BUDAPEST, June 21 1989


Several dozen writers and poets from many nations, assembled in a hall where the Hungarian Parliament once met, have since Monday been sitting through sessions of parochial debates in which their colleagues, divided into national panels, discussed what seem to them the many pains and few joys of their work.

The others listened politely and, when given an opportunity, asked polite questions. Few outsiders came to listen, even for the session on Hungarian literature. The meeting is the American Wheatland Foundation's third annual Conference on Literature. The foundation is financed by Ann Getty, the publisher and philanthropist.

But Tuesday the pace picked up. There was tension, an audience gathered, earphones for simultaneous translations were put on and, to the surprise of the decorous gathering, persistent interjections came from a member of the public whom the moderator refused to recognize.

The topic was listed as ''Central Europe,'' but the English term gives a wrong impression. The writers were not dealing with a geographic unit whose borders, with some compromises, could be limned. What they spoke of, with some heat, was an emotional and intellectual concept usually referred to by the German term Mitteleuropa.

In Central Europe, Mitteleuropa is in, which explains the heat and public interest.


The Main Speaker


The panel's composition gives an idea of the geographic flexibility of the notion. Its main speaker was Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet of Lithuanian birth and American residence. There was also Adam Michnik, a Polish ''historian by training and dissident by profession,'' in his words, who was elected to the Polish Parliament in the Solidarity landslide June 4.

Mr. Michnik's remarks were translated into Russian for the benefit of the conference interpreters, who don't count Polish among their languages, by a fellow panelist, Viktor Yerofeyev, a Soviet essayist who occasionally teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Hungary was represented by George Konrad, Peter Esterhazy and Miklos Meszoly, novelists. From Soviet Estonia, a distinctly noncentral part of the Continent, came Paul-Eerik Rummo, poet and playwright.

Danilo Kis, a Yugoslav novelist whose father was a Hungarian Jew and his mother a Montenegrin, came from his home in Paris. Claudio Magri, an Italian writer and professor, represented Trieste, the port of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose borders contained much of Mitteleuropa.

H. C. Artmann, a poet, was on the panel but declined to participate. ''As an Austrian, I'm not a Mitteleuropaer because we had the good fortune to regain our independence in 1955,'' he explained and fell silent for the rest of the debate.



An Informal Federation


Mr. Artmann touched on the heart of the matter. Mitteleuropa is an informal federation of losers, of nations or individuals who have been deprived of autonomy or sense of importance, condemned to live on memories.

In his keynote speech, Mr. Milosz, a Nobel Prize winner, said: ''Probably a basic difference between the two halves of Europe is that between memory and lack of memory. For Western Europeans, the past in question is no more than a vague recollection of a misty past. For us - I say us because I experienced the consequences of that pact between superpowers myself - that division of Europe has been a palpable reality.''

Mr. Milosz was speaking of the German-Soviet pact of August 1939, which set the stage for Hitler's attack on Poland and the outbreak of World War II. He continued:

''Therefore, I would risk a simple definition of Central Europe: all the countries which in August 1939 were the real or hypothetical object of a trade between the Soviet Union and Germany. The reduction to the role of an object of history creates sufficiently deep traumas and explains our wariness when we think of the two big neighbors. Independence from the Eastern Big Brother probably is not equated with an unreserved acceptance of the West.''



An Unexpected Defender


Mr. Milosz was heckled by an unexpected defender of the Soviet Union's role in history. He was Edward Limonov, a poet and author who left the Soviet Union in 1974 and after a long stay in New York moved to Paris.

Mr. Limonov challengingly reminded the former Polish diplomat that Poland in 1935 signed a nonaggression treaty with Germany, and when Germany dismembered Czechoslovakia in 1938 it helped itself to a part of the victim's territory. Mr. Milosz did not reply.

Mr. Limonov explained afterward that he believed in defending ''historical justice'' more than the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe is not a victim of the Soviet Union but of the German aggression that led to the division of Europe, he said.

''How many Soviet soldiers died in liberating Auschwitz?'' he asked. ''You never here about that on TV.''



In a sign of shifting times, the Soviet emigre's rallying to his former country's defense was followed by a spirited attack on the Soviet Government by Mr. Yerofeyev, who lives in Moscow. Proclaiming his solidarity with the people of Eastern Europe, he said, ''We've been living our lives in an occupied country for a long time.''

He continued, to applause: ''I'm of a generation that always called them 'they.' 'We' always meant people who oppose the Soviet empire.'' A Transmission Belt

The 42-year-old essayist thanked Mitteleuropa, especially Poland, for having been a vital informal transmission belt to the Soviet Union. ''Through them we found out about the cultural and political values of the West,'' he said. ''It led to a revolutionary situation in Russia today.''


The Wheatland Foundation also intended for there to be discussion of another struggle, the Arab-Israeli conflict. But virtually all Arab writers boycotted the Israeli panel's discussion, although all its participants had been chosen from the peace movement.

A challenge to the Israelis came from Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist. Emphasizing her Jewishness, she urged the Israelis to learn from white South African writers like herself. ''People have to be ready to lay their lives on the line,'' she said.

''What do you want me to do, assassinate Yitzhak Shamir or commit suicide in front of the Defense Ministry?'' asked Yoram Kaniuk, an Israeli novelist. Other angered Israelis said their Government did not ban the opposition and added privately that they knew of no life-endangering acts by Miss Gordimer