way – sounds like an invention and something that could only come out of that unstable, imaginative era.

The descriptions and excerpts of his writing guarantee that I will be reading it as soon as I can. (There is one English translation readily available in a Kindle edition and a couple other novels previously translated as well.)

While a singular character like Rejtő represents a silver lining of the 30s gloom there was no bright side to the decade that followed, and the Jewish Rejtő’s fate was no exception. He died in a labor battalion in Ukraine on New Year’s Day, 1943 at the age of 38. (Sorry, I was trying to be optimistic here.)

Update: Just by chance I came upon the entire text of Rejtő’s novel The 14-Carat Roadster online right here.

Photo – Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Gyula Gombos and Regent Miklós Horthy at a ceremony to the fallen in Budapest, 1932/wikimedia.

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