Saturday, July 8, 2017

Who are the Hungarians?

"Ever since I was a child, I've always been in the wars."
"That's alright then. That's how Hungarians have lived since the beginning of the world."
Where do Hungarian heroes come from?
-Eclipse of the Crescent Moon

Geza Gardonyi's Eclipse of the Crescent Moon is the unread-must-read book that could help Westerners understand the Hungarian people and their present recalcitrance. 

Naturally, I am not holding my breath.

At a glance, Hungarian history is consumed by one principle struggle: a Christian people under near constant siege by Islamism. The Turkish deluge seems to act as if a force of nature in Hungarian affairs. Hungarians have no illusions about what this deluge carries with it. Gardonyi's prose are blunt: the Turks wash, pray, plunder and enslave according to Islamic custom.

"The Hungarian way", in contrast, is resignation to a life of war for self-preservation. The warrior ethos of the Hungarian is not the "oriental fashion, army against army" but rather "man against man." This chivalry - a romantic fantasy most of the time - is slowly eroding by the time of the siege of Eger. Empires are on the rise. The provincial life of Christian kingdoms in central Europe, still present, are destined for decline as geopolitical forces begin to increase the power of sea-faring states. Whether the external forces of Turkish and Austrian imposition or the internal forces of religious division due to the Reformation, Hungary is a nation under siege.

The Hungarian response, so far as Gardonyi presents it in the opening pages of his epic saga is guile. Whether in the prudent advise of a priest cautioning against an open act of futile rebellion while in Turkish captivity or in the deliberately excessively spicy stew prepared by a clever cook for Turks unable to consume it, Hungarians have obviously become masters of individual resistance and survival.

This guile is deeply embedded in Hungarian political character and one expects that as Gardonyi's epic progresses, we shall see more of it. From the very beginning one spies that Hungarians have the heart of David facing Goliath. Considering that they have been facing down Goliath for over eight centuries, Gardonyi's masterpiece - read by all Hungarian children in sixth grade - is both a window into the Hungarian soul and a means to its preservation in Hungarian national culture.

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