Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pick a Book, Any Book

("Books and Wine" bookstore in Budapest)

Budapest is full of amazing bookstores, many the kind with floor to ceiling hardwood bookshelves with rolling ladders attached. While there are many new bookstores including Libri, a Chindigo-type chain store, there are also countless Antiquariums that trade used and antique books. There are bookstores everywhere—I’ve heard that television dubbing in Hungarian is terrible, so maybe more people turn to books for entertainment, but whatever the reason, Hungarians appear to be voracious readers. They are also active writers—the shelves of these stores are crammed full of books written by Hungarians in every genre and style. This presents a problem for me—my Hungarian is decent, but not perfect, and as a result many of the books that line Budapest’s bookstore shelves are not readily accessible to me. Staring at huge shelves full of books that I can almost read, and knowing that I won’t be able to return anytime soon to choose more books as my reading skills improve, gives me an odd feeling of urgency and desperation (furthermore, I can only bring so many books home in my suitcase without exceeding my weight limit). It’s not just that the books look interesting, it’s that these texts offer the chance to gain a better understanding of the history and culture of a country where I am a citizen, but where I have never been a resident.

(Front of the Terror Haza museum)

Nowhere was this feeling more pronounced than at the museum bookstore at the Terror Haza (House of Terror) museum. This museum chronicles the reign of the Nazi Arrow Cross Party, and then the subsequent Soviet occupation of Hungary, in the building that both parties used to interrogate, jail, and execute their victims.

(Mural made of portraits of Hungarians who died under the Nazi Arrow Cross and then Soviet regimes)

In 1956 the Hungarian people unsuccessfully rebelled against the Soviets, with many of the revolutionaries meeting their end on gallows in the basement of this building.

(Reads "Those who died for you")

The revolution is of particular interest to me, since my father and his family escaped communist Hungary after the disorder of the failed revolution left the border to Austria open. The museum bookstore at the Terror Haza has so many books about the revolution that choosing was a difficult task, but I walked away from the store with a novella, a history book that follows the events of the revolution hour by hour, and an anthology of poetry entitled Piros a Ver a Pesti Utcan, or, The Blood Runs Red in the Streets of Pest. This sizable anthology contains nothing but poems written in 1956 about the revolution in Budapest. Though I haven’t yet had a chance to read through the whole book, the poems I’ve skimmed have all been great. Hungarian poetry has a clean, concrete, an onomatopoeic quality that sharply conveys the desperation and passion that started the revolution, and the tragedy of the revolution’s failure, which only led to further death, devastation, and oppression. I’m sorry that I can’t bring home cases and cases of books, but since I can only have a few, I’m glad to have this book. More than any other, this book captures a moment when an entire city came together for the sake of one common goal. More than any other book I could have picked, Piros a Ver a Pesti Utcan offers a condensed slice of what it has historically meant to be Hungarian.

(Reads "We live quietly")

Helen Hajnoczky is currently muddling through being functionally illiterate in Austria. Her first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.


drakealley said...

A really interesting post. I especially like the last photograph ("We live quietly") -- reminds me of my own brief experience of Budapest.

Rod Pederson said...

Isn't it grand that after all the absurdity, all the extremism,all the terror laid over Cold War life - which is a large chunk of my own - that someone actually won the Cold War. The Americans put so much pressure on the Soviet economy by ramping up their weaponry that the USSR couldn't possibly keep up. Now all we have to deal with is the Americans. A challenge I'm sure we can rise to.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks Helen,
I'm looking forward to more on your travels, and perhaps a little translation? I sense there will be some in your future.

Did you pack your typewriter by the way?