I first read this book while in high school in the early 1960s after having read Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific", "Hawaii" and "Return to Paradise". This was a few years after the 1956 revolt in Hungry which gave lie to Soviet propaganda that claimed that the regimes in the satellites enjoyed popular support. When the people of Hungry took to the streets and demanded change, the Soviet military came in force with tanks and troops to prop up their unpopular puppet regime.
I thought of this book after my recent reading of William F. Buckley's book, "Getting it Right" in which his main protagonist is in the town of Andau in Austria and present at the bridge when the refugees are fleeing over it to freedom. I decided to try to find it again. While a bestseller in 1957, I had not seen this book listed in the promotions for Michener's other block buster bestsellers (or the movies that were made about them) in the years since I had read this book. I was, therefore, quite surprised to not only find the book at the local library but to discover that it had been through a number of printings and is still available new today.
The book consists of a series of interrelated stories of young people in their late teens and early twenties involved in the ill fated revolt. Many of the individuals in the book are actually composites of two or more people and all the names are fictitious in order to protect those who remained behind in Hungry and subject to reprisals from the dreaded AVO (Allam Vedelmi Oszrag – the name for the secret police). Michener was at the bridge during the revolt and interviewed hundreds of fleeing refugees and recorded their stories about the brutal system that drove the youth to rebellion. The communism that was imposed on Hungry by their Soviet masters resulted in major economic decline and hardship for the people as it has in every other country that has adopted the communist economic system.
But the real evil of the communist system was neither the predictable mismanagement of the economy nor their monopoly on political power, but rather their need to destroy or control any and every institution, right down to the level of the individual family unit, that might be a threat to the communist's absolute control over the lives of the people within the country. To do this they created a climate of fear and suspicion where everyone was afraid to speak their thoughts. A combination of bribes - money, food, promotion, less harsh treatment at the hands of the secret police, etc. - and fear - implicate someone else or we will come down hard on you or a loved one, etc. - resulted in a state where everyone was an informer. No one could be trusted whether it was the prisoner in the cell next to you, a coworker, friend or family member.
And it was not just the average citizens that had to worry, as the system of spying and reporting applied to the ruling establishment as well with everyone from a lowly bureaucrat to those at the very top – no one was immune. A casual remark, possessing a foreign made item or simply being acquainted with or having been near someone who ran afoul of the system was enough to be picked up by the AVO to be interrogated, tortured, imprisoned or even killed. There are numerous accounts of torture and death in the book. But while these are described with enough detail to depict their horror, the tone is one of clinical reporting rather than gratuitous violence. The real horror is the all pervasive fear and distrust that was a part of everyone's daily life.
Michener is a good story teller and this is basically Michener's retelling of the stories told to him by the refugees. I thought the book had originally been classified as historical fiction but was either mistaken or, as the result of events of the past decade, the book may have been reclassified as history. Unlike recent news reporters who have been caught passing off composite characters with fictitious names as fact, Michener, in the last chapter, clearly states that he has blended multiple characters into single composite characters and has used fictitious names for all characters in the interest of protecting those they left behind. He also states that he had to rely on what the refugees told him as the Iron Curtain prevented him from going to Hungry to verify the facts of the case. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the opening of archives, we have evidence from the police records that the accounts of terror, torture and imprisonment related by the refugees were true. It is ironic that, in their belief that history was on their side, communist rulers kept voluminous records of their vile deeds and today stand condemned by these very documents.
This report prepared by Chuck Nugent