The Paper Bridge: a Return to Budapest Monica Porter (Quartet pp. 232, £8.95) T once met, on the Trans Siberian railway, a charming Hungarian film director returning home. We drank quite a lot together as the train ploughed laboriously through the Urals and then, much more comfortably, when I subsequently saw him in Budapest.
He and many of his friends had about them airs of both jollity (sometimes forced) and wistfulness, qualities which seem often to combine in East European intellectuals, whether they live at home or abroad. There is a vibrancy and fervour amongst them — brought about perhaps by the precarious nature of their countries and their own professions — which is much less apparent among West Europeans. In Belgrade, for example, there are actually two separate Writers' Clubs — because the factions are so fierce they have to be kept apart. It is hard to imagine such passions in London.
Monica Porter (nee Halasz) is no exception. Her book is jolly, and wistful — and rather passionate. It is the story of a refugee, herself, returning to her homeland. It is also the story of that homeland, Hungary, since the cataclysm which forced her and her family to flee in 1956. She seems to find the state of Hungary almost as depressing as the state of the refugee.
Mrs Porter spent a month in Budapest, in her parents' former home, with her young son and her mother, seeing as many friends and relations as possible. She wanted to discover whether she had any affinity with Hungary after so long in the west and to work out whether she was still 'a Hungarian despite everything.' She was. Since the 1956 Revolution Hungary has achieved a sort of stability unknown elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact or Comecon. It has much more food than Poland or Rumania and a semblance of freedom unknown in Czechoslovakia, East Ger many, Rumania or Bulgaria. (No Czech refugee could . have gone back to Prague with her mother and her son to stay in their old, rather fine house, as Mrs Porter was able to do in Budapest.) But Hungarian life is all very carefully, even minutely, balanced. Hungarians can watch mildly risque political satire — but Mrs Porter found them worried if anything 'went too far' — and they can travel more freely in the west and even read more western publications — so long as their country follows a foreign policy totally loyal to Moscow. Thus, Hungarian troops helped put down Czechoslovakia in 1968, to the shame of many Hungarians. Today those same Hungarians are looking nervously at Poland, fearful lest what sometimes seem in Budapest the wild demands of Solidarity overturn the jealously guarded concessions that make Hungarian life more tolerable.
Those concessions have been granted, as Monica Porter shows, by Janos Kadar, whom the Russians imposed in 1956 to crush the Revolution but who subsequently reversed Stalin's snarling threat 'He who is not with us is against us' into the con ciliatory 'He who is not against us is with us'. Kadar still rules, in many ways a sym bol of success, but Monica Porter was depressed by some of the fragile, materialistic compromises that his success involves.
One of the many friends to whom she listened attentively told her 'We have three main goals. A little flat somewhere, a car and a vikend house in the country. To have these three things is equivalent to success and contentment . . . It doesn't matter how we acquire them either, whether honestly or dishonestly.' Another said 'The trouble is we're just a nation hobbling along, with one arm leaning against Russia and the other stretched out for aid from the west.'
Mrs Porter found this emotional rent between east and west sad. They watch Charlie's Angels in Hungary (as they do in
Southeast Asia and almost everywhere else, it seems) and she went to hear a pop group called 'The Old Boys' sing Elvis, Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison and Bill Haley. 'Not only did they sing in English, but with totally untainted accents. They even ad-libbed in English: "Hi there all you great kids", and "Hey, how's your Hungarian?" They were wearing Teddy Boy jackets and neon signs flashed "7-Up", "Cadillac", "Hot Dogs" and "One Way Street". The hall was packed with moving bodies, Coca-cola bottles and smoke. And the yearning was total. It was for western words, music, clothes, idols, manners In the west the music of the young is a reflection of their lifestyle and values. In Hungary it is a reflection of their unattainable dreams.'
She found Hungary stagnant. 'Things are not too bad, indeed if they were, people would be too angry or too busy to think about getting divorced or boozing. But neither does there seem to be much hope of the social and political situation improving or developing favourably. And it's precisely when things look like staying the same for ever, when life is one interminable road without surprises, that a person can fall prey to apathy and depression.'
Monica Porter did not get apathetic, and her writing is lively, even jocular. She examines her own place both inside and outside Hungary movingly. Of her parents' attempt (unsuccessful) to settle into the American suburban way of life after 1956 she says that there are two kinds of immigrant. The first 'relishes the challenge of succeeding in a new country and throws himself in wholeheartedly The one thing he loathes and fears is to look back at his former life in the old country. So he doesn't. And one day he realises he's forgotten most of it. That makes him happy.' The second type 'realises early on in the game that he will never be able to detach himself from his previous life Without his background and memories, he wouldn't recognise himself.' But while he cannot become a native of his new found land, nor can he truly stay in touch with home. He exists in the limbo of the diaspora. Her parents were of this type.
One day in Budapest, looking down on that lovely town and its bridges across the Danube, 'it occurred to me that my own trip to Hungary was an attempt to build .a bridge of my own, some kind of construction which would allow me to pass from one side of my life to the other, from childhood to adulthood, from East to West, from my inherited background to the life which I have chosen to lead in London.' But after her month in Budapest she decided 'I would finally have to admit something to myself: a refugee will always be a refugee and with only one refuge — his own sensibility. It was useless to search for "roots". The roots of an emigrant do not grow downwards into the soil of any particular place, neither the old country nor the new. They grow inwards deeper and deeper into himself and they become knotted and intertwined. And he carries them
everywhere he goes. So, contrary to popular belief, he hasn't "left them. behind" at all.' This leads her to say that she had come to Hungary in search of answers. 'But there were no answers, because it had been a mistake to ask the questions in the first place . . . . How is it possible to frame the question "Do you still love the country of your birth?" Its like asking someone whether they still love their
mother. Of course they do Each love the country of your birth?" It's like is uniqueness which inspires love within those for whom it exists. As it happens Hungary is not a difficult country to love'. Indeed it is not, and Monica Porter's book shows that admirably.