Wednesday, 9 December 2009

1989: Going for a Walk

Back very late last night from London where Arthur Phillips, Tibor Fischer and I talked about our memories of the year. Arthur wasn't in fact there that year though he was the next, out of which he wrote his novel, Prague. Tibor was there from 1988-1990 and made a film for Channel Four's Dispatches, of which we saw about eight minutes, mostly Victor Orbán, in one shot artfully poised by the statue of the poet Attila József with whom he seems to me to have little in common.

We, meaning C and I and the family, spent most of 1989 in Budapest. I wrote a book of poems, or rather the title sequence of it, Bridge Passages (shortlisted for The Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1991) while I was there as well as translating Madách and Kosztolányi and writing two broadcasts for the BBC.

The unspoken (or not much spoken) theme of the evening was 'Let's not be too gloomy', though, to tell the truth, considering the prospect of a right-wing Fidesz landslide with only the fascist Jobbik for opposition I can think of very little that is more gloomy. As Tibor pointed out - and he is a supporter of Fidesz - once they get in, and if the majority is big enough, Fidesz will be entitled to change the constitution. Hungary could revive the old 40s vaudeville act of an authoritarian 'Regent Horthy' with a fascist 'Szálasi' snapping at his heels. There are, it seems, plenty of people there who consider that an attractive prospect. The uniforms are in place. My parents who told me that Hungary was, at heart, a fascist country, and against whom I argued because I didn't believe them, might - especially my mother - have been right.

But let's not be too gloomy. That description doesn't fit those I know and have met and loved, nor does it, I think, describe the youngest adults, who are a more international generation than any before them, and who could bring the Hungarian virtues of energy, intelligence, humour, ingenuity, and passion out into the fresh air. Little Hungary (Greater Hungary in its dreams) is like a particularly small house in a row of terraces in a decaying slum. It's stuffy. The great vehicles of global commerce drive by outside so exhaust fumes waft through it. The brilliant child, the abusive father, the neurotic mother all live there. 'This house used to be so nice,' weeps mother. 'The neighbourhood has gone down,' growls father. ''I am going for a walk, but I'll be back,' mumbles the child.

If Hungary does move overwhelmingly to the right, I will not be back. I don't claim to be a brilliant child. I'm out already and I am no longer a child. Nor was I ever brilliant.


As to the evening, Arthur is New York, funny, self-deprecating. I haven't read his book but I will. Sounds good. Tibor is droll and dry as ever. I have read his books, most of them. Me? I am a poet and this audience hasn't come to hear poetry, they want jokes and argument - so I feel I am boring them. Too bad, if so, I reflect in melancholy mood on my long way home. To Hungarians I will never be anything but a translator who can do the state some service. But I have done that for twenty-five years and once this new anthology is out I think I will have done enough. I think it's time I went for a walk myself.


Paul H said...

I remember sitting our apartment in Újpest in 1997 reading 'Anna Édes', purchased after yet another foray to Bestsellers on October 6 utca. What a captivating story, with such a stunning climax I never saw coming. It was one of the first books I read that lead to me "getting" Hungarian literature, that there was a vast treasure trove of writing that I could only glimpse at, second-hand, via translation. But what a trove it is!

And all because you ten years earlier you, in some apartment or house in Budapest, translated this novel. And, ten years on again, I am still enormously grateful for your efforts all those years ago. It helped open up such a wonderful world that might have remained hidden or lost. And all in such a city as Budapest! That is a light that will always shine for me, amongst the current gloom and that all pervading sense of loss so essential to the Hungarian character.

Anything but a translator? I prefer to see it was a uncoverer of secrets, a lighter of lights, a revealer of beauty.

Anonymous said...

If you aren't brilliant, George, then "honourably report, sir, I am a total idiot."