‘Esprit’ on the alliance between Christians and anti-establishment populists; illiberalism and the transformation of democracy; the EPP and the ‘Hungary question’; and why ‘The Joker’ captures the political zeitgeist.
In this excerpt from the novel of the same name, a Hungarian-Israeli mother addresses her daughter in Europe in a letter she never sends. Her monologue, covering a span of several years, alternates between family news and reports of daily life in postwar Israel. Forgách brilliantly captures the complexity of her attitudes towards the new Jewish immigrants, with whom she sympathizes but to whom she feels, as prewar settler, socially superior. While she realizes the newcomers are victims of an experience too hellish for her to imagine, her distaste for the burgeoning Zionist movement confuses her moral sense. Meanwhile, her faith in Stalin and the “cause” has an absolutism that sits uncomfortably alongside her sentimentality. This excerpt, the first time this major Hungarian author has been published in English, has been translated by Tim Wilkinson.
… of course when your Dad did come, he disembarked from the ship and was amazed that the Old Testament Jews here were the Bedouin, in their fabulous robes, their cheeks burnt to charcoal, this young trainee rabbi, they have been scorching under the sun for a thousand years, well of course, but even so we were here first, the Bible says so, we were here before everyone else, there was as yet nothing, but we were already here, let those who came along afterwards perish, it’s there in the Tanach, for a handful of glass beads ten thousand dunam, furlongs or whatever, the Arabs play for va banque, all or nothing, us too, only more cannily, of course everyone denies it, every day the Jewish Agency issues irrefutable refutations, though it’s also true that we then really cannot work, you too planted a marvellous plane tree on Rothschild Boulevard, it gives superb shade, Dad and I stood under it on coming out of the cinema the other day, we couldn’t go any further, guess what a terrible stroke of back luck I had, I found a little sewing set that I intended for you, the case of claret-coloured morocco leather, a dream, it has a clasp with a gold chain, it would also serve well as a purse, and one could even keep photos in it, specifically made for travelling, there’s a pyramid impressed on it, a Sphinx, I bought it in the bazaar, I’m burning with rage, seven reels of thread, ten needles, two little Swiss scissors, one nail clipper, a gilded thimble, I feel like tossing the whole thing in the bin, it’s not enough that you’re leaving, believe me, it’s hard for a birth-mother, though I never was a good mother to you, I was selfish, frightfully so, but how can it be that while my heart feels heavy as a millstone I was also enormously relieved, because I feel sure that things there will be much better for both of you in the People’s Republic, Robbie never found his feet here, and then he flares up at everything, he’s too anti-everything, he has no patience, he doesn’t want to go back to Romania, of course, not one of his folks is left there, so don’t you dare ask permission to come back, the only reason we’re staying is because to move house twice is rather tricky at this age, one will just have to stick it out, and see how industrious your mother is, follow my example, you haven’t so much as set foot outside this place and I’m already sitting at my table, which is a marvel in itself, that I’m able to sit upon my bottom, that I have time and still have a bottom! and that I can draw breath in this heat, it’s a warm May, like a blast furnace, the fan isn’t worth a plugged nickel, it just whirrs away in the corner of the room, it’s enough to shatter the ears, it doesn’t allow any sleep, and the air doesn’t stir an inch, the wobbly table’s leg is rocking, the pen is ripping the paper, my eyes are hurting, not that that’s stopping me from writing, with my blood pressure who knows where, there you are, the paper is so thin, airmail paper, blue, I can’t even see the letters I’m writing, I’m furious, but if you were to ask Hannah, she would say the same, get as far away from here as possible, once she’s finished school she, too, is going to look for a new homeland, today I’ve been run off my feet, that’s nonsense of course, I rushed around like the lowliest maid on the estate to the comrades and the occupying force, into the Party office, out of the Party office, put a good face upon it, a permit for this, a permit for that, begging, keep smiling just because a few Jewish mums are looking to make a charity business in these times of war, to lay out the goods and organise a collection, running around in the blazing sun, my tongue hanging out, I don’t have a horse, not even a miserable dromedary, only the cockroaches in the kitchen, I won’t sit down on them, or on a broom handle either, transport here is lousy, rank, the rattletraps they have for buses shake the living daylights out of one, and I know I have a soul because by the evening there’s none left, I’m just a puddle of heat and dirt there’s not a shadow in the street by the evening my skin is as scaly as a crocodile’s, what they ought to write on those rattletraps is All hope abandon, ye who board here, it hasn’t got any better since yesterday, if anything worse, because, and mark this well, something can always be worse than it is, zehuze, that’s how it is, if a bus comes, then I can’t get on it, people from behind push me aside, and if it doesn’t come, then one has to wait forever, and it is preferable to go home rather than spend one’s non-existent money on a taxi, they’re all sharks, all drivers, but even if I do manage to get on and I’m not immediately crushed to death, then you can be sure the bus will break down somewhere at the back of beyond where I have no business, on the far side of town in Cholon, or what do I know? in an industrial area, or everyone has to get out at the point of a machinegun, the Brits nowadays being not at all the gentlemen they were during the war, they’re nervous now, because of course all the Jewish terrorists who are operating at present got their training from them in the great milhama, and they’re all offended since they liberated us from Nazi rule out of the goodness of their hearts, and this is our way of repaying them, the milhama isn’t over for a second and already they’ve become the enemy, our lot picks up British iron logic, and now the Brits are frisking people in public on every street corner, and you have to produce your tattered papers six times to ID yourself wherever you go, they check whether you have a hand grenade under your armpit, or a Molotov cocktail up your backside, they’re even shameless enough to grope about under the skirts of one’s little girl, well just let them grope, I say, I have nothing to be ashamed of, old crone that I am, but I can’t complain, let there be peace, anything is better than war or civil war, there’s been enough milhama, but now tensions are high ever since we blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and seventy or more died on the spot there’s no tranquillity, but anything can happen, Dad does not even allow me to say they blew it up, we always have to say we blew it up, even if we don’t agree with it at all, in fact hate what our terrorists are up to, because they murder cheat steal without mercy, but Dad says that they too are what we are, I don’t argue with him, I leave him be, that’s his way of thinking, nice of him, because it makes us both the murderers and the victims, too, one can get one’s fingers burned on that sort of mentality, says he, but he doesn’t know any better because it’s still better than if, than if, I don’t know now what it was he said, better than what? this whole prayer wheel that has been going on here for thirty years, round and round, either they’re doing the blowing up or it’s us, either they’re the murderers or we are, there is no air to breathe but we still have to live here, all I ask is that if you reply, my little girl, you too put down everything, but everything, that you see, that you are feeling, even your most secret thoughts, no beating about the bush, you know that there’s no need to fudge issues with your mother, nuku hadova, as your grandfather, that wise old Solomon, used to say, Hannah, the little minx, has at last moved in with Norbert, she doesn’t listen to me or to her father, who is putty in her hands, well, that’s just as Hannah likes, she loves to tease her Dad, no doubt she wants a child, God bless them both, Norbert’s a fine lad, only too old, and German, and a genius, but then if that semi-Nazi von Braun, the jeke rocket engineer, can marry his 18-year-old niece, it seems that’s the fashion, old goats gag for a tasty bit of young flesh, and meat’s not to be had anywhere, bread not even for coupons, or cloth on the black market, fruit has to be literally stolen, one has to haggle for eggs as if they were made of gold, and if you’re brought a single orange from a kibbutz, that now counts as a huge gift, we’re like monkeys, living on seeds, though of course if you look at the ads in the newspapers you’d think this was the land of Canaan itself, because there are rich folks, and how!, who summer on the Côte d’Azur then, when they get back, shoot their mouths off just like before, there’s no shortage of events here, as usual there’s something happening by the minute, no room to get bored, either they’re expelling someone from the Party, or shooting someone else in broad daylight, your best friend emigrates, you have a bust-up with the other one that will last a lifetime, your relatives disown you and would gladly spit on you, one is blowing one’s top even though one ought to be watching the blood pressure, Dad has forbidden all talk about politics at home, but he’s always the first to start, because everyone here has gone crazy, everyone has gone crazy, and he repeats everything twice over, everything twice over, has two shots, two shots, instead of using his brain for once, here everyone is soft in the head, and not just the English, who never learn anything and never forget anything, but the poor dim-witted Arabs, the Jews too, I would take sides with my own kind, even the animals do that, but sadly I’m not enough of a patriot, patriotism is not in fashion in our family, well of course the Jews, too, are dim-witted, because they think they’re so clever, and it’s better I say nothing about the new Hungarians here, what do we have here, what kind of rabble do we have here, especially now, the ones who aliyahed after the war, what a mixed bunch, how greedy, how money-grubbing, they thought this was the land flowing with milk and honey, they fell for all the humbug, now they can go and break stones or shoot, there are some decent people among them, to tell the truth, and some of them who went through the bottomless depths of hell, and do you know what I’ve come to realise?, the fact that someone has been to hell and back is not enough to guarantee that he will be a better person for it, in some cases he may be worse as a person, in others he may be an angel, but nothing is for sure, that’s how it goes, zehuze, I don’t know where the key to what makes people tick is hidden, everyone is what they are, zehuze, but then who am I to talk, people give me such odd looks, even though I’m right, with those martyr faces, it’s enough to make my blood boil, but I was here and they were there, the tattooed number on their forearm, it’s horrific even to think about, there’s nothing one can do about it here, I can’t change things now, that’s life, zehuze, if I only knew your whereabouts now, but not a word, nothing, from you, you really might have sent a postcard from Alexandria! Alexandria means my youth! a week has gone by before I could get round to carrying on writing this letter, three times a day I hare down to the letter box, and it’s quite senseless, because the postman would bring it up if there was anything, I can’t breathe, he’s a brick, he’s snub-nosed and he stutters, he has a cute, fluff-covered face, and of course it has occurred to me, silly goose that I am, that I have no idea where to send this letter, I keep on writing and writing, to Bosnia or Budapest or Prague or the Balearics, poste restante, poste restante in Europe somewhere, as it is it’s just like talking to myself, if I think about it, yesterday ³only² three people died, according to the newspaper, but then one can’t believe what one reads in newspapers, everyone writes to suit their own taste, it seems there’s not just one but two sides, the Stern gang have robbed another bank, do you know that Irgun has also claimed responsibility for the British embassy in Rome? but of course who thought any different? sheer terrorism, one has to kill, Lenin said, the end justifies the means, but isn’t it all the same why one kills, it would be best not to have to kill, and of course someone got stabbed in the Old Town, young boys dress in women’s clothes, a kitchen knife in their hands, they’ll slit anyone’s throat, or out of patriotism, that kind of patriotism is very much in demand now, blood-stained patriotism, or because they’re thirsting for half a farthing, Dad says that Flavius already wrote about this, he even read the bit out, it’s dreadful how everything repeats itself, hotheads, the vengeful, fanatics, they don’t believe in anything, on top of which the good old Grand Mufti talks utter rot, now there’s someone who really should get lost, he’s had a screw loose since ’26 of course, fanning passions ever since, he doesn’t dare show his face round here, he sends word from Cairo, as far as he’s concerned even the Nazis were fairly decent when it came to settling scores with us, the poor fellahin, the have-nots who have become outlaws overnight and are now not even allowed to work, let alone be given some land, they are starting to kill, a life isn’t worth a plugged nickel, pure Wild West, then all those demobbed soldiers who don’t want to go home, Polacks, Eyeties, so there’s no way of knowing who shot whom, but what that car bomb did on Ben Yehudah Street was truly appalling, two British deserters to make it worse, 52 dead, and all because a Jewish lad is supposed to have seduced the fiancée of one of them, in the middle of the night, and the Brits do the only thing they know, the streets everywhere are closed down, barbed wire everywhere, they’ve completely barbed-wired themselves in, they live in terror of Molotov cocktails, their troops are confined to barracks lest they go over to either side, one this way the other that, the one because he’s fallen in love with a Jewish girl or because he’s a born anti-Semite, a triple ring of barbed wire around every office, with a tank and a sentry out in front, the sun may be blazing but a true Englishman never develops a suntan, his freckled face just turns red as a lobster, they deserve it too, the crown of civilisation, the British Empire, the whole Mandate can go to hell, along with its dual obligation, Churchill did a good job of bungling on this as well, it’s said that he’s so bored he paints landscapes, I find that hard to believe, a landscape painter doesn’t lie, Hitler also liked to paint, ever since he ceased to be the prime minister he’s been swigging non-stop, not that there aren’t a few decent people among the British, handsome clean-shaven types, not smelly, they’re always having a wash, frightfully polite, but when they’re in a funk they, too, are all too trigger-happy, and bullets aren’t choosy about who they hit, some chicken thief gets shot dead every day, but if they were to withdraw from here, like rats leaving a sinking ship, then what’s that going to leave in its place? it’s awful just thinking about it, a great vacuum, a hole with holes in it, even the hole is leaking, nationalism is poison, everyone against everyone, of course we hope for the best, but that lot don’t let you pass even with the right papers, travelling between towns can take hours, you can’t go from one village to the next, the right papers are just as suspect as false ones, there’s a complete news blackout and a complete blockade of the country, there’s no post anyway, so this letter will just be, I keep on writing and writing, not sending it off, it may be weeks before I post it, I’m feeling kind of restless and helpless, letter-writing calms me to some degree, and much as I’m glad that you’ve set off at last, happy as I am that you’ve got away from here, my heart still aches, I don’t know myself what is the matter with me, because I’m not so old as to think that we shall never meet again in this stinking prole life, I don’t feel old, not I, nor am I old, have you any idea how many men still lick their chops on seeing me, only today a good-looking young fellow comes up to me in the store and says he knows me from somewhere, and of course how would he? I just smiled and turned crimson, I reckon, blushing like a debutante, but nothing can come of it, your Dad is everything, I’ve fallen in love with him all over again, only my children happen to have grown up, that is the course of nature, and with you going away like you have, my darling daughter, I’m somehow left like a Moldavian Jew and his fur cap, damned if I have it, damned if I don’t, so happy as I am that you have finally made up your mind, it pains me just as much, pains this hard, evil, heartlessly selfish mother’s heart of mine, because the cause is all that interests me, the family takes second place, and then I’ve adopted so many girls and driven my own daughters away, that’s what the evil tongues wag, and maybe they’re right, though not really, I reckon everything I did with all of you was for the best, but obviously my heyday is coming to an end now that you’re fleeing the coop, and that’s what I’m sensible of, that’s why my heart is hammering, Dad is already asleep but I can’t, I came out here and lit a candle, but I can’t read, because there’s a total blackout, I don’t want the house being searched, but up to now I’ve been twisting and turning, the interests of the working class are of no interest to me, the proletariat of the world is of no interest to me, or the radiant future, just one thing is of interest to me: how you and Hannah are, that my two daughters should be happy, now a big lump has been broken off my heart, I hate being sentimental, at your wedding in ’46, at Hanukkah, it’s curious that I didn’t yet feel it, with you sitting there, the veil over your head and in your white embroidered dress, and you smiled, the light fell on you like a diamond crown with that amazing apple-cheeked smile of yours brightening everything, in front of the splendid sideboard over which I am so envious of Rebecca, it was possible to glimpse at the sun, but not at you
it may be something you and Hannah have agreed on, that now you are expecting you’re turning grey as well, jakirati, before you have truly lived, jakirati, my darling little daughter, what’s the need for a third? I can understand Hannah, with her only just having married Dmitri, love is still a new thing, ahava hadasha, they’re ardent, billing and cooing, a child is needed to cement the link more firmly, it’s a joy just looking at them, it doesn’t matter that it’s 76 steps, Hannah all but flies up to the fifth floor, she daydreams about a house with a garden where every morning she will pick fresh latte off a banana tree, bearing in mind the housing situation here, that day will never come, though Hannah’s very self-willed, the world may be a dreadful place, but people find it easier to put up with misfortunes if they are easy at heart and they have plans, that scallywag Dmitri may turn out to be a big chameleon, time will tell, I’m always telling him that if I got a pinch of paprika each time his hackles are raised, I’d never run short, angry people are frank, their anger shows on the tip of their nose, the Arabs say, I miss the Szeged air tremendously, the River Tisza at dawn, no matter, as they say there the big ball will be in Szeged, but only if it doesn’t rain, if it does, it won’t, and if it doesn’t, it will, when I catch the fragrance of that finely milled red paprika that I keep in a linen bag right at the back of the shelf, then all the smells come flooding back to me, like for you oranges and the fragrance of cedars in the heat, and cardomom, halva, hoummus and the earth redolent of baking oleander that you can never enjoy because you developed that fever when you slept in the hay, and freshly picked figs, olives and gefilte fish with onion, and pomegranate trees and groves of gnarled olive trees.
That Dmitri, by the way, is an upstanding, straight dealing boy, if only it weren’t for those uncontrolled temper tantrums of his, that Russian accent he has just kills me, that’s how I can get him really annoyed, those two languages, Hebrew and Russian, are like two wrestlers, with one minute the Russian flooring the Hebrew, the next minute the Hebrew the Russian, some of our politicians came out when the tsar, the Little Father, was still on the throne, but they too weep for his return, in their opinion Stalin is even worse than the tsars ever were, which is nonsense, if you think about the pogroms, a reactionary thought, I don’t even wish to waste words on it when the equal rights of Soviet citizens in everything is common knowledge, they no longer have to confront the spectre of assimilation, admittedly the Soviet Union isn’t exactly backward about coming forward with its opinions when it comes to Zionism worming its way into everything, we’re only too well aware of the curse of chauvinism and what it leads to, Dmitri hates it if I say noo shto? gavarish parusskie? that’s all I can manage, unfortunately, maybe I’ll have a crack at it, so that I can read the works of Stalin in the original, if only it weren’t for that Cyrillic lettering, it was quite enough boning up on Hebrew, ever since then I only scuff the paper with those printed letters, even though Father was most particular about his Alephbeta to make it easy for the kids, haikari, the main thing is that this time Dmitri really has taken a shine to Hannah, 3 goes at it he had to no avail, three is the Hungarian number for the truth, he has brains, he waited until all the dirty rivals had fallen by the wayside, one encore and our Hannah bloomed like the cactus that only flowers for a couple of days, but then it is heart-wrenchingly splendid, like a butterfly fluttering among the prickly thorns, one mustn’t lay a finger on it, just marvel, Hannah is proud, awfully proud, unfortunately she immediately turns any trouble into an illness, she of all people, who knows so much about the psychological cause of every disease, now she’s walking four inches above the ground, she’s lovely as Cleopatra, it reminds me of the photographs that we had made, the three of us, in Tel Aviv, at Derkowitz’s.
When we three, Hannah, you and I, went to make photographs at Allenby Street the day we heard the news on the radio about the siege of Stalingrad, the D-Day landings in Normandy, and the Arabs were cringing, the embers were smouldering under the ashes, casting off any pretence at humanity, the English sent the Jewish refugees back to certain death, a few Arab insurgents were executed, yet for a few moments the idyll nevertheless broke out in Tel Aviv, the wildest idyll at a time of the gentlest carnage, we went around arm in arm right along Bograshov Street, an overpowering fragrance of jasmine simply flooded out from the gardens, making our way in that concentrated scent was like swimming underwater, three women, a mother and her two daughters, you were going to study nursing in Beirut, because the world needed nurses, how pretty you are in your crisp white nurse’s uniform, standing between your teachers, at the time you graduated, in that cypress-fringed garden overlooking the sea, like a sugar lump, the sun was dazzling, the trees were casting shadows, you two were laughing about something I didn’t understand, there were times when you and Hannah could laugh so wildly that it hurt, my gosh, but how pretty you are in the picture! two radiant stars, two beauty queens, you with your piled-up chestnut hair, which the British wrote down as blonde in your passport, where on earth were they looking? and out of the three of us only you are smiling like the colour of water quivering delicately in the dawn, your hair a crown with tight braids round it, you’re a queen with that apple-cheeked smile of yours, a juicy peach, in that low-cut, short-sleeved black dress, you in black, Hannah in white, me under you, scarf round my head, looking into the distance like into the past, my head over your heart, behind me eternally brooding Hannah in that lily-white blouse of hers, do you remember it? dear Mama sewed it, I embroidered a line of pomegranates all round the collar, blood-red pomegranates bordered with green leaves, you three, your Dad said proudly, as if we were all the same age.
That was how Dad flirted, though you were the one he adored, mother and daughters, that flatterer said, actually sisters, he only fell in love with me again because I gave birth to you, how proud he was to hold you up to the world, a startled infant with her eyes shut tight, sitting on a chair, there in the photo, in the Old City, sitting on a bentwood chair in the street, a pram next to it, a young Dad standing guard over your dreams, but 20 years later, each of us in the picture looking in different directions, three of us in three different directions, not one at the camera: you, brimming with confidence, like a wheat field, gently swaying in the breeze, floating like the moon in the sky, or the rising sun that before long will be shining full-blaze, me below you, head to one side, as if I had just been lightly slapped, and Hannah music personified, as if she weren’t even there, brooding so sweetly, like a fawn ready to dart back into the trees, a gazelle vanishing behind rocks, a distant melody that is barely breathed and carries on resonating within us as if it were grieving, though there’s no knowing for what, a perennial air of melancholy on her face, and tranquillity, too, a stillness of the abyss, how strange that she should be the most melancholy among us, who, if necessary, will leap up and hare over to the far side of town for medicine, meat, a book, a letter, for the most utterly trivial bits and bobs, even forgetting all about her injured leg, her temperature, her runny nose, runs, and runs and runs and yet she is the pillar.
You are going away, leaving me, up to Lebanon, to the North, in a truck with a tarpaulin, it was wartime all the same, there were several people with guns as passengers on the lorry, but when that photo was taken Derkowitz whisked it straight into the shop window, the whole world flocked to admire it, you two gave me back my beauty one last time, the three Graces, Dad said, the big fibber, yet my mood today is much better, for some reason, the sun has peeped out from behind the clouds, January is over and it is no longer pouring with rain, the tomatoes are ripening, the deluge is over, they say the harvest is going to be good this year, as you know that decides everything here, the tomatoes here are like the stock markets elsewhere, so let’s enjoy it, spring is here, it doesn’t matter that I’m the experienced wife of a canteen proprietor, a Mother Courage with heart disease, I’m dreadfully worried about Hannah, now she’s approaching childbirth again, and you too, like she was almost crippled with Shulie, not so much by giving birth, the doctors could only shake their heads, wrinkle their brows, the quacks, our Hannah too almost bled to death, I didn’t dare write this before, little Shulie’s smile was what cured her, her womb, Hannah said, but in the end even that dope Norbert cleared off, there are no more threats or secret messages or reports to the police, no stranglings on street corners or shabby Party resolutions, Othello fell on his sword and didn’t strangle Desdemona, let’s hope he doesn’t make good on his threat to kidnap his daughter, the thing with you and Robbie is completely different, you are comrades and friends, through thick or thin, and if Robbie is up in the air and has dropped out of favour for a while, and you get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go across to the other side of town, to that draughty monastery or the factory, then there’s a Party meeting late in the afternoon at MOM, then in the evening a residents’ meeting in the stairwell, if you carry on like this, there’ll be nothing of you left over for us, just a gnawed bone
A translated excerpt from András Forgách, Zehuze, Magveto, Budapest, 2007, pp 644. See: www.zehuze.hu. A review of the novel in English can be read in Hungarian Literature Online.
 Milhama = war (Hebrew).
 Jeke = Kraut, German (Yiddish).
 Aliyah = ‘ascent’ in Hebrew and hence the immigration of Jews to Israel.
 Jakirati = darling, dearest (Hebrew).
 Ahava hadasha = new love (Hebrew).
 What was that? Do you speak Russian?
Published 18 May 2007
Original in Hungarian
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
First published by Magyar Lettre Internationale 64 (2007)
© András Forgách / Magyar Lettre Internationale / EurozinePDF/PRINT
‘Esprit’ on the alliance between Christians and anti-establishment populists; illiberalism and the transformation of democracy; the EPP and the ‘Hungary question’; and why ‘The Joker’ captures the political zeitgeist.
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