IT ALL STARTED WITH a visit to the Yad Vashem archives in Israel, where American novelist Margaret McMullan found the name of a Hungarian Jewish relative who had died in the Holocaust.
While McMullan had been brought up Catholic in Mississippi, her ancestors on her mother’s side had been Hungarian Jews called Engel de Jánosi. That’s pretty much all she knew when, after the visit to Jerusalem, she applied for a Fulbright grant to teach American literature at the university in Pécs, Hungary, where she began research into her family’s past.
As might be expected, what she found was both fascinating and tragic. The Engel de Jánosis had been a prominent Jewish family in prewar Hungary and, before that, in the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian empires. The laws banning Jews from owning land notwithstanding, in the middle of the 19th century, Adolf Engel built a thriving industrial enterprise and, in recognition of his economic virtues, was granted a noble title by the emperor. McMullan goes on a sentimental journey to the family’s old mine and mansion, as well as to the synagogue Adolf founded. She mentions famous European cultural figures with whom they socialized, including Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Sigmund Freud, and Henrik Ibsen.
Hungary’s occupation by the Germans in 1944, followed by the mass deportation of Jews, sent many Engel de Jánosis to their deaths in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. The luckier ones were dispersed around the world. Richárd, the man whose life McMullan attempts to reconstruct, died in a concentration camp in the granite quarry of Mauthausen. But this family history is only one part of the book; equally important is the author’s quest to uncover these facts and work them into what she already knows about the world and her place in it. And this enterprise sometimes prompts raised eyebrows at the author’s astonishing naïveté.
Accompanied by her loving husband and teenage son, McMullan gets into a cab outside Budapest airport. The driver not only doesn’t speak much English but also tells the family off for not saying, “Hello.” I can sympathize — it happens all the time in France, too. But, from this simple encounter, McMullan infers that “this guy hates us. We can’t believe he actually lets us out not just at a train station, but the one we asked for.” Not long afterward, their train suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. As if this weren’t bad enough, they are forced to deal once again with the annoying Hungarian language: “The conductor makes a garbled, impossible-to-understand announcement,” and people start collecting their things and leaving; “I worry that we may be on the wrong train, heading too far east, towards Russia. Maybe we’re already in Russia.” This is a blood-chilling possibility, especially since Hungary does not actually share a border with Russia.
Against all the odds, they do eventually get to the city of Pécs, but their ordeal is far from over. For they are now compelled to deal with the shady characters who populate the city. One day, the owner of an antique shop in the building where they are renting a flat doesn’t let McMullan in. She’s Christian, blond, and American, and there is no mention that he so much as knows her name, but she’s certain he has gotten word that she has Jewish ancestors. The hall monitor at school detains her son one morning — why else if not because she has heard about his Jewish heritage? The immigration office takes forever to extend their stay permit — they must know, that’s the only logical explanation. When she finds out they’re being ripped off on their rent, she concludes that it must be “tolerance taxes” and not the fact that they’re rich Americans clueless about how much things should cost. She’s even afraid to mention the subject of her research at a Fulbright scholars’ meeting, for fear that agents of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, might be lurking in the audience.
McMullan would probably be heartbroken to hear this, but her spasms of narcissistic trauma border on ethnic and nationalistic prejudice. She writes:
I also have a job teaching while most men and women in Pécs and Hungary are unemployed. Before WWII, when there were thousands of Jewish people living here, there was major unemployment. Then they kicked all the Jews out of Pécs, and boom, instant job creation. I could be seen as an outsider now, a foreigner taking a job someone here wants. I could be easy for locals to hate.
To set things a little bit straighter, the unemployment rate in Hungary during her visit in 2010 was 11.17 percent, less than two points higher than the author’s native United States (9.6 percent). Now, as the book is coming out, the Hungarian rate stands at a record low of 3.4 percent, roughly the same as in the United States. Moreover, McMullan doesn’t even claim to know anyone who resents the fact that she’s got a job teaching. In fact, everyone seems thrilled to have an American lecturer for a semester, and the locals literally beg her husband to take up a teaching job, too. Rather than a curious traveler to a welcoming foreign country, she comes across as a churlish interloper determined to see the worst.
Nor is she very sympathetic to her hosts’ history. “Some Hungarians still wonder to this day why the Americans didn’t come and save them,” she writes. “Once at the American Corner, a friend told Pat that the Americans let them down after World War II and again in 1956. Good, I think. Now you know what it feels to be let down by a nation.” One can perhaps understand this feeling, but still, at least to my ear, it’s slightly jarring to hear such smug satisfaction expressed by someone who has never known great hardship but, rather, has led a life of prosperity and freedom. This is especially so when juxtaposed with McMullan’s nonchalant dismissal (in literally one sentence) of the Hungarians who did help some of her relatives during the war — hiding them for many months from the police and risking their own lives in the process.
Later in the book, McMullan shows occasional flashes of insight that her interpretation of every slight inconvenience as proof of Hungarians’ hatred toward her could be evidence of what social psychologists call attribution error. “No wonder survivors and their offspring are paranoid now, after the fact,” she writes. “Fooled once, but never again. We will forever be on the lookout for signs or hints of trouble and hate.” This psychological situation is understandable, but one really wishes she had decided more firmly on her approach early on: either she could have overcome her bias and tried to understand the actual truth about the people and country she’s writing about, or (and this might have been even more interesting) she could have analyzed her own mind as it relives the traumas of previous generations. But to do that, she would have had to gain some distance from the tricks her mind is playing on her. The way the book is constructed — indulging the author’s uninformed and ungenerous guesses about a reality she clearly doesn’t understand — can hardly be called a success.
McMullan is very quick to toss out the weightiest of indictments, accusing contemporary Hungarians of a generalized and vicious antisemitism — led, as she claims, by the example of the “right-wing and anti-Semitic” party of Victor Orbán. But as a writer in The Financial Times recently pointed out:
It is not Budapest where worshippers at a synagogue are shot dead, as happened in April this year and October 2018 in the US; or where 39% of Jews say they have experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the past year, as is the case in Belgium. In fact, reported hate crimes against Jews are declining in Hungary. The Action and Protection Foundation, a Jewish civic group, recorded 32 hate crimes in Hungary in 2018 — three physical assaults, 10 instances of abuse and 19 cases of hate speech — compared with 52 in 2015. That is still 32 too many, obviously, but compare it with Britain, where 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents took place last year, including 123 violent assaults, overall a 16 per cent increase on 2017.
McMullan is surely correct that there is antisemitism in Hungary, but it wouldn’t hurt her analysis if she were a bit more conscious of the facts closer to home.
It doesn’t help matters that the author’s claim to authority on political, social, and historical matters is undermined by her urgent need of a fact-checker, or at least a day’s worth of Googling. Pécs is not — as she has it — the second oldest university in Europe; that would be Oxford. Women’s suffrage in Hungary was not granted in 1905, but in 1918. Ibsen’s most famous play is not called Wild Ducks, as she repeatedly asserts; it is The Wild Duck. And since, for some reason, she decides to summarize the plot for the reader, it must be pointed out that there is no hint of any sexually transmitted disease (she is perhaps confusing this play with another Ibsen masterpiece, Ghosts).
I won’t even get started on her summaries and interpretations of Hungarian history, but I do need to point out her seeming ignorance of Imre Kértesz, the only Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in literature. One would naturally expect him to be mentioned given his biography — a Hungarian Jew sent to a concentration camp in 1944, who dedicated his life to the description of this experience. The Nobel Prize winner who does get mentioned, and extensively, is Elie Wiesel, but contrary to the author’s claims, he was not Hungarian, but Romanian. Indeed, so freestyle is the book’s approach to historical and social facts that it sometimes reads as if it were written about another country altogether.