Unexpected consequences is one of the central themes of Tibor Bornai‘s “Shoot at the devil.” (The original title of this book, published only in Hungarian, is “Lõj as ördögre.”) The story follows the life of three friends from the late 1960s till around 1990. Two boys and a girl form a secret society when they find a gun in the basement of the huge house with multiple courtyards and dozens of apartment, where they all live.
SPOILERS ON: Both boys are in love with Szilvi, but years later she will end up being the partner of Gabor, who becomes a rockstar. She becomes the singer of the band which gets more and more successful. Gabor lives for the band and all his decisions are driven by this. Szilvi turns to alcohol as her relationship with Gabor doesn’t go the way she had hoped for. Meanwhile Mihaly, the third friend does his army duty, that Gabor managed to escape. Having finished several years of college he gets kicked out, because he participated in a political demonstration that the communist regime didn’t support. He decides to emigrate to Germany with his girlfriend, Anna. In order to do so Anna marries a German man on paper, so she could leave legally and Mihaly, who cannot have a passport, plans to leave illegally via the more lax borders of Yugoslavia. Anna’s new husband puts hard drugs into Mihaly’s bag. Mihaly attempts to leave the country, but he is captured. He gets a harsher than usual sentence, because of the drugs: three years in prison. There he reads a lot and studies the Bible. After he gets out he has to do hard manual labor in a factory for several years, before he can return to Budapest and to a life closer to what he aspires to. SPOILERS OFF.
There is much more happening in the book with each of the characters and I didn’t even cover the very end of the book. But this should give you a sense of the friends’ paths diverge. The main the unexpected consequences are:
- For Gabor – the cost of caring only for the band and the cost of serving the regime
- For Szilvi – the alienated life’s of stars and the sacrifices one does for love
- For Mihaly – attending a seemingly innocuous commemoration brings on a chain of events that change one’s whole life course
“Shoot at the devil” is more than a novel about friends. It is an excellent zeitgeist of almost two decades of Hungary. The school and childhood in the 1970’s is captured well. Being only 5 years younger than the protagonists and also being brought up in Budapest I can attest to this. As I was reading this part of the book I remembered the smell, the feel of the streets, the atmosphere of conversations and the way we kids related to adults. The book brought up many memories in me, even if the minutest details of our lives were different. But as a vehicle for inducing nostalgia of my generation the book was an wonderful tool.
The description of the 1980’s is also accurate and razor sharp. In the center of Gabor’s and Szilvi’s life was music. This I relate to personally, although I wasn’t a musician myself. However, I did go to hundreds of rock concerts starting from 1983 and I was following the music scene intensely. (At the end of the decade I was even in a band, despite not being able to play any instruments. The solution to my lack of musical skills: it was an industrial band.) None of my close friends became big rock stars, but lots of my friends played in various bands to varying success. So I was familiar with the processes that Gabor and Szilvi went through, with the venues they played at, with the hurdles they had to deal with when trying to release a recording via the only, state-owned and controlled, record label. Again, the atmosphere of this subculture is well-presented. It felt familiar and was in harmony with my memories of the era. Bornai had first-hand knowledge of the aspects related to the music industry as he is a musician/ songwriter and was a key member for one of the most popular 80’s band in Hungary: KFT. In many respects this book is an autobiography. The fictional band is not the same though. KFT itself is only mentioned once, briefly on page 137.
Mihaly’s story was more laden with politics. Minor events got amplified as his mistakes and because of the regime’s rigidity, absurdity and cruelty they had inordinate effects on his life. Why would one have to be kicked out of college when one attends a commemoration of a revolution, that is officially acknowledged by the Party as well? Because it wasn’t the right kind of gathering and the system decided that people who were there had to be punished. Never mind that Mihaly wasn’t even doing anything there, didn’t even want to go there and only accompanied his friends. He was the right guy at the wrong place and time. I had friends who got kicked out of high school for similar offenses–remember I am fives years younger than the book’s characters are– more or less at the same time. A decade earlier my parents were both kicked out of college (amongst other things) also for political reasons. I am way more familiar with this part of Hungary’s, the “happiest barrack in the Eastern block,” history than I would want to.
Before Mihaly’s college adventures he survived the compulsory army service. That’s an adventure I manged to avoid, but many of my male peers didn’t. This was part of most young man’s life experience. I personally didn’t share it, but it nevertheless was vary much part of the milieu I grew up into. The army days were a bonding force for many and something almost everybody equally hated. It was a pointless exercise in systematic humiliation by the state, although the army often did some useful community work when it was needed. I did a lot to avoid the draft for medical reasons, but Mihaly wasn’t so lucky. Unlike most people in the army he didn’t speak of his army days to his friends, so we, the readers don’t learn much about it either. Again, I remember what the army meant in the 1980’s and Bornai’s sparse words on the topic covered well this aspect as well.
Hungarian has a word for leaving the country illegally, without intending or the possibility to return: “disszidalni.” This is what Mihaly attempted, hoping for political asylum in the West. But he was caught and to top it all of with drugs in his possession, drugs he wasn’t even aware of. After he served two-thirds of his sentence he was released on probation, but he had to find legal work within 8 days. That was a tough order, because most organizations didn’t want to hire anybody with a criminal record. So he want to the factory an hour outside from Budapest, where most inmates on probation end up. Again, I had somebody very close to me, who was on probation on drug related charges and she had to work in a factory in the countryside for several years too. I know via her how soul killing this experience it can be. It is typical for the more intellectually inclined to turn to religion under these circumstances. Mihaly did it too.
Side note: not working or more precisely not having a workplace marked in one’s official ID was a criminal offense: it was illegal to be unemployed. The idea, originating from Lenin (or was it Marx?), was that everyone has to work according to his capabilities and as a result everybody’s needs would be covered. In practice the law was used more like yet another excuse the men in uniform could harass people with. An other unexpected outcome of the law was that there tens or hundreds of thousands jobs, which either existed only on paper, or one had to go in and do barely nothing to get a nominal salary. This topic deserves much more discussion, but I covered it enough to understand why Mihaly had to find a job immediately after exiting prison.
It’s a mistake to think that only Mihaly’s life was influenced by politics. Everybody’s. Maybe Gabor and Szilvi didn’t have to go through the army, a prime indoctrination place, and prison but they couldn’t escape how their relations to the authorities make or break their lives. Let me quote a few segments from Gyula Illyes‘ poem, because that’s the best explanation I know of the topic . The full, much longer English version is here.
Where tyranny exists
that tyranny exists
not only in the barrel of the gun
not only in the cells of a prison
not just in the interrogation block
or the small hours of the clock
the guard’s bark and his fists
the tyranny exists
all manners and all states,
its omnipresent eyes more steady
than those of old Nobodaddy,
in the nursery
in father’s advice, in his guile,
in your mother’s smile
Here are two popular jokes from the many from my teen years, i.e. 1980’s:
Q: Why does half the Hungarian intelligentsia stay in Hungary (as opposed to the illegal emigration mentioned above)?
A: Because of a sense of adventure.
Q: What are the two paths the Hungarian intelligentsia can choose from?
A: One of them is alcoholism and the other is impossible.
Bornai’s book is an exploration of these two aphorisms and a modern testament to the Illyes’ poem. An English language publication would help westerners to understand what it meant growing up and living in Hungary under Communism.