Of Terror, Memory and Controversy
Part 4 on Writing a novel trilogy
Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ — kösönöm) gave me a huge amount to process. But it also gave the second, third and fourth drafts of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere.
Information is never neutral and, as an outsider, I had a lot of sifting to do, particularly when we visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a short time, this fascist national socialist party believed in racial purity.
It benefited when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. Within a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting.
After 1945 the Soviet regime took over the building. It became home to the communist secret police, the AVH, and the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.
In my novel, Selene is held in the basement cells of this building, where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries. It was somewhere I wanted to visit, because it’s part of the story. But it’s a controversial ‘museum’ as Péter Apor argues.
The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative.
…The institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims (use) a dangerous strategy: the idea of … ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.
Memory is a slippery concept. I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a position in which memory is neither neither the same as or opposed to to historical ‘fact’.
But cultural tourist sites that are laden with political stances are difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror is a site of political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán makes it suspect. This is especially so given that its opening was during an election period in which the socialist opposition was likened to the extreme Soviet past. So the place became a warning to voters not to vote socialist.
The house claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, but the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. The terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but it is not the whole picture. And Jewish communities have objected that in concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)
Further problems are that the exhibit makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era. And it locates ‘evil’ as the ‘other’. It’s true that the names and photographs of those who collaborated with the two regimes are on a ‘wall of victimisers’. But this is also controversial given that we don’t know the level or context of involvement from names and photographs. And it’s contentious for a heritage site to set itself up as judge and jury. But the sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture nonetheless prevails.
Experiencing the museum was an interesting way to these controversies and questions. But most of all the visit was most powerful in the largely empty basement cells. The atmosphere there was chilling and inhumane. The horror was palpable without need of interpretation boards or video screens.
It gave me a great deal to think about as I wrote the novel. In A Remedy for All Things terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for one of my three main characters.
The protagonist, Catherine, in Budapest to research the life of poet, Attila József, finds herself dreaming the life of Selene. A young woman who survived a Jewish ghetto during the War and is in prison after the 1956 Uprising against the Communist regime.
This is how it begins:
In the dream Catherine is not herself.
She enters the yard, walls rising, blind, mute, slabbing out sky, yet its granite light dazzles after the cell’s gloom. She has an urge to bolt, run back to the blanketing shadows. Her guts twist. She lurches forward, knotting muscles to hold back piss, shit. Behind her, sharp fingers. She stumbles into a faceless quadrangle, huddles an eyeless wall. Someone is telling her to walk, walk — one foot, the next, right foot, left. Air ices lungs, skin burns cold, muscles tremble in unfamiliar shuffle. Behind her, other feet shamble. Don’t look back. Stagger on — one foot, the next, bleak wall grasped for balance. Don’t cry. Don’t fall. Don’t piss. Chant in her head: right foot, left foot, right… Falling — snow — falling, one flake, another, soft, as she sinks onto knees, hands, frozen flakes caressing her neck, hands hauling her out of the yard where women shamble, one foot, the next, women mute as walls, not looking as she is dragged back to the cell, soiled, wet, shivering.
On the wall, a list of dates chalked with a chipping of crumbled stone, the last one — Friday 6 November 1959. She huddles into a threadbare blanket, falls into a fitful sleep where…
on another day in Selene’s life —
a train sounds in the distance
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