Lajos Jánossy: Rubble clearance

Rubble clearance
Endre Kukorelly: Ruin

The protagonist in this book is communism itself, one of the most dominant ideas and historical practices of modernity. More precisely, the book is about what we in this country mean by communism: the daily practice of a dictatorship which was born with the idea of communism standing by its cradle.

To put it more frivolously, the book is about the "achievements" of communism. The author, Endre Kukorelly, is speaking from this side of a recently ended historical period, from the position of a one-time participant and survivor. He can now look back on this period as one which seems irrevocably over. A star that has vanished from the stage of history makes a grand re-entry for the duration of a grand flashback.

As a text, Ruin is built of several layers and plays on many registers. In places, it is a political pamphlet and rhetorical essay; yet, it also incorporates the odd pastiche from the daily life of that time. Kukorelly’s notes combine the delicate and fragile atmosphere of a personal account with the factual data of a documentary. Together, these fragments sketch the outline of a historical formation: communism as it was.

The central theme here is an idea which once defined itself as a world-view and a grand historical formative force, giving direction and meaning to human effort in the grand web of time. The real aim of the text is to show up the dramatic interdependence between theory and practice, which became manifest in this grand historical experiment. By blazing a trail in this direction, Kukorelly is making a bold experiment with this reflexive text.

The author of Ruin was born in an era that determined people’s entire lives. Communism was a pattern designed never to end, furnished instead to look like the end of history. Thus, the context of Kukorelly’s book is a quasi-eternal status quo and, within that, a phase then referred to as "consolidation", a period that followed the 1956 Revolution. After its decline, this period gave way to an epoch where freedom only meant the beginning of everybody’s personal “leave from the barracks,” but it failed to bring about any serious effort to reach an understanding of communism. This book recalls how no effort was made to come to terms with the past, a self-awareness that might have helped process fifty years in the country’s history.

Kukorelly's dilemmas are most worrisome, because they are absolutely relevant even today. The questions he poses in his footnotes speak in the present tense like so many disconcerting exclamation points about the need to clarify a still unremittingly confused national identity.

Alhough Kukorelly was born “right into the middle of history,” he was simultaneously born in a time and place that declared itself to be outside of history. Communism (euphemistically referred to as socialism) definitely had a history – in the darker phases, this took the "monotonous" forms of mass murders and purges; while in the more settled periods, it meant having to manoeuvre aptly amid the road signs banned, tolerated, and supported. Yet, this supposedly most promising of all movements aimed to salvage the world and thus to have brought history to a point of conclusion. Having pooled all the forces of progress, it took it for granted that its strongholds would gradually extend to an ever-wider sphere, that certainly none would ever be toppled. One of the most significant achievements of Ruin is that it explores just how far this experience of finality, and thus a lack of any further prospects, completely pervaded the reality that is referred to as “the history of commonism.”

"Commonism" as an idiom broadens the poetical and referential perspectives of a potential outside and a realistic inside. It sets up a critical rubric whereby one can maintain a distance and avoid identification with the system. It also entails a way of living with the knowledge that one is indeed identified with the system.

“This is not a history book. We might, however, call it a book of histories. I am sure I cannot tell you properly, so I shall try anyway; and if I try hard enough, language will tell some of it for me. It will tell it, miss it, circumnavigate it; something will come of it.” These lines on the first page offer a kind of ars poetica while emphasising the composite nature of the text. It is perhaps an over-cautious effort to package the book in a criticism-resistant way. Still, this is putting a protective seal on something that does not need protection. To be sure, the language is there to tell it all. This philosophic consideration, this common contemporary approach is not what is unique about Kukorelly’s variations on a theme. At least, a certain portion of the book is conspicuous for not including certain statements of fact, certain judgements and opinions. Nevertheless, I am not criticizing him for these omissions. Quite the contrary.

The shameless indignation Kukorelly shows vis a vis his subject is a rare treasure. His uncommon openness is only surpassed by his even more uncommon tone, posing his little questions in a hushed and husky voice. He asks what needs to be asked. How could this happen? Naturally, he himself is aware of the irrevocable facts, and he does not hesitate to cite unpleasant figures, authors, and books. He does not shrink from talking of the number of dead, the victims of this bombastic experiment, either. Nor does he shrink from naming authors (some still living and writing, some considered as classics) who sang the glory of the Soviet Union and the incomparable happiness of the Soviet lifestyle.

At the same time, Kukorelly’s book is not a pamphlet. It is far trickier. In harmony with the author’s general approach of creating connections and transitions between various pieces of his work, it includes the narrow personal milieu of the author's déclassé middle-class family, described in his novel Fairy Vale. (See our review here.) The entire text is woven through and through with a wry tone that refuses all temptation to cry communist at others. This is the tone of the average Joe who is simultaneously inside and outside the family tradition and who, bored with all types of ideologies, decides to take up the massive challenge of cleaning up after the ruin.

Almost any serious book (or, let us say, any book that one can consider "serious") shows us the capabilities and limitations of language. The ability to create a world, the impossibility of achieving totality with a finite selection of words, and yet the ambition and to reach this goal – these are hallmarks of quality fiction. In this sense, Kukorelly’s book is indeed a book of histories. However, we must bear in mind that his pointed statements, his sour anger, and his questions and answers (each worth agreeing or arguing with) are directed at important actors in the history of commonism – namely, us.

One thing is certain. Ruin is a milestone, an unprecedented document of Hungarian consciousness split along so many fault lines. It is a collection of defused landmines from 20th century Hungarian history, an author’s confession about this no-man’s-land between east and west and the 20th and 21st centuries, a message from a world at the hot center of the birth and death of things and people. At the same time, it is a profoundly literary work, an exciting contribution to Hungarian literary history.

Lajos Jánossy