Hungarian Goulash and Literary Responsibility

Here I am: fifth city in thirteen days. Paris, Lyon, Prague, Auschwitz, and now Budapest. Tomorrow I head to Vienna. It’s a wild ride, I will say that. But I’m learning so much.

I arrived in Budapest, Hungary on the afternoon of August 11th, and I can’t say how wonderful it was to see the smiling face of my friend Anna at the train station, to be chauffeured to her house in an air-conditioned vehicle, and to be given meals. Such generous hospitality is most welcome after a few days on my own. Anna has taken me all around the city: we’ve visited the Citadel, an old Nazi and communist lookout on Gellert Hill, the highest point in the city; we went to Castle Hill, where the old royal castle stands; we went to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica. I spent the afternoon yesterday exploring Margaret Island in the north part of Budapest and eating traditional Hungarian food at an open market. Budapest is an amazingly walkable city – it’s split in half by the Danube River, so as long as you’re anywhere along the Danube, you can see exactly where you are in the city. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m terrible with directions, and even I can easily navigate Budapest. I spent this evening writing in my journal on a bench overlooking the Danube while listening to street violinists. I love the street musicians so much, and I love traveling on my own because I can stay and listen for a long, long time. In Prague, I listened to a violin-accordion duo for close to an hour.

For all its grandeur and spires, its deep reds and golds, Budapest is a city that bears wounds just below the surface. I spent four hours today in the House of Terror, a former Hungarian Soviet headquarters that was converted into a museum detailing the rise and fall of communism in Eastern Europe, specifically in Budapest. In the cellar of the building were preserved prison and torture cells, used to hold political prisoners and supposed informers, and gallows where many of them were murdered. The main wall displays pictures of hundreds of victims of the Soviet occupation of Budapest, Hungarian citizens who were likely tortured until they gave false confessions and then senselessly executed. I am fairly informed regarding the happenings of World War II, but I hate to say that I’m relatively ignorant of the history of communism, and it was startling to realize just how battered the countries of Eastern Europe have been. Budapest went from the Nazi occupation in 1944-1945 straight into the hands of the Soviet Union for close to forty years. It wasn’t until 1989 that communism was gone for good. The city of Budapest has suffered greatly, and it hasn’t been very long since those days.

In Prague, I remember a tour guide mentioning that many Czech adults still will not speak aloud of the government because they became so used to the notion that their neighbors and friends were secret informers that they still feel unsafe voicing their opinions. They still believe the government is listening in on their every word. “If the Czechs are unkind to you,” Diana said, “give them grace, and remember all that they have been through.” Those days also live in the memory of the Hungarian people. I can’t imagine living in such fear not only of the government, but of fellow citizens, potential informers, every single day for decades.

There was a special temporary exhibit on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I was delighted to see, as I’d read selections of Solzhenitsyn’s writings. A Russian writer, Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulags, where he composed enormous amounts of poetry and prose, memorizing it in his mind as he worked, and later recording and publishing it. Many people believe that his writings played a crucial role in the fall of communism, as they eloquently exposed it to be a system that quantified the value of human beings with work quotas, that replaced dignity with utility. How did poetry “work”? How did the stories Solzhenitsyn told make so much of a difference?

“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world,” Solzhenitsyn famously declared. And in the video, he said something equally poignant, “Literature is responsible to God and to humanity. It can never be mere self-expression. And in that sense, when I sit down to write, I am not free.”

In Solzhenitsyn’s eyes, he is bound to write “the truth.” When Solzhenitsyn says it, there is something that compels me to believe him. Because he has the authority to say it. He worked in the gulags and used words to fight a terrible, evil regime. He, if anyone, understands the power of words of truth spoken into an abyss of violent intent and lust for power.

But this is a question that I’ve struggled with for quite a while. I wrote an essay about it last year and even placed in a contest, but I still don’t feel like I understand. Literary responsibility. To whom and to what are we responsible when we write? Even Solzhenitsyn’s writing must be self-expression in a sense, because he’s detailing his own journey, his own perception of communism. But no one who walked through the House of Terror today could deny that Solzhenitsyn’s words were true. I wonder why he spoke as if truth and self-expression were mutually exclusive, because I’m not so convinced that they are.

A day full of good learning. Tomorrow to Vienna!

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