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13 Mei 2009

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THE UNDERGROUND IN THE UNDERGROUND

George Szirtes

Radio broadcast BBC Radio 4, 28.11.89

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There is a tiny Metro Museum in the undergorund entrance to the Deák Square Metro station in Budapest. It consists of a shortened platform by which stands a single carriage of the 1896 Millennial Underground train. One of the enthusiastic older employees of the Budapest Transport Company is on hand to enlighten the visitor, who soon learns that the Budapest underground system is the second oldest in the world, after that of London, and that the Emperor Franz Joseph was seized with envy on seeing it. Even now the original service runs ion its shallow straight line under the main outward-bound road of the town, from central Vörösmarty Square towards City Park and beyond to Mexico Road.And as it runs, all the way along the route, the pavement trembles underfoot.like a thin historical membrane, and serves as a reminder of the prodigious efforts and remarkable optimism of the last century. The later lines of the Metro system belong to the nineteen-seventies and are a reminder of the changes of this century. The trains were made in Russia and carry notices in the cyrillic script of the very near East. It is, on the whole, a clean and efficient service, the two new lines colour-coded in red and blue respectively against a backdrop of silvery aluminium. Recently television has been introduced into some of the main stations. The sets offer a diet of brief information films set against longer tracks of current rock videos: Samantha Fox singing Dusty Springfield, Michael Jackson strutting and jerking his way through a glamorous mob of smooth operators.

At the main railway terminals this can attract quite a crowd. Around the crowd, and at every station of the underground, stand shops and booths selling books drinks and snacks. The ubiquitous newspaper stalls are here too with their selection of the four main dailies, a dozen or so weeklies and monthlies, and countless magazines devoted to crosswords and riddles, each featuring the Hungarian equivalent olf a Gorgeous Pouting Starbird on its cover. Closer to the stairs stand the individual vendors: gypsies with flowers or embroidered cloth, old men and women selling paprika or fruit in season. Here an old woman squats over a small selection of vegetables, a man in a suit exhibits a basket full of peaches. Further down the scale, littered between the shops and stalls, come the occasional drunks and beggars, relatively few for the moment and all the more striking for that. The drunks glare challengingly out at the world. The beggars fix their eyes on the ground. At Astoria station an ancient woman, brown and withered to the bone, is hunched against the wall as she begs. She looks petrified and angular, a piece of Expressionist sculpture. It is impossible to imagine her moving. She is as old as Egypt.

But the cyrillic letters of the Brezhnev era are fast receding down the tunnel. And who are these people coming down the stairs at Libberation Square and settling down with their wares? They look young, in their teens or early twenties. They spread a rug out and pull from their bags the latest unofficial publications: newspapers, pamphlets, magazines. This is - or was - the underground press. In the spring of 1989 it is difficult to know which tense to use: definitions have grown so slippery. What last year was strictly samizdat and passed conspiratorially from hand to hand is no longer forbidden. It lives in a no-man’s-land, a dreamworld which is itself in constant motion. Many of the authors appear to be in eternal transit. Some who left the coutnry last year as dissidents have returned as members of the official opposition. It is disorientating, both for them and the public at large. All the more so as the original underground press has been joined in the Metro by new commercial publishers. The two worlds overlap so that the same vendor sometimes carries both the party programme of the Free Democrats Alliance and pirated editions of books from the West. In a single station there may be three or four groups of paper vendors, often selling the same items. The revelations of the Romanian secret agent rub shoulder with the revelations of Ilona Staller, La Cicciolina. The first issue of the newspaper of the independent trade unions proclaims solidarity: their meetings, alas, are attended by disappointing handfuls of workers. A slick new daily review of parliament in session observes its break with a forty year tradition of boredom. Back issues of Hitel (or Credit), the paper of the major opposition group, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, lie beside the stapled and typed last issue of Beszélö (or Speaker), the great survivor of the heroic age of dissidence proper. Beszélö is about to close shop in order to re-open as a professionally published intellectual weekly.

But it’s not only books and magazines that appear on the rugs but patriotic badges, cassette recordings of old speeches, neatly packaged pieces of the Iron Curtain and sachets of earth from Imre Nagy’s grave. Martyrology and necrophilia collude with demand. History conducts an intense affair with nostalgia. It is appropriate that these brief encounters should take place at a railway station. The badges actually offer a choice: they bear the arms either of St Stephen’s monarchic Hungary, with crown, or of liberal Hungary, vintage 1848, without. A transition period keeps its options open.

Especially in the presence of some of the newcomers. In the course of the summer a newer kind of magazine appears in the underground. At first it is aesthetically clad in poetry and psychololgical jargon but this veil is quickly stripped away. To describe it as not quite hard pornography is awkwardly accurate, though the sell itself is anything but soft. These are not imports but home brew. Young men display open copies and push them towards passers-by with an aggressive, almost patriotic, pride.

The world of Cicciolina hovers in the air, a mirage among mirages. A pretty Hungarian girl, born brunette, she is now a pale blonde of mock Scandinavian, almost Viking appeal. The new all-colour daily, titled heroically Reform and sporting topless girls in the centre pages, spreads the rumour that Cicciolina’s Hungarian biographer, once a popular female singer, is launching a political party which advocates the re-opening of brothels. For the individual prostitue, as yet unaffected by the thought of privatised merger or state co-operatives, there is Rákoczi Square, just off the main ring road. A pair of successful new films vivdly chronicle their present lives. Their visual frankness shows the country perched in an awkward state of health somewhere between puritanism and prurience.

Censorship has collapsed leaving the old attitudes suspended in the air. There is nothing of substance to stand on. To ask someone to put their foot down assumes that there is something solid beneath their feet. The unbearable lightness of being has infected authority itself. Used to the arbitrary exercise of a power that passed for substance the police drift through streets and stations somewhat at a loss. At the Western Rail Terminal groups of neglected looking adolescents hang about the television. Some of them are travellers from abroad, others simply have nowhere else to go. The police eye them suspiciously, inspect their ID cards, search them for drugs, then let them go. Soon the groups are back again, their eyes flickering between the television and the movement round them. At the Eastern Rail Terminal the black market money-changers, mainly foreigners, almost outnumber the passengers. Asked to move on, one of them takes three paces to his left. It is the policeman who moves on.

There is nothing peculiarly Hungarian in this. Money is always leaking away in the Eastern Bloc but there is an aior of dizzy acceleration now. Hungarians spend their long-hoarded foreign currency on vast spending sprees in Vienna while the Austrians nip over the border for a cheap Hungarian haircut or a filling at a Hungarian dentists.

How often have I heard the phrase: We are living in historical times! Buying a red-white-and-green tricolour or cockade localises this history but does not necessarily remove the sense of detachment. The richer Germans, Italians, Austrians, Japanese, Africans and Arabs parade down the main shopping street trailed by suave if overdressed money-changers. Poorer Russians, Czechs, East Germans and Poles queue outside the Adidas shop, the prestige brand name unavaliable back home. The street runs from Liberation Square, the foacl point of the underground press, to pedestrianised and restored Vörösmarty Square, the hub of the city and terminal station of the old millennial underground. The square is approached through a motley of street musicians: an old man blows vainly into his mouth organ, a single violinist bows quietly while a bent man behind him plucks at a crude czimbalom. Nearby, rendering them both inaudible, is a line of four aged violinists forming an ostensible quartet but critically out of tune with each other. A row of instant portraitists extends behind the quartet. On different days a child conjuror, a juggler, or a group of singing evangelists might hold centre stage. A pair of young men are frozen like statues, dramatically switching poses when someone drops a coin into their box. A pop group records a video tape, an inflatable guitarist stands dumb by an amplified tape-deck. A pathetic man who cannot play the penny whistle ambles vaguely before the terrace of the expensive Gerbeaud confectionary. Everyone, sooner or later, finds the way to Vörösmarty Square. People sit at the foot of the large memorial sculpture at the centre and stare at the copper-coloured reflectiing glass of the state publishing building, which, in its turn, reflects the vast Luxus department store opposite. They write post cards or pick at the exotic cakes and ice-creams in the Gerbeaud. They have their portraits drawn. They observe and meet others like themselves.

As Austria and Hungary edge closer and Hungary strains to become the international bridge between East and West the concept of President Gorbachev;s ‘common European house’ gains ever greater importance. The buildings have never left Europe, of course. Around the Metro station stand some of the most picturesque classical buildings of the nineteenth century. Richly anthropomorphic, they are studded with sculptured faces, demonstrating serenity, fiendish energy, smug self-satisfaction and pure indifference. They stare down on smart little boutiques and dilapidated tobacconists with equal detachment.

I myself worked in Vörösmarty Square. Once or twice a week I would walk down to meet the editors at the publishing house in the copper-coloured building and discuss work done or contemplate fresh projects. Living just behind Liberation Square it was natural to examine the wares of the underground press and booths selling books on the way. I found it a deeply addictive pursuit and looked forward to each new publication. The noise of history rang in my ears too. The books and magazines were the sounds of the city whispering its changes.

Budapest is still a beautiful city, one of the noblest in Europe. I crept between the buildings like a child among overwhelming adults.

In early March there was a small scale gathering in support of the recently arrested Vaclav Havel. The speakers addressed us from one of the fountains in the corner of Vörösmarty Square. The weather was cool and grey. After the speeches a wreath of flowers was left by the statue. It stayed there, undisturbed, for several days. Two weeks later in the mass demonstrations celebrating the outbreak of the 1848 revolution the sunshine brought a wealth of bright banners. People were weeping as the crowd, like an enormous wheel, began to roll through the streets. A friend in a visiting American film crew shooting Budapest for Berlin remarked that it was like being in California in 1968. He took away with him the memory of an intoxicating smell of liberation. Indeed, it was intoxicating, and it was liberation. It still is. But there is an edge of fear to it.

Several times in my last months there I saw the samee vagrant couple. The first time was at a bus stop. The man was crouching on the pavement, peering through the woman’s legs. He looked first from one side then the other. It was an extraordinary performance. I took him for a drunk but she seemed to be undisturbed by his capers. She stood with her back to us, making no gesture of appeal. When the bus arrived and he got on she slowly turned and, with a glazed expression, followed him. Her face glowed as if bruised. Next time I saw them on the street near Liberation Square. He was just disappearing into an arcade, beckoning her to follow him. She did so mutely, almost doggily. Twice more I saw them, both times in Metro stations. It was on one of these occasions that I first heard him speak. They were coming down an escalator while I was riding up. His voice was thin, high, almost effeminate, but there was a mechanical and nagging quality in it. I suppose I must have heard five or six seconds of his conversation. I couldn’t make much sense of it. When they reached the bottom they set off, she behind him, moving slowly as if in some rough dream. Thinking back to her now I seem to see a vision out of some downmarket spiritus mundi, Yeats’s rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

There is something rough about the dream, something that unsettles the whole country. Who, or what, is the country following as it treads the moving staircase and disappears into the underground? The vision is not specifically Hungarian: the same nightmare images can be located in any metropolis. The bruised face follows the genie of its fate up and down the streets of Europe. That, after all, is an essential part of Europe’s fascination: we know that this fear of chaos can, and has been, realised.

Hungary watches Poland watches East Germany. Sharp words and threats are exchanged across the Czech and Romanian borders. The stone faces on the buildings express our fury, our frivolity, our love of rhetoric. In the quiet recesses of courtyards, in the cavernous rooms of old Empire flats with cracked windows, furious and frivolous lives are wrapped in the warmth and smell of human intimacy, which, for many people here, and in countries like Hungary, is the one constant that deepens and grows richer in its own subsoil, or underground.

The country is rolling down its present fearful and intoxicating historical path. Perhaps it is no more furious or frivolous than anywhere else. Like the rest of Europe it is in motion. In July, during Book Week, a band of majorettes tramped up and down Vörösmarty Square, an Austrian band played Scottish airs and you could be photographed shaking hands with a life-sized cut-out of President Bush.

Like Bush himself the effigy disappeared after a few days.

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