Alan Duff: City testament to those who fought hard for it

Hungarians have kept their unique language and culture alive through years of oppression, then a revolution.
Budapest's old buildings beside the Danube are spectacular.
Budapest's old buildings beside the Danube are spectacular.

It's a strange feeling being in Budapest waiting while a couple dozen people watch the movie based on your book. All these years and greying later and it still has legs. I addressed them afterwards and found virtually all were expats from English-speaking countries with just a handful of Hungarians.

They were not as shell-shocked as French audiences have been. Moved, very much so. We had a terrific 2-hour exchange discussing so many things. I left them with the message that Maori have a bright future and compared with other indigenous peoples they are streets ahead.

I am not a born tourist rushing out early to take in the sights and returning late afternoon, leg-weary and inspired by old European history. I find that in books, so I visit the odd museum and art gallery with three hours my limit.

Still, the old buildings and monuments along the Danube are spectacular and Hungary's history is fascinating.

Despite 800 years suffering invaders of all races and creeds, they have kept their unique language alive and made a significant intellectual contribution to the world.

The city is full of eclectic bars and restaurants and prices are about half New Zealand's.

But my mind goes back to October 23, 1956, when students demanding reforms marched in the streets and started to tear the Soviet Red Star symbol from buildings, cutting out the Soviet symbol inserted in their national flag. The secret police fired on a crowd gathered outside the main radio station which protesters had taken over to broadcast their demands. At least 30 were mown down by machine guns, setting off the Hungarian Revolution.

I left them with the message that Maori have a bright future and compared with other indigenous peoples they are streets ahead.

Locals - a good number hardly even teenagers - spontaneously rose up and, armed by a sympathetic Hungarian Army, got stuck into their communist oppressors in the form of the dreaded secret police called AVO, and soon Soviet military forces were sent in to quell the uprising.

The whole city was turned upside down. Thousands were killed. On October 30, the Russian forces withdrew and the people felt victorious. A new Prime Minister promised government reforms; the Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles had hardly rumbled out of Budapest when civilians went after the AVO.

They were lynched from lamp-posts and park trees, tossed out of buildings from several stories up, put up on mock trials in the street and summarily executed, beaten to death. Payback for years of callous thuggery, arbitrary arrests of innocents falsely charged under the all-embracing "offences against the state" act. Prisons were so full a convicted person had to wait months for a spot. A bizarre and ugly state of affairs, but such was communism.

In the early hours of November 4, 1956, the Russians returned in force with several thousand tanks and literally blasted their way to "victory", and yet another Prime Minister was installed on November 11.

His predecessor, Imre Nagy, was arrested by the Russians and executed. Can't imagine something like this happening in New Zealand.

After the defeat, more than 300 people were executed ... for their role in the revolution, many just teenagers.

I knew someone who was a teenage freedom fighter in this courageous revolution. He told me vivid tales of teenagers leaping on to tanks like little terriers on a giant wild beast and dropping a grenade down the wrenched open hatchway, or shoving a Molotov cocktail into the ventilator grille. They snipered Russian soldiers and AVO from apartment windows and rooftops.

I wrote a novel, published in 2001, about this event. A book some New Zealand critics savaged. They took the default attitude: Who does Duff think he is writing about this historic event that took place in another country? One even said it was a Hungarian version of my first novel, full of violence. Hello?

It was a revolution, in which thousands died. An outstanding act of courage by mostly young people that should never be forgotten. The secret police played for keeps and the Soviets ruled with an iron fist. After the defeat, more than 300 people were executed by firing squads for their role in the revolution, many just teenagers.

I was in Budapest to talk to various people about writing a television drama beginning with this historic event. I take the attitude that a writer is not subject to national boundaries. They're calling this the Second Golden Age of Television, as the world binge-watches drama and the big players such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Amazon are crying out for content. One season of TV drama is equivalent to seven feature films. That's a lot of scripts. And a long, long road with a big conference in Cannes next week. But, boy, is it exciting.

- NZ Herald

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