I managed to arrive to Austria from Budapest quite uneventfully, the trains were on time, running smoothly, passengers around me chatting in several languages, as if nothing could ever disturb the calm and quiet normalcy of a borderless Europe. Yet if the European Literature Days in 2015 would have been held just over a month ago, it would have been an entirely different experience altogether. In September, the general—and outright shameful—confusion and cynicism of governments and transnational institutions over the refugee crisis gave rise to a completely different scenario which seemed to belong to a parallel universe. People were forbidden to enter Keleti railway station, trains were stopped altogether, and the border was closed. Hegyeshalom, this small border town that had been regarded as the gateway to the West became, once again, the sad omen for the edge of the possible world. The contrast is so striking that one begins to question whether the two situations belong to the same moral, social, and cultural reality. Is this the same Europe?
As we were passing through the infamous border town, I couldn’t help but recall a short story by Imre Kertész (“Jegyzőkönyv”/The Minutes of Meeting) which describes how the narrator was forced by the border guards to get off the train bound to Vienna because he was carrying an amount of money which exceeded the legal limit. For Kertész—and later, for Péter Esterházy, who quotes the story when writing about a similar experience—such a micro event signifies that the bureaucratic and technocratic essence of past or future regimes will constantly cause fear and generate aggression toward the defenseless individual. For a long while, I was certain that these warnings were simply well-meaning cautionary tales from an older generation that had been marked by a dictatorship, and that in fact “history”—perceived as the grim tale of another century—was mostly over and done with. My present was defined by progressive values, freedom of movement, fluid and plural identities, and a spirit of interculturality. But, seeing the police close the giant gates of Keleti station (not to mention hearing and reading the shocking frenzy of xenophobic reactions all around) was a wake-up call; one had to realize that history was back indeed. Moreover, it reappeared with a cruel and unusual sarcasm: when the Hungarian authorities faked a re-opening of the station, the first train—which the refugees hoped to be heading to Austria, yet instead took them to the close vicinity of overcrowded refugee camps—was (perhaps, accidentally?) decorated with commemorative images of the 1989 Pan-European Picnic, the foundational event of free border crossing in the region…
Such unforeseen, almost unbelievable, but typical and troubling paradoxes; and the moral, social, and cultural incompatibility of parallel realities which define our everyday lives are truly the stuff of literature, and only through the possibilities of literature can we address them. By upholding the story of progressive values, freedom of movement, fluid and plural identities, and the spirit of interculturality—and in the same time reflecting on the cruel sarcasm of a grim history unfolding before our eyes. After the first discussion and round of reading of the European Literature Days 2015 with A.L. Kennedy, Anna Kim, Jamal Mahjoub and Atiq Rahimi in the Klangraum of the Minorites Church in Krems, I genuinely feel to be in the right place to witness and engage in such an intellectual and artistic challenge.
By Laszlo Szabolcs