History can take a long time to right the wrongs of the past

Review:  Vivien Horler

This Rebel Heart, by Katherine Locke (Alfred A Knopf)

Almost 70 years ago a movement, initially led by students, rebelled against Hungary’s puppet government – controlled by the Soviet Union – and staged a short-lived coup.

They imposed their prime minister of choice, Imre Nagy, who dissolved the AMH secret police, promised democratic reforms and, on November 1, 1956, withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.

It all came to a sticky end. On November 4 Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, leading to the deaths of 2 500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers. More than 200 000 Hungarians fled the country. Nagy was sentenced to death and executed two years later.

This is part of the background of This Rebel Heart, the story of a young Jewish woman, Csilla, who has lost almost all her family, mostly to the Nazis in World War 2, and her parents to the Hungarian secret police in the early 1950s.

She lives with her aunt Illona, in a small flat. The family’s apartment once occupied an entire floor of the building overlooking the Duna (Danube) river, but since the war it has been divided into four. Illona is terminally sad, as her whole family, including her children, died in the Holocaust. All who are left are Csilla and , Csilla’s aunt.

Csilla is a young typist for a local newspaper. Ever since her parents were murdered by the secret police, Csilla has known to keep her head down, in case she too is “disappeared”.

The family have lived, and died, in Hungary for generations, but now Csilla and Illona are ready to go. They have secreted enough money to leave, and have bought train tickets to Belgrade in Serbia, ostensibly to visit relatives. They are due to leave in 10 days.

They are terrified they will be stopped, or that someone will discover a hint of their plans.

And then, Csilla is approached by a student in a pub, a young man desperate to find out what happened to a companion. Cautious Csilla initially hesitates, and then decides to approach a contact in the secret police, reckoning she and Illona will soon be gone.

The student, Tamas, draws Csilla into his campaign, and they are joined by a mysterious young man called Azriel, who turns out to be the angel of death.

Okay, I know this is weird. And I don’t like fantasy, but a strong element of fantasy runs through this novel and it adds to the narrative. It turns out Azriel knows both Csilla and her cousins, the ones who were taken to the gas chambers. It is his job to ease people into death, to soothe them.

Now Azriel is in Budapest, which is not a good sign.

Interspersed with the drama of the moment are excerpts from Csilla’s father’s journals. Her father appears to have been an activist who became involved in maintaining Soviet control of the country, and who is eventually turned on by his colleagues and murdered, along with Csilla’s mother.

In October 1956, the emboldened students march on Parliament. There is initial exhilaration, followed by grim determination. And history tells us what happened next.

There are profound moments. “Whoever can protest and does not is responsible for what happens without protest.”

“Her father had wanted open and fair elections, but they [the students] wanted more. They needed a plurality of thoughts so one truth would not drown other truths.”

There is the matter of colour. Since the Soviets took over Hungary, colour has drained from the world and everything is grey. The river, which whispers to Csilla, is grey, silver, pewter. She remembers, dimly from her childhood, sunsets of orange and apricot and purple, but those colours have fled. Blue was the last to go.

But during the uprising, people cut out the Soviet symbol in the middle of the Hungarian flag, and there, seen through the hole, was a glorious blue. Colour began leaching back into the world.

Until the Soviet tanks rolled in.

It’s impossible to read this novel without thinking of what is happening in Ukraine, led by a man who is determined to reestablish the old empire of the Soviet Union.

Just because you’re right doesn’t mean you will win. At least, not in the short term.

A thoroughly worthwhile and sobering read.




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