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Submitted by Marcin Bąk on Thu, 05/14/2020 - 08:42
Wojciech Żukrowski's Hungarian scandal

The history of world literature is brimming with once popular individuals, now completely forgotten. This group includes Wojciech Żukrowski – author of a novel for children "Kidnapping in Tiutiurlistan", which was very popular in communist Poland. However, Żukrowski also wrote another book – this time definitely for adults – which not only achieved the status of a bestseller, but also almost caused a political crisis between Poland and Hungary. Today it is hard to believe that an ordinary novel could generate such emotions, but in those peculiar times it was nothing unusual.

First of all, the written word in general then had a rank incomparable to today. Secondly, in communist countries, writers were given an exceptional esteem, which their Western colleagues could envy. Those who were sympathetic to the political system were favoured by the authorities – they were given cars, holidays in government centres and apartments, and their works, regardless of popularity with the readers, achieved gigantic editions – while those seen as opposing the regime were banned from printing, and sometimes, like Stefan Kisielewski, were treated with a stick across the back on the street by "unknown perpetrators". All this taken together gave an impression that literature had a special place in the hierarchy of social life.

Wojciech Żukrowski did quite well in this reality. He may not have been at the beck and call of the authorities, but on the other hand he did not show any willingness to oppose them. Furthermore, he had an episode in the Polish People's Republic diplomatic service, and his name was in Polish school textbooks. However, he came very close to brewing up trouble for himself.

A bestseller for "a bit of stability"

There is no doubt that 1956 was a breakthrough year for the entire communist bloc, although of course each of its states experienced the consequences of the "thaw" in its own unique way. A very specific period ensued in Poland for almost a decade, which the poet and playwright Tadeusz Różewicz described in one of his plays as "a bit of stability". This term became widely used and meant no less and no more than a rather far-reaching liberalisation in many social fields. In the political sense as it soon turned out it was fiction, but for ordinary people it delivered a whiff of optimism.

First of all – as far as it was possible in the communist corset – culture was developing rapidly. The theatre, cinema and television had their golden age. Many intriguing achievements in literature can also be found. However, I guess none were as influential as Wojciech Żukrowski's novel "Stone Tablets" published in 1966. The book turned out to be not only an artistic success but also a publishing hit. In the People's Republic of Poland alone, it had 12 print runs with a total circulation of over a million copies. It also enjoyed considerable popularity after 1989. It was also screened, although I must admit the adaptation is nothing to get worked up about.

Żukrowski – a prolific author, far from being confined to a single genre – included in it his experiences and observations from his stint at a diplomatic post in India. The readers, apart from a considerable dose of exoticism and even greater eroticism – bold for the prudery of the time – appreciated the political allusions, referring precisely to the revolutionary climate of 1956. The politburo did not show the same enthusiasm – especially when it turned out that the Hungarian comrades were enraged and furious because of it. Scandal was in the air. The alliance, so meticulously built by Gomułka's and Kádár's teams, hung by a thread.

The cosy life of a diplomat

For quite obvious reasons, Żukrowski could not write openly about Polish diplomats – even under changed names – nor, even more so, refer to such events as the outbreak of Poznań protests in 1956. So he did what most writers would do in such a situation – he reached for allegory. And so the Poles turned into Hungarians, and the workers' riots in Poznań – into the uprising in Budapest. The rest, as we may presume, is a fairly faithful account, perhaps coloured for literary purposes, of what dolce vita looked like at a distant diplomatic mission and what the overseas representatives of People's Poland were doing there.

And they were busy with a lot of matters important for the country's interest – love affairs, tasting high-quality whiskey, intrigues, trading and pocketing large amounts of imperialist currencies. The biggest problem the ambassador faces is driving over an Indian boy and trying to cover it case by blaming the local driver. In any case, these aspects were mainly pointed out by the Hungarian Ambassador to Warsaw, Ferenc Martin, in his report on the "Stone Tablets" of December 1966, by the way, seeing a conspiracy in the fact that they appeared exactly 10 years after the Budapest counterrevolution.

By the way, it is worth pointing out that in the above-mentioned screening of the novel shot in 1983, the Hungarian distortion was put right. The film is set in the Polish embassy in New Delhi. A Pole is also the main character – Jan, the poet acting as the cultural attaché. In addition, the subject of the Poznań riots returns – without hiding behind an allegory, although obviously presented according to the knowledge of the time.

Torn Istvan

In Żukrowski's work, the main character – as you can easily guess, is writer's alter ego – is called Istvan and is also a poet. The title of the novel refers to the biblical motif of Moses being presented with the decalogue tablets, and through it – to Istvan's moral and political dilemmas. At first, these are primarily personal dilemmas. In India, Istvan is having a fiery affair with the Australian doctor Margit, while in Budapest – a distant and unrealistic as a dream – his wife and children are waiting. When the uprising breaks out, Istvan additionally has to decide for himself, what he actually believes in and for whom he should keep his fingers crossed.

Istvan is a thoroughly likeable character. Not only does he have a sensitive soul, but he distances himself as much as he can from the political games and personal intrigues that are raging all around him. There are also some beautiful and noble pages in his biography. Admittedly, during the war he fought for the German side, justifying it with the necessity to oppose the Red Army at all costs, but already after 1945, recognizing the historical necessity, he became a supporter of the new system. And, like many intellectuals in Hungary and Poland, sincerely believing that socialism can really work, if only implemented by the right people.

He could hardly be accused of being naïve or opportunistic. Despite being a well-known poet, he stays away from the communist Union of Hungarian Writers. At one point, he quotes a joke circulating in the local circles that if you wanted to become a member of the Association, you had to publish two books and snitch on three of your friends. And such staying out of the way – plus, as is often the case with poets, some metaphysical weaknesses – puts him in a privileged position. He is considered to be an insecure element and therefore cannot get permission for his wife and sons to come, but he is the only one who has a chance to avoid responsibility because of Rákosi's rule.

All of this, taken together, makes Istvan win the favour of the reader right from the outset. It is easy to see in it a metaphorical image of the Polish intellectual of the times of the "thaw". After 1956, it was just such people who made literary and journalistic settlements in Poland with the Stalinist period of "mistakes and distortions". Actually, the entire "Stone Tablets" can be read in such a light. If Wojciech Żukrowski had not dressed up this story as a Hungarian staffage, it would probably have ended up in a domestic brawl, but as it happened, the book was in a way doomed to provoke repercussions of international scope.

"Stone Tablets" – was it a provocation?

As soon as the Hungarian MFA received Martin's report, its officials prepared an extremely meticulous summary of the novel with particular emphasis on its provocative character. The very fact that there was no official mention of a jubilee anniversary of the Budapest massacre in Poland did not surprise anyone on the banks of the Danube. It was widely known that Gomułka adopted such a tactic so as not to irritate numerous Polish supporters of the Hungarian uprising. But the fact that such a blatant act of sabotage was committed by a prominent writer caused a wave of indignation. All the more so because Żukrowski unequivocally took the side of the "counter-revolutionaries" condemned by Kádár's team.

The fact that Gomułka's personal position on the Budapest Autumn issue was quite similar to the one presented in the novel was not without significance. Both the First Secretary of the Polish Central Committee and Istvan believed that the uprising was justified, because Rákosi's dictatorship, supported by Stalinist terror, ruined Hungary and pushed people to the brink where they had nothing to lose. Should Żukrowski's book be treated as a loud statement of what politicians could not afford to say? Or was it blatant provocation of an ally? Suddenly the confounded Hungarians had to face Such questions.

The outrage was all the greater because the novel was published under the Ministry of National Defence's publishing house name. This somehow confirmed the assumption that the "Tablets" may contain the official position of the Polish authorities. The frustration and confusion of the Hungarian people was further exacerbated by the fact that the first two hundred thousand copies were sold out in just a few days. So everything looked like a perfectly put together propaganda action to keep Gomułka's hands clean in case of a scandal. But is that what really happened?

Well, as it turns out, it wasn't. Wojciech Żukrowski finished the manuscript of the "Stone Tablets" a year and a half earlier. The release was delayed due to censorship, which, despite the general climate of loosening, was still had its iron grip on publications and would happily reject the more courageous attempts at artistic expression. Eventually, the desperate writer, taking advantage of his private connections, reached Gomułka himself, who personally gave permission to go to print. In this sense, it may indeed have been some attempt to smuggle his attitude to the events of 1956, but it should be considered in purely human rather than political terms.

Diplomatic tug of war

In a note of 11 January 1967, the Hungarian leaders suggested requesting a visit by the Polish ambassador in order to hand over an official diplomatic note on the book and to request clarification. It expresses the view that "Stone Tablets" do not help to better understand the very essence of the Budapest events of 1956 and do not serve to deepen the Hungarian-Polish friendship. Finally, it was decided that the matter should be dealt with at a higher level. And thus on 16th January the topic of "a bestseller with stuffy eroticism playing out in an exotic environment" was raised at a working session of the Party, and its settlement was entrusted to the Hungarian CC secretary for Foreign Affairs.

After the protests of the Hungarian side Poland had to react somehow. Żukrowski's novel was therefore subjected to crushing criticism in "Trybuna Ludu" – the official Polish United Workers' Party newspaper. Among other things, the reviewer stated that the novel is an ideological and artistic misunderstanding. He also chastised the "cheap shots" and "one-sided, shallow interpretation" of the tragic events in Budapest. Poor Istvan was most obviously affected by it who, after all his bedside debaucheries, finally becomes "whiter than snow" while others become demoralized and all they think about, listening to the reports from the capital, is how to get the most out of the situation for themselves.

This move was welcomed in Budapest. The matter was declared closed in the beginning of April. Of course by then Żukrowski had no hope of publishing a Hungarian translation of his novel. Or any other work. In 1970, "Tablets" were very close to being published in Czechoslovakia, but the vigilant censorship stopped the distribution in time. All the printed copies were confined to warehouses, from where the employees supposedly took them out secretly. However, the question remains whether those who managed to secretly read the novel paid more attention to the ideological layer or to the "stuffy erotica".


Paradoxically, the anathema that the book attracted survived communism. "Stone Tablets" appeared for the first time in a foreign language only in 1997. Interestingly, it was a translation into Russian. But also the author himself also went through a lot. Although he was regarded as a Catholic writer – he even boasted of his friendship with John Paul II, with whom he worked in Krakow's quarries when he was young – he supported the introduction of martial law in 1981. The readers couldn't forgive him and started sending back books as a protest. Similar to another Catholic writer who took the side of the communists – Jan Dobraczyński.

The "Stone Tablets" read today are already a bit archaic, sometimes too lyrical. However, they are still an engaging piece of prose with an original outline of the main character's spiritual life and current – contrary to appearances – questions about an intellectual's responsibility towards history and society. On the other hand let everyone decide for themselves on the "stuffy erotica". From today's point of view, there is not as much of it as the Hungarian comrades imputed, and besides, one can get the impression that Żukrowski probably included it to add a little flavour to the book and to be able to smuggle the main content dressed in such a way.

However, thinking of the ups and downs the book went through, one becomes somewhat sentimental in yearning for times when a book could stir up such emotions.


Marcin Królik - born in 1979, writer, publicist and blogger. He studied Polish philology at the University of Warsaw. He made his debut in 2013 with the "Drzewo różane" ["Rose Tree"] novel He also writes essays and reports, where he focuses on broadly defined spiritual and civilisational issues.