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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Hungary's Most Unknown Famous Son

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

He's no longer as renowned in the west today as in 1992 (when I originally penned this), but arguably this powerful author-journalist-thinker is even more ignored in 2021 - here in the country of his birth - than he was thirty-plus years after his books were first unbanned

(This is another section of the "Best of Budapest" page that I wrote in lieu of András Török for Budapest Week back in 1992. See post A Best Bud Week Blast from the Past, Jan 14.)

Surprisingly - or perhaps not, given the political forces prevailing in Hungary since the regime change - Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest in 1905 - remains a cultural persona non grata in Hungary. Despite writing Darkness at Noon, one of the books (along with the likes of Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and later The Master and Margarita) critics acknowledge as key to diagnosing and popularising the fatal flaws of Marxist-Leninism, you certainly won't find Koestler's name in the list of authors on the current government's new educational National Curriculum. Given that Viktor Orbán is never slow to assert that he "fought the communists" back in his firebrand student days, this omission might appear strange - perhaps someone close to the prime minister might mention it to him one day. Or perhaps not.

Koestler, Orwell and, I assume, Bulgakov, were against all forms of authoritaranism, of course, not just Stalinism. True, there is now a statue to Koestler in Terézváros (Budapest VI), the district of his birth, erected in a window of opportunity in 2009. {And since posting this, a reliable site member has written to me to say there is also a plaque on the house in Szív utca where he was born. Budapest VI have clearly been trying to do their bit.] And indeed, Darkness at Noon was newly translated into Hungarian - as Sötétség délben - as recently as 2019.

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But in this age of instant knowledge via the internet, a quick insertion of "famous Hungarians" into google brings up hundreds of names. The list includes many not so famous and many ethnic Magyars born in the diaspora, who, of course, were aided in their rise to fame from their multilingual education in Yugoslavia, Romania, Slovakia et al. To illustrate perfect political balance, it even brings up George Soros - but not Koestler. I rest my case. Despite having "some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter..." as he wrote in his own suicide note, I think it unlikely that Koestler would ever have claimed the gift of prophecy. Yet for him, the words attributed to an insurrectionist, cult leader in an obscure Roman province some two millenia back seem otherwise never more appropriate: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country,..."

UPDATE: A couple of regular readers have mentioned that post-1992, there have been plausible allegations that Koestler was guilty of rape on at least one occasion, possibly several. There is no question that he was a womaniser - he freely admits to affairs in his autobiographies - but of course the later allegations seriously tarnish the man's reputation today, although he's not here to defend himself, of course.

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