From a Czech perspective it would be hard to find a better guide to the current political situation in Hungary than László Krasznahorkai’s 2016 novel Báró Wenckheim hazatér (Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming in Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation, published in 2019). Krasznahorkai’s narrative is situated in an alternative Hungary of run-down, semi-autonomous provincial small towns, cut off from the “mere formality” of central government and teetering on the verge of final decay and anarchy. On the face of it this fictional Hungary looks nothing like Orbán’s Budapest-centred, recently economically booming and politically tightly-controlled koronadiktatúra, in which mainstream media have been emasculated and the military can be, and have been, sent to “safeguard” private companies considered essential national infrastructure.
And yet the novel, by painting what contemporary Hungary is not, captures precisely the fear of what it could have been – had someone as strong, valiant and righteous as Viktor Orbán not stepped up just in time to save the nation from the looming catastrophe. What the novel ultimately reveals is the kind of social dynamic, both economic and emotional/spiritual, that facilitated Orbán’s rise to power in 2010 and then, slowly but surely, accompanied by some shady wheeling and dealing, paved the way to his recent “corona-tion”. The latter took place by means of the Protection Against the Coronavirus Act – widely nicknamed Orbán’s “enabling law” because of its similarities to Hitler’s Enabling Act of March 1933 – which was passed into law on March 30th this year with no sunset clause and left the Hungarian parliament de facto powerless, with Orbán elevated into a little király (king), ruling by decree. As the character of the Mayor in Krasznahorkai’s novel puts it, even if a little prematurely: “because this here (thanks be to high heaven!) is ‘no democracy’ anymore, from now on […] this is a dominion to which, after so many decades […] the lord and master has once again returned.”
Krasznahorkai’s novel contains several darkly hilarious ruminations and tirades on topics ranging from the problem with thinking per se to the question of what to do about the “repulsive Hungarian soul” and the gene supposedly responsible for it. (A central character called the Professor has decided to solve the problem of the lethality of human thought, “the only fatal and actual virus, the only virus that genuinely prods all of humanity into an incurable disease”, by putting a stop to it, once and for all, through “thought immunization exercises”.) Among the most cutting of these extensive meditations is one that sounds like a perverse hymn to fear: “Every human culture is created by fear, and from this grows the order of conceptions […]” And indeed, various kinds of fear are revealed in the course of the novel’s events as the powerful elementary forces determining the current Hungarian order of cultural conceptions and political institutions under Orbán. The most important among these primal forces are the fear of economic destitution (“the streets are all dark because all the light bulbs have been stolen from the streetlamps”), the fear of demographic decay (“are the mothers running out of children?”) amplified by the horror of being overrun by foreign migrants – whether “all those Albanian vagrants”, or the refugees (of the 2015 migration wave) who are flooding towns and railway stations instead of the usual tourists: “once we get to Keleti [train station in Budapest], how they rush around like madmen, because the refugees will descend on that place, lugging whatever they can […] they’re like beggars, with neither country nor even, so they say, a roof over their head, and for years now they’ve just been coming and coming, and they’re just lying around everywhere”. Last but not least, there is the fear of losing one’s national identity (“but I already told you once that you’re inclined to express yourself in a non-Hungarian way, and I ask you, do not use these kinds of expressions, because we Hungarians have a nice way of putting this”), a fear that manifests itself in diverse calls to patriotism. Some of these calls demand of one’s compatriots little more than the love of a good goulash; other calls, however, are more ominous. It will hardly come as a surprise that the most dangerous dream of great flourishing, of “a new Hungarian life”, finds expression in loud shouts of “THERE WILL BE ORDER” from a motorcycle gang called the Local Force. But how does all this relate to Orbán’s Hungary?
Looking closely at Orbán’s rhetoric – from his July 2014 speech at the Bálványos Free Summer University and Youth Camp at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) to his July 2019 speech at the same establishment and beyond that, to the briefing he gave at a January 2020 international press conference in Budapest – there can be no doubt that he has built his political career on attracting voters by deliberately and skilfully playing on and inflating just such fears. His speeches are truly “no eurobabble, but a genuine, full-blooded central European reality” as he quite unashamedly put it in an interview granted to the Česká pozice supplement of the Czech Lidové noviny daily in December 2015. So what does his central European reality look like?
The speeches are all structured around a similar set of concerns: the political task at hand is presented as nothing less than the national survival of “the 1,000-year-old Hungarian community” (July 2019) in a time of crisis. (Hard times are already here or they are coming; no help is to be expected from anyone else, least of all from the EU with its “suicidal tendencies”.) This emergency call to action is then followed by the enumeration of specific internal and external threats to Hungarian economic and national well-being, from “foreign-funded political activists” (July 2014) to “Soros’s [EU] candidates” (July 2019), from ex-communists pretending to be liberals (modelled on French 68-er Daniel Cohn-Bendit) to an army-like multitude of young male migrants of military age pretending to be women and children (December 2015, March 2019). Finally, a clear solution-cum-salvation is proposed as the only way of safeguarding the Hungarian future – namely, Orbán’s illiberal Christian democracy based on an ethnically homogeneous nation. (“We need Hungarian children”, as he put it in February 2019, having suggested many times before that the migration of other people and their undesirable children into Europe had been deliberately orchestrated by the atheistic, liberal, imperialist EU in order to destroy the old conservative, Christian Europe of sovereign nation states. One of the reforms Orbán pushed through the parliament is a massive tax and mortgage-based programme of support for Hungarian mothers of multiple children, carefully tailored in such a way as to benefit middle-class families the most and the Roma minority the least.)
If there is one thing to be said for Orbán’s speeches, it is that they have been amazingly outspoken as well as consistent over the years. His rhetorical appeals tend to differ mostly in the choice of metaphors and in the placement of emphasis at a particular time: internal enemies, in the form of foreign-funded political activists and NGOs, received a lot of attention in the 2014 speech, whereas by 2019 all the main threats singled out by Orbán were external. The shifts in tone and emphasis are likely to be determined by which part of his notorious “peacock dance” tactic Orbán happens to be employing in front of which audiences – whether domestic or international, friendly or hostile. In this connection it is interesting to note that Orbán’s speeches (and some interviews) have been regularly reprinted in full in the mainstream Czech press since at least 2014. This may mark a shift in Czech perceptions of Orbán’s politics. For a long time after its foundation in 1991 the Czech Republic was a rather reluctant member of the Visegrád Group of four central European countries (along with Hungary, Slovakia and Poland). But that changed greatly during the 2015 migration crisis when a lot of Czechs, if not most, began to look up to Orbán as someone capable of successfully defying the EU on inward migration.
And yet, no matter how carefully crafted Orbán’s speeches are, how skilfully they combine outright provocations (meant to shock “the liberals”) with all sorts of double-speak and metaphorical winks at the audience in between the lines, their effect is sometimes unintentionally incongruous and darkly ironic in what it reveals about the speaker’s unacknowledged intentions. In his July 2014 speech, for example, Orbán likened people’s growing awareness of the implications of the 2008 financial crisis to a fog that slowly descends on a landscape and thereby veils it – inadvertently expressing just what he was doing with his words. Similarly comical is his 2019 image of himself and his party as having lived through the preceding decade “with a bricklayer’s trowel in one hand and a sword in the other”, meaning being constructive at home while defending themselves against international attacks (coming, one has to imagine, from the crusading sword-wielding knights of the liberal-atheistic-imperialist EU headed by Angela Merkel). Another such gem of truth-speaking in the midst of obfuscation comes when Orbán quotes the poet László Nagy’s line “Hungary should not be the bottom of the West, but neither should it be the forehead of the East” and follows this with a wonderfully frank acknowledgement of the true nature of his appeal: “This is a mysterious sentence, and we don’t know exactly what it means, but we all feel that it is true.” As long as we all feel something to be true, reality needn’t matter. Even Trump could not have put it better, at least until the coronavirus caught up with his all too human thought. What Orbán’s “mysterious sentence” serves to obscure, of course, is the true nature of the dubious balancing act he has been performing to get the Hungarian economy going: on one hand, granting German companies privileged access to the market in exchange for technology (thus turning Hungary into Merkel’s bottom); on the other hand, putting on a brave front and striking “cheap energy” deals with Putin while trying to attract Chinese and Korean investment by way of a (pre-coronavirus) policy of so-called “Eastward opening”.
There is a lot in Orbán’s speeches that could be transposed verbatim into Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming and ascribed to many of the characters, from the Mayor and the Chief of Police all the way to the leader of the Local Force or the gambling conman Dante of Szolnok (“gaming is the natural configuration of freedom”). The Mayor of Baron Wenckheim’s hometown is exactly the same type of “unconditional believer in the free press” as Orbán – so it is really unfair on the Mayor that he still lacks Orbán’s newly acquired legal powers to shut down the publication of “every boorish attack against everything that was sacred“ under the guise of preventing the spreading of misinformation about the coronavirus and thereby hindering the defence measures against it (which is now a crime in Hungary punishable by one to five years of imprisonment). As regards migration, Orbán’s fuelling of the need to feel special and superior in nationalist terms even in the midst of a collective downfall is unmasked in the novel when the local homeless try to salvage their pride by looking down on the even less fortunate: “there is still human dignity in this world, and we aren’t some starving Syrians lunging at food packages thrown across a border fence”. But Krasznahorkai is especially merciless when it comes to the people he calls “these sneaky gangsters beneath the cross”, in other words Hungarians, especially those in positions of power and privilege, who pride themselves on being generous Christians: “the essence of the relationship between priest and believer in a Hungarian Christian church is that of a band of mafiosi cutting their deals”. Orbán certainly fits the picture to a dot: he has made a habit of pointedly thanking God for his electoral successes in his speeches and of presenting his constitutional majority as a God-willed, moral victory of good against evil, of those who love their neighbour against pure haters (“And we all feel that when [the liberals] attack and criticise us, they’re not arguing with us, but hating us.” July 2019).
Krasznahorkai’s novel provides not just a running commentary on the roots of Orbán’s politics but also a powerful critique of it. As always in his fiction the author pulls no punches and ultimately presents the Hungarian fear-inspired order as at once untenable and unreformable – and thus as deserving to be exploded in a highly localised apocalypse. But if, according to Krasznahorkai, it is to be ardently hoped that “the Hungarian gene” will ultimately bring about its own extinction, what about the parallel “Czech gene”? Back in 1996, when Orbán was just a regular centre-right pro-Western MP rather than the little király of today, the Czech branch of the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU) got into conflict with the Czech government headed by Václav Klaus – ostensibly over accreditation and funding but in reality over the “foreign” influence it wielded, or was perceived as wielding, in Czech politics – and as a result the CEU were eased out of Prague and landed in Budapest. Klaus has never hidden his dislike for George Soros, whom he saw as an ally of his rival Václav Havel and a behind-the-scenes shady dealer, fitting the locals’ resentful description of the disgraced Baron Wenckheim as “a pompous, rootless cosmopolitan”. The departure of the CEU was nonetheless considered a symbolic loss by many Czechs – a sign of Budapest being ahead of the game, of Czech culture in danger of becoming insular again.
Periodically casting glances over at Hungary since then, and seeing the CEU expelled once again in 2018 from Budapest to settle in Vienna (following Orbán’s “rule-by-law” replacing the more standard rule of law), Czechs seem to be more and more divided in their views of Hungary. A significant number of those active in Czech politics – many associated with the erstwhile prime minister and later president Václav Klaus – have in recent years been styling themselves as conservative nationalists with populist leanings, and openly expressing their admiration for Orbán’s politics vis-à -vis the EU. Orbán’s recent emergency measures might, however, represent the kind of red line that not even these politicans and ideologues are willing to cross – at least not yet. (Discussions in the Czech media about whether Orbán has “crossed the line” in his defence of illiberalism go back to at least 2014.) On the other hand, the former dissidents and the loosely allied liberal circles – inclined to follow the “nonpolitical politics” of Havel rather than Klaus’s conservative nationalism – seem to be in no doubt about the perniciousness of Orbán’s politics, reading it as a kind of warning of what could yet happen in the Czech Republic. It seems then that Czechs use Hungary as a kind of mirror in which they see what they want to see about themselves: their own beauty or ugliness, their own lost past or imminent future.
Funnily enough, from time to time Hungarians too seem to mirror themselves in the Czech Republic in a similar fashion. In his January 2020 briefing, Orbán singled out Czechs as being ahead of Hungary in having achieved full employment and talked of prioritising “the goal of catching up with the Czechs”. (The two countries are of comparable size and were in roughly the same economic situation in 1989.) In the political sphere, however, this kind of catch-up seems to be proceeding in the opposite direction, especially since coronavirus struck. It is as if the Czech prime minister – the oligarch Andrej Babiš – has tacitly set himself the goal of emulating Orbán when it comes to securing more power and control. Just as Orbán has already passed or tried to pass emergency decrees that have nothing to do whatsoever with the coronavirus (including limiting the executive powers of mayors and city councils which his Fidész party lost in the October 2019 local elections; prohibiting sex changes; approving the construction of an unwanted museum quarter in Budapest; and regulating theatre productions), so has Andrej Babiš tried to help himself to more power under the same viral guise. The only difference is that since, unlike Orbán, Babiš lacks a constitutional majority in the parliament, he has to proceed on the sly. He has twice already attempted to smuggle in legislation carefully tailored to solve his political problems: first, a paragraph in a company ownership registration bill that would absolve him from a conflict of interest stemming from his ownership of a conglomerate of companies in receipt of both Czech and EU subsidies; second, an emergency powers bill which would enable him to rule by decree in emergencies such as the current one, unchecked by either the parliament or by his (coalition) cabinet.
So, unfortunately, the Czech gene does not after all translate into a national character any less corrupt, venal and servile than the Hungarian one satirised by Krasznahorkai. If Czechs have been saved, at least so far, from “a simple, dangerous buffoon who thinks he is a king”, they have historical accidents to thank rather than their inherent political virtue: the post-2008 levels of indebtedness and economic destitution in the Czech Republic never reached such catastrophic levels as in Hungary – and therefore there was no call for the radical policies of nationalisation and taxation known as Orbanomics; in 2015 the Czechs did not face hundreds of thousands of refugees coming across their border and claiming asylum in the country; and, somewhat notoriously, Czechs have for a long time been the least religious as well as the least Christian polity in Europe (which partly explains their reservations about the Visegrád Group – the other three member countries are strongly Catholic). As the heathens of Europe, they tend to feel lukewarm at best toward passionate appeals to gods of all persuasions, the so-called Judaeo-Christian values or such oxymoronic (or maybe just moronic) concepts as Orbán’s illiberal “Christian freedom”.
Is there any reason to hope then that Czechs might be able avoid the fate of Orbán’s Hungary or the highly localised apocalypse of the Krasznahorkaian kind? At the end of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, after the author has orchestrated the end of his fictional world as if it were a grand music finale, he appends a chapter called Sheet Music Library which consists of two different lists: “Utilized Materials – Missing” and “Utilized Materials – Destroyed”. If there is any underlying logic to these lists and therefore a lesson to be derived from his apocalypse, it seems to be this: everyone who has been trying to make the best of the terrible situation at home, has come to be destroyed. The only people “missing” are those who couldn’t stand it anymore – those who could not just accept it “like everything else in this country” and who did not tell themselves “it was better not to investigate the whys and wherefores”. Rather, these escapees from annihilation – like the Professor who decided to liberate himself from the virus of human thought – couldn’t help but “feel like finding fault in weather like that, just making everything worse with meaningless questions”.
Viewed like this, there might still be some hope for Czechs after all. It lies in the existence of the Million Moments for Democracy civic movement which has, since 2018, garnered a surprising amount of popular support in huge demonstrations of tens and hundreds of thousands of people. It acts effectively as an unofficial watchdog – bent on not just accepting corruption but on asking those crucial “meaningless questions” and on preventing our very own “Orbánek” (little Orbán) from growing into a full-blown one. The same hope, however, does not seem to extend to the European Union and specifically to the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, of which Orbán’s Fidész is a member. The EU has so far proven woefully inadequate in “not just accepting” Orbán. It would do well to heed Krasznahorkai’s warning of the coming apocalypse: if it cannot dissociate itself from those sneaky gangsters under the cross, does it not deserve to go the way of the Soviet Union – to which it is often compared in central Europe, and not just by Orbán?
In his July 2019 speech Orbán claimed to have all that is beautiful, free and just on his side in his openly illiberal “order of Christian freedom” and then, in another of his unconsciously truth-speaking moments, he added as an afterthought: “The only question left is whether we are dreaming or awake.” Needless to say, he was not really asking a question or doubting the correct answer. All that he proposed was for real, he continued, all that Hungarians needed was unity and valour, and the redeeming ideal of illiberal democracy would be theirs for the taking (all the while continuing to milk the ineffectual EU, wink wink). “Go for it Hungary, go for it Hungarians!” All with eyes wide open and in full daylight. How does one respond to this kind of political thought and its viral appeal, if not with some of the Professor’s misanthropic thought immunisation exercises?
Alas, I am no Professor and so, while reading Orbán’s speeches and following his progress from afar in the context of Hungarian and Czech politics, I have rather felt myself metamorphosing into Krasznahorkai’s director of Municipal Utility Services (on the list of “Utilized Materials – Destroyed”) who keeps hoping against all hope that the rule of the gangsters (just like the coronavirus lockdown) is simply a matter of “just another couple of days, and everyone will be completely beyond it, and certainly after a week, and after a month, nothing will remain at all from the whole hullabaloo, just like a memory from a bad dream”. But then I snap out of it and ask myself: haven’t we, as Europeans, got enough bad memories to last us many lifetimes? Wouldn’t it better for all of us – no matter what “national genes” we happen to be stirring into the European goulash – if we could save ourselves at least this one?
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, and most recently The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).