Tuesday, 2 August 2016

from Rewind
a life spooled backwards

...Cluj-Napoca or Kolozsvár hadn’t always been like this. Not in Magda’s time. When she was just ten Patrick Leigh Fermor passed through the city in István’s car with his friend Angéla beside him. Magda might have seen the strange company as having ‘stormed and bucketed’ through Transylvania, they arrived at her home town,  a place that was “not as perilous as it would have been in the winter season, with its parties and theatres and the opera in full blast” and where visitors could drink themselves silly at the New York in the main square where the barman was supposed to have invented “an amazing cocktail”. It was a civilised, intoxicating sort of place, its history tangible in the cracked marble of the hotels and their vast grey mirrors even in 1993 when the city was in danger of starving and rotting away.

One invents everything: the world, one's friends and lovers and family, every power one is bound to and, most of all, oneself. Then one has to believe all these inventions and act in the world they inhabit. Because it is real of course. There are facts in it that stare you right in the face so it feels absolutely real. She too is real but from now on she will be diminshing and fading and I must work not so much to preserve her circumstances but her sense of being, or rather my sense of her being.

It is 1940 and she is sixteen. Nothing dreadful has happened yet and, as far as her mother and father can tell, nothing might happen. It’s just that the atmosphere is stifling. The beautiful city has year by year grown more hostile. She has made a recovery from her rheumatic fever and is out and about again, though not in school. Some friends have organised a dance and brother Dezsö is touting tickets near the station. Some of the Hungarian military labourers who have been doing work on the railtracks - so this must be in September at the earliest after the Second Vienna Award - stop to buy a ticket, among them my father, László. Northern Transylvania is suddenly Hungarian again. He is Hungarian, albeit Jewish. Magda and Dezsö are ethnically Hungarian, albeit Jewish. As Hungarians they are delighted to be citizens of the same country so it’s an occasion for rejoicing. As a schoolboy László had learned to chant Csonka magyarország nem ország. Egész magyarország mennyország. ‘Hungary cut down is a land that’s riven. Hungary made whole is our true heaven’ like all the rest. He too is a patriot. Since this is only a partial restoration of the prewar kingdom, it isn’t quite heaven but  a taste of heaven.

For László it is a break from labour, for Magda a chance to have some fun. László is just twenty-three, Magda sixteen. He goes to the dance and dances with a number of partners. It is all very decorous. The occasion might have been organised by a Jewish youth club which is why Dezsö is selling tickets, but it might be just an ordinary dance.

László and Magda dance together. 

Then he goes back to work and she to her house and they don’t meet again until she knocks at his door with a box of negatives in Budapest.

They discuss this possibility much later, once she is in Budapest. Maybe after her return from Penig. Maybe only once they are married, but the possibility is discussed. He remembers going to a dance, she recalls dancing with a man much like him. They were in the same place at the same time. Why not?

Nothing is certain. Later, when I am recording him, László tells me this and I wonder whether she too has told me. I can’t quite remember. Nothing is fixed, nothing certain.  Next time he tells me it is 1943 not 1940. She is home on a visit, he is working on the railtracks, the story is essentially the same but now it’s December and he too has been home on leave and was now back digging. She is nineteen now and he is twenty-six. She has already been in Budapest two years or more, has completed her apprenticeship with Escher and is making her own way as a photographer, or trying to. They are both swimming about in the grey pool of time until, at one point, they touch then part. Then in 1944 she arrives with the negatives and they meet properly, as for the first time.

What was it she saw in him? He has great dark eyes, a head of dark hair, is well-proportioned, of slightly less than middle height, and certainly fit because of all the work he has been doing, the kayaks he has been rowing, and the mountains he has been hiking. He was, she must have supposed, handsome enough but for that great hooked nose which was, nevertheless, somehow of a piece with him. She will have met many others more physically atractive or dashing. They would certainly have courted and propositioned her. She will have dated them and rejected them for a variety of secret reasons. But now here is this man in uniform, in his family apartment, talking to her in that dark-brown voice, no doubt polite and, in his own manner, persuasive enough so they go down the stairs together and look forward to meeting again. Is it calm, she perceives in him, a calm harbour for her own wild inner sea? Does he smell of security, of a basic decency she has not found in others? Of beauty she might have seen enough. Her brother was beautiful but distant and occupied with his own passions that excluded her.

Moments fall apart in your hand. People’s lives fall apart, their memories fall apart. It is hard imagining other people’s pasts, especially those decisive intense moments of youth. You have somehow to believe in them, as though you could hold them together by an act of wil

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