György Spiró, one of Hungary’s leading authors, is well-acquainted with the Slavic languages and cultures and the political reality and literary history of Central-East Europe, with all its complexities.
In this short story, which depicts a symposium taking place at an international book fair in Germany to which he is invited along with a few Serbo-Croatian colleagues, Spiró touches on some contemporary “painful spots” of the region that is so dear to him: the sense of neglect and exploitation in Europe’s outskirts, nationalism, the unbearable lightness of historical distortion and the hypocrisy of the elite (in its own eyes). The story’s frame of mind expresses what everyone today knows: the euphoria that came after the fall of the Berlin Wall was quickly replaced by bitter disappointment at the inability of most ex-Central European countries to reach the Western standard of living and build a stable and productive socioeconomic system. “Central Europe, if indeed it ever existed, has ceased to exist. Today you can only talk about Eastern Europe […] which has become the European periphery of post-Capitalism, with all the charm and sadness that involves,” he said in an interview he gave in the summer of 2014 to a Hungarian literary blog. “The good news,” he added, “is that there are stupid people in the West too, like any other place.” The problems exist there too, explains Spiró, they’re only concealed in a more civilized/cultured manner. “The Book Fair: The Assassin’s Grandson” also exposes that tension.
Spiró’s tone is, as always, ironic and sharp. He raises a mirror and forces us to look at it. Under the lightness and the humor hides a very direct criticism and a comparison between what used to be and what is today (here, the symposium is taking place to mark 100 years since WWI broke out). History repeats itself, says the cliché, but in Spiró’s writing it is always hiding beneath the surface of things, suddenly bursting out through characters that reflect deliberations and absurd situations which a whole generation has had to deal with.
“The Book Fair: The Assassin’s Grandson” continues the line of autobiographical stories that were brought to the Israeli reader in the collection “I Dreamed for You” (Am Oved, 2013). “I Dreamed for You” is also the name of the first collection published by Spiró. Since then, he has written and published many short stories that add to his work in prose and drama. “The Book Fair: The Assassin’s Grandson” is going to appear at the end of 2015 in the anthology “Color Pencils of Freedom” published by Magvetö-KPMG publishing house, Budapest.
Translated by: Mark Baczoni
We’re sat at a long table on a stage: a German actor, a middle-aged Bosnian writer, a Croatian author in her thirties, a Croatian interpreter, a Serbian historian, a young Serbian writer, me, and the German lady chairing. Before us is an audience of maybe thirty people; beyond them, the heaving crowd. One o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, section 507 of Hall D. There’s a terrific crush in the cafeteria. Meaty soups, bratwurst, potato salad, hot dogs, beer, and hideous sugary drinks. There’s a separate place for coffee. No matter where I’ve found myself when visiting Germany these last forty years or more, the sausages have always been edible. Not so at home, where the past twenty-five years have swept away all trace of decent sausage.
There’s a good deal of congestion in the glass tubes connecting the Halls. A multitude of young people jostling each other, standing about, sitting down anywhere, almost all of them wearing some kind of costume. Secondary-school kids get free entry, and even free local public transport, if they dress up. For these few days, the city is full of teenagers in fancy dress and wigs. Some of them don’t even bother coming to the fair – they only do it for the free travel.
It takes a while to realise why these loud, overactive kids remind you of the army. Their wigs and costumes are a sort of uniform as well, and there’s something slightly folksy about their dress, especially the broad white skirts of the girls. Most of the wigs are long and red; boys and girls alike are wearing them. If they can prove they were here, they get extra credit in school. On the way over, you always see the odd teacher explaining something to four or five kids; maybe they’re telling them which stands to go and visit.
They seem to equate being here with having worked their way through several books. They haven’t. There are no books to buy at the fair; the books here are nothing more than decoration for the shelves. No one takes the slightest notice of them; no one takes them down to look at them.
The writers, so-called, are here to give long, pandering answers to questions from reporters and panel mediators. They generally get through one every half hour, though the more famous ones get twice that. But that’s the limit – we have to make time for everyone, after all. The biggest crowd is usually around the booths of the TV channels, where people’s favourite presenters from the telly ask their favourite celebrities – also from the telly – the same questions in the same way over and over again. There are quite a few female authors among them – no discrimination here.
The burghers come and go, clutching some hefty catalogue or other, pausing to watch the screens; they can’t hear much – there’s too much background noise for that – but they’re here, just like anyone else, and they have the right to stop wherever they want. The right to queue up in the canteen. The families keep themselves apart, separate despite the crowd, and the individuals are wrapped up in a world of their own. Only the people ‘in the biz’ move in little packs; you can recognise them by their jackets and their trouser suits. The children run about, hanging around boys and girls dressed up as animals from their favourite tales to entertain them. Some of the parents take photos; another Saturday’s entertainment taken care of.
All the books are in German; all the journals are too. There are thousands of them, tens of thousands – they care about literature here. All of Europe’s exhibiting; no deals are done, but you still have to be here – if you’re not here, you don’t exist. At night, the same people appear in the city’s galleries, theatres, bars, and military bases as during the day at the fair. They ask them the same questions and they give the same answers; the audience is very much, if not in actual fact, the same as well. Every small nation feels the need to demonstrate, if only in a modest way, by being present; state funds are set aside for the purpose – sometimes more, sometimes less.
Generally, the people who’ve come from a long way away are called upon to comment on the state of global affairs in their little corner of the world, and indeed, most of them have been trained to do so. They are writers who never talk about literature. They’ve had a book translated, it’s been reviewed, and since most of them have received German scholarships and free language classes, they are now qualified to represent their far-flung corners by parroting exactly what the Germans happen to think. They are very much the darlings here. For the last few decades, it’s been fashionable to profess liberal beliefs and whoever can do so – atrocious accent and profound grammatical errors notwithstanding – is considered almost human. The production line of the opinion factory.
Right now, the First World War is in vogue. It’s been a hundred years since it started, what luck. Even more fortunate that we’re right on the brink of the Third, something the organisers could not have predicted when they came up with the topic. This way, they get to draw parallels between the events of a hundred years ago and what’s going on now. How nice for these people to be able to take part in the collective outrage at the terrible things happening at the eastern edge of Europe, things that could never happen to them – to Germans. They don’t realise how condescending this outrage really is – in fact, they honestly believe that our personalities, and our opinions too, are more or less the same as theirs.
The young Belarusian writer – she speaks good German – is listening enviously to the Ukranian writer – she speaks good German too – because there’s a war brewing in Ukraine. This will keep the Ukrainian writer’s star in the ascendant for years. The poor Belarusians will no longer get a hearing, because, thanks to the Ukrainians, they’re going to re-jig the Eastern European hierarchy. Up till now, one Ukrainian has equalled three Belarusians, but from now on one Ukrainian will be worth thirty. Even the current minimal interest in the Belarusians will die off. The re-jigging will affect us too: one Hungarian has so far been worth two or even three Ukrainians, but soon one Ukrainian will be worth three Hungarians.
Twenty-five years ago, we were interesting because we were the westernmost outpost of the enemy, whose garrison had to be opened to the world. These days, we’re open all the way. They still invite us now and then, and as long as we, too, are suitably appalled by what the savages to the east of us are doing, they’re willing to reaffirm our categorisation in the top tier of savages, the ‘almost-civilised’. We’ll still occasionally do for window-dressing.
The sons and daughters of small peoples need few words in order to understand each other, while the children of great peoples only like to talk among themselves. The mentalities of the small countries and the large are not compatible. You get used to it, there’s no point getting hit up about it.
It’s best to be charming at public events. The public loves a cliché, no matter how dated it is at home. If you can say witty things, you’re a writer. They’ve never read a line of your work, famous or not; but if you’re funny and concise, they’ll give you a round of enthusiastic applause. Five or six lines, and onto the next little charmer. I made a big hit with the old cliché that the First World War is still not settled. I happen to think that’s true, but this is a pretty shallow way of putting it. I added that some say the First World War began with the Napoleonic Wars. This was not such a big hit – the audience has no idea who Napoleon was.
We’re sat at the long table discussing the First World War. The German actor reads from an essay. The Serbian historian talks at length in Serbian, the Croatian lady translating into German. The onlookers sit; some get up, others take their places, the crowd shifts behind them.
We’re talking about the assassination in Sarajevo. It’s the turn of the middle-aged Bosnian man next to me. He speaks quite softly and somewhat hesitantly, but in German. I prepare to go to sleep with my eyes open. Then I hear him say that his grandfather was a member of the group of conspirators to which Gavrilo Princip also belonged. Our Bosnian companion has even brought with him a 1964 Croatian-language book printed in Sarajevo: his grandfather’s memoirs. Does it exist in German? No, there’s no German version. The panellists all shake their heads – what a shame, how nice it would be if there was. It’s obvious that this is the first anyone except the interpreter has heard of it. The audience do not shake their heads. The audience is not unduly concerned that some obscure conspirator’s memoirs are not available in German. The man tells us that his grandfather had a letter from Ivo Andrić himself; he was also a co-conspirator. The audience does not take any notice of the name. Apparently, even a Nobel Prize is not enough to save you from obscurity. The assassin’s grandson confesses that he knows next to nothing about the plot. I like this fellow – people don’t usually admit such things. He was seventeen when his grandfather died and he didn’t really ask him about anything much. That sounds so realistic that I begin to grow suspicious: perhaps our friend isn’t a writer at all! His grandfather did four years in Theresienstadt, and the rheumatism he developed there more or less did for the rest of his life after that. His grandson really isn’t a writer: he was in TV, he’s got a German wife. In ’93, they managed somehow to get him out of war-torn Sarajevo; he didn’t speak a word of German at the time, but since then he’s started working for a German radio station.
He finishes. The discussion goes on.
The Croatian woman starts by saying that all she knows about the First World War is what she learned in school. That hasn’t stopped her writing a book about it, which has now been published in German. Good news. She goes on at length about what it’s like when sixteen or seventeen year-old boys become assassins.
I borrow the Croatian book published in Sarajevo from the grandson and leaf through it. I scan a paragraph or two. Interesting.
The Croatian woman is still dissecting the souls of teenagers.
I can’t stand it anymore and lean over quietly to the assassin’s grandson:
“Gavrilo Princip was three weeks shy of his twentieth birthday at the time of the assassination.”
“I know,” he says.
“That’s why they didn’t hang him.”
“Yes,” he affirms. “You couldn’t hang a minor back then.”
No one pipes up to point out that – begging your pardon – Gavrilo Princip was not seventeen, but almost twenty.
The book-lovers sit and soak up the culture. They’re sitting at the book fair as if they’d actually read something.
It’s a nice thing, the book fair. It ends tomorrow, and there’ll be another this time next year. No need to read anything till then.
*”The Book Fair: The Assassin’s Grandson” has appeared at 2015 in the anthology “Color Pencils of Freedom” published by Magvetö-KPMG publishing house, Budapest.
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