05. 27. 2015. 08:31

Thirsting for human presence

Ferenc Czinki: A City of Pubs

The stories here unmistakably feature the marginal pubs of Székesfehérvár, but they could just as well address any other place and situation in postcommunist Eastern Europe.

If we look at the institution of the pub from a perspective of uncompromising practicality and rationality, we need to admit that the whole thing is an utterly superfluous invention. It has to be obvious to everyone that all kinds of drinks can be bought for a more favorable price at the store, and can be consumed by preference at home, in the garden, on the patio, or simply sitting on the side of the road. Moreover, if we are honest, alcohol as such is also a pointless and harmful idea, and as a logical result, everyone can just drink water and be content. It follows that the existence of pubs, bars, dives, joints, saloons, or taverns is purely irrational: they are nothing more than inexplicable architectural and logistic follies, idle capriccios, futile annexes that strictly speaking should not exist… What a fortunate relief, then, that matters in the human world are not organized according to an uncompromising practicality and rationality, and that we manage to squeeze in some undoubtedly useless, yet uniquely irreplaceable things into our daily lives, like literature, music, paintings, dance, and of course, pubs. A set of artificial, idle, and aimless additions, without which we could hardly get by.

Ferenc Czinki wrote a remarkable book about a number of very specific and very memorable bars in his hometown of Székesfehérvár. By addressing these particular marginalized urban spaces, wandering from one pub to the other, his texts explore the hidden and authentic dimensions of human existence: the very details and depth of how we get by. The local pubs which we encounter in the book can simultaneously be seen as newly discovered, uniquely interesting objects in themselves that need no special reason to be described and to be the stuff of literature; and can also serve as the perfect pretext for stories about the locals, the regulars, the owners, the people of the city and of the country, and the damned history of the entire region. Czinki’s texts unequivocally reveal that a pub does have a function, after all, and an important one indeed: it is the inspiration, the catalyzer, the laboratory, the stage, the shelter, and the oral archive of human stories. Fellow writer András Cserna-Szabó goes even further, and declares on the dust jacket that a pub is the ultimate refuge, a sanctuary, the only place where we can hide from the world. Thus, it is a space which thirsts for human presence, a function which acquires meaning through life-narratives, and finally, a form which teeters between a state of suspension, of timelessness, and the harsh, unforgiving passing of time.

Photo by Zoltán Arany Gold

My emphasis on the complexity and richness of this literary exploration is meant to show that we are not dealing here with a superficial and hipsterish fascination with the phenomenon of ruin-pubs or working-class dives on the outskirts of town. Instead of the selfish display of a fake and snobbish insider knowledge that dominates blogs and social media in our days, Czinki’s texts are proof of an authentic observation, of an engaged involvement and experience. They reveal that the writer does not want to rule supreme over his material, he does not want to seem superior to the world he is presenting, but wants to understand it and describe it with “loving objectivity.” Thanks to this approach, the reader will find that not only the stories and characters, but also the various places and settings all come to life on the pages of the book.

Take, for example, the Vadalma bar in the Upper Town, this “empire of wooden paneling,” which is in fact the “love child of a disowned romance between the windy Kádár era and a regime change that got dizzy by plastic trinkets.” Or take the Papagáj, located in the neighborhood of the same name that looks like an “oasis of planned economy crossed with an abandoned bourgeois open-air museum, on the wasteland of statistical errors.” But there is also the Panama, where one can learn about the wonders of the Hungarian language, the secrets of true love, the memories of the nineteen-fifties, the existence of God, and the quality of András Lovasi’s new rock album, all in one sitting. Or the pub called Radio, which is “not the most well-known pub of the Maroshegy district, but it certainly is the merriest, the friendliest, and the pinkest one.” Or, of course, the Pálma, the bar which is always closed, or at least it is hard to prove otherwise since “on the one night of the year it might be open, you arrive there already drunk and you leave even drunker.” And there are several more: Aladdin, Faló, Fortuna, Jolán, Hungaria, Gomba, Kaiser, Matróz, Piccolo, Pucok, Strand, Topogó, Tücsök, Vadászkürt…

Photo by Máté Oláh Gergely

The narrator leading this literary pub crawl has done ample background research and extensive fieldwork in preparation for this task: he knows all the written and unwritten rules related to the local bars, all the customs and rituals, all the terminology, slang, and etymological history. He is familiar with all the heartbreaking and high-spirited life-stories, all the dirty, drunken, sad, and witty anecdotes shared over the umpteenth glass of cheap pálinka, and of course, all the ancient punch lines to all the ancient jokes. Yet, being an experienced and shrewd narrator, he does not pour all of this meticulously collected information on the reader, he does not throw around flashy details arbitrarily, because short stories can be many things, but they most certainly cannot be exercises in hoarding and showing off. Instead, the narrating voice weaves together the stories with a fine touch of (self-)irony and a concise precision, consciously taking care to leave intact the aura of mystery and strangeness of all the places he portrays, so that the reader will get swept into the heavy atmosphere and gloom of the local neighborhoods and winding back alleys. This effect is significantly enhanced by the truly artful photographs which form an organic part of this multi-genre book: thanks to the combined charm of these two mediums, it manages to become a new art form.

Nonetheless, the significance of this book goes beyond the unquestionable enjoyment of reading, since the attentive, local focus and the patient, non-judgmental tone of the texts can also foster the development of a socially committed and anthropologically minded sensibility, and a most rarely encountered sense of empathy in the reader. If we pay attention, Czinki’s book gently invites us to open our eyes and look around us, to pay attention to and mingle in our social environment, both as engaged natives and as observant outsiders. The stories here, of course, unmistakably feature the marginal pubs of Székesfehérvár, but they could just as well address any other place and situation in postcommunist Eastern Europe. We are reminded, once again, that in order to truly understand our present we need to explore the past, and all the forms through which it still lingers among us. To learn about a society’s unadorned, unfalsified history and the harsh, unforgiving passing of time one needs to take a closer look at these local places of gathering, these unchanged social hubs, and at the survivors who still frequent them. It is in such milieus that we—especially those of us who form, in Brecht’s phrasing, the Nachgeborenen generation, and for whom the past is a terra incognita—can try to understand how contradictory and sorrowful is the intertwining between the outstretched continuity of a fallen regime and the radical, merciless rupture brought on by the new transitional era.

The book created by Ferenc Czinki, his two coauthors, the photographers Zoltán Arany Gold and Gergely Máté Oláh, and the designer Gábor Farkas Varga captures the fleeting moments of everyday life, the instances of atrophy and transformation, the tableaux of decadence and survival, in a setting which is as specifically Hungarian as it is universally human. Page after page they either explore hidden and forgotten aspects of urban life, or they shine a new, revealing light on the places and people that are perhaps just too evident for us to truly see. As such, reading this collection of stories does not only provide one with an enjoyable literary experience, it also serves as an everyday guidebook and chart for the practice of authentic observation through empathy, and for the better understanding of our present and our past.

Czinki Ferenc: Egy kocsma város
Budapest: JAK-Prae.hu, 2014

Szabolcs László

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