Whenever I travel somewhere, I like watching films and reading books set in that place. This really gives me a feel for the place I’m going to visit that can’t be obtained merely by reading a guidebook. Besides, having to look into films and books usually results in getting acquaintanced with the culture of the country I’m visiting and the consequent broadening of my horizons. I don’t think I had actually read any books by Hungarian authors until I started planning my trip to Budapest, and in the past couple of months I have read a handful of them. Yep, I’m that
pretentious asshole person who can be spotted reading Kafka in Prague, Sartre in Paris and The Merchant of Venice on an Italian train.
That said, I haven’t actually been to Budapest. As I previously mentioned, I got ill and couldn’t make it, which made me burst into tears a number of times through the weekend. I hope the neighbours enjoyed the cries of “but I wanna be with my frieeeeeeends” and “I should be druuuuunk nowwwwww”. That last part may or may not be a lie. But anyway, since the cancellation was a last minute thing, I was more than ready to visit Hungary’s capital, and although this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following books are definitely worth reading if you’re planning to visit Budapest.
Temptation (János Székely/John Pen, 1946)
Temptation is one of those Bildungsromans whose protagonists have to endure uncountable hardships before their lives start looking up at the end of the novel. An ending that is always bittersweet, because so much poverty cannot give way to infinite happiness.
It starts, like many other great tales of poverty, with an unwanted bastard child who lacks a real family. Belà’s story begins in a Hungarian village, where he is raised in a sort of orphanage for children born out of wedlock run by a despicable woman.
When he reaches his teenage years he is forced to move to Budapest to live with his mum. Due to the precarious economical situation of his mother, Belà has to leave school and finds a job at a luxury hotel, a job which is of course unpaid. From this miserable situation, the author paints a great picture of Hungarian society during the inter-war period, complete with every gritty detail you can imagine. Somehow the book doesn’t fall into the “too-depressing-to-carry-on” category and it remains entertaining throughout.
The author himself, János Székely, led a fascinating life. He fled Hungary for political reasons and went on to live in Germany and the US, where his work as a screenwriter earned him an Academy Award. His stay in the land of opportunity was cut short by McCarthyism, which made the writer flee to Mexico and, later, to the DDR. His works have been published under several pseudonyms and this (semi-autobiographical?) novel was forgotten for decades after its publication until it was re-discovered in the year 2000.
If you like Dickens, Angela’s Ashes, or generally enjoy other people’s miserable childhoods, this one’s for you.
Szabadulas (Sándor Márai, 1945)
Uh, oh. It doesn’t look like this one has been translated into English, but you lucky multilingual people can read it in a bunch of other languages. The novel’s title translates as “Liberation”, and it’s set in the last days of WW2 during the Siege of Budapest, when the whole city was holding its breath waiting for the Red Army.
The novel’s protagonist, Erzsébet, is a young woman who must find a hiding place for her father before the Gestapo and the Arrow Crosses get their hands on him. While 80% of the city was being reduced to ruins, Erzsébet is locked in a crowded basement in front of the place where she left her dad. The feeling of entrapment is intense; the action takes place in a basement, the city–simultaneously occupied by an external force and surrounded by another– is falling apart above them, the bridges across the Danube have been bombed and there seems to be no way out. On top of this, the reader knows that the positive connotations of the word “liberation” seem to have lost its meaning after its aftermath.
This is not the right novel to go for if you’re looking for descriptions of the city, but it is a great introduction to a very specific episode of its history.
Battlefields and Playgrounds (Janos Nyiri, 1989)
If you think it’s impossible to laugh out loud while reading a book about the Holocaust I dare you to try this one. Jozsef Sondor’s childish perspective of the gruesome events does not trivialise them in any way, but it lends them an aura of innocence. A child is, after all, a child, and he will worry about his mean teachers, his friends and his favourite football team even in the kind of situations that force him to grow up. Life in Budapest for a young jew during WW2 was anything but a bed of roses, and even less so for a son to a single mother and an absent father. The themes in this novel are the most depressing you can think of–racism, sexism, abuse of authority, poverty, death, life-threatening situations, family feuds, lies, war…you name it. However, they’re narrated really charmingly and they really give you a sense of what it must have been like to grow up in a world that really made no sense.
Also worth reading: this article by the same author.