Thursday, 2 August 2012
On milieu and refuge: a sketch, 9
What constituted home in any of this? Where did my parents think home was?
The lives of others are inconceivable. We have to make make them up from the little we know. But of course we have to make ourselves up too.
My mother's girlhood as an ethnic Hungarian in Romanian Kolozsvár / Cluj remains a mystery to me though I have been there more than once. The first occasion, a private visit, was in 1993 when Romania was just getting over the trauma of the Ceausescu years. The streets were filthy, the river was bright orange, the buildings were falling apart, the public transport was patched up any-old-how, there were maimed people in the streets, nothing in the shops (there was just one piece of cheese in the supermarket, a minuscule cube in shrink wrapping with a blodge of black on it), people were still afraid of being overheard by the Securitate, the beautiful mountain pass was covered in rubbish and the border guards touted for bribes. It was as if the bottom had fallen out of both the country and the people. (I wrote about it in a sequence titled Transylvana)
The next time, some four years later, I went with the British Council as a writer and things had improved. A kind literary scholar 'Bill' Stanciu took me to the street where my mother might have lived. I knew it was opposite a park where people skated. Here was a park where people did once skate and, opposite it, rows of houses built into a hill. My mother had told us that when she was fourteen she contracted rheumatic fever because the house was damp, and so had to take a year out of school. She said she would watch her friends from the window as they skated in the park and wave to them. The rheumatic fever became the heart condition she suffered from the rest of her life.
It could have been the street but I couldn't tell which house.
Her family was relatively well-to-do, middle-class, liberal reform Jews - or so I suspect. There was a magistrate in the family, and one uncle manufactured chocolate. What kind of life would they have led? All murdered of course. My mother was firmly atheist and politically to the left of my father but wasn't allowed into the Party because of her background. (My father, the son of a factory floor worker, was welcome - and promoted into the bargain.)
Was Kolozsvár / Cluj home to her? Was that what home meant, that damp house in the hillside with the park opposite? Did the religion into which she was born, but later denied, mean anything to her?
My father was born in Budapest. He was a product of the tenement-crowded side of the city, Pest, the VII district which was to become the ghetto in the war. I suspect that, but for personal history, Pest would have been his spiritual home. Maybe it sill was. Personal history meant having his education limited on religious grounds, being consistently shifted from one workplace to another, eventually being sent to the Eastern Front as part of a labour force in the Ukraine, almost all of whom died or were eventually exterminated. (He escaped with two friends on the retreat march through Hungary.)
His identity or person entered mine later than hers did. I have little experience of him as a young man, only amenable shadows. I knew him him better after my mother died. 'His' poems came later too.
Hungary rejected them both and they both registered the rejection in their lives, although differently. My mother rejected Hungary but not what was Hungarian in herself - she never rejected Hungarian cooking, or manners, nor the social exuberance combined with intense inwardness that identified her as foreign here. But she was isolated. I think it was partly the isolation that killed her. The two rejections: Hungary's of her and hers of Hungary left her no room to move.
Of my father's past I know a good deal more since I conducted regular taped conversations with him in the two years after her death in 1975, right until he remarried. His version of the yellow room is relatively clear to me. I know who else populated it and how he saw them. I know the streets he walked through that were a second home to him. I have met others whose fathers might have talked with my father and, in doing so, have constituted a home. I don't think he ever rejected Hungary quite as firmly as my mother did. I think he himself knew it was still home, He was more successful at reconstituting it in England than my mother had been. Of course it wasn't the real thing, but it was a milieu of sorts - or the ghost of one.
Somewhere in my own bones I know that milieu. Not so much the English version here - I hardly know that at all - but the one in Budapest. My inner being knows the people in it and can immediately recognise the way they look and speak. The Budapest milieu is a space within which the yellow room exists. I know other rooms that are like it, not quite yellow but not quite not-yellow either. I suspect Budapest is more Jewish than it thinks.
The yellow room was a deathtrap in the war. Its occupants hid or were taken away and most of them never came back. But the yellow room is accommodated in the mind as well as in the many-roomed tenements. In my father's tenements there are many mansions and this is one of them.