02. 23. 2011. 14:14

Where are you going, Budapest?

A conversation with Balázs Györe

"Even if you have an apartment and a livelihood, homelessness is still a major, characteristic symptom of our times. One can be homeless spiritually, too, if they can’t find their place in the world. For this reason I have felt closely acquainted with people who are homeless."

You eavesdrop on conversations on the streets of Budapest, on streetcars, on buses. As you write,“the city offers up a sentence for me to do whatever I want with it” – but you do not follow up on these sentences in your imagination, you simply record the changes, everything in motion as in a video clip. Do you still walk the city with the same eyes?

I pay attention and try to note things going on around me. Just now, on my way to the Café Central, that has its own long history, I saw that, on the corner of what was formerly Felszabadulás (Liberation), and is currently Ferenciek (Franciscans’) Square, the young man who sings from a prayer book, and the roast chestnut vendor behind him, are still there, same as five or eight years ago. But the building on the corner of Kígyó Street is being renovated, it will become a hotel. The Café Central, too, was altered just a few weeks ago. This same space had formerly housed the Eötvös Club, before that it had been an automobile show room, there was a time when it was vacant, and now here we are sitting in it. I remember many years ago they were shooting a documentary here about Ágnes Nemes Nagy since this had been the site of the editorial meetings of the periodical Újhold. Balázs Lengyel had asked me, one of the younger contributors to the Újhold Almanach, to participate in the documentary, and so we strolled in here at the time. Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Balázs Lengyel, Magda Szabó… they are no longer with us, but I am here, this place has been transformed so many times, yet some permanence still exists in spite of all the changes; the memory of Ágnes Nemes Nagy is still with us, as are her books, as well as Iván Mándy, another of my great favorites. But we could also mention Frigyes Karinthy, who was sitting here at this corner table when he first became aware of that train roaring inside his head… Some things change, others don’t. This is both good and bad.

Why did you title your new book Where Are You Going, Budapest? 

The title was suggested by the editor, Szilárd Podmaniczky. The last piece in the book ends with a question: Where are you going? It is a headline that pokes me in the eye from a newspaper I found on the street. Because in truth one can only wonder and ask, where is this city going? Where is Budapest heading? We know the city’s past, more or less, but where is it going? The question is also valid for the inhabitants, the people living here, what are they turning into? Surely there is progress, but there is regression as well. You can only ask questions. In my writings, too, I can only keep asking, “Where is this city going?”.

You are very emphatic in your attention to depicting homelessness.

The reasons are probably within me. Even if you have an apartment and a livelihood, and your affairs are in order, homelessness is still a major, characteristic symptom of our times. One can be homeless spiritually, too – to speak for myself – if you can’t find your place in the world, or if you feel empty, “homeless”, a stranger. For this reason I have felt closely acquainted with people who are homeless. I sympathize with them, I look with empathy, attention and affection at persons who live in the streets, because I am tormented by this inner, spiritual homelessness. Of course, I could cite great literary precedents, such as Beckett, for whom this was one of the fundamental themes. And so we are interconnected: even those who do not live in the streets can be homeless, without a home. My latest book of poems was titled Kölcsönlakás [Borrowed Flat]. After all the earth is a borrowed flat, we are given a few decades, some more, others less, and it must be given back, no two ways about it.

“A mysterious illness suits a man of mystery,” to quote one of your sentences referring to the fact that at the time you wrote these pieces you were attacked by an illness that changed your appearance. How did you cope with this?

I already spoke about feeling like a stranger; well, I lived to see myself even more of a stranger in my hometown. I had suddenly become a stranger at first sight even to friends and acquaintances who knew me quite well. Within a relatively short time I lost all of my body hair. I used to be a man with long hair and a beard. When all that is gone, a friend you meet on the street will not recognize you, except by your voice. I lived to see close acquaintances pass me on the street without recognizing me. I would have to walk up and disclose myself – lots of times I did not feel like going into explanations. It is something called autoimmune disease, a mystery indeed, a metabolic disorder where the phagocytes destroy useful cells instead of invasive or harmful ones. In my case this involved my body hair. Otherwise it is quite harmless, and here I am, alive. In the course of writing these views of the city I would even say that someone looks like me – for homeless men usually have beards and long hair – except I don’t carry all those plastic bags and empty bottles… Toward the end of the book my alopecia sets in and I am indeed transformed, denuded. In my writing I like to strip things down, and try to write as plainly and honestly as possible, with very few adjectives, so that this hair loss “came in handy”, and helped make the narrative even more bare.

According to the critics you make your own life the subject of your poems. In this you share a kinship with Hemingway, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and among Hungarian authors, Ottlik and Mándy. In an interview you had once said that literature was the center of gravity in your life. What are you working on presently?

For quite some time I have been struggling to write this book. The working title, which could end up as the final one, is Friends Who Were Also My Informers. I had to confront this issue. I will try to somehow write this story, for I have always tried to document my life, and some of my books no longer hold true. Apparently some of my friends had been informers who wrote reports about me. I must set the record straight.

Balázs Györe's page on hunlit.hu

Dóra Szepesi

Translated by: John Batki

Tags: Balázs Györe