07. 20. 2009. 17:16

Village childhood

Szilárd Borbély

In the first half of the 1960s, when I was born, and in the second half of the decade, when my memories begin, the village was entering the final phases of its narrative, bitter, sad, already less idyllic, weighted down by strains. The deep fissure, however, was not drawn between the village and the world outside the village, but within the village itself.


I do not think that any great significance should be attached to whether someone lives in the countryside or not. What is much more important, however, is whether someone grows up in a city or a village. In that case, there are only two distinct groups with no transition between them. Interpersonal relations, lifestyle, intellectual and emotional ties have a different character in the city than in the village. For a long time, I only read about life in the city in stories and novels. In my childhood, the city simultaneously meant literature. To read is to travel.
In Hungary after the Soviet occupation, the onset of state capitalism had little tolerance for autonomous communities. Nor was it any different in the village where I grew up. From this fact, the conclusion can be drawn that the Hungarian city of the period before socialism could vanish suddenly, without a trace, perhaps even more quickly than the village, as the city was always less anchored in Hungarian reality.
In the first half of the 1960s, when I was born, and in the second half of the decade, when my memories begin, the village was entering the final phases of its narrative, bitter, sad, already less idyllic, weighted down by strains. The deep fissure, however, was not drawn between the village and the world outside the village, but within the village itself, the undermining of its shared traditional social forms and the dignity of its authority. Hidden between the generations lay a profound tension.
The contradictions between the worlds of the fathers and the sons grew ever sharper. This was blunted by the larger forms of society, which create a continuum of consciousness, the frameworks of transmission, of further work. But of course, only with great sacrifice and in many instances ruthless means: the instruments of power, absolute control over language and death. The period known as “socialism” was an epoch in which the state induced the sons to rebel against the fathers. It incited them, setting them against the older generation. This caused untold damage. If the question of nationalization, the attacks on the Church or religious denominations, the creation of collective farms, the overturning of the centuries-old order arose, the young goons smashed the mild objections of their elders to pieces.
At that time in the village, the younger generations threw out the items of old handcrafted furniture and replaced them with the much-desired, cheaply mass-produced products said to be modern. And the same thing occurred with the whole of the material culture of village life. The old implements in service for generations, the wooden tools, were chopped up for the stove. The wooden sleighs, the hand-looms, the distaffs and the spinning-wheels, the grain-flails, the peasant carts, the plaited wickerwork, the ox-yokes, the flax-crushers all disappeared along with all of the other implements that had become superfluous: you could buy something better in the shop.
The top of the brick oven sagged. Fruit was steamed in it only once a year, and in the autumn the fruit merely dried on the top. The cast-iron pots were thrown out, the oil lamps and the kerosene lanterns, all of the horse tackle, the butter-churns; apart from cabbage-pickling, only the pig-killing remained, now of exaggerated importance. As if it were the culmination of the civilization of the peasant world. This is by no means true. When we speak of the village, we must speak of a vanished world, but it is a difficult and hopeless task, nearly impossible.
In the attic of the house of my grandfather, who was not my grandfather, I found a leather case. It was from the most finely tanned leather. I came upon it somewhere in one of the hidden corners of the attic. Its opening was tightly closed. It was perforated or incised at regular intervals, I don’t remember precisely. Drawn through the perforations was a leather strap. On this strap was a knot, a knot that could be adjusted, so that you could tighten, or if need be loosen and open up, the opening of the bundle.
This object was refined, painstakingly worked; much more meticulous than the objects that I was accustomed to seeing. It seemed to be the bearer of another kind of consciousness. As I unloosened the opening, I found within one or two pieces of touchwood mushroom. Naturally, they had been prepared, lye-washed. They were dry, unbelievably dry. Soft and velvety to the touch. It felt good to stroke them. Among the objects of the village, it was very rare to come across such fine, carefully executed items such as this. Objects for which their mere touch brought a feeling of elemental joy.
I liked to take this fungus into my hands. My father used it for beekeeping, in the process of smoking the hives, as it revived the fire. In the summer, we walked through the woods, searching for the dampest parts, and on the larger trees there would always be one or two huge, beautiful touchwood mushrooms. They grew so big that I could hardly carry them myself. I truly loved these strange mushrooms after they had been washed in lye and then dried out. For they were light and dry, their scent conjuring up distant memories. You could cut them into thin strips. Each one was like a piece of yarn that little bits of fluff stick to, little tiny granules hung down from each of them. We lit them up with matches. I was only allowed to hold and blow on them. They did not catch fire immediately, but only smoked and smoldered; for the rest, dry, river-borne, old rotted pieces of wood were used. In the leather knapsack there was also a strange stone, which I had never seen before. I collected stones, but I had never seen one like this. And there was a piece of metal as well. I didn’t understand why. I looked at these things for a while, I groped around a bit longer in the attic, which we called the hászia, and then I brought the sack down and showed it to my grandfather, who was not my grandfather.
He was surprised. He asked where I’d found it. “In the hászia,” I said. Somewhere in the corner, underneath the tiles, almost stuck into the mouldering plaster withy next to the large beam. He took it into his hands, and it seemed to me that he was also happy to see it. I loved his hands. Old, dried-out, trembling hands. I loved his hands as I loved him, his wheezing, his limp; his place in the order of village life was determined, which was not true for us. This gave us a kind of protection, but he could not vouch for us. The fact that he belonged did not change our not-belonging.
He was delighted, almost like a child, to see the leather pouch that we called the iszák. He took it into his hands and caressed it. Secretively, like someone who is transmitting great knowledge and telling of ancient enigmas, he explained that this was something he didn’t use any more, and that he didn’t even remember since when. That the stone, the flint, was real flintstone. In days gone by, this was an item of great value! The iron was steel, it wasn’t just any old metal that could rust. And the whole tool was enclosed in the leather sheath, the opening pulled tight, so that no damp could enter. Because this was used for lighting fires, that’s why. You have to strike the stone against the steel until it catches a spark, then the spark has to grab onto the tinder, and then you have to blow, blow until the spark becomes a glowing ember and then, touching this ember, you can make anything burst into flame. I’ll put it away now, he said, because this is a keepsake, my father used it to light the fire. After that I couldn’t play with the “drunkard” any more. He never used it, but neither did he throw it out. Not the way that the generation of the Sixties treated their memories of the previous world.
My grandfather who was not my grandfather could not, it appears, have been a very clever person. At times he seemed a bit scatterbrained. He laughed a lot, often he behaved curiously but he knew his place exactly. He recounted many stories about the First World War, the Italian front. He was sixteen when they took him away, because the military calendar did not agree with the calendar year. I didn’t understand that. He mentioned Italian names that meant nothing to me. He spoke about the mud, trench warfare, winter, about his toes, which were frostbitten, and how ever since then he limped and had to walk with a cane. Others denied this, saying that he’d always had a game leg, which had grown much worse with time and old age.
I often felt ashamed of him before the other inhabitants of the village. At those times, I withdrew from him a little. And sometimes I denied my ties to him. It might have been because our names were different. Those who didn’t know us could never know, just by surname alone, that I had any relation with him. The adults didn’t know the children. It was almost as if children didn’t exist, as if they didn’t have any face of their own. They could never tell who you were from your face, but they always asked, whose son are you? If that didn’t help, then they asked you what your grandfather’s name was. In that way, they placed you within the order of the village. We were not a part of this order, so I didn’t have to divulge that I might have some connection to the slightly scatterbrained old man.
It was in school that I came to understand that we lived in the countryside. In the lower grades, we read about how the village sends wheat to the city, where it is milled, and the city then sends us bread in return. I didn’t understand this too well, because at that time, my mother still baked every morning; at dawn she kneaded the dough, fired up the oven, and when I arose, the fresh crusty bread was already warming in the bread-basket. If I got up earlier to help her, which was just a more subtle form of getting in the way, then she explained how to bake bread. And after breakfast, I could lie down next to the warm loaves on the bed-space atop the stove and doze off a bit. In other words, I didn’t understand why it was necessary to take the wheat to the city if in every courtyard there was a bake-house, or at least an oven. The teacher wasn’t interested in this topic. I quickly lost the habit of asking questions.
I was, however, better able to understand why the village sends milk to the city and in return receives from the city tractors. There was a great need for tractors. My grandfather used a Hoffer tractor for a while, which was nicknamed “The Claw”: its wheels were made of iron, as were the claws that dug into the earth. It shook dreadfully, moved at a walking pace, and was constantly breaking down. As I knew well, my father at the time couldn’t get any work. But it was necessary for him to work to be accepted by the village. That is why he got this useless Hoffer tractor from the scrapyard of the collective farm. If he could repair it, and if he was willing to work with it, then he could stay, that was his only possibility. Then one day, on a damp ditch-embankment, the tractor was to topple over, my father breaking his arm and sustaining internal injuries. He had no health insurance and was unable to work for at least half a year. He had no money. We went to the forest to gather poppies and mushrooms. And in the autumn, nuts. Tractors are really necessary, that I knew. But I didn’t ask any questions.
Life in the village and in school was complicated by the suspicion that an obscure bond tied us to the man who came back from Auschwitz, and who was my father’s secret half-brother. In the village there are no secrets, and memory is collective: these memories are given words and form, again and again, by conversations that ease the burden of collective work and make the monotony bearable. On the façade of the shop that had been theirs, the name of the one-time owner – whom no one wanted to remember – was still written into the stucco. His son survived forced labour. When he found out that his entire family had perished, he no longer kept his faith, but he continued to live in that house where his children, his wife, and his parents were no more. They buried him in the village cemetery among the other residents; his property was left to a Jewish boys’ orphanage.
It was a long time before I went to the city. For me, a two-storey house itself was extraordinary. I always saw only one-storey houses with one or two rooms, in comparison to which the large hall of the House of Culture, where we occasionally went, seemed enormous. There would be many people there, grown-ups and children, of whom I was afraid. In September of 1970, when the leaves were already turning yellow because somehow autumn had come earlier than usual, I began to go to school, spending most of the day in that room which was shared by the first and third classes. As was usual in the case of shared school classes, the two teachers alternated, a lady in the first year and then a man in the second.
In that era, the teachers terrified the children with the description of the monstrosities of the atomic bomb. At the same time, they informed us that the capitalistic world was the one responsible. We had to collect stamps to help the war of the Vietnamese people. Every child received a school savings account. There were membership dues that had to be paid into the treasury of the “Little Drummers”, then to the Young Pioneers. The elementary schools paid into this savings account. You purchased the savings in the form of stamps, and then pasted them into an oblong indented booklet. At the end of the school year, you got back the entire sum saved. Of course, without interest, because there was no inflation back then. That meant that the state – the only capitalist – got to use the money for the entire year.
In school there was often talk of how some people exploit others. My grandfather who was not my grandfather, and whom everyone considered to be slightly harebrained, had previously been the owner of twenty-five acres of land. This was spoken only in hushed tones: for this region, it was considered to be exceptionally fine soil. That means that he definitely was exploiting the others. Obviously, everyone whom he knew. But he really didn’t seem that type. Still, he must have exploited the ones who lived in the lower end of the village. They didn’t have any land. The village was split into two parts: there was the main street, where my grandfather who was not my grandfather lived, as well as my other grandfather – whose name, which was all of him that did not burn, could still be read on the façade of the house, but he was not my grandfather – then there was the lower end, where the former landless farmworkers lived, then there was the new row of houses, where my parents moved because a new street was opened up there.
The allotments were shared on former swampland, where the earth was never truly dry, the houses were dank and damp; in spring and autumn you had to walk in muddy sludge; in summer the courtyard was covered with green mildew until it was completely dried out by the arid days of late July and August, and broke off in large pieces the size of an adult’s palm. It was like irregular paving tiles, you could pick them up and collect them into small heaps. It was hardened mud, two to three centimeters thick, perhaps held firmly together by the moss-fibres, the perpetually reeking mushrooms and the moss-clumps. Then the stink would temporarily disappear. It came back, though, with the first autumn rains. I knew that there wasn’t anything like that in the city. There the streets are covered with stone, the courtyards dry. I longed to go there in my childhood.
And as I lived in an isolated world, I longed for the broader and more free world of the imagination. I realized very quickly that I did not want to live in a village, I did not want to fit myself into this world, the world of the village. I learned the most from the elders. From the old people, like my grandfather who was not my grandfather, and his fellow card-players, from the old ladies who sat in the entranceways until sunset: they were not touched by the ideology of socialism drilled into us at school. They were independent; they lived in an ancient world. For me, this realm of independence was something that opened up within the precepts of literature.
Socialism began later in the countryside than it did in the cities, the factories, the industrial zones. The trace of the city can be found in its historicized centres, their former cores for the most part destroyed. State capitalism, which went by the name of socialism, dismantled communities that preserved traditions. State capitalism crushed those with property, nationalizing it. Under the influence of its ideological teachings, my parents’ generation threw out everything that was old. Their parents said it wasn’t like that. The nobles were not all fools and villains, they did not beat and humiliate the workers. There was respect for people and for work. No one wanted to bother to try to sway their opinion about these good-for-nothings. The old people said again and again, you see, the rule of Franz Joseph lasted for so long, but that too ended. There isn’t even anyone among the living who can remember the beginning of it. And a generation perished during the time of Miklós Horthy, that was also long enough, but look, that came to an end as well. This won’t last forever, either…
They repeated it only in soft tones, in fear. Time is a great lord who looks on from afar, and sees even farther into the distance. How right they were. The great elders of my childhood, who then in the Sixties were seventy or eighty years old, had been born in the nineteenth century, when Franz Joseph was the emperor; they looked upon the socialist era from the far, far distant past. If they were living today, they would listen to the politicians with exactly the same phlegmatic disbelief. They would shake their heads, and not even say anything about it. As if they were saying nothing at all.

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Szilárd Borbély