Let us think about our early history.
Remember our ingenious little heroes who did their all so that prehistory should remain shrouded, while at the same time as worthy descendants of their own forebears they preserved the secret in a series of cryptic clues, doing so purely in order to infuriate us and get us continually planning and replanning the past. I have to confess that a few years ago this call was the furthest possible from me. To crave that? Me? From anyone at all? That they should rack their brains over Hungary’s prehistory and crafty forebears? No way! We have better things to do than that. After which, by your leave, here I am respectfully asking everyone to proceed with caution. Chin up and smooth your hair back because from the totality of minute signs may be assembled over which enough scholars to fill three academies are fruitlessly puzzling.
The business started with a childhood remark, and that was at a time when it would never even have occurred to me that thanks precisely to that I would come across the most jealously guarded riddle of being a Hungarian. I was travelling with my then four-year-old daughter Sally on the No. 2 tram running along the Pest bank of the Danube opposite Gellért Hill. Sally posed the question: “Why is that tall lady throwing the little fish into the water?”
It was not until we were passing by the Parliament building that the penny dropped that the female figure of the Liberation Monument on the top of Gellért Hill was the ‘tall lady’ whereas the little fish was… It was no use my telling her that it was the olive branch of victory that she holds aloft; in her child’s head there was no code for an olive branch but all the more one for fishes. As a joke it was funny enough, albeit not very funny, but still I spread around the witty definition as best I could.
A friend of mine by the name of Pál Lázár, who was top of his year in Finno-Ugrian Studies at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest (at the time of the story—now he is a less and less enthusiastic lecturer of the same university) started hiccuping at the table in a bar, and he glared reprovingly at me, though in such a manner that no one else would notice. My daughter Sally’s story froze in my throat. Later he drew me aside and entreated me in all seriousness that however proud I might be of the child not to tell that story ever again. I supposed that he felt the little anecdote was making a mockery of the idea of liberation as after all it concerns one of the city’s most characteristic symbols, and I was thinking, damned if that’s not the way principles are seething in my buddy Paulie.
That was not the point, however. He asked me to accompany him at the weekend to his deserted university department. We ended up in a strange room. It was a library and yet also not one, given that there were hardly any books in it. I no longer recall what exactly there was—at all events there was very little light, and I would also venture someone had eaten herring on the Friday. The was no electricity, incredible as that may seem. Paulie lit a floating-wick candle and told me to hang on before then setting down a parchment before me. I couldn’t see from where he produced that—the scroll simply appeared in his hands, smelly, dirty and sticky, making me clap a hand to my nose.
“So, what’s your move?” he pointed to a diagram. The clumsy lines of the sketch limned tradesmen of some kind. On one leaf fish were the wares, and the people wore the garb of our Finno-Ugrian linguistic relatives.
“They appear to be in Greek togas,” I said.
“In what else would they be given that they are?”
“Aha! they are, then. So what?”
“Use your eyes. It’s a Graeco–Finno-Ugrian swap—fish from the latter, olive branch from the former,” Paulie said aghast.
“But so what?”
“This proves that the Magyars are condemned to strong democracy.”
“That’s precisely what it proves, exactly so.”
“And your four-year-old came to that realisation. It’s staring you in the face and all you can do is look at it!”
“Insofar as we can be said to be relatives of the Finns,” I trotted out the words that it was not permissible to say in the Finno-Ugrian Department even out of pity. Paulie started listing the correlations. The female figure of the Liberation Monument, which in reality was not Mrs Matild Brestyánszki née Hodor nor even Erzsébet Thuránszky Gaál but Pallas Athene herself, and she really was holding a fish up to the heavens because for the Finno-Ugrians the fish was the symbol of liberty. Sculptor Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl had been financed by “Greeks”; the veining reminiscent of leaves had been incised at Moscow’s request, and on the upper side of the fish/olive branch not visible from underneath the fish has eyes. In addition to which the main figure of the statue of Kossuth on Kossuth Square portrays Pericles or Zeus.
I clapped my hands to my head at the stream of balderdash.
“Fair enough! But how do Hungarians fit into the picture? What have we got in common with all those tedious races of people?”
“Look at a map! The Carpathian Basin is located at precisely the point of the golden mean between the ancestral homeland and Greece.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I have a guiding principle in life that the moment a scholar pronounces the term ‘golden mean’ I know I am dealing with a certifiable lunatic. There is a Da Vinci Code strain of being who at home light by the flame of a floating-wick lamp and search for the winning numbers of next week’s lottery on the lines of the Divine Comedy. For all I knew my friend Paulie that very day would be burying me under the cellar, where he was collecting unfortunates like me.
“If you don’t mind, could you tell me about another golden mean, even if it is only for joking’s sake.”
“OK, then let’s go to the banks of the Danube.”
That day I solved the problem of Magyar prehistory and I grasped the essence of democracy.
We stood in line with the northern end of the University of Economics at a spot from which steps lead down to the quayside path.
“Right, then, take a look at that fish,” Paulie pointed towards the hill.
I was gobsmacked. By now I was quite certain that our Magyar history did not just comprise loosely a millennium, and it was no laughing matter that we had tried out democracy time after time in the course of that history.
My Sally’s little fish appeared as a halo exactly over the Holy Crown at the Pest side of Liberty Bridge. To a T. The viewpoint was explicitly blasphemous: a fish making up a halo over the symbol of Hungarian statehood—proof if ever there was that the fish-eating relationship was no mistake. Fishes, for which as a child at Lake Balaton I conceived a genuine disgust, were already then present in me as a symbol, so an olive branch for a fish, fish for an olive branch—that was no joking matter! No question that the symbol of liberty was directly atop what is called the Liberation Monument and I was seeing it above the Holy Crown on what is called Liberty Bridge.
“Do you get it now? Hungary is not allowed to perish! As long as the country is standing democracy will exist on planet Earth,” he said. I fervently seconded that though I did not really grasp what was up.
“Well, and where exactly is the crown located between the steps and the bridge?” Paulie gave the coup de grâce.
“The golden mean…”
“Not as stupid as you look, are you! Do you have any idea who planned the steps a century ago? One of the heads of our Department. Right here, and it hasn’t been moved or destroyed. Of course there have been some changes over the last century. Before now, for example, there was a red star in place of the crown, the fish being the gloriole for the star.
“And what would the Russkies have said of that if they knew?”
“Ha-ha, that’s the joke! They knew it. Do you want me to spell out the Soviet Central Committee members who were let in on it, and there was always at least one clever dick from the Finno-Ugrian parts of the world.”
“What do you mean by ‘let in on it’? Have I been ‘let in on it?”
“Not you, but your daughter is one of our people. I begun in just the same way when I was a boy, and my father blabbed just the same. I ended up in the Department, just as your daughter will.”
“Finno-Ugristics—her?! You bet! So she can starve to death and the whole country look down on her!”
Does the treasure of King Attila signify anything to you? It guarantees at least a modicum of a livelihood,” Paulie whispered.
“That…. It’s in the River Tisza, isn’t it?”
“No, my friend, in the Danube. Who do you reckon wrote down the legends of the Huns? We are not quite as stupid as you may believe. What’s more, it lies right here, under the crown, at the foot of the bridge.”
“That puts it a bit beyond the reach of your lot, my friend!”
“You’re joking! every fifty years there is either construction, reconstruction, or renovation work on the bridge. That’s how we arrange history!”
Since then the steps have been demolished due to the construction work on the Metro. When I enquired about this from Paulie he said that too was part of the plan.
“From time to time we smear up the past, and at others we leave it to come to light. Don’t worry about it! We sorted it out neatly the way it is.”
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson
Tags: Balázs Szálinger