Péter Nádas: On a Fantastic Journey
Oct. 9. 2011.
Jelenkor publishing house presents us with yet another sophisticated looking volume, On a Fantastic Journey, which is a collection of Péter Nádas’s seven essays that were published in journals or read openly in the past years, all of them busying around social-political issues. BY GÖKHAN AYHAN.
Péter Nádas’s essays abstain from overstated, ecstatic explanations asserted through emotional reasoning. The force that holds the texts together is the firm, intensive and never languishing presence of a train of thought conjured around a crystal clear demarcation line of logic. The clear and constantly self-reflecting language and the rich, intricate lengthy sentences that we experienced and got accustomed and attached to in the novels and other written works of the author, function in a similar manner in the case of essays too, they remain accurate and sharp as a knife from start to finish.
The background of the first piece in the volume, The Aesthetics of Hungarian State Authority, is the political clash and chaos that brought about the necessity of questions such as whether the country is in a state of moral crisis or not. Nádas’s explanatory assertion: „A country cannot be in a state of moral crisis.” A few lines below: „Moral has no national sum. No sum that includes everyone, and no sum from which the speaker can occasionally leave out himself or others selected arbitrarily. A country has no person. Decisions are made by people, not by a country. Moral is tied to a person, more precisely to the conscience of a single individual.” For Nádas the main danger threatening democracy is that the contract, let us call it a contract of services, between the parties, the governing party and the constituency, may easily tip towards legalized infringements and detrimental reorganizations as a consequence of the personal and party interest of the individual winning the vote, and not least, the institutions of the constitution can end up within the radius of this threat as well. National moral crisis is a mere banality, but the immorality of the people in positions of power and government is far from banal. „Whose task would it have been to harmonize public good with personal interests, if not that of the democrats?”
In Nádas’s philosophy the components turn back to the ancient meaning of democracy to make conclusions and assertions about the set which in our case can be called Hungarian politics, Hungarian economy or Hungarian history. The essay titled Runway Life for instance uses the analysis of Gyula Ortutay’s diaries as a pretext to problematize and scrutinize the harmful side-effects of the political zone hidden behind the Ortutay phenomenon. Beyond the depiction of a fallible human life this results in the open confrontation with the machinery of the political systems of Horthy and Kádár that moulded people alive. „The placeholder of the murderously boring secrets of two dictatorships becomes a symptomatic absence in his diary. He provides no explanation for either the absence or the abysmal boredom, although he does lament and moan with no end.”
On the historical streets and facelifted squares of Nádas’s essays the sight of the cool black letters on the street signs evoking familiarity stirs up the memories, or at a closer look, the quiet sludge of yesterday’s experiences, at an even closer look, the woken sense of uncertainty. We are left with a feeling that we are strolling through a completely redesigned area of a city we thought we knew. The hell of the period before 1989, the spatial experience and the merciless rules of that hell gave way to the renewed rules of a new ambience, a misinterpreted capitalism in the world of politics and economy. Instead of aiming to create conditions enabling normal, European standards of life, the players of a linguistically rearranged system gleefully roll the dice of profit, delivering a pseudo-development and a pseudo-existence. Fleeing the burning house of communism they chose the wrong direction and ended up in the basement of another building in flames.  „They should be building roads between their empires, hospitals, channels, they should be organising professional trainings and language education, they should be striving to achieve services proportional to the prices, and retailoring the pompous and wasteful administration…”
While circumventing the idea of memorials, the essay bearing the title Memorial approaches the qualities of the society that are driven by anthropological characteristics, the question of ruthlessness and evil: „With its memorials society asks for forgiveness for sins it committed yesterday, and will continue to commit today and tomorrow as well.” A memorial is an excuse, a retrospective explanation, a concealment. The bribing of the dead, the reconciliation of the murdered for the good of those still present. Or as Nádas puts it: „The great snag of the rite of erecting memorials is that the site of remembrance for the victims will guard the memory of the perpetrators.” Almost every people, every group, every religious conviction has memorials, as power erects memorials with one hand, and destroys towns and lives with the other, leaving tragedies and destruction behind. Memorials eventually turn into statues, empty phrases, their figure engulfed by the cessation of their symbolicity.
The writer of the Yearbook feels it his moral obligation to raise questions and to reply, even if his answers are not always reassuring. Horribile dictu: most answers are restless, upset, desperate, and they leave one breathless. Nádas’s writings invite to dialogue, they are meant to provoke, they excite the reader, extorting the ethical behaviour that hopefully every reader is in the possession of, something the vernacular calls „thinking”.
If I regard the volume as a collection of closely or loosely connected essays, the possible readings of the title cannot be left unexplained. The title, On a Fantastic Journey can refer to the roaming between the various political forms of the twentieth century, which makes the naming of the volume somewhat ironic. On the other hand there is an essay with the same title about the Southeast European anthology of Richard Schwartz written in ten languages, in which Nádas preserves the memory of a journey through Romania. One thing is for certain, the book of Péter Nádas is a worthy enterprise to search for level-headed answers to questions and to think clearly about issues, to which the political discourse so far has only served incomplete and insufficient answers and transient partial solutions.
Translated by Péter Papolczy