Tuesday, 26 August 2008
Story 2: Prague 1968, Budapest 1968
Between 1956 and 1984 there were twenty-eight years of absence from Hungary.
Except for one year: the summer of 1968.
I was nineteen but I joined my parents and brother on our first revisiting. We drove there on 10 August and stayed in an empty flat in Pest, in the same house where old family friend R lived with her brother, I. R was an old pre-war friend of my parents, her by-then dead husband, B, having been the plumber with whom my father worked just before and after the war. R was not yet blind but was going that way. She was the old blind woman in various of my poems, including in 'The Courtyards'. She died some ten years ago.
What do I remember of 1968? First, the sheer omnipresence of the Hungarian language, that wall of sound met everywhere in the street, which sounded so familiar yet strange. The smell of the streets. The battle-scarred buildings and the remaining ruins.
It was hot and we drove to the Lake Balaton for a few days, where my mother ate the hottest paprika and I tried it but it almost blew my head off. On the beach there my brother and I made friends with a number of other young Hungarians. He fell for a pretty dark-haired Hungarian girl who shrugged him off, while I struck up a relationship with another attractive Hungarian girl, with cropped hair. I think she was called Eva. She wrote to me afterwards and I didn't answer. The letter I owed to her is just one of many - and ongoing - unanswered letters that will shower down on me like stones when I finally kick the bucket. I am sure Dante has something appropriate in the Inferno. Bright kid she was too, lovely and full of life. There are some photos of that summer, at home, including of us. I might put them up some time. The world was OK. More than OK. There was even a touch of gaiety in the air. Alexander Dubcek was holding his own in Prague. It was, and continued to be, an extraordinary year.
By 20 August we were back in Budapest, precisely half way through our holiday. I slept badly that night and put on the radio in the sitting room. It was about 5 am. The first thing I heard was the news announcing that the Hungarian army had joined the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries in marching into Czechoslovakia to put down reactionary unrest. When my parents woke I told them and they heard for themselves. The borders were all closed, except for one route out.
They decided straightaway to take it. We had never renounced our citizenship and both my younger brother and I were of call-up age. We shot out like the cork out of a bottle. It was at home in England I saw the self-immolation of Jan Palach. Things were as they were. The hard men had smashed their fists down on the table. The party was over. I did not return for another sixteen years after that.