My brother Sean sent many of you here today to experience “good writing and coherent ideas,” but you got me on a weird day. I’m knee-deep into a novel called The Company by Robert Littell, which is actually an audio book stored on my iPod courtesy of audible.com. Over 40 hours in length, this is the kind of book I never read – a spy potboiler spanning the entire Cold War, from Berlin to Gorbachev – but I am absolutely mesmerized. Perhaps the oral tradition makes a spoken novel so powerful, but my mind has been behind the CIA bunkers in Eastern Europe for days now.
The novel just reached a particular crescendo with the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, something I knew absolutely nothing about until I experienced it in the novel. I suppose it was on a test in Mr. Oberdorfer’s “Modern European History” class back at Norfolk Academy, but I obviously was too busy hiding my acne and festering a crush on Sharon Fine.
Anyway, before all of you start skimming and get bored, here’s the basics: having seen that Poland was weaning itself off the great Communist teat, in 1956 the students, poets and intellectuals of Hungary decided to do the same. The Hungarian secret police – the brutal AVH – were basically the bastard stepchild of the KGB, and opened fire at a rally, killing 80 peaceful demonstrators. That got the entire country enraged, even the proletariat workers, who took to the streets on October 23, raided the barracks and routed the AVH and what was left of the Russian army stationed there.
For 18 days, Hungary was free, basically, in tense but hopeful negotiations with the Russians. There was much celebrating, carousing, and plans for a democracy. Some say if things had stayed the course, the seeds of revolution would have toppled Russia back then, in the late ’50s.
But on November 4th, Kruschev ordered the Russian army into Budapest, where they flattened the city with tanks, murdered the wounded, lined up women and children and blew their heads off. After they were done, more than 20,000 Hungarians were dead.
If a Hollywood script doctor were finishing the story, the Americans would have come, and along with the ragtag Hungarians, they would have vanquished the forces of evil.
This being reality, the United States sat on its hands, and Hungary suffered under 34 more years of Soviet rule. YAY!
Anyway, in the novel, one of the Good Guy Americans has just escaped Budapest, and it’s a swath of fantastic writing. I’ve spent the last evening researching Hungary, a place I’ve never been, and never thought about. I dated a Hungarian girl once, whose elderly father had a liquor cabinet full of Unikum, a 2-shot requirement for any interaction with his daughter. It was hard, amazing stuff. I wish I’d known all this about his country while I sat on his plastic sofa, slowly getting drunk, wondering what to say.