11. 15. 2012. 07:05

The Memory Room

The Translators’ House in Balatonfüred, like so many other institutions of its kind, is dependent on both private, institutional and government largesse. The largesse, it seems now, may run out. Or is in danger of running out.

In one of her earliest novels, Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf writes about the room of a young man who, having gone off to serve in the trenches of that first armed conflict so expansive in its dreadful scope as to receive the designation of ‘world’ war, is destined not to return. The novel ends with the haunting image of the soldier’s mother standing in this room, a room permeated, haunted by absence, as she holds up the young man’s shoes, and asks ‘what am I to do with these?’ Nearly one century on, sadly, there are still mothers facing the same decisions as to what to ‘do’ with the rooms of their children lost to war and destruction.

Yet it gives one thought: the ability of a room to evoke, to harbor, or – if perhaps overly restored – even to diminish or utterly extinguish memory.  Do rooms retain their memories when, for example, they contain nothing of their first substance? When the furniture, the paint on the walls, the floorboards are all new? Is there something that always remains? I think, for example, of re-plastering and painting the walls of our current flat many years ago, when we were able to glimpse how the original owners, who arrived in 1939 or 1937 – depending on which neighbors you asked – had fashioned their interiors. The kitchen was a kind of grayish Wedgwood blue, the middle room the same, and the bedroom pink. Falling from the walls, to be swept away by the Ukrainian plasterers, who spoke in Czech with Russian accents, the tiny fragments of color seemed mute witnesses to lives long past. Constructed in the fateful year of 1939 (or 1937), the building called upon me to imagine the years of the ‘unhappy protectorate’, as a friend once put it, as they took place without and within these walls. I have no idea of who the original inhabitants were, I know absolutely nothing about them other than the colors of the walls; even the kindly elderly widow from whom we purchased the flat knew nothing about the family who lived here from 1939 (or 1937) until 1970. At times, I admit, I feel a sense of curiosity almost strong enough to propel me to the offices of the land registry to find out – but I also admit I am a little afraid of what I would find. If buildings and rooms have lives, and are born – as books are, at least in Hungarian – then these rooms were born into one of the greatest times of tumult and sorrow that they could have ever witnessed.

The concept of the ‘Memory Room’, the Hungarian ‘emlékszoba’, more often freely translated at the ‘memorial room’, must exist in nearly every cultural and linguistic milieu that has a memory of its own past. I have heard, for example, that you can request and obtain the key to Proust’s cork-lined study in Paris (presumably, now devoid of the dust-balls the size of chinchillas). And I once had the unique, never-to-be-repeated opportunity, through the kindness and generosity of an instructor in the Czech Studies Program at Charles University to make a personal visit to the former studio of Josef and Karel Čapek in Prague’s Vršovice district. As far as I know, the studio is preserved in the same state today, but is no longer open to visitors. Everything in that room seemed absolutely undisturbed – except for the light touch of the duster – since 1939, when Josef was seized by the Gestapo and deported to Bergen-Belsen, his brother having died of a heart attack not long before. To step into that room genuinely meant to step into a time no longer extant, save that it existed still in that room. The Prague of today, a modern European city beset by gentrification and homogenization of its historic centre like any other, even for all of its palpable nostalgia for the interwar years of the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Prague of today wants only to forget the realities that are conserved here, conserved in these walls that hold the past within.

Yes, it was amazing to stroll around the Čapek brothers’ garden, where ‘Dášenka’, immortalized in their children’s book, had frolicked as a puppy. I was yet at the same time utterly convinced that when night fell, the ghosts of Karel and Josef would return to their study, with the exact same discipline and moderation that they displayed in their everyday lives, Karel deliberately walking the several kilometers to the Lidové noviny offices, Josef adding yet further stories to ‘The Tales of Dog and Cat’ – but published now only for those who, as the Russians say, have already departed into ‘that other light’.

On that day, this particular Memory Room created in me a memory that has almost become like a room in my head. A room I can enter and exit any time at will. Fortunately, there are other such rooms I can still enter in a physical sense.

One such room is the Memory Room at the Translators’ House in Balatonfüred.  It is dedicated to the life and memory of the house’s former owner, Gábor Lipták. For after all, before the house became the Translators’ House, this room held a literary salon by the lake, copiously documented in Lipták’s memoirs Open Gate. Here the great figures of 20th-century Hungarian literature gathered: János Pilinszky, Sándor Weöres, István Örkény, Lőrincz Szabó, Gyula Illyés, Tibor Déry – as the photographs on the wall attest, or the reproduction of the former guestbook with its poems, drawings and statements of thanks. So many spirits gathered here – in truth, their presence can be felt throughout the house, in every single room, whether you are making an afternoon coffee in the kitchen, sitting on the newly restored patio, or gazing out the windows at the stalwart trees that surround and protect the house like a living chain of hands – so many spirits that, I confess, when I am staying there and no one is inhabiting the Memorial Room, I often wander in to acquaint myself again with their presence. They are the intellectual giants with whom this nation has been blessed, whatever its current turmoil. Their political views, philosophical concerns, orientations on questions of national import differed widely, and yet at some point they all stayed under the same roof. They stood in the very same garden where I stand today.  And in the photographs on the wall, they look so alive that I feel almost as if I might bump into them just outside.

And in a way, I do. I stand looking at the photographs, absent-mindedly turning over the pages of the former guest book.

The Translators’ House in Balatonfüred, like so many other institutions of its kind, is dependent on both private, institutional and government largesse. Disclosure: As a translator, I have cause to travel and stay there. Every time I have such an opportunity, I feel not only enriched, but immensely, absurdly, immeasurably privileged, that I may, even for a brief moment, inhabit these walls, which for me are nothing less than a sanctuary.

The largesse, it seems now, may run out. Or is in danger of running out. Europe is in the midst of the worst econmic crisis since the Great Depression. Some call it the Great Recession. Private and institutional largesse are also being put under incredible strain.

I fully acknowledge all of these realities, yet would offer just one thought – if there is something like the soul of a nation, then as for the Hungarian soul, it at least partially abides here, in this House.

Ottilie Mulzet

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