Saying Goodbye to Attila József

We’ve eaten a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest. The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Just before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are reserved, we’ve also found them helpful and generous – I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place – there’s a quiet kindness in so many people – unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy here – a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism. It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for, where architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we’ve seen two passers-by nearly felled by stone falling from peeling facades in just a few weeks). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in just being humane.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I initially wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity. A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise and, sad as it is to finally believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies and think about this extraordinary poet, the more I realise that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a DunaAs if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

After our final dinner at Kispiac, we walked to the Danube, sat by Attila’s statue and read some of his poetry, including ’By the Danube’. I very much hope it’s au revoir, and not goodbye, but until next time in Budapest …

By the Danube

1.

As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

Like a man’s muscles when hard at his toil,
Hammering, digging, leaning on the spade,
So bulged and relaxed and contracted again
Each single movement, each and every wave.
It rocked me like my mother for a time
And washed and washed the city’s filth and grime.

And the rain began to fall but then it stopped
Just as if it couldn’t have mattered less,
And like one watching the long rain from a cave,
I gazed away into the nothingness.
Like grey, endless rain from the skies overcast,
So fell drably all that was bright: the past.

But the Danube flowed on. And the sprightly waves
In playful gaiety laughed at me again,
Like a child on his prolific mother’s knee,
While other thoughts were racing through her brain.
They trembled in Time’s flow and in its wake,
Like in a graveyard tottering tomb-stones shake.
2.

I am he who for a hundred thousand year
Has gazed on what he now sees the first time.
One brief moment and, fulfilled, all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

I see what they could not for their daily toil,
Killing, kissing as duty dictated,
And they, who have descended into matter,
See what I do not, if truth be stated.

We know of each other like sorrow and joy,
Theirs is the present and mine is the past;
We write a poem, they’re holding my pencil
And I feel them and recall them at last.
3.

My mother was Cumanian, my father
Half-Szekler, half-Rumanian or whole.
From my mother’s lips sweet was every morsel,
And from my father’s lips the truth was gold.
When I stir, they are embracing each other;
It makes me sad. This is mortality.
This, too, I am made of. And I hear their words:
“Just wait till we are gone…” they speak to me.

So their words speak to me for now they am I,
Despite my weaknesses this makes me strong.
For I am more than most, back to the first cell
To every ancestor I still belong.
I am the Forbear who split and multiplied,
Shaped my father and mother into whole,
My father and mother then in turn divide
And so I have become one single soul.

I am the world, all that is past exists:
Men are fighting men with renewed anguish.
Dead conquerors ride to victory with me
And I feel the torment of the vanquished.
Árpád and Zalán, Werböczi and Dózsa,
Turks, and Tartars, Slovaks, Rumanians
Fill my heart which owes this past a calm future
As our great debt, today’s Hungarians.

I want to work. For it is battle enough
Having a past such as this to confess.
In the Danube’s waves past, present and future
Are all-embracing in a soft caress.
The great battle which our ancestors once fought
Resolves into peace through the memories,
And to settle at last our communal affairs
Remains our task and none too small it is.

Translated by John Székely

 

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