They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?

 

The Bridge at Andau by James A Michener

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Do not bother reading this book!  It’s just arrant Cold War propaganda, and some of the comments in it verge on racism and homophobia to boot.  What a disappointment. I was looking for something about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and I’ve read some excellent works by James Michener in the past, but I’m not sure how I even got through this.  He just about stopped short of claiming that “the Russians” (had he never heard the word “Soviets”?!) ate little children and that communism condemned everyone to living on dry bread and water.  The West, by contrast, was apparently practically perfect in every way.  What happened in Hungary in 1956 was appalling, but I’m afraid that, in its own way, this book is pretty appalling as well.  This was not what I was hoping for.

I do appreciate that, in 1957, when this book was published, Cold War tensions were running high; but I still don’t expect this sort of bias in a book written by a respected 20th century American author.  It was the sort of language you expect in … I was going to say a Victorian book, but I think a better analogy might be a 17th century tract taking one side or the other over the various wars of religion.  What a shame, because the story of the Hungarian Uprising is an extremely important one, and the story of the 200,000 or so refugees one that’s often forgotten.

Andau is a village just inside Austria, on the border with Hungary.  In 1956, around 70,000 refugees crossed a small wooden bridge, the Brucke von Andau, from Hungary into Austria, and then walked the nine mile “Road to Freedom” to Andau itself, where they were given a warm welcome.  The bridge was destroyed by Soviet troops in November 1956.  It was rebuilt forty years later.  The book tells the story of conditions and emotions within Hungary in the build-up to the Uprising, of the horrors of the Soviet invasion and the brutal suppression of the Uprising, and of the flight of the refugees.  It should have been a fascinating and emotive read, but it was difficult to take in the story of the events through all the propaganda.

For example, he said that he’d spoken to some young married couples – but then started going on about how he thought they weren’t really married because the women weren’t wearing engagement or wedding rings, and then claim that communism meant that everyone in Hungary in the 1950s was so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy rings.  Pages and pages about how it was virtually impossible for anyone in communist Hungary to buy a car, whereas it was dead easy for the American working-classes to do so.

He also went on at length about how communism was the enemy of religion.  All right, to some extent obviously that’s true, but it was a fairly blatant attempt to appeal to conservative middle America.  As for saying that the troops from Soviet Central Asia were particularly brutal and that most of the Hungarian secret police were gay, and that any Hungarians who weren’t Jewish would have preferred the Nazi occupation to the Soviet occupation … I was just disgusted by what I was seeing on the page.  I would never have touched this book if I’d known it was going to be like this, but everything else I’ve read by James Michener’s been reasonably good.

What it wasn’t particularly was American propaganda.  He criticised the US for not doing more to help, and for not taking in more refugees.  But it was very much anti-Soviet, anti-communist propaganda.  It was fulsome in its praise of the heroic Hungarians, and the Austrians who welcomed the refugees – OK, that I could have lived with, despite the flowery language.  There was certainly heroism in Hungary, and the Austrians did welcome the refugees – and some of the refugee stories were very moving.  Some of the characters were real, others based on real people, or a combination of real people; but he does explain that.  And, yes, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe were often brutal, and what happened in Hungary in 1956 was horrific.

But this is not an account of what happened.  It’s just propaganda.  And it was a best seller.  It’s even got its own Wikipedia page!  That is frightening. I’m trying not to judge a book written in the 1950s by the standards of today, but propaganda is propaganda, in any generation.  And I didn’t expect it from James A Michener.  I’ve got another book on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to read, and I just hope it’s a bit more objective than this one!

Castles Burning by Magda Denes

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I’m revisiting Hungarian history at the moment, and this particular book also ties in with Holocaust Memorial Day (which is tomorrow).  It’s a different sort of Holocaust memoir, partly because the situation in Budapest was different to that anywhere else, and partly because, whilst it’s aimed at adults, it’s told from the point of view of a child.  Magda Denes somehow manages to be very entertaining whilst never shying away from the details of life in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, the militant secularist Zionist resistance group with which her brother was involved, and – over a third of the book – her time as a Displaced Person once the war was over.  She felt for many years that she wasn’t entitled to talk about her experiences, because of a sense that only those who’d been survived concentration camps or massacres had that right; and she only wrote this book when she was dying.

I read a newspaper article last year, which sparked off a lot of discussion in a Facebook book group to which I belong, saying that it was inappropriate for Anne Frank to have become the face of the Holocaust (for lack of a better way of putting it), because her diary isn’t about concentration camps.  The author seemed to have completely missed the point of The Diary of a Young Girl – that it humanises all those horrific statistics about the numbers of people killed, by showing that they were all just ordinary people.  Anne Frank wrote about squabbles with family members, and about fancying Peter van Daan, just as any other teenager might have done, because she should have been just like any other teenager.  Likewise Magda’s observations about family dynamics, school, and so on.

Holocaust memoirs don’t have to be about concentration camps.  Many Holocaust victims died in massacres, in forced labour battalions, or in ghettoes.   Survivors’ experiences are valid whether they survived camps, ghettoes or forced labour, or whether they went into hiding.  And they’re valid no matter what group of persecuted people they come from: the current right-wing Polish government seems to think that it’s some sort of competition, which it assuredly isn’t.  No-one’s comparing different experiences: it’s not a question of comparison, and it’s certainly not a competition.  It’s very sad that Magda Denes felt unable for so long to speak out.  And, from what she said, many other people in similar situations felt the same.

Following Prince William’s visit to the grave of his great-grandmother, Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece, last year, there was quite a bit of talk in the media last year about the Jewish family whom she’d helped to hide in wartime Athens.  When I went to Lithuania, I had a long chat with a tour guide (I don’t think she was used to British tourists being au fait with Lithuanian history.  I’m weird!) whose grandmother had hidden a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation.  In Assisi, one of my favourite places, tens of Jews were saved by being hidden in the Basilica of St Francis.  There are a lot of these stories, but they aren’t often told.

They usually involve heroism, on the part of those who risked their own safety to hide those at risk, and sometimes, where families were separated, on the part of those who sent children away to try to save their lives, knowing that they’d probably never see them again.  And, when thinking about the Budapest ghetto, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of people by issuing protective passports and arranging sheltered accommodation under Swedish protection.

Distressing as any sort of Holocaust story is, these tales of heroism are also quite uplifting.  The way in which this one starts is anything but.  Magda Denes came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest.  Her father was a well-respected publisher.  In 1939, fearing for his safety, he liquidated the family’s assets and fled to America, leaving his wife and two young children behind, with nothing.  He was supposed to be sending for them, or at least sending them money, but he never did.  It was brave of her to write about that.  You don’t expect stories like that … and yet, of course, the fact that he was a complete bastard, who scarpered with all the family’s money and left his wife and kids to face their fate, didn’t make him any less of a refugee and potential victim of persecution.   There’s a lot to think about, with this book.

Magda, her mother and her brother moved in with her mother’s parents, who weren’t well-off and weren’t overly pleased at having three extra people in their small home. At this point, no-one in Budapest was actually either in hiding or in a ghetto.  However, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany, and, in 1938, began to introduce anti-Jewish laws – around 5% of all Hungarians, and around 23% of the population of Budapest, being Jewish.  The Hungarians got an extremely raw deal when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered after the First World War, and that, along with fear of the Soviet Union, explains although obviously doesn’t excuse the Nazi alliance. The laws became more and more restrictive as time went on

In 1941, foreign Jews living in Hungary, mainly refugees from Poland, were deported to Ukraine.  It’s thought that they numbered around 16,000 of the 23,600 people massacred by German, Hungarian and Ukrainian forces at Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Many Jews were killed, along with many Orthodox Serbs and Romani people, were killed by Hungarian forces who occupied Vojvodina, either killed outright or in appalling conditions in the copper mines, and many Hungarian Jews also died in forced labour battalions.

The book didn’t really say much about this, or about anything that was going on between 1939 and October 1944 – but, from the viewpoint of a small child, there probably wasn’t much to say.  There was an interesting interlude in which Magda was diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium, where treatment included eating as much fatty food as possible, lying outside whilst wrapped in blankets and receiving blood transfusions from her mother.  She made a full recovery.  There was quite a bit about food shortages, but, other than that, nothing was really specific to the war, never mind to the Holocaust … but always with the background of the increasing restrictions.  Normal and yet abnormal.

Despite what had happened in 1941, the Hungarian government didn’t allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camps, until relations between the Hungarian authorities and Nazi Germany deteriorated, and the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944.  Deportations began in May 1944 … but not from Budapest.  Jews in Budapest were forced to live in designated houses, marked by yellow stars and horrendously overcrowded, but not deported.  It’s not entirely clear what was going on, but it is clear that, by this time, reports about what was going on in the death camps were circulating around the world.  It seems that there were plans for mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in the summer of 1944, but that they never took place, after intervention from, amongst others, President Roosevelt and King Gustav V of Sweden.  What was going on?  Had the Hungarian authorities decided that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and were trying to avoid making themselves look any worse than they already did?  And why was Budapest treated differently to the rest of Hungary?  It’s thought that around a third of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau were from Hungary, and yet the deportations from Budapest itself were stopped.   Was it just a matter of timing, in terms of external intervention?

In October 1944, the Hungarian government negotiated a ceasefire with the Soviets, to which the Nazis responded by facilitating a takeover by the far-right Arrow Cross party.  Most of the book is set from this time onwards.  They forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, and began deportations from Budapest to labour camps and death camps.  There were also mass shootings of Jews on the banks of the Danube.  This has been in the news lately: during some work being done in the area, bones were found, almost certainly those of the victims of those massacres.  Israeli divers have begun an operation to recover the bones, planning to give them a funeral, but some Hungarian Jewish community leaders are unhappy about it and feel that the bones should be left undisturbed.

Even before the Arrow Cross takeover, a number of foreign diplomats – Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg is the best known, but there were others too, from Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, and Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who bribed Adolf Eichmann to let 1,600 Jews leave Budapest for Switzerland  – had been trying to try to save as many Hungarian Jews as they could, by issuing them with passports, and enabling them to live in houses which had been declared part of their embassies and were therefore not legally Hungarian territory – the so-called “International Ghetto”.

This formed a big part of the book, and it’s well worth reading because it is something unique to Budapest.  Magda was initially taken to stay in a house under the protection of the Spanish Red Cross.  Tragically, it was later raided and those there killed, but, by then, she’d been taken to stay with family friends.  En route, she and her mother were shot at by Arrow Cross men who knew her mother from her former job and recognised them: this apparently wasn’t uncommon in Budapest.  She then joined her mother, brother and other relatives at a building under the protection of the Swiss consulate.  It’s written from the prospective of a child, and she was more concerned about why they’d all gone there without her than anything else, but we then learned what was going on there.  It wasn’t just a safe house – not that it was all that safe, with 3,600 people crowded into a building which was only meant to house 400, food short, disease rife and the city under siege.  It was the headquarters of an organisation trying to help people to escape.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Hashomer Hatzair movement.  Apparently it’s still a well-known Jewish youth organisation, operating in many countries, but it hasn’t got any branches in the UK so the name isn’t really known here.  It (thank you, Wikipedia!) began life in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Galicia just before the First World War, and became popular in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, partly as one of the many Scout/Guide type groups which became so popular in many places in the inter-war years and partly as a Zionist socialist group, with wings of it affiliated to far left organisations.  It was only one of many Zionist groups, and one of the more extreme ones, but, as I say every time I get involved in a discussion on the Middle Eastern situation, Zionism was originally largely a left-wing, secular movement: the idea of it as a right-wing, religious movement is very recent.  Anyway, that’s another story.

This group was heavily involved in organising the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and, in Romania (where many of its leaders were executed), Lithuania and Hungary, in gathering intelligence and trying to help Jews to escape or to go into hiding.  Magda’s mother and brother became very involved in it, doing work such as forging identity documents and warning people of planned deportations.  Later on, we saw Magda’s mother and aunt carrying two sets of identity papers, one set showing them as Jews and the other as Catholics, and fumbling in their bags, trying to decide which set to use.  The grim humour of this book makes it very readable.

The work they were doing was extremely brave and heroic, and saved many lives.  However, the organisation itself sounds quite dictatorial.  The “committee” organised everything that went on in this building, and everyone had to do as they said.  And their views were quite militant: I gather that organisation’s anti-religious views cause issues between it and other Zionist organisations even now.  Although the building was under Swiss protection, at one point the Nazis shot at committee members, and a woman was killed.  Someone wanted to hold a memorial service for her, and asked for volunteers to form the quota of ten post-barmitzvah males without whom the Jewish prayers for the dead aren’t supposed to be said.  Magda’s grandfather and many other men wanted to step forward, but didn’t dare do so for fear of angering the committee, who didn’t want any form of religious service being held.

Without wanting to write a great long essay about the Dreyfus affair and Russian narodniki and religion being the opium of the people and all the rest of it, I do get the idea of Zionism and secularism … but that sort of militant secularism, making people feel afraid to hold a religious service when they’d just suffered a bereavement, if that was what they wanted to do, just sounds very … Soviet?   But this organisation saved many lives – and, after the war, helped Magda and the other surviving members of her family again and again, to leave Budapest, and during the time they spent in Paris, and even when they were in Bilbao, waiting to take ship across the Atlantic.  There are a lot of nuances and complexities in this book, right from the beginning when the publisher who’d bravely spoken out against the Nazis spinelessly abandoned his wife and kids.

Again, it’s very unclear what was going on, but it seems that, in January 1945, plans were afoot for the German troops in Hungary to murder all the remaining inhabitants of the main ghetto, and that this was stopped – according to some reports, because Raoul Wallenberg told the German commander that, if it went ahead he’d ensure that he was tried for war crimes once the war was over.  Other reports say that it was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, who saved the Budapest ghetto.  It really is frustrating that we can’t seem to find out.  Nor can we find out exactly what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared – probably executed by the Soviets on allegations of espionage.

Meanwhile, Budapest was under siege by the Red Army, and also undergoing intense aerial bombardment. The ghetto was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, and the city of Budapest surrendered unconditionally in the February.  The behaviour of the Red Army in Hungary was beyond appalling, with thousands of women raped and all able-bodied men conscripted for forced labour.  However, the lives of as many as 90,000 people in the Budapest Ghetto were saved.  But it was too late for Magda’s brother, captured and shot dead a week earlier.  So close to survival, but he didn’t make it.  Her cousin lived to see the liberation, but the Red Army sent him to take a message behind German lines, and he never came back.  Her grandfather died of an infection, too weak to fight it after years of poor nutrition.  Her mother, aunt and grandmother survived.  So did her uncle and another cousin, who survived Mauthausen.

This was still only halfway through the book.  With Budapest in chaos, Magda and her mother and aunt decided to leave.  They got on a train, any train, and ended up in Debrecen.  The book used “Russian” instead of “Soviet” all the way through.  Most American authors do that.  It really, really, annoys me!  That didn’t go well, so they returned to Budapest.  And, still only eleven years old, she went back to school, and life was supposed to return to some sort of normality, but it couldn’t.

She does an excellent job of describing how she couldn’t cope with normality.  She didn’t want to read, or go to the pictures, because she’d get lost in the world of a book or a film and then it’d all hit her again afterwards.  And her mother felt oppressed by the new communist regime, and decided that they had to leave.  Going to Palestine was ruled out because, at that point, only very few immigrants were being allowed in.  Zionist contacts got them false papers, and they were able to reach the American sector of Austria and register as Displaced Persons.  There were millions of, maybe as many as twenty million, Displaced Persons in post-war Europe, maybe more.  Most were able to return to their countries of origin – or were forcibly repatriated.  Over a million couldn’t, because of fear of persecution.  Displaced Persons camps were set up.  Magda and her mother, aunt and grandmother found themselves in a camp in Bavaria.

Life in the camp … it reminded me a bit of things I’d read about internment camps on the Isle of Man, except that obviously this was in far different circumstances.  The people there became a community. They organised a school – although this meant Magda learning Yiddish, as most of the other pupils were Yiddish-speaking.  Incidentally, the book could have done with a glossary: a lot of Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were used, which not all readers would have understood, and they organised variety shows. And she was OK with that.  It was normality that she couldn’t cope with.  Eventually – and why did the useless father apparently do nothing to try to get them visas for America? – some relatives who, for some reason, had ended up in Cuba, gave then affidavits (presumably guarantees in terms of financial support?), and they were then taken to Paris, to wait for full visas.  It all seems to have been very complicated.

Her use of language is wonderful, and her description of being a Displaced Person is in some ways more powerful than her description of life in the ghetto.  She couldn’t deal with being in Paris, a city that the Nazis had been persuaded not to destroy, because it was too grand, and too beautiful, and people were living too normally: she couldn’t process it.  She was sent to school and made a friend, but the friendship didn’t survive the other girl seeing the chaos in which the Denes family were living, in a hostel full of Displaced Persons.  Silly expression, isn’t it, “Displaced Persons”?  It sounds so mundane.  The grim humour came into it again – she remarked on the number of books showing life as an émigré in Paris to be glamorous and exciting.

Struggling at her French school because of the language barrier, she was sent to a school for Hungarian émigrés, but it was a disaster.  As much as she knew that none of the children there were responsible for her brother’s death and everything else that had happened in Budapest, she couldn’t cope with being around Hungarians who weren’t Jewish, because they seemed to represent the people who’d torn her life apart.

This is an incredibly sensitive area, even now.  Maybe especially now, with the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.  No-one’s trying to point the finger, to make any suggestions of collective responsibility, and certainly not to blame anyone now for things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but, despite what the Eastern Bloc regimes in particular tried to teach, it wasn’t all about Nazi Germany.  Also, this was why so many people couldn’t go back to their places of origin.  Some did, but many felt that they couldn’t.

Eventually, the visas came through.  There was a nice interlude in Bilbao, where, the civil war long over and Spain having been neutral during the Second World War, there were no food shortages: there were some fascinating descriptions of the family’s reactions to seeing the food stalls in the markets.  And then the ship across the Atlantic.  It docked in New York.  Magda was eventually to end up there, but not yet, and, with the idea of America, the land of the free, in her mind, she longed to disembark, but knew that she couldn’t.  Then, bizarrely, her father came to visit them – and just moaned that New York was full of crime.

The book ended with their arrival in Cuba.  I’d like to have known more, about how they got on in Cuba, and about how she eventually ended up in New York, but it was a positive ending.  They’d survived.  A new life lay ahead.   And she’d thought her story didn’t deserve to be told.  It did.  It really, really did.

Csardas by Diane Pearson

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Hungary is much in the news at the moment, whether it’s fish finger apartheid (I am not making this expression up) or, rather more seriously, concerns over its right wing government’s attitudes towards freedom of speech and ethnic and religious minorities, and about the growth of far-right extremism generally.   So it was a good time to read this book, about this lovely country which deserves a lot better than it’s currently getting – but, given that I’m always on the lookout for historical fiction set in Central and Eastern Europe, I have no idea how I’ve never come across this book, set (mostly) in 20th century Hungary, before!  It’s older than I am.  And it’s excellent.  (And I can’t believe I’ve just used the terms “historical fiction” and “20th century” in the same sentence.  Bleurgh!!)

For some reason, I thought, when I found this going cheap for Kindle, that it was going to be set in the 19th century, so I was expecting Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich (Kiegyezes, in Hungarian – I’ve just had to look up because I’ve only ever come across the German term for it, which is probably quite telling).  When I think about Hungarian history, I think about the Arpadians, the Mongol invasions, the Battle of Mohacs, the Thirty Years’ War, the wars with the Ottomans, the Rakoczi Uprising and, as I said, Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich.

I know what happened during the 20th century, obviously, but I’m better with anything that happened before the First World War … but I think it did me a lot of good to be made to think a lot longer and harder about what happened in Hungary from 1914 to … well, I was expecting the book to finish in 1956, with the uprising and the Soviet invasion, but it actually finished in 1948.  Oh, and, because it finished in 1948, I can’t get Ferenc Puskas and the rest of the Mighty Magyars in anywhere, so I’ll just mention them here!  Seriously, when I went to Hungary, people were far more interested in talking to me about that match in 1953 than about anything else!

Just going back to fish finger apartheid, to prove that I really didn’t make the expression up, apparently some food manufacturers are supplying supermarkets in former Eastern Bloc states with poorer quality fish fingers (this is also happening with biscuits, Nutella, cocoa powder and various other things) than the supposedly identical ones supplied to supermarkets elsewhere in Europe.  Honestly, this is true.  Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Slovak officials have held talks about it.  OK, OK, it’s not funny …

The book revolves one extended family, and, in particular, the four children – Amalia (Malie), Eva, Jozsef and Leo – of impoverished Catholic aristocrat Martha Ferenc, nee Bogozy, and her wealthy Jewish middle class husband, Zsigmond Ferenc.  Their niece Kati Racs-Rassay, the daughter of Zsigmond’s sister and her Catholic aristocratic husband, is the third of the three girls around whose lives the book revolves early on.  So you get the idea – this family is of mixed heritage.  But that wasn’t uncommon in the big cities of Central Europe at the time – although the book isn’t actually set in a city, but, mainly in an unnamed town, and also in the families’ country homes/farms.  We also have the Kaldys, who are of 100% aristocratic descent but haven’t got much money, Karoly Vilaghy, who is also 100% aristocratic but has even less money, David Klein, who is a member of the cultured, well-educated, liberal Jewish middle-classes, and Janos Marton, a very bright peasant boy who lives in poverty on the Kaldys’ estate.   So it’s very cleverly done – a lot of different social groups are represented.

I always feel bad about using the word “peasant”, because it has such negative connotations in England, where the idea of “peasants” really went out with the Middle Ages, but it’s different in most Continental countries.   Serfdom was not fully ended in Hungary until 1848 – only thirteen years before it was abolished in Russia, the country which most people would probably think of first when asked about the subject.  Budapest grew and expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth century, and became of the leading cultural centres in Europe, but most Hungarians still lived in the countryside.   Name the second biggest city in Hungary.  Can you?  It’s Debrecen.  United played their team in a Champions League qualifier 13 years ago: until then, I’d barely heard of the place.  So, yes, Hungary isn’t really a country of cities.  Several sections of the book are set in Budapest, though, and others are set in Vienna and Berlin.

The book starts in 1914, with the coming out ball of Kati Racs-Rassay.  It’s not quite like Gone With The Wind, where all the young men gallop off to war in the middle of the Twelve Oaks barbecue, but war breaks out fairly soon afterwards.   And it was, of course, Austria-Hungary which dragged everyone else into war.  OK, if it hadn’t been the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it would have been something else – the Kaiser had been spoiling for a fight for years – but it was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, or, rather, Austria-Hungary’s ridiculous behaviour towards Serbia as a result of it.  And there is very much that Gone With The Wind feeling there – one minute, Malie and Eva, like Scarlett O’Hara, have got nothing more to worry about than which young men they fancy and what they’re going to wear for their next social event, and, the next minute, they’re caught up in a long and terrible war – the difference being that we do actually see what the men in the army are going through, as well as what’s happening on the home front.

I won’t give the story away in terms of which of the beaux survive the war and which don’t, and who ends up married to whom, but suffice it to say that none of the three girls ends up with a man of her choice.  Despite that, one of the marriages turns out very well, one has its ups and downs but turns out OK in the end, and only one is a disaster.

The war, then. The Austro-Hungarian army  – I really want to write a long essay on the historical background going back to the 16th century and the marriage of Ferdinand Habsburg and Anna Jagellon, but better not – was initially involved on two fronts, one against Serbia and one against Russia.  Italy then declared war on Austra-Hungary in 1915, as did Romania in 1916.  As the war continued, the Empire began to fall apart, with the various Slavic groups within it calling for independence.  There was industrial unrest, and there were severe food shortages.  In October 1918, with the war obviously lost and everything collapsing, Hungary dissolved its union with Austria, and the liberal Hungarian People’s Republic was set up, in the Aster Revolution.

The British tendency is usually to focus on domestic issues and the Irish situation, when thinking about the period immediately after the First World War, so we probably don’t think that much about the follow-up mess.  Well, we do about the civil war in Russia, I suppose – I do, anyway – but not so much so about the wars between Russia and Poland, Greece and Turkey (even though Lloyd George and Churchill were all for Britain joining in with that), and Hungary and Romania.  What is generally acknowledged is that the settlements at the end of the First World War were, with hindsight, a mistake, and that the problems they caused contributed big style to what happened in Germany in the 1930s.  But what about Hungary?

What had been the Kingdom of Hungary lost two thirds of its territory, more than any other European state did in the post-First World War carve-up.  OK, much of that territory, notably Slovakia and Croatia, was largely inhabited by non-Hungarians, but Hungary also lost many areas where most or a majority of the population was Hungarian.  Sorting out borders when land empires collapse is a messy business, and there are areas all over Central Europe and the Balkans where political borders and ethnolinguistic borders don’t quite match, but it really is – and was – more of an issue for Hungary than for any other state.  Austria lost South Tyrol to Italy, and some other mainly German-speaking areas to Poland, but that was nothing compared to what happened with Hungary.  There are still large numbers of Hungarians in Vojvodina in Serbia (an autonomous province which, strangely, never seemed interested in independence from Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up), in Transylvania in Romania, and in parts of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine and, in particular, Slovakia.  There’s been some unpleasantness very recently over Ukraine’s decision to ban teaching in Hungarian (and Romanian) in secondary schools, and there’ve been similar issues in Slovakia since 2009.

Hungary was also banned from having an air force or from having tanks, and, like Austria, was denied access to the sea.  And Czechoslovakia got most of the industry, because of where it was located.  I’ve usually tended to think of Hungary as getting most of the decent farmland, and Austria getting the worst deal economically, but Hungary was cut off not only from the industry but also from the banking and financial institutions.

The “Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with strong support from France … well, didn’t exactly gang up on Hungary, but there was certainly a sense of being prepared to back each other against any attempts by Hungary to regain territory, and also against any prospect of a Habsburg restoration.  Hungary was still officially a kingdom throughout most of the inter-war period, albeit one without a king in situ, and to this day the Habsburgs are far more popular in Hungary than they are in Austria, so that was a concern.  So Hungary was not in a good place, to use the modern parlance.

Going back to the Aster Revolution and the Hungarian People’s Republic As with Kerensky’s government in Russia, that might have worked OK … but, in mid-1919, it was overthrown in a communist coup.  The Hungarian Soviet Republic was set up, and the Red Terror launched against those it considered its enemies.  It lasted four and a bit months.  Romania invaded.  Some Czechoslovak troops also invaded Hungary, and some Hungarian communist troops invaded Czechoslovakia, and set up a Slovak Soviet Republic, which lasted for three weeks.  Keep up!   The communist leaders did a runner, and counter-revolutionary soldiers launched the White Terror, torturing and killing communists, liberals … pretty much anyone else they didn’t like, especially Jews.  By 1921, it’d all calmed down, and Hungary went back to being the Kingdom of Hungary.  Without a king.  Effectively, a dictatorship under Miklas Horthy.  Nothing much was done do deal with economic inequality, and there was discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire, over and over again.

The focus at this point switches to the men.  It’s not really great that the social stuff focused on the women and the political stuff on the men, but, OK, different times.  Both Leo Ferenc and Janos Marton are attracted by communism, and Felix Kaldy, the eldest Kaldy son, by fascism.  The far-right in Hungary, whilst – as in Germany – not generally popular with aristocrats, particularly appeals to Felix because of his anti-Jewish views.  Hitler also played on Hungarian feelings of injustice about the post-war settlement by talking about restoring some of Hungary’s lost territories – which he duly did, giving Hungary control of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and part of Transylvania in 1940 – and, during the Depression, Hungary had become heavily dependent on Germany economically.  When war came, Hungary allied with the Third Reich and joined it in invading first Yugoslavia and then the Soviet Union.  Leo’s sent into a labour battalion and Janos into the army, but both try to work with the Soviets, genuinely believing that the answer lay in communism.  Poor families like the Martons had gained nothing from the collapse of the Empire.  Families with Jewish connections, like the Ferencs, had been better off before.

Large numbers of Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps – and this is the fate of most of the characters, other than those in the army or labour battalions, who are either Jewish or have Jewish ancestry.  Sent to Auschwitz where all of them, apart from Malie, are murdered.  Eva, her two children and Kati’s son manage to go into hiding – but, when the Red Army invaded Hungary in 1944, the Soviet troops carried out mass rapes of Hungarian women, and we hear that Eva and her daughter Terez were amongst those attacked.  This happened in Germany and Austria as well, and Japanese troops carried out similar crimes in China and Korea.  It continues to happen – it happened during the partition of India in 1947, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to Yazidi women in Iraq, to women attacked by Boko Haram forces in Nigeria, to Rohingya women in Myanmar, to women and even children in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It’s thought that Soviet troops raped two million women in Germany alone.

We don’t actually see the attacks on Eva and Terez, and we don’t see any scenes at all at Auschwitz.  I don’t know why the author chose not to show that: maybe it was something she found too difficult to write about, or maybe it was just that ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate for inclusion in a mass market book were different in the 1970s, when the book was written.  We do miss large chunks of every character’s life, but that’s inevitable unless there’s only one main character, but it does particularly strike the reader that we don’t actually see Auschwitz.  But we hear bits about it.  And we know that Malie’s the only one of the characters sent there who comes back.

As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis retreated, wrecking the place as they went, and the Hungarian fascists continued to deport or murder thousands of Hungarian Jews.  After the war, Hungary’s pre-1938 borders were restored – minus a bit of land awarded to Czechoslovakia.  Some ethnic Germans were deported, as they were from Poland.  Elections were held in late 1945 – democratic elections, the first ones in Hungary on a universal franchise – and won by a centre-right peasant party.  But the Soviet-backed communists weren’t having that.  They forced the Smallholders’ Party into a coalition and, after failing to win the 1947 election either, they forced the Social Democrats to merge with them, and forced all opposition leaders out of the picture completely, mainly into exile.

Leo Ferenc and, in particular Janos Marton, had had such high hopes of communism.  When I was a little kid, I didn’t actually know what communism was.  I thought the word just meant “totalitarianism”.  Not that I knew the word “totalitarianism” when I was a little kid, but that sort of thing.  We were just taught that communists were baddies.  I remember being amazed when I found out what communism was actually supposed to be, and being told off when I remarked that it actually sounded like something … well, really quite good.  It’s never had the chance to be that, has it?  And, because of that, we forget how much hope people placed in it.  Leo and Janos both have their idealistic views shattered by the party apparatus.  Leo defects.  Janos tries to forge a life as an ordinary bloke, as far as possible from the political system in which he once played a big part.

The book ends before the passing of the Hungarian Constitution of 1949, but that set up the People’s Republic of Hungary, along Soviet lines.

I can hardly believe that, next year, it’ll be thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down.  It started with Hungary, didn’t it?  OK, Poland had Solidarity et al, but the 1989 thing started with people moving freely between Hungary and Austria.  Down came the Berlin Wall.  Down went most of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.  Then, in February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  The lion was going to lie down with the lamb and we were all going to live happily ever after.  Remember that?  Lasted until the beginning of August, when Iraq barged into Kuwait.  Oh well, we had a few months of feeling optimistic.  We’re not exactly in that position now, and the state of affairs in Hungary is part of that.

The author does try to end on a positive note, with Eva and Malie reminiscing about their days as the belles of the ball and joking that they’re still the fabulous Ferenc sisters.   And, although the subject matter of the book sounds so depressing, it’s actually a very good read.  But poor Hungary.  It just seems, as I said earlier, to keep jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati

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I’ve had this book for a while, and I didn’t particularly intend to read it just before Holocaust Memorial Day, but it was probably quite an appropriate time for it. It’s one of very few books covering the subject of the Romani genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies – often referred to as the Porajmos, although the term isn’t commonly used by Roma people themselves.

On the subject of terminology, the book was written in the 1980s, and uses the word “gypsy”, which isn’t generally used today but was in both the 1980s and the 1940s, but getting bogged down in semantics isn’t really very helpful: it’s the story which it tells which is important.   The author, Mark Ramati – also the author of The Assisi Underground – claims (and there seems no reason to doubt his claim) to have been given the script by Roman Mirga, the protagonist, a Polish Romani and an Auschwitz survivor.

The title of the book reflects the popularity of Romani music – usually referred to as Tzigane (the Hungarian word for “gypsy”) music, or Zigeuner (the German word) musik in Central and Eastern Europe (and, obviously, in Spain, although Spain doesn’t come into this).  Roman Mirga’s father, Dymitr carried his violin with him into Auschwitz.  There, he became part of a Romani orchestra which was forced to play every time that people were taken into the gas chambers.  The book says that the idea was that the music would calm them.  The book also says that Dymitr Mirga, a particularly talented violinist, was expected to play violin solos to entertain the Nazis – but that the music also heartened the prisoners.  There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but let’s hope that it is, and that the music brought some sort of comfort in a hell on earth.  When the violins stop playing, Roman knows that his father has gone to the gas chambers.

The story’s told in the first person, and opens in November of 1942, when teenage Roman’s living with his parents and younger sister in Warsaw. The children are at school, with Roman having one more year to go, and the parents are musicians in a popular nightspotThey don’t consider themselves to be at any particular risk – until a relative comes to tell them that Roma and Sinti people have been forced into the ghetto in Lodz.

Roman’s father decides that they’ve got to escape to Hungary – at this stage an ally of the Third Reich but not actually part of it. Due to the Nazis having handed part of Slovakia over to Hungary, there is at this point a border between Poland and Hungarian-controlled territory, in the Tatra mountains.  They go straight to a Roma camp at Brest-Litovsk, which is where the family are from originally and is where Roman’s grandparents are still living.

More confusion over names. And borders.  We’re now supposed to refer to Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as Brest.  I do try to remember, but I’m too used to talking about the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)!   After the First World War, Brest-Litovsk became part of Poland, and was renamed Brest-on-the-Bug.  Then it was handed over to the Soviets in 1939.  Then the Nazis took it in 1941.  And, to get to the bits of Slovakia which were ruled by Hungary, they crossed through Ukrainian Galicia, part of which was then in Ukraine but part of which was then in Poland.  Anyway.  The book says “Brest-Litovsk”.

Many of the people at the camp, including the leader of the “kumpania” (company/group), are sceptical about what’s being said, even when warned by a leading local Polish man that the Nazis intend to move against them, but eventually they decide to leave, and Roman’s father is chosen as the new leader of the kumpania. They head for the border.   The journey is harrowing.  Many people become ill: some don’t make it.  There are disputes and the group splits up, and some of them are attacked by Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and murdered.

Everyone is – hopefully – aware of the concentration camps and the atrocities committed therein, but there doesn’t always seem to be the same awareness of the mass killings carried out by the death squads, even large scale massacres such as that at Babi (Babyn) Yar. Without wishing to be too controversial, it doesn’t help that some of these took place with the assistance of local collaborators, and that the authorities in the countries concerned prefer to play that down, and to focus on other aspects of the wartime years instead.

They also pass close to the extermination camp at Sobibor, and are able to smell the burning flesh. Somehow, with the assistance of some of the local people, the survivors of the group make it to the border, and reach a Hungarian-ruled part of Slovakia.  There’s an action-packed border crossing scene, in which the Nazis are pursuing them and Roman’s best friend is gunned down and killed as the rest of the group cross the river: maybe some of them was added for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t really matter.

Despite the fact that this is essentially a Holocaust novel, some of the descriptions of the journey are very normal, and give an interesting picture of Romani customs. The style’s very simplistic, and it’s quite reminiscent of something like Little House on the Prairie, in the middle of all the horrors.  The reader’s shown a lot of Romani customs, and told about different groups of Roma and Sinti people.  There are also some very normal domestic and community scenes, such as Roman getting into a fight with another boy over a pretty girl whom they both fancy – and whom Roman eventually marries, with a lovely description of Romani marriage rites.

It’s good to read about the realities of Romani culture, because it’s something about which there are a lot of strange ideas and stereotypes. Well, there are two main sets of stereotypes.  There’s the romantic one – think Carmen, and the images of gold earrings and gorgeous brightly-painted caravans, and women selling beautiful lace, and, of course, music.  And there’s the negative one about crime and curses, which is so prevalent that it features in numerous Enid Blyton books and even in Jane Austen’s Emma. The stereotype of Romani people as criminals is one of the reasons why the Romani genocide was not recognised at the time: it was, horrifyingly, claimed that Roma and Sinti people had been targeted because of criminal activity, rather than as an ethnic/cultural group.

We don’t hear much about the group’s experiences in Hungary during 1943, but all seems to go fairly well … but then, in March 1944, with the Hungarian government looking to switch sides and align itself with the Allies, the Nazis march in. The Mirgas and the rest of their kumpania are taken to Auschwitz.

There’s quite a lot of documentary evidence about the Familienzigeunerlager (gypsy family camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It doesn’t seem to be widely known, though.  I can’t actually remember it even being mentioned when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007.  The Roma and Sinti inmates there were, as the name suggests, left together as families, and initially none of the people from there were taken to the gas chambers.  But many died in the horrific conditions.  The doctor in charge of medical treatment of the camp was Josef Mengele.  It’s chilling to come across him in a book, chatting away with characters whom the reader has got to know well.  Again, it seems likely that there’ve been exaggerations for dramatic effect, but the book relates that Mengele took a shine to both Roman Mirga, who worked for him as a translator, and Dymitr Mirga, because of his musical talents.  Roman witnesses some of Mengele’s horrific experiments, especially his attempts to change eye colour, and there are descriptions of the “kindergarten” that Mengele established for Romani children under the age of six.

On August 2nd 1944, the Zigeunerlager was “cleared”: thousands of people were sent to the gas chambers.

The book tells us that Roman was saved. Only one other member of his kumpania was also saved – none other than the boy whom he’d had a fight with over his future wife.  The two of them manage to escape, and meet up with Roman’s sister, whom their father had pushed off the train taking them to Auschwitz and who’d found refuge with a Polish peasant woman.  It doesn’t really sound very likely, but who knows?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much if the story of this particular individual is 100% factually accurate or not.  What matters is that hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and that everyone needs to know that.

No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Bulgaria had, and still has, one of the largest Romani populations in the world, but, although the Bulgarian wartime government was closely allied with the Nazis, there were no killings of either Bulgarian Roma or Bulgarian Jews: that’s something else which deserves more credit than in gets.  Total estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.

People in the Czech Republic are voting in a presidential run-off today and tomorrow. It’s 2018.  Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Sitting president Milos Zeman has, during his election campaign, made comments about Romani people being “socially unadaptable”.  If a political leader had made comments like that about any other group of people, there’d have been an international outcry.  It didn’t even make the mainstream news here.  Mind you, nor did November’s big far right march in Poland, and there’s only been limited coverage of the rise of the far right in Austria.  Maybe the media should take its eyes off America and the Middle East for a few minutes and have a closer look at some of what’s going on in parts of Europe.

West Germany recognised the Romani genocide in 1982, and a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazis was unveiled in Berlin in 2012. In 2011, Poland recognised August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.  It’s now marked in many other countries too, but it’s not really very well-known, and the Romani genocide just isn’t very well-known generally.  It’s not like the Armenian Genocide, which most countries refuse to recognise because they don’t want to damage relations with Turkey.  There just doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as would be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  However, that does seem to be changing now, with young people wanting to raise awareness of what happened, and hopefully that’s something that can be achieved now.

This book is not going to win any prizes for literary style, but it’s one that should be read. A film version’s been made of it as well, and is available on You Tube.  It’s a story that everyone should know.

 

 

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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“The Accidental Empress” of the title is “Sisi”, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Josef and became Empress of Austria, and, later, Queen of Hungary. She’s an interesting figure who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, attracted quite a cult-like following both during her lifetime and after her tragic early death.  However, this book – which goes as far as the Ausgleich of 1867, with a sequel now available – doesn’t really do her story justice.

It starts off quite well, with an account of Sisi’s childhood, and how it was her elder sister who was supposed to marry Franz Josef, until he fell in love with Sisi instead. It’s interesting reading a historical novel about Franz Josef as a young man: he reigned for so long that you tend to forget that he wasn’t always the elderly man that he was by the time of the Great War!   And the clashes between Sisi and her domineering mother-in-law come across quite well.  But the really interesting period of her life, her sad struggles with anxiety and depression, just doesn’t come across well at all.  The time she spent away from Austria is skipped over, and, whilst her eating disorders and obsession with exercise are mentioned, the reader doesn’t really get any sense of how she’s feeling and why she’s having these issues.  I don’t know if maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable writing about mental health issues, but she doesn’t convey them well at all.

Also, a lot of important characters are missed out. The author does explain that she didn’t want to over-complicate things, but I’ll be interested to see how, in the sequel, she explains how the succession works after Rudolf’s suicide, having given the impression that Franz Josef was an only child! One major character who does figure prominently is Count Andrassy, Hungarian politician and Sisi’s alleged lover, but the book gives the impression that Sisi and Andrassy were responsible for the Ausgleich, whereas it was really Ferenc Deak (the politician, not the footballer of the same name!) who played the most important role in bringing it about.  And I’m not sure that people would have referred to Buda and Pest as “Budapest” in the 1850s.

It’s not a bad book, and it isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have been so much better, with a bit of effort.  That’s really frustrating!

Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy

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Word PressThis was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. It claimed to be (according to the back cover) “a national epic” and “a work of profundity and invention”.  It was just a load of drivel.   Apart from the last 200 or so pages – and I waded through 650 pages before I got to there – it wasn’t about anything or anyone or anywhere: it was just waffle.  It also contained one of the worst translation errors I’ve ever seen – although that, to be fair, wasn’t the author’s fault.  Peter Esterhazy passed away very recently, so I feel a bit awful about slagging off his best-known book; but it was just dire.

I was expecting Hungarian history, as witnessed by the Esterhazys, a leading Hungarian aristocratic family. I was expecting, if perhaps not as far back as St Stephen, then certainly Matthias Corvinus, war against the Turks, the Habsburg-Jagellon marriage alliance, the Reformation, the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Rakoczy Uprising, Kossuth and the 1848 Revolution, the Ausgleich, the dissolution of the Empire, the coming of communism, the 1956 Uprising … oh, and Ferenc Puskas and co beating England in 1953.  There aren’t a lot of books available in English about Hungary, and I was really looking forward to reading this one.  Instead, all I got was … drivel.

The book was in two parts. The second part at least made some vague sort of sense – or, at least, the later part of it, covering the aftermath of the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then the aristocratic Esterhazys having to adapt to communism after the Second World War, did.  But the first part, and a large section of the second part, was just waffle.  I have no idea what it was supposed to be about.

I feel as if I’m missing something, and showing that I’m really uncultured and can’t appreciate post-modernism or whatever the hell it was supposed to be!  It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you’re in an expensive restaurant and, in the name of nouvelle cuisine or something, they give you a tidgy little spoonful of food in the middle of a huge plate and you’re sat there thinking that you’d have got a far more satisfying meal at McDonald’s!   But I really don’t know what the reader was supposed to appreciate in this.  It was a load of disjointed waffle.  It jumped backwards and forwards across the centuries, from one sentence to the next, and half the time you couldn’t even tell what century it was talking about because it was just generalised waffle.  A lot of it was about arguments between spouses or potential spouses.  And then there was one bit in which someone inadvertently opened the bathroom door whilst their distant cousin was on the toilet.  What exactly is supposed to be profound, inventive and epic about someone opening the bathroom door whilst someone else is on the toilet?!

The jumping about between centuries from one sentence to another was bad enough in that it was confusing, but some of it was deliberately wrong. There was one bit which mentioned an ancestor who’d gone into exile with Rakoczy, but then it said that this person was born in 1741, i.e. thirty years after the Rakoczy uprising!  I mean … what was that about?!  Then there was a reference to the Dreyfus affair (and I don’t see what that really had to do with Hungary anyway), followed by a reference to the French Revolution which made it sound as if the Revolution happened after the Dreyfus affair.  Maybe that was meant to be really witty and amusing in some sort of strange way, but I don’t see how!

Then there were the inadvertent errors. At least, I assume that saying that the Battle of Mohacs took place in 1562, when it actually took place in 1526, was a typo, and not another bizarre deliberate mistake!   All right, we all make typos, but couldn’t the editors have checked the text?  That’s a pretty significant date to get wrong.  And, sadly, it was only a brief reference to Mohacs anyway, before the drivel started again.

Typos can just about be excused, but some things can’t, and saying that the First Duke of Marlborough’s name was Victor von Hochstedt is one of them! The Battle of Blenheim is often referred to in Central Europe as the (Second) Battle of Hochstedt, so I assume that the Hungarian text referred to “the Duke of Marlborough, the victor of Hochstedt” and that somehow got translated as “the Duke of Marlborough, Victor von Hochstedt”.  Seriously, does no-one check these scripts before they’re published?!  That is horrendous!   Incidentally, the reference to the Duke of Marlborough was not in connection with the Rakoczy uprising but in connection with … er, nothing.

Why “von” should have come into a translation from Hungarian into English is a mystery as well, but quite a few sentences in the book, especially in the first section, were in German. I can only assume that they’d been in German rather than Hungarian in the original text, and left like that to make a point, but some of them were long and convoluted sentences and my German’s very limited!  And there were odd words of Yiddish thrown in as well, which was fine in areas where Yiddish was appropriate but rather odd in areas where it wasn’t.   Would a Hungarian aristocrat really refer to his relatives by the Yiddish word for family?

OK … let’s try to think of something positive to say. One thing that did come across quite well was how closely the Hungarian aristocracy were bound up with the Austrian aristocracy and the Bohemian aristocracy. My generation grew up without the concept of Mitteleuropa.   For us, there was Western Europe and Eastern Europe, with the Iron Curtain between the two.   That’s all changed now: Mitteleuropa is back.  Maybe it never really went, but we felt as if it had.

Then there was some reasonable coverage of the aftermath of the end of the Great War. The brief existence of a communist state in Hungary in 1919 is something that tends to be forgotten about now.  A lot of what happened in 1918-1920 – the war between Poland and Russia’s another thing – tends to be forgotten about now, at least in the West.  And there’s the question of borders.  The post Great War border decisions were bloody ridiculous, really.  Don’t get me started on the South Tyrol question!  After the Berlin Wall fell, there was some speculation in some areas of the press that there might be calls for borders to be withdrawn.    But it never happened.

For everything that happened in the former Yugoslavia, there never seemed to be any calls for Vojvodina to become independent, or to become part of Hungary, but there weren’t. That’s a bit strange, really.  Having said which, Vojvodina as a whole is about two-thirds ethnically Serbian these days, so it’s a totally different ball game to Kosovo where the vast majority of the population’s ethnically Albanian, although the situation in 1920 was very different.  And Transylvania had a Romanian majority even in 1920.  There are issues, though.  There were protests in 2009 by ethnic Hungarians who weren’t happy about the language laws in Slovakia.  And CFR Cluj, who were in the same Champions League group as United a few years back, are supported mainly by ethnic Hungarians, whereas their neighbours Universitatea Cluj are supported mainly by ethnic Romanians.  Is any of this an issue in Hungary?  I don’t really know, and I’d like to have been given some sense of it.  But I didn’t really get a sense of anything very much from this book.  Except not to barge into the bathroom unless you’re sure that no-one else is in there.

Then there was a lot about the Esterhazys adapting to life under communism. That was the only bit of the book that really came across well.  A lot’s been written about the fate of the Russian aristocracy after the Russian Revolution, but the effect of communism on the formerly privileged classes of other Eastern European states isn’t something that’s ever discussed very much.  I’m glad that I stuck with the book because I’d have missed that part otherwise.  But the rest of it was just so disappointing!   Maybe it’s me, because this book has won a lot of plaudits, and I think an award as well.  But a burger and chips at McDonald’s is a lot more filling, and certainly much better value, than a small dollop of fancily-presented food at an expensive restaurant, and a book which actually tells you something is a lot better than a book which just waffles about things that don’t even follow.  This book was nearly 850 pages long.  That was a lot of waffle.