In his second novel, Márk Mezei has once again touched on a Jewish theme. His book takes place in the late 1980s, with his protagonist moving from the countryside to Budapest, where he must befriend the religious life of his father’s brother and get to know the hustle and bustle of the capital; he must also decide on the funeral of his father, who is terminally ill in Tengiz. A. Jonathan Megyeri talked to the writer about his new and previous novel, Az Utolsó szombat (“The Last Saturday”), the writer’s ambitions, and the decisions that lie behind the subject of his novels, as well as the future of Hungarian Jewish communities.
Your second novel, Zsidó temetés (“Jewish Funeral”), is now published. Tell us a little about the book, what motivated you to write it?
There were two things that I definitely wanted to address. The first is that we still live with the history of the Hungarian guest workers in Tengiz [Ed. note: the Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan discovered during Soviet rule where many fell ill due to the presence of poisonous sulfur], a still unexplored and unprocessed story that exists only in the “second public sphere” [Ed. note: as compared to the first sphere of state-controlled media of the ruling party] about which the members of the older generation have heard a lot, but we in fact know little. The importance and interest in this topic were indicated by the fact that since the publication of the book, survivors or those with relatives who worked there have contacted me one after another. It seems that many hundreds or thousands of families are preoccupied with this topic to this day, which is, of course, contributed to by the fact that the issue is not discussed at the public level — neither journalists nor official policymakers talk about the circumstances under which the workers fell ill.
The other topic that motivated me was the issue of the Jewish funeral. Namely that
what happens in families where Jews lived with communist beliefs and where the circumcision of boys or a religious funeral was not chosen for political reasons.
In the case of our family, this arose with my paternal grandmother, for whom, although all of her siblings’ descendants live in Brooklyn and Israel,
Jewry played no role in her life, and she remained an atheist and communist for the rest of her life.
How many such families are there….
In the lives of devout communist families, Judaism did not appear, or did so only in a concealed way, as with the tragedies of Tengiz, in an unspoken form. The idea of “unite the proletarians of the world” was much more important. For me, however, the contradiction between religion and communist beliefs was especially important. I wanted it to appear in some form in literature, if possible, to be included in the discourse on Jewish history.
The third topic that equally preoccupied me was the issue of recruitment and cooperation with the communist regime.
We know of countless recruitment stories today, but we hardly hear of the cases where someone said no to collaboration.
Yet, there were certainly many many people who conscientiously refused to cooperate with the authorities.
In your book, storytelling or storytelling through personal stories is coupled with a character narration. Already in your earlier book, you described in detail the mental agonies and struggles when communism clashed with Judaism, or religious rules with sexual desires.
I think it’s safe to say that for me, it’s much more interesting to depict psychological processes, to record the subtle movements or shifts in balance pertaining to these, than to narrate a mere chain of events.
I would say that I am more interested in what the characters in the novel think and why, than in what they do and why they do it.
The story is then really just a tool.
Yes, I think it’s safe to say that it’s just a „vehicle” for the display of emotions. It is a „surface” on which you have the possibility to show people’s inner processes, desires and fears. A tool to show why we sometimes make decisions that are, in fact, beneath who we really are.
You mentioned your grandmother, which is a very personal thread. Who else have you drawn inspiration from? Perhaps you yourself appear in the novel?
Of course, my great existential questions also appear in my texts, and the problems that the characters face are also my questions. In my first novel, for example, I was particularly concerned about how it was possible that one of the world’s greatest rabbis gave a rather poor-quality speech on his last day in Hungary, and why he didn’t have the courage to tell his followers to flee. In retrospect, of course, it is difficult to question his decision since, by saving his own life, he enabled the survival of an entire movement, laying the foundations of a powerful Hasidic movement.
Thus, after all, it is almost impossible today to say whether his decision was right or wrong given the historical circumstances.
And, of course, the extraordinary will of Jewry to survive also appears in your book.
To use a current, contemporary example, it would be difficult to say that I am unconditionally pro-Chabad, but I have to say that in the next 100 years, the Chabad movement will almost certainly be the only solution for the survival of Hungarian Jewry. And, within this time frame, it is almost certain that what is called Neology in Hungary today will not survive. I see the daily efforts of my Neolog rabbi friends, but in fact, the historic moment when MAZSIHISZ could have joined the international conservative movement that would have ensured its survival has now been postponed.
Hungarian Neology is now just an outlier fighting for its survival. The Orthodox movements are taking off all over the world, and thanks to its powerful outreach, Chabad, represented by EMIH [Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities], is one of the best-performing ones.
As an Orthodox man, I cannot help but ask a very blunt question: How did you dare touch the story of the Rebbe of Belz? Because, of course, the story in your novel did not come entirely out of thin air, but you do combine fiction with reality and introduce a thread, a sexual story, that verges strongly on the blasphemous. That takes extraordinary courage. Or was it just Jewish chutzpah?
Neither. The real reading of the novel is — for me at least — quite different.
A large part of the readers focused on the Rebbe of Belz’s bad speech, on his failure to save his congregants, rather than on the scenes when he was able to overcome his bad instincts in other situations that affected his personal life more.
Of course, I am also at fault for this, since in my statements and interviews I was too focused on this as well.
It is an exaggeration, to say the least, to blame the Rebbe of Belz for not saving Jewry, or his congregants who were there.
I would leave it to historians to decide that question. I am, as I mentioned earlier, much more interested in the spiritual processes that the Rebbe of Belz must have gone through in those days. It is important to stress that, despite all his human foibles, the Rebbe is for me a positive hero, a great tzadik [Ed. note: a righteous man] who was able to overcome the temptation of yetzer hara [Ed. note: a bad instinct] in himself even in the most difficult moments.
Of course, but such human greatness can hardly be measured by our standards. I don’t think anyone could make such an assumption since the Talmud says, „There is no man who has not sinned.” But it is one thing to assume that the Rebbe of Belize has sinful thoughts, and quite another to assume that a young boy triggers his fantasies.
It would be folly to assume that our greatest Jewish leaders cannot have sinful thoughts. And, of course, literature cannot be used as a direct form of documenting reality. His relationship with the young boy was more a demonstration of our emotional limits than the occurrence of a real event.
So is this part of artistic freedom?
On the one hand, yes, and on the other hand, I think that in the case of the Rebbe of Belz, we should also be able to read from the text that even if he is tempted by bad instincts, he is still able to choose what is right.
In the novel, I show both the good and the bad side of his personality, that although he made no effort to save his followers, he was able to overcome his bad instincts at the level of his personal desires.
Two books, two stories, both of which capture a very critical point in Hungarian history, in Hungarian Jewish history: the Holocaust, and the period before the fall of communism. That’s a big jump in time. Are you less concerned about the 40 years in between, or do you think too many people have written about that?
I think my new novel describes quite accurately the 40 years after the Holocaust, what it was like to be a Jew on Síp Street [Neologs] or in the lives of Hungarian Jewish families who were stricter than that, but less so than the Orthodox. It was not my intention to present the life of Hungarian Jewry before the regime change with historical authenticity, especially as the novel focuses on a very short period of time, only one week to be precise.
Nevertheless, I thought it was important to present the type of Hungarian Jewry that has completely disappeared since the regime change. The Orthodox — but not bearded or mustached — shaven, suit-wearing, hat-wearing, kosher, holiday-keeping, traditionalist Jewry, of which we no longer hear anything about today.
I’ve read several interviews with you, where you talk very frankly about your relationships with women, or rather the failure of your relationships with women.
I think I’m really world class at that. If there is one thing that will stay with my texts, it will almost certainly be my clumsy handling of my relationships with women.
Have you already had an idea about what your next novel will be about?
I think I want to write a love novel right now, which will be quite a challenge for me given the aforementioned.
How important will the Jewish theme be in your new novel? Or will it be left out entirely?
I will certainly write more about love or my feelings than about Judaism, but I can see that the topic of Jewish and non-Jewish relationships, which is a topic that affects many people in Hungary, will not be avoided. But basically I would like it to be about human emotions.
Mark Mezei’s book, Zsidó temetés, was published by Kalligram Kiadó and is available in all major bookstores and online shops.