04. 15. 2015. 12:41

Indestructible Budapest

Interview with János Térey

I was always fascinated by the legends of Budapest – this city is my permanent muse. However traumatized and injured it is, however moody its inhabitants are these days, I love Budapest dearly, and I think it would be impossible for me to ever leave it.

Some of the characters in your new volume, Passage Through Budapest, a book of short stories written in verse, are members of the Hungarian upper middle class, similarly to your previous volumes, Table Music and Protocol. However, you seem to have a worse and worse opinion of them. Why is that?

I am trying to be objective. It is rather that these people themselves are in a worse situation than before. Actually, it is not only the emblematic figures of the middle class who figure in this book: I made a step towards the lower classes, and they also made a step towards me. There are many fragile, marginal people in this book who are not necessarily better but not necessarily worse either than the oligarchs or semi-oligarchs of Protocol and Table Music. Passage Through Budapest is an investigation: I am trying to understand the reasons why they are unwell today. It is not ‘investigative’ in the sensational meaning it is used in journalism; it is rather the intention to see clearly that is present in the book, an intention that typified my writings from the beginnings. At least I have always tried to represent things without illusions.

Why do you think these people are badly off today?

I am sure we cannot blame the government or global warming for everything. There is a tremendeous amount of lies in Hungary, on every level. Wherever we look we see unworthy people being very successful, which is not surprising in the media, but sometimes it is true even in culture. Also, there are completely insincere alliances and friendships; companies and marriages are breaking down because their foundations are unstable. The characters in Table Music find refuge in eating, drinking and quality entertainment. The well-groomed figures of Protocol, who mostly meet each other on the fields of diplomacy, stripped clean of everything, find refuge in office work, or travelling as a lifestyle. Some of these pastimes are masks as well, and these people indulge in them instead of something, to obscure their pain. There is a lot of deception in my new book as well, with the difference that even more people are seen as naked here. I can also declare, as my colleagues often do, that each story in this book is based on reality. There may even be some people we know in them, but not in the way it happens on television.

Why are these people unable to be sincere?

Because of self-protection and cowardice. I don’t know anyone who has never been in a situation where they had to tell at least a white lie for protecting themselves or their interests. Our motivations are mostly the same: working relationships, professional and social success, salvation. In addition, we long for adventures – touristic, gastronomic, sexual and other. Some of us climb eight-thousanders, and never come back or come back as cripples. Others do everything in order to get someone for colleague, friend, lover, husband or wife. And they die of it, or the other person dies of it. All this belongs to the sphere of instincts. What I can do is write stories about this.

The stories in your new volume show the ‘sphere of instincts’ of Budapest. How did you get the idea to inquire into the secret stories of the city, the unseen dimensions of it?

I was always fascinated by the legends of Budapest – this city is my permanent muse. However traumatized and injured it is, however moody its inhabitants are these days, I love Budapest dearly, and I think it would be impossible for me to ever leave it. I cannot think of any other European capital that has woods and hills, dripstone caves and hot-water caves, not to talk about the Danube, the artery of the city. It is also unusual and quite fantastic that the Háros Island, a huge enclosed area in the middle of the Danube, has been almost completely intact since the Middle Ages. I was having the time of life when I wrote this book. I felt like a journalist doing field work. I chose two kinds of scenes, based on childhood nostalgia and curiosity: those I knew very well and those I hadn’t known at all. The would-be architect in me surveyed quite a number of buildings and properties that way.

Háros Island

As you say in the motto, the result of this field work is the presentation of “the cheerful ghost city that exists below or besides us.” Is Budapest really a ghost city?

I wrote “cheerful” because of its indestructible life and love of life, and “ghost city” because of the incredible camouflage I mentioned before, as well as the fact of its being like a folding screen: behind each gate, there is a secret to cover up or to discover. Janitors have a typical attitude in Pest: rather than showing visitors the way, they hold them up in the doorway. You must have exceptional histrionic talent to win the favor of such a Cerberus.

And even if they let you in, you will probably meet some dark secret inside.

There is certainly a noir element in the book. We Budapest citizens walk on buried scenes, and when we move in a building, we do not necessarily know which family or social events, perhaps revolutions or wars those four walls had seen, or which terror organization was lodged at the office where we work. We know that most of the flourishing ruin pubs are on the area of the blood-stained former ghetto. Recently, there has been a project to mark ‘yellow-star buildings.’ This knowledge certainly changes the milieu of those homes and the attitude of the inhabitants. Passage Through Budapest is a book of homage as well.

One of the most emblematic stories of the book takes place on the Buda hill of Svábhegy, one of the most beautiful and popular walking spots in Budapest, which, however – as it turns out from the story – was Adolf Eichmann’s headquarters after the German occupation of Budapest in 1944.

For some years, there have been organized walks in Budapest. It was at one of these that I learnt about the unknown face of this fabulous walking spot and elite residential district; its unconscious, so to say – its dark, secret, sinful soul. Even before the walks, however, I was aware that both the Gestapo and the Hungarian communist state security were lodged at the posh hotels on Svábhegy. I also knew that there was a villa at the Normafa [a scenic spot on Svábhegy] where László Rajk was tortured, but I was not sure which building it was exactly. I think it is very important to know what happened at these spots.

Whenever it was besieged, Budapest invariably fell, yet it is still there. Budapest the indestructible is a recurring motive in the book. Why do you think this city is impossible to destroy?

Hungarians are a nation of real survivors. There are remnants of the middle class, for example, who survived the war and the communist era. The middle class has resurrected, and it is very much alive today, with unaltered traditions that I am really fond of – and some annoying ones, like the ostentation of the new rich. Dignity could not be eliminated by communist methods, though Rákosi and co. really did everything they could in order to that. On the other hand, there have always been attempts to make Hungarian culture uniform. But it will never be uniform, and it shouldn’t be.

Hungarian culture is so diverse that Budapest does not have one great legend like, for example, ancient cities in the Roman Empire. Was it an intention of your book to make up for this lack?

The reason Budapest does not have one legend is that it is not one city but a conglomerate of more than twenty small settlements. Rákospalota, for example, is like a market town in the Great Hungarian Plain, Újpest a minor industrial town, Békásmegyer or Aranyhegy are hillside villages. Budafok is a viticultural town, the Hungarian Grinzing. Óbuda is one of the most interesting districts, with caves, rocks, Roman ruins, small pubs and restaurants that Gyula Krúdy used to frequent, complete with lots of ugly communist blocks of flats, unfortunately. Vienna also had a Roman ancestor, Vindobona, but Vienna was completely built on it, whereas Óbuda was built beside ancient Roman Acquincum. The Roman stones were built into queens’ castles, and when the castles were destroyed, the stones were used to build the burghers’ houses. Óbuda was rebuilt many times, and defaced many times in the last one thousand years.

Is that what you mean by the metaphor of “tinkered Hungary” in your book?

This is not so much about the Hungary of today as about the architecture of the 1970s, when people carried junked buses and wagons to their small plots of land, to live in them for decades. This was a tremendous visual pollution that we could see all over in our childhood, and in our present surroundings as well. Also, buildings were constructed and furnished in fatally bad taste. These are indelible memories, just like the soothing murmur of Sokol pocket radios.

This metaphor shows that your book is far from being a ‘soft’ one. What do you mean when you say that your writings are ‘hard’?

That’s true, I have no ‘soft’ books. This is not one either. By ‘hardness’ I mean that I do not indulge the reader. I do not write things that are softer than my own taste, even though I know very well that the reader could do with some pampering in these hard times. As a matter of fact, these are not extremely hard times; besides, we need more than pampering. Helping people sober up and wake up are also very important.

I do think we are living in relatively hard times.

Undoubtedly. But there is no Tatar invasion, no Red Army at the moment. That is what I constantly think of to console myself. But actually, yes, these are quite hard times, for me as well. It would be stupid of me to pretend otherwise.

This interview was originally published in Hungarian at hvg.hu.

Térey János: Átkelés Budapesten
Budapest: Libri, 2014

Adél Hercsel

Tags: János Térey