06. 12. 2018. 15:47

Remembering Városmajor

translated by Tom Sneddon

‘Neighbourhood’ is a novel simultaneously concerned with the difficulty of unearthing, understanding and digesting the past, and with the absolute necessity of these tasks. – Gábor Zoltán’s ‘Neighbourhood: Before and After’ is reviewed by Dániel Szmerka.

In Gábor Zoltán’s new novel, ‘Neighbourhood: Before and After’ he returns once more to the themes explored in his novel ‘Orgy’, with the thoughtful, perceptive gaze of someone who lives in the same district – Városmajor – he is writing about. An ‘essay novel’ as he himself describes it, the book chronicles the massacres and brutality of the fascist Arrow Cross in Hungary in 1944-45, and reveals the deep-rooted culture of punctilious, legalistic book-keeping at the heart of their ideology. It tells the stories both of the victims and the perpetrators, and more broadly that of the district of Buda known as Városmajor, while examining both what led to this orgy of bloodletting and what its implications might be for the present. Silence and wilful ignorance are two themes he touches on often: “That’s how the groundwork is laid. Wilful ignorance. The fact is that there are incomparably more people who wish to remain ignorant about this sort of thing, than who wish to know. I didn’t want to know either; I liked it better that way. Then 2011 came along, and I decided I wanted to know.”

All this, of course, lays a heavy burden on the reader, like a mouthful too big either to swallow or spit out. Still, there’s no escaping the novel’s central premise: ‘Neighbourhood’ is a novel simultaneously concerned with the difficulty of unearthing, understanding and digesting the past, and with the absolute necessity of these tasks. It is also concerned with remembering, bringing buried layers to the surface and arranging them, and with how memories are processed both by the individual and the community (even if these turn out to be quite different procedures.) Briefly, it is a novel about the stakes involved in remembering. This, he argues, is an act of profound responsibility, since in essence it affects the identity not only of the individual but of the entire community.

“On one of the streets of this city there once stood a Jewish hospital. I had never once heard of it until I was thirty years old, and even for a long time thereafter I knew very little about it. During the siege of Budapest, the Arrow Cross butchered all the patients, doctors and nurses, as well as everyone sheltering inside. It’s possible to come by this information, but that would be very unlikely unless you were looking for it. It’s easy, in other words, to remain ignorant.” With these words Gábor Zoltán begins his text, written as a thoroughly-researched memorial focusing on the events which took place on January 12th 1945. On reflection, though, perhaps ‘events’ and ‘took place’ are not the most appropriate terms in this instance.

That’s because in ‘Neighbourhood’ the act of remembering (both what happened and how) takes place in the present; it is an active, imaginative (re)conceptualisation of events during those final months of World War Two: Those men who exercised power with guns in their hands, controlling both private and public spaces, as well as the people living, working or even hiding in those spaces. Those who inflicted unimaginable violence upon others on the basis of ideological or racial differences. Those too who were forced to hide, or were deported, or were shot, their bodied pitched into the Danube, or were slaughtered in their sick-beds in the Maros Street hospital and in Városmajor. It also concerns itself with those considered the leaders of political or intellectual life during this period: the politicians, generals, writers and artists. (To take only the most obvious answers, these include Szálasi, Prónay, András Kun, Dezső Szabó, Bertalan Árkay). These were men who at times identified with anti-Semitism, and with their rigidly doctrinal brand of nationalism, exalting the nation state as a single, unified identity whose enemies must be identified, defined, defeated and expelled, they helped establish a worldview in which extreme violence was justified. It should be noted in passing that the book’s focus on ‘neighbours’ is not a reference to the Germans, or to Hungary’s international neighbourhood. Instead it refers to members of Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party, who came from local communities, and to the inhabitants of Budapest’s twelfth district, Városmajor. (The two groups at times overlap.)

Individual stories combine and cross-reference, weaving like threads through the tapestry of the novel and gradually coming to define one another more and more closely as they are developed. Zoltán’s evocative novel is peppered with original source material, but he does not attempt any comprehensive, sweeping historical account of events. Rather, the novel emulates the character of living memory, with divergent, stratified, random details, as well as following certain structural principles reflecting present tastes. It follows from all this that though ‘Neighbourhood’ focuses on our present remembrance of the January 12th 1945 massacre – or rather the lack thereof –  it is not limited to this event, and tries to conjure every detail that can still be grasped from those 1944 – 45 days.

This in turn means that ‘Neighbourhood’ is as much a history of ideas as a history of a place. Gábor Zoltán writes with self-reflection about the birth of ‘Neighbourhood’ – parts of which date even to before the writing of ‘Orgy’, and naturally had a profound influence on the writing of that novel. “[…] I recall the course of my childhood and adolescence, and the point where I began to read things about this district. The fact is, I’ve lived here pretty much continually for more than half a century, and I began to sense that something about the place didn’t feel quite right; almost unhealthy.” The district, of course, is Városmajor and its surroundings (Maros Street, Városmajor Street, Csaba Street, Alma Street, Szamos Street, Szilágy Erzsébet Avenue). This is where, on January 12th 1945, the Arrow Cross slaughtered the nurses, doctors and patients of the Jewish hospital, as well as the patients in the Jewish hospice, which – Zoltán reminds us – features in a novel by Miklós Mészöly called ‘Film’: “The place where the bodies lay has been a park for a few years now, hemmed in by the newly-built tennis courts and clubhouse. This was the spot where the residents of the Városmajor Street Jewish hospice, most over seventy years old, were slaughtered. The number of dead was not so very high, but then the number of people who reach such an age is not so very high, and cannot be compared to the much larger number of patients and staff slaughtered in the wards of the hospice’s sister institution, the Jewish hospital.” (In relation to this quote, Zoltán points out a minor factual error in Mészöly’s account: It was the Bíró Dániel hospital, a few streets from the hospice, where a massacre took place on January 14th. The residents of the hospice were massacred on January 19th).

Mészöly wrote about what happened in Városmajor during the seventies, making the citizens of the district – and Budapest in general – aware, at least on some level, of their suppressed collective memories, though for Mészöly these ultimately represent only historical background for his novel. Perhaps this is why even careful readers of Mészöly often find their eyes skimming over this historical detail:

“When I first read ‘Film’ I didn’t even pause at that section. I somehow failed to grasp that Miklós Mészöly was describing a real-life massacre that took place some fifty metres from where I lived. It might even have been closer than fifty metres. They brought me home from the clinic where I was born and laid me in my cot. Birds twittered in the trees, nature bloomed, and practically next door the horse chestnut trees had been watered with the blood of slaughtered people. That was the place where I cried for the first time; the same air into which those people shrieked in death just fifteen years earlier. It’s almost certain that I was at home when I first read ‘Film’, which is to say I was practically right on the spot. And even then the penny didn’t drop?” Such self-reflective passages, interrogating his own capacity for recognition, are sprinkled through the pages of ‘Neighbourhood.’ “I’m writing about these things,” he says more than once, “to try to make them more graspable. The archive material, the interviews with people directly or indirectly involved in those events, things briefly recorded in memoranda or scraps of paper… Only as part of a sustained procedural inquiry can we begin to incorporate these details into a broader picture.”

And these things have to be brought to light – this could serve almost as a subtitle for ‘Neighbourhood’ – but not simply so that the public will memorialise the past, nor even reflect on it as a consequence of prior decisions. Instead, his motives are more personal. We repeat a citation from earlier: “The fact is that there are incomparably more people who wish to remain ignorant about this sort of thing, than who wish to know. I didn’t want to know either; I liked it better that way. Then 2011 came along, and I decided I wanted to know.” This decision was, of course, not unrelated to the sweeping political changes which began in 2010, which had personal implications for Zoltán himself, and which are due criticism – oblique or not so oblique – from the country’s thinkers.

(Gábor Zoltán: Neighbourhood – Before and After, Kalligram, 2018.)


Translated by Tom Sneddon



Previously on HLO:
The Pleasures of the Arrow-Cross – Teri Szűcs' review of Zoltán Gábor's Orgy, and interview with the author.