Louis Baum writes about the book trade in Hungary

Thursday 27 May. Flight MA 611 from Heathrow to Budapest. The purpose of my visit is to look at Hungarian Book Week. The Budapest Daily News, which I pick up on the plane, carries a short preview of the event: a record 112 new titles are to be published for this year’s festival, with a total printing of three and a quarter million copies. The books are on average less expensive than last year. Among the titles expected to be in particular demand is a biography of Janos Kadar, First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Party. It is by Laszlo Gyurko, and will be part of a larger study of Kadar to be published later this year by Pergamon Press. During my visit I am informed that this first-ever biography of Kadar was inspired by Robert Maxwell during a visit to Budapest.

People talk about Mr Kadar with an affection that surprises me. ‘He says in public what he says in private,’ says an editor I meet at a party, who considers that as rare a trait among politicians as I do. On the day the book comes out, the first day of Book Week, the Guardian has a report by Hella Pick on Kadar on his 70th birthday. ‘Mr Kadar has become that very rare species: a Communist leader who has achieved popularity. His small country has become an island of comparative economic progress within the Communist bloc. Gradually, under his leadership, Hungary has also, very quietly, gained greater freedom of expression.’

My host, Ferenc Zold, is the director of the Hungarian Publishers and Booksellers Association. He has several clearly defined aims in his job, which he pursues with a passion I find unusual, and a childlike enjoyment I find still rarer. And he’s deeply passionate about Hungarian culture: at dinner, or lunch, or in the car taking us to another appointment, he will tell a folk story or recite some memorable lines by a poet I’ve never heard of.

I pack my bag: I am going to war.
I mount my horse: it is firm and keen beneath me.
I look back and see my love waving.
There are tears in my eyes.

‘We are such a small country that we have nothing else to be proud of except our culture,’ he says heatedly. ‘We don’t mind if Der Spiegel publishes an article on Hungary saying our taxis are lousy, but we get very upset if they say our poetry is.’

One of Ferenc’s aims is to establish a training centre for publishers and booksellers, a dream that comes closer to realisation on the second day of my visit. Leaving the Ministry of Culture after an interview, he takes an envelope from his jacket. The money for the training centre, he says with a satisfied, almost conspiratorial grin: it will perhaps be finished in two years. His other aims: to establish an archive for the association; to reprint (the association, unusually, does some general as well as reference publishing) a 14-volume dictionary of biography (published last year); to computerise and otherwise modernise the trade’s bibliographical systems; to improve foreign relations. For a small country like Hungary, Ferenc runs a large trade association, with a staff of 40. There is a marketing department, a ‘propaganda’ department, a big training department, a legal department. The association looks after the interests of its publisher and bookseller members (there are about five hundred bookshops), organises Book Week, a Book of the Year competition, the results of which are announced at the opening of Book Week, and exhibitions in Hungary and abroad. This year, Ferenc tells me, it will put on three major exhibitions, of books from the DDR, from the Soviet Union, and of books published in French in Hungary, to tie in with a visit Mitterrand is soon to make to Budapest.

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