11. 16. 2015. 12:19

A Martian's guide to Budapest

"One fine day a Martian turned up in Budapest, took a room in the Bristol Hotel, brushed the stardust from his suit and telephoned to inquire if I might show him round the town." A Martian’s Guide to Budapest is Antal Szerb's "whimsical and gently ironical love letter to the city."

PALACE GARDENS. We could go up in the cable car, but there’s no need, as we are already travelling there in the mind. No need to be alarmed by the Turul: he’s never harmed anyone. He’s a serious old bird, in full Hungarian regalia, leaning forward slightly, like the fiery orators in our Parliament. He watches over the Palace Gardens. When I was little, you could go in on Sunday afternoons. I found this very moving, because I imagined that the King himself had invited us, as his own children. But then, during two appalling and apocalyptic months in the life of the country, a notice was put up: "Everything belongs to us." Meaning: "Nothing belongs to anyone now." The city had gone to the dogs. But now all that’s in the past. The one good thing was that you could now get into the Palace Gardens at any time of the day. And in we went, and stayed there the whole day. Here at least production had not been collectivised. The trees delivered their delectable scents on a strictly individualist basis, in memory of the Palatine. It was here that I waited for the coming of the Prophet. (As I say, those were apocalyptic times, and for many reasons I am not sorry to have lived through them.) I imagined us all suddenly setting off downhill, hand in hand like children, singing the lánc-lánc-eszterlánc song—the song that was to resolve everything. Women standing on balconies would roll out their newly-beaten rugs and weep, the lions of the Chain Bridge would bound up to us like enormous shepherd dogs, the whole Pest embankment would become one great orchestra, the ships and the Parliament building would suddenly sprout little flags, and herds of cattle, their udders bulging with milk, would stream in from the ring roads with banners between their horns proclaiming: Peace to Mankind.

Budai Hegypálya (Sikló), lenn a Clark Ádám tér.

FISHERMAN’S BASTION. Kitsch, but wonderful. From its rampart, Sir, you can receive the acclamation of the people, and then make your way, very slowly, down its wide stairway with a lady—the Queen, I must insist—her train held up by thirty young pages in line. I suggest you bestow this honour only on the sort of woman who likes this sort of thing. But pause awhile on the Jesuit steps. An ancestor of mine, a jeweller, once set off for the Castle to deliver some diamonds to a count and never returned. I am convinced he was murdered on this particular stairway.

PASARÉT. Nothing to do with the Pasha. Some giant with modernising tendencies unpacked a series of enormous little boxes next to the tram line, gathered together a few affluent Lilliputians and announced, "Here you will live." And here they live. They toddle off every morning in their little cars to their little banks. People who live in little boxes pay each other little social visits and compliment each other on their little gardens in the spring. Just like real people.

Pasaréti tér, Páduai Szent Antal plébániatemplom.

JÓZSEFVÁROS. This entire quarter is out to rent. Its tenants are the future of Hungary—medical students from their clinics, fine-minded philosophers, the staff of the City Library. Every evening in The Good Ship Adria, where the hubbub is loudest and liveliest, the fug thickest and the love you can buy sweeter than in Montparnasse, they cool their fevered brains with a sprinkling of wine to help prepare for examinations. One day they will all be famous. But exactly who their landlords—and landladies—are, no one can determine. Where are the men who left all these widows and orphans? The landlord answers to your ringing. There is a sort of fishnet round his head, rather like the moustache-nets worn in my father’s day. He complains bitterly about his current lodger, who hasn’t yet got out of bed. In time, this man’s entire body will take on the shape of an enormous ear. He no longer has a life of his own; it has been totally absorbed into the business of spying on his lodger. Likewise, he has lost all interest in his forebears, whose portraits hang in the rented room, a little higher than the paper flowers, but below his prized stuffed chicken.

Indeed, Sir, you might begin to suspect some mystery as, at the approach of Christmas, you wend your solitary way in the shadow of the neighbourhood houses, unable to free yourself from the thought that somewhere among those jars of preserved fruit is a recipe, the secret to absolute order in life, that might flower (only, of course, in places such as Józsefváros) in the form of golden-haired maidens (here and everywhere).

Üllői út 78/b. Pázmány Péter Tudományegyetem (ma Semmelweis Egyetem) III. sz. Belgyógyászati (ma Urológiai) Klinika, tetőterasza. Háttérben a Ludovika épülete.

BEHIND THE GREAT MARKET HALL. Now please don’t spread this around. No one but myself knows about this quarter. As twilight descends, it suddenly becomes Paris—the small, dirty coffeehouses, the shops with their exhilarating flood of fruit, vegetables and meat, the people looking like characters from a novel, the neglected riverbank behind them (like the Seine) and the Citadella lit up above them (like the Eiffel Tower). If you walk at night through the square behind the market, chickens suddenly stir—a hundred, a thousand of them—and start to racket. "You can’t park here," a late policeman tells a solitary delivery truck. "The engine’s stalled," replies the rough-looking driver, evasively. "Cobblers, Sir," says the policeman. And they argue for long hours through the night—just like Parisians. This was once the abode of a way of love long since gone. You might look for it in vain in the sheer canyon of Lónyai Street, or the deep-sea loneliness of Köztelek Street. Kálvin Square has grown so large it seems that, just as in the old days, you could wait there for hours for someone to come, and she never
does.

Antal Szerb: A Martian's Guide to Budapest
Budapest: Magvető, 2015

Photos: Fortepan online archives

Translated by: Len Rix

Tags: Antal Szerb