JANUARY 2, 2014
THE TWO “THEMES” of every writer, says Sándor Márai in his Memoir of Hungary, are the journey into the world of the dead — what the Greeks called the Nekyia — and the Nostos, the return home. Márai was one of the most prolific 20th-century Hungarian writers; he considered his own memoir an attempt at exhausting the former category, chronicling the dark descent from the German invasion in 1944 to the Soviet occupation that followed. As for the latter — what home was there to return to? The bourgeois world to which Márai and his 40-odd novels belonged had long since disappeared. Holding out as little hope for the communists as he did for the fascists, he left the country in 1948 and spent the rest of his life abroad.
Márai was wrong about his memoir: the descent to the underworld that he depicts is indistinguishable from the return home. In memoir they are one and the same. How can one “[bid] farewell to a past fallen into ruin” without returning to summon its ghosts? What makes memoir compelling is the way the writer chooses to navigate the space between his or her lived and remembered lives. It’s a novelist’s trick, negotiating this terrain, and Márai understands its contours well. In one section, he takes a literal journey into the world of the dead: walking through the city, he describes a visit to his old apartment. He looks in the yard for a row of chestnut trees, which always “pinned on their snow-white and pink candles” in spring, but the trees are no longer there. “It is possible that the staging, the setting […] is deplorably romantic,” he writes, now that 20 years have passed. “But there was also reality in it all.”
Márai and his ghosts hover closely over Charles Farkas’s new memoir, Vanished by the Danube, published with a paragraph’s worth of praise on the cover from Bill Clinton. Farkas’s book follows a similar historical trajectory. It traces the disintegration of upper-middle-class Hungarian life from the interwar years through 1956, when he flees to Austria, then America. His tales of adventure and hardship are set against the looming shadow of war in precise, careful prose. It begins with a stolid prologue, told quickly, as if written out in the cold: “[This memoir] is intended to serve as a kind of cultural anthropological study, capturing a time, a place, a way of life along one strip of the Danube that might have vanished from the historical record, if not for accounts like this one.” To achieve this anthropologic end, Farkas wades through stories of his ancestors, and then of his youth, providing descriptions, chronologies, and photographs. On first glance, the arrangement is a bit dull. It often reads like a family photo album thrust at a holiday party upon an unsuspecting guest.
We first encounter Charles — né Károly — in 1925 as a young boy enamored by country idyll. After his family inherits a vineyard in Veresegyház from his uncle, located just outside of Budapest, his mother, an amateur painter, moves out to oversee work on the land. His father, “the gentleman farmer,” an urbane “connoisseur of everything,” stays in the city and travels out to join them on weekends. He works as the editor and publisher of the official weekly of the Hungarian Radio Corporation, housed in the same building which Charles, an incidental participant in the anti-Soviet uprising, will storm in 1956.
For Farkas, life in the country is enchanted — he returns to this word again and again. It is his Combray. He is enchanted by its sounds and smells, by the flowers in the yard; he is enchanted by the memories of old friends and young women. His tenderness for the vineyard — and for the summers and weekends he spends there — is gently infectious; the reader comes to feel a kind of fondness for the place. It is at this point, in the author’s recounting of carefree summers, that one senses Farkas slipping away from the stated goal of his prologue. After 60 years, how could a place so overgrown with memories be fit for a study so dryly academic? Here is Farkas recalling the grounds at Veresegyház:
Around us, everything was in bloom, the air felt fresh, the vegetation was lush. The fruit trees bordering the roads were laden with cherries, apples, pears, and plums. The grass and weeds were mowed by scythe. As a traveler or visitor neared our property, the yellow walls of the manor house peeked out from behind the trees and bushes. Woodbines cascaded down the roof above the entrance to Uncle Rory’s tract. Their blossoms were white, with green leaves peeking out from beneath them. Specks of green moss settled on the biscuit-colored roof tiles.
It is a lovely description. Márai might have called it “deplorably romantic.” The smells have likely grown stronger since the author has visited last, but one can still assume there is reality in it. Farkas has little interest in exploring the space between his real and remembered lives, though: unlike Márai’s, his recollections are taken as a matter of fact. Perhaps the most agile function of the prologue is to brush this criticism aside. But it seems a mistake to try to “capture a time” without addressing the process of reassembly. Even the most scientific mind draws up imperfect blueprints, and isn’t it in these imperfections that we stand to find something beautiful?
By the early 1940s, as the country marches toward war, the vineyard in Veresegyház is increasingly viewed by the Farkas family as a site of liberal refuge. While his antifascist father obsesses over the military columns of Pál Szvatkó in Magyar Nemzet, at Veresegyház they drink and laugh and tell stories and listen to records. But by 1944, even in the countryside, the war can no longer be ignored:
One of our favorite songs then was Csak Egy Nap a Világ (“The World Is Only One Day”). It mirrored our mood, reflecting the sense that catastrophe was near and unavoidable. We concluded, therefore, that it was best to drink and be merry for as long as we could. As the battleship gray–colored storm clouds gathered, our awareness of the demise of the world as we knew it amplified our pleasure seeking and diversion from everyday life. We youngsters tried not to think about what was to come.
The broad strokes of what came are well known: in March of that year, the Germans marched into Hungary, then still an ally, with no resistance. In need of German protection against the advancing Red Army, Admiral Horthy quickly appointed a pro-German government, while Adolf Eichmann oversaw the swift roundup of the country’s Jews. Deportations began in the countryside, and ended up claiming over 450,000 Jewish lives, 70 percent of the country’s Jewish population. By the Christmas of that year, Russian tanks had entered Budapest. The siege, which ravaged the city, lasted until February of 1945.
On March 12, 1944, Charles receives a postcard from one of his “dames.” (The girls he falls for are referred to without irony, at various points, as “lassie,” “damsel,” “dame,” and “little dames.”) “Dear Károly,” it begins. “I look forward to seeing you on Friday, March 24, at five in the afternoon for tea. RSVP. P.S. Please bring along a few records to dance to.” Charles is 19 when the Germans arrive. The ordinariness of youth is suddenly confronted with extraordinary circumstance. Some of the book’s best moments shine brightly through the screen of this contradiction. In one instance, on the eighth of January, in the middle of the siege, Charles, sick of being stuck in the apartment, decides to ride his bike across the city into Pest to wish a girl happy birthday.
The journey turned out to be a veritable joyride […]. I felt rejuvenated and exalted to be able to get away from the previous days’ tension, pressure, and work, and to escape from the dark pit of the cellar. My muscles began to work; my lungs filled with air. High above, the sky was dove-gray, snow enveloped the landscape, and my escort was the fanfare of Russian rockets. These trumpets of triumph blew a chord in quintet, celebrating the holiday, and the modern salute of the Russians added relish to my joy. It was beautiful and uplifting to be free again.
The description of the ride, as we later learn, “freely quotes” from a manuscript that his father has written entitled The Siege and the Besieged. Whether the words belong to Farkas or his father — one gets the sense that Farkas is not after the postmodern questions of authorship — the voice is undoubtedly Charles’s: slightly reckless, invincible, in love. Why should war get in the way of that?
Though Farkas is faithful to the youthful optimism that carries him through the siege and the difficult years that followed, he does not shy away from its pathos. His family suffers terribly on account of the Soviet occupation; some of the book’s most affecting sections come in his depictions of the violence and terror inflicted upon him and those close to him. Charles is a frank and unsentimental observer, with a generous eye and a sensitive touch. One could just as easily be in the world of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories when one reads, for example, of the coffins that a carpenter builds for two girls out of dresser drawers; or of the children wriggling on the ground after an explosion “like two little worms”; or of the Russian officer who arrives late at night at the guesthouse where Charles is staying, holding boots in his hand so as not to wake him with their noise.
The epigraph of the book is a line borrowed from Richard III, “An honest tale speeds best plainly told.” Though it may be true to Farkas’s spirit and his style, he introduces a section late in the book with a quote from Solzhenitsyn that may be more fitting: “But are not the places where you spend your turbulent years closest of all to your heart.” By the time Charles flees in 1956, the Hungary that he has come to know is hardly recognizable. The vineyard at Veresegyház has been looted; they are banned from producing wine and frequently harassed by soldiers. The grounds are overgrown, and the old manor house partitioned. Farkas’s memoir is a dear and thorough effort to give life again to those turbulent years, to animate his old ghosts. In a way, it is his return home.
Adam Z. Levy is a writer and translator. His work has appeared in The American Reader, Music & Literature, B O D Y Literature, The Millions, The Buenos Aires Review and World Literature Today. He lives in New York.