20 AUGUST 1988, Page 27

A tale of three cities

Denis Hills

THE DOUBLE EAGLE: VIENNA, BUDAPEST AND PRAGUE by Stephen Brook Hamish Hamilton, £14.95, pp.336 Iwent to three cities, and found not only three urban personalities, but, unex- pectedly, three ways of living in the uncer- tain centre of Europe,' says Brook at the end of his visit to Vienna, Budapest and Prague. In his journal he examines their architecture and cultural life, their political and economic systems, and the way they have adapted to post-war pressures. Start- ing with Vienna, he concludes that in response to the trauma of Nazi occupation and the war, the Viennese have opted for caution and stability as the supreme values. Having achieved an enviable level of prosperity and social security they are content to enjoy it — survivors of a shrunken nation playing safe among the past architectural glories of the Habsburgs. Whereas the Viennese are devoted to petit-bourgeois values, their Hungarian neighbours in Budapest detest tedium. Magyar vitality and joie de vivre enable them to enjoy to the full their chaotic lives under a corrupt Communist rule which they openly despise. In Prague the citizens are obliged to be more circumspect. Czech dissidents have had to pay a heavy price in gaol sentences, deprivation of work and the banishment of intellectuals to menial jobs such as boiler-room stoking. People have learned to live with a system that is based on lies and deception — 'living within a lie'. 'There will be no revolt against the system,' says Brook. The possi- bility of change can only come about as the result of some dire circumstance.

Brook is alert and observant. His con- versations with dissident intellectuals in Budapest and Prague are especially reveal- ing. Yet he seems to lack the ability to break the ice with strangers, though he met dozens of them in restaurants and bars. Perhaps they found him difficult to identify (he is a descendant of Central European Jews). He has prejudices too. He can't stand noisy Germans, Mrs Thatcher (`Galuska and goose liver would be wasted on that woman,' he remarked to a Budapest waiter who had mentioned her recent visit to Hungary), Roger Scruton ('The Wicked Witch of the Right'), Wald- heim (his `fox-like features' smirked at him from posters), Prague pedestrians with ice-cream dripping down their chins, and the 'unspeakable' Trabant and Lada cars made behind the Iron Curtain.

Brook is a robust trencherman and tireless boulevardier. He eats the local dishes with gusto — dumplings, pork stuff- ed with goose liver, thick gravy, stuffed cabbage and rich pastries — and enjoyed a medley of wines from the Danube to the Vltava. At a Heurige outside Vienna he was warned that one of the wines was so sour, it was known as Hemdzieher (shirt- tugger) — 'it sucks your shirt up your arse'. In the Naschmarkt he saw 'black puddings the size of an elephant's windpipe'. The old catacombs underneath Vienna had a mor- bid fascination for him. Through a grille in the wall one could 'ponder at leisure a billowing sea of bone and skull, knuckle and joint' — the discarded relics of ancient plague. In Budapest a Hungarian told him, `People will tell you that we all hate the Russians. Not really. We just feel sorry for the poor bastards.'

Bands of beer-swilling German tourists deterred him in Prague (Prague is their favourite trough'). He complains that the Czechs all cheat (`cheating is a way of life'). Everyone from the waiter to the shop assistant tried to short-change him. But though Czechoslovakia may be cor- rupt, it is relatively prosperous. Every third family in Prague runs a car and one in four owns a weekend cottage. In the attic of a writer in Budapest Brook met Roger Scruton of the Salisbury Review (`for years I had been throwing his newspaper articles into the fire'). Scruton was addressing a group of intellectuals, some squatting on the floor and one of them drunk. Brook, who writes for the New Statesman and Society and has been a Labour party official, challenged Scruton's New Right views. However, after the party had ad- journed to a restaurant Brook thought better of the pundit when he offered to pay.

In his final chapter 'Coda' Brook de- scribes how he visited the graves of his Jewish ancestors in Ganserndorf (near Vienna) — the cemetery was locked and he had to climb over the wall — and in Prague, where the cemetery is still in use. He also went to Terezin, a staging post for the Nazi death camps. He notes that the museum at Terezin makes great play of the role of Communist resistance fighters and the Red Army liberators but little of the sufferings of the thousands of Jewish in- mates who died there. About 200,000 Jews, we are told, lived in Vienna before the war. The number now registered has dropped to 7,000. But in the traditionally more easy-going Hungary there are still some 100,000 Jews.

Brook is not old enough to have a personal pre-war perspective. Some of my own memories may have relevance. In Vienna, for instance, in 1933 I chatted to unemployed men wasting the dark days of depression playing cards on the banks of the Danube canal — it was this depression that nursed the seeds of National Social- ism. In the following year the Austrians closed their frontier with the Reich after Dolifuss's murder by Nazi thugs. The paradox of this situation was brought home to me in Braunau am Inn, Hitler's Austrian birthplace, where I joined a group of men smoking their pipes on the river wall as they gazed at a swastika flag flying on the German side of the frontier, a challenge to the Austrians to throw in their lot with a Greater Germany and share its glories. Nearby, at Josef Pommer's Gasthof where Hitler had been born to the wife of a customs official, any show of homage was forbidden and visitors and photographers were turned away. The innkeeper, how- ever, gave me a mug of cider and told his maid to take me upstairs to see the historic bedroom. I was startled to find that it had been turned into a shrine. The plain wooden bed was dominated by a huge picture of the Fiihrer in uniform. There were his army photographs, pictures of the Berlin Sieg, a table-cloth knitted in the form of a swastika, and a visitors' book. `Even the walls are painted brown,' the maid reminded me. Yet next door to the Gasthof the barracks of a Jaeger battalion carried a brand-new plaque over the entr- ance in memory of Dollfuss, Hitler's mur- dered victim and a former officer in that unit.

In 1938 the Austrians greeted the Anschluss with jubilation. Back in Vienna at the end of the war I was to see Red Army soldiers filling suitcases with loot while the hungry Viennese crouched in- doors behind broken windows living on beans and lentil soup. St Stephen's cathed- ral was in ruins, the rain beating through its collapsed roof, the Rotenturmstrasse was a trail of wreckage. Happier memories were to come: of skiing over the High Alp glaciers of the Vorarlberg and Tirol in the early Fifties on journeys that took many days and crossed the unmarked, snow- bound borders of five countries. The few travellers I met on the lonely snow trails between Bavaria and Chamonix had come to forget the problems that harass the cities and form the material for much of this informative book.