“Europe is proud of values that it has long given up” – A talk with Lászlo Végel

The writer Lászlo Végel was born in 1941 and lives in Novi Sad
The writer Lászlo Végel was born in 1941 and lives in Novi Sad | Photo: imago/Pixsell

The Hungarian-Serbian writer Lászlo Végel talks about the shift to the right in Eastern Europe, the conformism of the intellectual elite, and the “value vacuum” of the West. 

Mr Végel, your debut novel “Memoirs of a Pimp”, which primarily concerned the problems of young people in Yugoslavia, was published exactly 50 years ago. What impact did the protests of ‘68 and the echo of the sexual revolution have on you back then in your everyday life?

In a certain way, the novel anticipated the protests of ‘68 but also their defeat, which is quite manifest in our times. We can celebrate the 50th anniversary of 1968 with a great sense of failure. Today, there is nothing left to anticipate, meaning that this part of the novel about the spiritual resistance sounds like a captivating fairytale, since, in the present context, not even the young people can be seen anymore as innocent. In my novel, the protagonist is committed to the service of the corrupt older generation but at least has pangs of conscience. Today we would call this a luxury. Conscience is up for sale.

Europe today doesn’t seem to be able to produce a rebellion with that sort of effect. Notwithstanding all the illusions of ‘68, they were in any case an international front that today, so it seems, only the right wing can drum up. How do you assess this current weakness in the left?

We are witnesses to a terrible paradox. The further the field of democracy expands, the greater the disappointment in it. Freedom of speech is much greater today than 40 years ago but the intellectual elite has nothing more to say. Conformism is no longer imposed but rather is an internal necessity. The majority of the left wing, at least in my environment, are too loyal to the system; they complain about western capitalism under the protective umbrella of local tycoons but don’t criticise their own wild eastern capitalism.

In Germany a far-right party is seated in the Bundestag for the first time. In Hungary and Poland, they are even part of the government. In the Czech Republic, the right-wing populist Andrej Babis has just won. How do you see these developments and what could their possible origins be?

It would be justifiable to criticise the mandarins in Brussels, multinational concerns and bank lobbies. But we must take care: these are consequences, not causes. The national bosses often shift their responsibility over to Brussels, which has become the new enemy. In my opinion, this is a deceptive game. The main cause of the crisis lies in the crisis of the national states, which have lost their monopoly in this time of globalisation. The anti-European sentiment is fuelled today by national tycoons, who have become rich through either disgraceful wars like that in Yugoslavia or EU money. Thus the call for caution. The crises of the national states also threaten democracy. Extremism is not created in a vacuum – it is the product of these crises.

One of the key issues for the European Union today is the immigrant question. As a writer who has lived for decades now in the culturally diverse territory of Vojvodina, how do you see the EU’s stance on immigrants and the general refusal of Europe to integrate these people properly?

It’s not just about the immigrants, but rather about the general fear of “otherness” that has emerged particularly in the post-socialist countries. They’re living through a type of retro-national renaissance. You can see it in the fates of the national minorities in southern Europe and the Balkans. Professor Holm Sundhaussen demonstrated in a brilliant text that the big losers of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia are the national minorities, because it was followed by velvet totalitarianism, which manages the homogenisation of the nation substantially more efficiently than the totalitarianism of the socialist system. In my novel “Atonement”, I have written about Europe from a “low angle”. It is the story of a bus of guest workers, which drives in the direction of Berlin from southern Serbia. Where is their home? There, where they will die. And where will they die? They’ve no idea. The immigrants have landed in this situation.

In Germany, we often hear, in connection with integration, of a predominant culture or a canon of values that should be imparted to refugees.

Yes, one talks about the defence of European values and European culture. I ask myself: Is it not already too late for that? Didn’t we already dispense with European culture a long time ago in the name of the market and conformism? Why are we proud of that which we have ourselves marginalised? Seen once again from a low angle: Europe fears immigration because it has dispensed with its own culture and is no longer in the position to integrate immigrants. How should they be integrated into our own vacuum? In this respect, I’m anticipating great conflict.

How do you see the position of writers from Central Europe in today’s European context? How close or how far are they from the likes of Danilo Kiš or Milan Kundera?

A little bit comic, a little bit tragic. The new events in Central Europe revise Kundera’s thesis that the Russians would enslave Central Europe. No, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Central Europe pursued its own Yalta with a new imaginary line. It would have brought a smile to Stalin’s face, and Putin can be happy too, since his ideas are conquering the regions without resorting to the Russian bayonet. It is in this region that right-wing extremism is as its strongest, as is the new velvet populism, and the middle classes are enthusiastically in search of a new leader in the free elections. Dictatorial methods are not necessary for the birth of soft totalitarianism. In the meantime, the new ruling classes of Central Europe have successfully adopted western marketing and have thus also integrated the so-called intellectual opposition. The writers, too. Writers who offend but who enjoy the support of national institutions in their European appearances also make up the “national team”. The rebellion has been tamed successfully. The writers maybe annoy individual politicians but the system is no problem for them anymore.

In your book of essays, “Stories from Lowly Regions – Berlin Texts”, you have discussed the unique dissension of those who determine identity, but also of a destroyed dream of Europe. What does Europe mean for you today, if you look at its relationship with its Eastern and Balkan part?

“Atonement” talks on the one hand of the auto-colonisation of the Central Europeans and Balkan people in relation to the West, and on the other of the permanent hatred towards the West, which has intensified in particular after the suicide of socialism. We live in a vacuum. It is naive to think that socialism was derailed by someone. No, it committed suicide, as one of the figures in the novel says. The problem lies in the fact that there is no one to bury the corpse, which now stinks. We don’t have an Antigone. Western Europe watches on in ignorance; in the 1980s, it held a certain degree of sympathy, since it considered itself to be anti-communist, but, with the disappearance of “communism”, we’ve become a mere market for goods, kitsch culture and cheap labour.

The interview was lead by Djordje Krajišnik. Lászlo Végel, 76, lives as a member of the Hungarian minority in Serbian Novi Sad. In 2006, he spent a year in Berlin as a guest of the DAAD artists’ programme. His volume of essays “Atonement” is the latest publication by publishing house Matthes & Seitz.