10. 11. 2010. 09:35

The work of recall

Iván Sándor: Following Up

At the most basic level this novel is, one might say, the story of the kind of fate that might have befallen György (Gyuri) Köves, the 14- going on 15-year-old protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness had he not been deported to Auschwitz six months earlier, though most likely both authors would insist—rightly—that their chosen methods—and, indeed, the experiences they underwent—are very different.

By the time the cyclist had whisked round the corner of Bem Quay and Halász Street we had recognised our shared failure in each other’s gaze. The sight of the handlebars of his bicycle brought to mind another cyclist's bull-like figure, pumping the pedals as he was draped over the sports handlebars in the very same place 58 years before, although then it had been called the Margaret Quay. None the less it was as though my glance were not my own but that of a 14-year-old boy marching in the column who was seeking the look of the cyclist beside him.
   All he saw, however, was the slits of his eyes.
   A flash of the tightly clenched line between a swollen eyelid and a podgy cheek.
   That was also all that could be made out of the looks of his armed escort.
   Once again new orders were being bawled out. Once again it was necessary to run between the men with submachine guns…
These are the opening lines of Iván Sándor's Követés, returned to near the start of the penultimate chapter (Fifteenth, p. 254). In between is an endlessly fascinating account of those 58 years, at the end of which the first-person narrator literally and metaphorically retraces the stations of the route taken through Budapest by him, as an adolescent, together with his parents, family and friends and, more widely, other presumed Jewish inhabitants of the city’s XIVth District in the first place to the Óbuda Brickworks. The subsequent paths are far from straightforward route but the book gives readers abundant reason to trust in his guidance. As the narrator points out on the very same page as that second quote:
I map out the one-time route that lives in my memory and the routes I have covered over the last three days using fibre-tipped pens of different colours. Each colour signifies another time zone. The lines are layered on each other, and that modifies the original colours.
That, then, gives us the most literal reading of the play on words in the Hungarian title. More than that, towards the end (in the chapter headed Fourteenth) there is the following
I have also suspected all along that I am both following and being followed. Ever since I met Georgie [Györgyi]. This is not hard to spot if one looks back over one’s shoulder at the right moment. More interestingly, I am following myself, the follower.
Quite apart from these aspects, however, the book’s title can also be taken as a direct allusion to követ, meaning ambassador, legate etc., because it is also an understated tribute to the Vice Consul of the Swiss legation in Budapest, who—along with the much more widely known Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and a few others—by purchasing various properties and having them designated as embassy property (protected yellow-star houses) and by issuing safe conduct passes (Schutzbriefe) saved countless lives. For all those reasons it seems appropriate to translate the title of Sándor’s novel as Following Up: Chronicle of a Legacy.
     Lutz is shown to have been a saviour of many Hungarians. Not only does he make arrangements to take into ‘care homes’ children (and old people) who are on the point of being marched off on journeys that would otherwise have ended in the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz, but he also plucks the narrator’s parents (and others) at the Hungarian border (Hegyeshalom) from a death march. Lutz and a few other diplomats for ‘neutral’ powers were, to some extent, able to use their privileged diplomatic position to mitigate the horrors that were visited on the Jewish population of Hungary (as in most of the rest of Europe) by the German SS. Lutz’s particular story has been recounted by Theo Tschuy in a book translated into English as Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (Grand Rapids, Mich. & Cambridge, UK: William B. Erdmanns Publishing, 2000). Perhaps one should also mention an account of the incredible bravery shown by a ‘simple’ non-Jewish Italian meatpacker to pose as the Spanish chargé d’affaires in Budapest as told by Enrico Deaglio in a book entitled The Banality of Goodness: The Story of Giorgio Perlasca (Notre Dame & London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. Transl. Gregory Conti). Perlasca does not intervene directly in the story, but Sándor does quote an appropriate passage from his diary which adverts to the carnage visited on Budapest in the last few months of World War II.
     Of course, the title of Deaglio’s book is a very open reference to a famous 1963 work by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Constantly probing at the nature of memory, and the way in which it may alter over time, Sándor notes specifically in connection with Eichmann:
I have seen such a great many photos and I am familiar with the descriptions of him, so inevitably my picture of him is built up on that basis. At times like this one’s memories are also changed, the original is lost and what dominates is what others have fixed in position—it may resemble the original but in the end it is a copy. (p. 231)
One way in which the narrator’s personal story is linked directly with Lutz’s—and through Lutz to Eichmann—is through a great-aunt: “Gizi [i.e. Gisella] was Mother’s aunt, though no more than two years older—in 1944 she was 43 years old…” An important subplot is Gizi’s vain attempt to find her sister Bessie (or what happened to her) on the death march to Hegyeshalom, but she also intervenes at several crucial points as an ICRC nurse at several of the ‘safe’ houses where the narrator finds precarious shelter.
Gizi had not noticed before but now it strikes her eye that sitting at the corner table is a writer whom she knows by sight, indeed she obtained a signature from him a few years before at one of the Book Week tents. The writer has just finished his dinner and has taken out a notebook in which he starts to write.
Immediately preceding that is another passage:
"I pick my way between trestles carrying coils of barbed-wire to dine at the Gellért Hotel,” writes Sándor Márai in his Diary. “The saloon bar was destroyed a few days ago by a bomb from an intruder aircraft; more than a few guests died but nobody speaks about the death toll; in the grand upper restaurant tables are laid with immaculate linen tablecloths and napkins, tasty and not all that expensive dishes are served noiselessly on silver trays by superbly trained waiters. For twelve pengo, I can dine in a peacetime setting with electric lighting; well-dressed people are seated at the tables, the waiters’ dickies are dazzlingly white. From the window I can see a big gun guarding the bridge and the hotel’s entrance along with several barbed-wire thickets which will be used to defend Gellért Hill when it comes to close combat. A group approaches in the street: older and younger women with headscarves, children—Jews being sent to some site for deportation. Two policemen with rifle are steering the group; not one word of comment from anybody in the splendid, warm, well-lit dining room.”
Imre Kertész has drawn on Márai’s Diary for 1944-45 in much the same way (entry for 9 August 1989 in Gályanapló [Galley Boat Log]:
The pages in Márai's Journal for 1944: "On July 3rd, the heaviest air raid of them all so far starts at half past nine in the morning." I still distinctly remember the attack. To me in the Budakalász brick works-cum-ghetto, that half past nine in the morning seemed much more like noon (perhaps on account of my incessant hunger). A few of us climbed up on a hillock alongside the fence, and from the relative prominence of this earth mound we watched what was happening in the distance. It was just as Márai described: "The sky was now truly like an ice rink, completely covered by the capricious lines traced by skate-blades, or like a mirror on which drunken hands have scratched crooked lines with a diamond. At a great height, a few dozen silver-winged, butterfly-sized machines occasionally sparkled in the sunshine. For two hours the machines droned... To travel into Budapest now would be like running into a burning house" etc. Márai made the trip into the city from Leányfalu with the suburban train service: "On the way the train passed the Budakalász brick works. Here amongst the brick-drying sheds seven thousand Jews from the Pest area are awaiting deportation. Soldiers with machine guns stand guard on the embankment." I don't know why I am gripped retrospectively by a surge of grateful delight that Márai caught a glimpse of me. He was then forty-four, I was fourteen. He caught sight of the boy with the yellow star amongst the brick sheds; and he also knew what that boy did not know at the time: that he would soon be transported off to Auschwitz. He wrote it all down—what else can a writer do?—in his Diary (and that Diary, incidentally, is the most untrammelled, comprehensive and significant intellectual impression of that era.
(It should be noted, incidentally that this was not the same brickworks as the one in which the narrator of Követés was incarcerated.)
   At the most basic level this is, one might say, the story of the kind of fate that might have befallen György (Gyuri) Köves, the 14- going on 15-year-old protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness had he not been deported to Auschwitz six months earlier. It is also tempting to drawn parallels between 12-year-old Vera who is a girlfriend (and sweetheart) of the narrator of Sándor’s novel and Annamarie in Fatelessness. And perhaps it will not escape attention that Kertész (b. 9 November 1929) is four months older than Sándor (b. 11 March 1930). Both authors had been in secondary school (gimnázium, in the continental European sense), and one can point to other parallels, but most likely both authors would insist—rightly—that their chosen methods—and, indeed, the experiences they underwent—are very different. Thus for all the temptations the reader feels to accept this as a literal account of Sándor’s experiences, as the author does towards the end of the book (Fifteenth): “Let’s be clear about one thing: it’s a novel.” One might add that it uses a very sophisticated array of devices to explore most of the memory processes that people encounter in their everyday life, with clever use being made of the differing recollections (or non-recollection) that different people have on an event, through a wide range of the techniques that are used to elicit memories. These vary from the simplest:
I note that there are … the letters of mine that have been preserved. After 58 years it would be fitting to study what I had to say, those really are the words of a 14-year-old boy, the writing might also provide opportunity for drawing conclusions, but I am well aware that the interpretations of sources in themselves lead to matters of the interpreter’s point of view, the methods of archiving and the drawing of conclusions…
Gizi survives the war, but the passage
Apart from me, there is now no one who can remember Gizi … As regards her story, the story of others on the basis of her story the once 14-year-old boy is the only one who has any knowledge, only he is able to write such words (Thirteenth, p. 182)
     Another strand of the plot, hinted at above, concerns specifically another girl’s—Georgie’s—later efforts to get a lead on what happened to her own mother who was caught up in the same column from which the narrator’s parents were rescued at the last moment but clearly was not so 'lucky’. This and other elements are mixed up in an attempt by a TV channel using an Italian director to collect the recollections of ‘survivors’—a term that Sándor objects to (“it is not a role I care to be cast in, I am not a survivor, I am a witness, and perhaps my role when I am in front of the camera is to say a few words about the difference between the two”) in a programme shot by a TV channel at the Grand Hotel in Locarno (a place where a table is on display that is marked with “a card saying ‘Conference de Locarno’ … date: 5-16 Octobre 1925. Nations taking part in the conference: Belgium, Great Britain, France, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia…”
When I called [Georgie] from Locarno I supposed that perhaps she was unable to separate herself from the written simulacrum of her, or what she imagined about her mother’s history from the way I had written it, nor me even from the 14-year-old boy. (p. 257)
     Perhaps by now one has picked up a fair idea of why one of the two epigraphs for the book comes from Beckett: Waiting for Godot: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable!” (The other is a less well-known source: “(We all know that) a corpse implies a story”, which is taken from Geoffrey Hartman: "Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story".
   As Sándor points out near the end:
It’s good if you can see positions that other people don’t see, let alone remember, all those many blind people who watch every last thing but see nothing nor remember anything. (Fourteenth, p.266)
The above barely touches on the very full-on engagement with the geography of the street of Budapest (the Pest side of the Danube especially) that Sándor has to demand (discreet assistance is given). And to make it clear as possible that readers are tacitly being questioned, Sándor at one point notes the conscious involvement of many tens, indeed hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of inhabitants of Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries in the racist persecutions of Jews and other populations:
Yesterday while writing my diary I read that the Hamburg-based 101 Reserve Police Battalion of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), made up of teachers, officials and skilled workers, without being given any specific order and without any ideological disposition or personal motivation (that’s what it says), massacred several thousand Polish Jews in 1942. (Seventh, p. 169)
This is a direct reference to the deservedly influential book by Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
Sándor Iván: Követés. Egy nyomozás krónikája
Bratislava: Kalligram, 2006
Previously on HLO
More than just love (Iván Sándor: Dear Liv)

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Iván Sándor