Not bound to swear allegiance to any master, wherever the wind takes me I travel as a visitor. Drop the question what tomorrow may bring, and count as profit every day that Fate allows you.
Horace 65-8 BC
Our lives had no firm boundary, no proper frame. It was as if something had washed away the boundaries. Everything just happened, unframed, without edges. Now much later, I still don’t know where I am, where things started or ended in my life.
Sándor Márai, 1899-1990, Portraits of a Marriage / Az Igaz
On Easter Sunday 1934 a lone nineteen-year-old adventurer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, walked into Hungary from the Slovak city of Sturovo across the Mária Valéria Bridge to Esztergom. “The frontier post was at the end of the bridge and I hastened into Hungary,” he writes in the opening paragraph of Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume about his intended, but never completed, walk from London to Constantinople.
Leigh Fermor may have had Horace in mind as he traversed a region where wars, less than twenty years earlier, had “washed away the boundaries”, and where many could have echoed Márai’s “I still don’t know where I am”. Leigh Fermor moved where introductions, references and recommendations took him. He didn’t ask what tomorrow would bring nor did he fully appreciate at the time what yesterday had wrought, what dangerous clouds were gathering; he was versed in the classics, but not in recent postwar history. Thirty-two years on, I was unwittingly tracing many of his footsteps. As an eighteen-year-old lone adventurer, I crossed through the Iron Curtain into Hungary by train at the border town of Hegyeshalom. It was Sunday, September 25th, 1966 and I travelled to Esztergom later that week, on October 1st. My diary notes for the journey read:
Friday, get wages £29-19-0 (3 weeks) buy tickets at Cooks £35-10-0, leave Dun Laoghaire at 9.00 to Holyhead, meet fellow on boat, arrived London 5.30 (Saturday), had breakfast walked around a bit. Went to Victoria station, left 11 a.m., arrived Dover 12.30, left for Ostend 1.30, met Duncan Muir, arrived Ostend 5.15, got the Ostend-Vienna train 6.00, met Viennese woman and English couple, had couchette, enjoyable trip through Brussels, Koln, Bonn. (Sunday) down through Germany to Passau and Austria, getting bright, train along the Danube, arrived Vienna 10.45. missed train to Budapest, had a look around, went to a Mass. Left for Budapest next train 4.15, long wait at border Hegyeshalom, everything checked, arrived Budapest 8.30, Judith and her mother at the station, taxi to flat, had toast Tokay drink, met father, parents speak little German – lucky. Had meal and talk, Budapest beautiful at night, went for walk to Danube at Arpad Bridge.
The communist party newspaper of the day, Népszabadság, reports that a distinguished guest also arrived in Budapest that day – Leonid Brezhnev.
A life, fifty-two years, passed before Leigh Fermor put into print the second part of the account of his intended expedition to Constantinople; I hadn’t heard of him for some years after the 1977 publication of the first volume, A Time of Gifts. And I should dedicate this piece to a departed friend, Paul, who first introduced me to his works. Now, fifty-one years on it’s my turn to reflect on that first and many more journeys to the other side of the Iron Curtain.
In her introduction to the 2005 reissue of that second volume, Between the Woods and the Water (Leigh Fermor died in 2011), Jan Morris comments:
So, half a century separates the experience from the book and the author is looking back at himself across a great gulf of experience and history. The Second World War has changed Europe forever since Paddy hoisted his rucksack at the Hook of Holland and his alter ego has been weathered by a lifetime of travel and accomplishments. It really is almost as though Woods and Water is the work of two separate writers, coming to the task from opposite directions, but blending their talents in a display of intergenerational collaboration.
Having visited Hungary nine times between 1966 and 1986 during its communist era, criss-crossing Leigh Fermor’s paths at many points, I returned to the country again in April this year. It would be my first visit under the new order. I was also bringing along my own experiences of thirty more years of travel in the old Habsburg lands of Central and Eastern Europe. No longer travelling alone, I was, mentally, in the company of friends like Joseph Roth – born in Brody, in today’s Ukraine – Sándor Márai from Kassa, now Slovakian Košice, Béla Bartók from Nagyszentmiklós, now Romanian Sânnicolau Mare, Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler (whose Fifth Symphony is a good backdrop to Roth’s Radetsky March), Béla Tarr, László Krasznahorkai, Károly Makk and István Szábo. In the meantime I had also made the acquaintance of Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Elias Canetti and Avigdor Arikha – creators whose works reflect the turbulent years of the twentieth century in a region of changed boundaries and confused identities.
“My homeland no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works,” says Konrad to the General in Márai’s Embers, on meeting again in 1942 after forty-one years. In Satantango, Krasznahorkai gives us a Godot-like but more sinister potential Saviour in the character Irimiás, seen as the only man capable of “holding things together that just fall apart when we’re in charge”.
But why Hungary in the first place? It could be put down to Horace – counting as profit every day that fate brings us. Out there, behind that Iron Curtain, in an apartment on Hungaria Avenue in Budapest, a curious teenager happened to send a request to the popular Heraldites’ Club pages in the Evening Herald. It was May 1965 in the final run-up to my Leaving Cert exams. I came across it on May 8th. I already had pen-friends – as much a distraction from study as today’s Facebook – in England, USA, New Zealand, Germany, Poland, France, Kirgizia and Pakistan, from where envelopes often bore the stamp “passed by the censor”. The notice read that Eva from Budapest wanted a boy-penfriend in Ireland and that she could correspond in English. But it was not Eva who answered my letter; she got so many replies that she gave mine to a schoolfriend, Judith. A year later one of us, I can’t remember which, suggested visiting Hungary. I scraped together the resources to go at the first opportunity. A teenage romance in exotic Budapest beckoned and allowing for the elaborate yet interesting visa application process necessary when visiting a private home, I was on my way eastwards, unknown to my family.
Having renewed some contacts with the Hungarian community in Dublin in recent years to refresh my knowledge of the language, it seemed that the mark of half a century on from that first visit was a good enough excuse to return. So, four hours out of Dublin, on my 69th birthday, I walked again Budapest’s broad Teréz Avenue (Lenin Avenue when I knew it) towards the Oktagon, (November 7 Square). I am informed that the Oktagon is now a favoured spot where on-line daters meet.
I met Ildiko and her mother on the suburban train to Budapest from Esztergom – where I had retraced Leigh Fermor’s footsteps across the Mária Valéria Bridge (only rebuilt in 2001 after its destruction in 1944), climbed the four hundred steps to the basilica’s dome “carried on a ring of giant columns” and revisited the Muzeum coffee shop, basically unchanged since 1966. Ildiko was about ten years old, a lively articulate young girl engaged in an animated dialogue – more monologue – with her mother. I commented on how such articulation and clarity was very helpful to a foreigner studying the language. Ildiko’s mother smiled in acknowledgment and replied: “Absolut!”
Another day, strolling through the recently rebuilt Lehel Market in Budapest’s District 13, where my hosts of the ’60s would go at 5am to buy “farmer chicken” for their guest in preference to cheaper and inferior “communist chicken”, I observed Tibor, a slight but agile ninety-year-old. He handed in a small cloth sack with a collection of coins to the teller at the Magyar Posta counter. Retaining the charm of the old days she carefully counted out his lodgement; Tibor took his receipt and ambled on through the market.
Ildiko was born in 2007, nearly twenty years after the fall of the communist state. Assuming that her parents were in their twenties at that date only her grandparents, born in the 1940s or ’50s, would have had full adult and clearly-remembered experience of life under communist rule. A young Budapest tourist official had commented, when I showed her some 1960s visa stamps in an old passport, that she had never seen one of those before; that she learned about that time in her history class or from her parents. In school Ildiko was already learning English as a preferred second language. Her mother had studied some Russian in secondary school in that cross-over period of the late 1980s.
I didn’t talk to Tibor, just imagined his life in contrast with that of Ildiko’s generation. Born in the mid-1920s, only a few years after the Treaty of Trianon had taken 74,130 square miles and ten million people from his parents’ Hungary. A quarter of a century and another world war would pass before the advent of communist rule. He lived through the fascist ’30s and the country’s uneasy alliances in the war, the final one enforced by Nazi Germany. He might have served in the Hungarian army towards the end of that war. He would have witnessed the Red Army attack and Budapest’s “liberation”, resulting in widespread destruction in much of the city and followed by the communist takeover. He might have taken part in the 1956 uprising and would certainly have seen friends and relations depart for the West in its aftermath. He lived another thirty years under communism and now in 2017 he’s had nearly thirty years living in the new order. Let’s not assume that he was an opponent of the socialist state, but a convinced and committed supporter from the beginning. Maybe he’s now missing many of the certainties of that era, particularly in his old age. In common with his age group, German would likely have been his second language.
In that world between Tibor’s and Ildiko’s we can meet Judith and her family. Born in 1948 in southern Hungary where the River Drava formed the boundary with today’s Croatia she was a child of the new communist state. She was a near contemporary of Hungary’s most celebrated modern writer, László Krasznahorkai (born 1954 in Gyula on the Romanian border). Her father (a contemporary of Tibor) had served for a short time in the Hungarian army before being captured by the Allies in Germany. He was held in, as he himself put it, a good British POW camp, probably Rheinberg. Returning to Hungary, he became a teacher. Judith’s early life would run in parallel with the growing entrenchment of the communist system. It’s worth recalling that, at the time of the 1956 uprising, the communist state was less than ten years old (in an Irish perspective, the same time that has elapsed since the demise of the Celtic Tiger). Her father’s support for the uprising would have long-term consequences. He lost his teaching job and was forced to move to Budapest, where he was given a “non-intellectual” job in the People’s Stadium – now being rebuilt in 2017. Judith was obliged to learn Russian in school. In 1968, working in a state social insurance office, she explained that there was no chance of her moving on to university because of her father’s dissident history and the family’s general non-participation in approved activities. About ten years later she commented that she might have the opportunity to re-apply by putting renewed emphasis on her father’s wartime military service; his involuntary conscription and service might “overwrite” his 1956 activities. We will revisit that subject later. At the same time Krasznahorkai was completing his law degree at the University of Szeged, following in his father’s profession.
Judith’s family were fairly typical of educated people for whom communism was anathema. Her parents’ values were, in my hindsight, rooted in post-Habsburg traditions. Leigh Fermor, in his travels through Hungary, experienced similar values and attitudes repeatedly in 1934 as he was introduced by one aristocratic family to another. When I arrived in Budapest in 1966, quite ignorant of the region’s history, I was in reality visiting two worlds. On the street was the drab and grey world of communism, replete with red stars adorning public buildings (clear in my mind is a collapsed concrete star, unloved and half-buried in an overgrown roadside verge in a Budapest suburb). Inside the modest, turn-of-the-century courtyard apartment it was simple but elegant living. (The two-story block with its fond memories was demolished in March this year to make way for a ten-storey luxury development.) I was received very warmly, but with a gentle reserve and quiet formality. Sunday traditions stick in my mind: a day for near-formal dining when the traditional paper-thin retes pastry (strudel) was prepared with great care and ceremony by Judith’s mother, Margit. Mass was celebrated, not in any of the large churches, then closed by the authorities, but in discreet basements below apartment or office buildings.
The family were, in practical terms, “inner emigrants” – a common category throughout Eastern Europe. They lived their lives quietly in an inner world of their choosing. Taking little active part in official life, they listened to Radio Free Europe or the BBC World Service for the news. The cynicism towards state propaganda had an unintended effect when, in the ’70s and ’80s, there was lots of coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict. People from more than one communist state commented to me that “if it was reported like that on their state news the reality had to be different”. They were refreshingly sceptical of the black-and-white interpretation they were offered, realising that the reality of the Northern Ireland conflict was likely to be more nuanced.
Sándor Márai’s work is infused with memory and nostalgia. Some might interpret it as neo-romantic longing for times lost – turn-of-the century Habsburg values in Embers or the lost hopes of childhood possibilities in Portraits of a Marriage. Portraits was first published in 1942 but revisited after Márai left Hungary for good in 1948. Judit, one of the three characters, laments: “I do not know who I am.” Was Márai alluding to the pervasive practice during the communist era of rewriting one’s autobiography to match the prevailing winds?
That is one subject of study in The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central Eastern Europe, by James Mark. Mark examines how citizens of ex-communist states come to terms with either their support for or opposition to communism in the context of a new era. His interviews focus on Hungary and Poland, but the results are representative of all ex-communist countries:
“Is it difficult to talk about being a Party Member today?”
“Of course it is. They make me out to be a criminal, but I wasn’t a criminal, I was sure about the ideals … In every church the heretic is the greatest enemy. The heretics are burned, their families and pasts destroyed.”
In the post-Communist period, some former party members found their life-stories difficult to talk about. Faced with a new political world in which they might be demonised as criminals, ex-communists had to consider how they wanted to come to terms with their past lives; some defended their actions or resorted to silence, while others began to consider the extent to which they should create new autobiographies that were both morally and politically acceptable for a new political age … it was a matter of revising the very stories that had been the core of many individuals’ identities under Communism. … Citizens themselves were expected to produce public curricula to enter university, when applying for employment, in annual workplace reviews or when joining the party. … Through repeated engagement with these procedures, individuals learned how to write their own experiences to fit the template of the anti-fascist and class struggle if they wanted to ensure social mobility and avoid discrimination. … Many states awarded privileges – better housing, educational or workplace opportunities, pensions etc to those whose past fitted these historical templates.
Krasznahorkai seems to visit the topic in an absurd style reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial in the second chapter of Satantango. Two anonymous characters – they turn out to be Irimiás, long thought of as dead, and Petrina – have been summoned to an interview with officials in order to dispel “the shadow of suspicion that has fallen”:
The precise dry language left them in no doubt that it was not a matter of proving their innocence … if only the opportunity might arise for a general chat where they might state their position regarding an all-but-forgotten matter, establish their identities and perhaps modify a few personal details.
When we look at the generations of Tibor, Judith and Ildiko, spanning ninety years, it’s worth noting the in-between generation represented by people born in the late 1960s and early 70s. Judith’s daughter is one example. They were somewhat insulated from the full influence of vigorous anti-communist grandparents. Day-to-day life was more integrated with communist mores, if not communist values. But at least in Hungary they were also experiencing the gradual liberalisation of rigid laws and regulations. Judith, for example, was free to travel to the US to visit emigrant relatives in 1980 and to visit Ireland in 1982, but without taking her daughter. I recall one Hungarian passport official on the Vienna/Budapest train sporting a colourful “Visit Vienna” sticker on his official stamping box. Writers like Krasznahorkai were experimenting with new styles – Satantango, published in 1985, was set in the dying remnants of a communist utopia; he was also collaborating closely as a screenwriter with the film-maker Béla Tarr. But he did not travel to the West until a visit to Berlin in 1989.
Two curious examples of liberalising trends, each provocative in different ways, emerged in 1982. A nostalgic picture book Budapest Anno was, for me, a surprising publication at the time. A two-hundred-page book of black and white photographs from fin de siècle Budapest, it would be standard fare in the west. But in the context of a socialist republic it unashamedly illustrated the glorious city of the turn of the century. Full of pictures of elegant living, glamorous shops, society balls, wealth and the construction of underground railways, theatres etc, it gave no hint of poverty, deprivation or any of the ills that socialism was meant to eliminate. It was published in Hungarian as well as English, French and German; not, as far as I can tell, in Russian.
The other was a film by the renowned director Károly Makk, with the English title Another Way. Set in 1958, it looked at events following 1956 uprising in the context of a lesbian relationship between two journalists, Éva and Livia, investigating corruption in a collective farm. It culminated in Éva’s passive suicide, allowing herself to be shot by border guards. The film was widely distributed and I saw it in Dublin in 1982. I saw it again in 1983 in Hungary in a more restricted viewing environment. It was shown to about two hundred Hungarian language students from around the world attending the annual summer school at the University of Debrecen. About half the students were from other socialist countries. My impression was that the theme and treatment were “par for the course” for students from the West – and probably for the Poles. But for the East Germans, Czechoslovaks and Bulgarians it was disturbing. One Bulgarian student, a member of the Communist Party in her thirties, was angry and dismissive of the film. For her both the political context and the sexual themes were unacceptable and painted an unrealistic and inaccurate picture of the times. Perhaps reflecting the inherent tensions in the reform process, the choice of films for the 1984 summer school was much more conservative.
Ildiko’s Hungary and the Hungary of Tibor’s youth have one thing in common of interest to economists and demographers. When Tibor was ten, the population of Hungary was 10 million. Today, as Ildiko looks to her future it is less than 10 million and has been declining for the past twenty years. It has hovered around 10 million for the best part of a hundred years; Ireland’s population has almost doubled in the past fifty years and, according to a recent comment by IBEC’s chief, may reach 10 million by 2050. If that prediction comes true the “native Irish” proportion in our greatly increased population will be reduced, whereas the falling Hungarian population will probably have few non-natives; the country has minimal immigration. Ildiko will probably spend some time out of Hungary if she does not emigrate for good.
Her country needs enormous resources to renew and expand infrastructure and services. As one civil servant pointed out “we don’t have a West Hungary to rebuild our country, no brother to come to our help like East Germany”. EU infrastructural support is high but inadequate. A shopkeeper in Esztergom asked me: “What do you think of our city? A beautiful old city but falling apart for lack of investment. Do you know that when I came here a few years ago we had no street-lighting at night because of the council’s wrangling over budgets?” But the railway line to the capital and the station at Esztergom are being completely rebuilt. There is a big Suzuki car plant nearby at Dorog, but not on the scale of German auto investments. “What about Orban?” I asked. “It’s terrible what he’s doing about the European University but who else have we?” Was she thinking of a potential Irimiás who “would be here soon and shake things up good and proper”? A small trader in Budapest’s enormous Central Market replied, when I asked “Is business good?”: “No, there are too many shops.” Underneath, on the lower floor of the vast market hall where hundreds of stallholders sell everything from the best of food to tourist trinkets, there is a branch of Aldi competing with the traditional market environment upstairs. Even twenty-first century Aldi continues with some old traditions (from Habsburg times?) – my receipt for 0.484kg of bananas reduces the weight by 0.002kg to take account of the cellophane package, charging me for just 0.482kg.
If Ildiko is lucky she may work in highly-paid employment, in the high-tech sectors in the big cities, or where the German automobile industry has invested heavily – Audi in Györ or Mercedes in Kecsemet. These are the locations where wages are much higher than the national average, currently about one-third of Ireland’s average industrial wage. And that makes the cost of living for an average Hungarian high. It’s also a signal to visitors from Ireland to think carefully before commenting on how inexpensive things are in Hungary. We need to multiply their prices by a factor of two or three to make a fair comparison of purchasing power. Fifty years ago, when eastern Europeans met a Westerner the first question after the polite introductions would probably have been “How many hours work for a TV?” or “How many years work for a car?” These questions are still relevant!
Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, has often claimed that the country has traditionally occupied a unique position in the defence of Western and Christian values against the “East”. He has commented that even if the 1956 uprising was a failure in itself, it actually halted further westward expansion of Soviet influence. This is sometimes interpreted as the basis of his resistance today to “eastern” or specifically “Islamic” expansion westwards. The claim has echoes of a political joke in the country in 1968. Many Hungarians, with their memories of 1956, were scathing in their reaction to the Czechs’ non-resistance to the Warsaw Pact forces. The joke went like this: “Why do the Czechs not fight the Russians? Because they walk in size 56 shoes!”
Hungary, in common with the other agricultural countries like Romania and Bulgaria, has fared very badly as a result of Russia’s tit-for-tat embargo on food imports from the EU. These countries traditionally exported a vast amount of agricultural produce to the USSR/Russia. That market has been decimated and there is no easy replacement market for the country’s produce.
How different is post-communist Hungary from other eras? Communism was but one forty-year phase in the country’s much changing history. Has life under communism altered the fundamental Hungarian character any more than in other ex-communist states? Probably not. Hungarians remain Hungarian; much of their literature and music has that nostalgia that seems to suffuse Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian thinking. Listening to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 5 has prompted me to go straight to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
In these unsettling times states need to be on their guard against Irimiás-like saviours. Irimiás, addressing his ragged and despondent audience in Satantango is a match for anything that Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm can promise. We can hear his rhetoric everywhere today.
From Márai’s Embers:
Konrad: “There was a world for which it was worth living and dying. That world is dead. The new one means nothing to me. That’s all I can say.”
The General: “For me that world is still alive even if in reality it no longer exists. It lives because I swore an oath to uphold it. That’s all I can say.”
A final word from Krasznahorkai. Obsessed, in many reviewers’ opinions, with an apocalyptic vision, he has responded to that criticism in an interview:
I think that the first moment of life was the first moment of the beginning of apocalypse. The apocalypse is not a bad thing or some absolute dark thing. It belongs to the universe. This is a dynamic of the universe, the creation of the apocalypse, you know, the birth. This is a second side of one fact. I don’t fear – and please don’t fear – apocalypse.
Sandor Marai: Az igazi (literally The Truth, or The Real Thing), published in English as Portraits of a Marriage in a direct translation by George Szirtes.
A gyertyák csonkig égnek (The candles burn to the ends), published in English as Embers, but in a translation from a German edition, Die Glut. The English is more stylised and it contains a few factual translation errors: for example 20 years – ‘húsz év’ ‑appears as 12.
James Marks: The Unfinished Revolution – Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central Eastern Europe
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts, published in 1977
Between the Woods and the Water, 2005 edition with an introduction by Jan Morris
László Krasznahorkai: Satantango
The Melancholy of Resistance – adapted for screen as The Werkmeister Harmonies
Tom Cleary is a semi-retired journalist who had a career in Marketing, Communications and PR. His interest in central Europe was prompted by an extra-curriculum introduction to German and Russian in secondary school in 1964. He has traveled extensively in Eastern Europe in the past 50 years and studied Hungarian at the University of Debrecen Summer School in 1983 and 1984.