Sitting with Attila József by the Danube, he looks impoverished and melancholy, thin and fatigued—but so still—profound. Across the river, the fabulous architecture of Buda—onion domes topped with lances bearing smaller spheres—spires pushing their way to heaven—so much ascendency. And juxtaposed with a line of cranes—red markers crossing the hot blue-white of a summer sky. It’s almost Summer Solstice, light nearing its zenith.
Further along the river, Buda rises in a gentle hill, tree covered and lush beyond the line of grand buildings—The Fisherman’s Basion, Buda Castle, the red brick Calvinist church, Sándor Palace, Matthias, church, riverside apartments… and more hills… Some painted with villas, streets, schools, shops, others green—all leafy, all—from this distance—elegant and calm, an image that bears no relation to the myriad lives and struggles of the people who live there. Those who rise early to clean the apartments of of those richer than themselves, to mark the work of bored schoolchildren dreaming of summer at Lake Balaton, to face the day when a life will unravel…
We make up stories—everyone we meet cast in a role. We play our part—multiple roles in a thousand, a million… stories that others make of us, sometimes capturing what might be a sliver of truth, sometimes imprisoning us, or pushing at doors to freedom, to healing.
Further along the river there are iron shoes—each one looks real, moulded to real feet that walked this bank, stood looking across the river at all this beauty, stepped out of their shoes as they were ordered to do, and were shot, their bodies washed away.Now they are a different story—one of regret, remembrance. Then, they were a story of Jewish conspiracy, otherness, plague. They died for the story others told about them.
It is so peaceful here by the Danube. It is so priveleged to have travelled here on trains from Paris to Munich, Munich to Prague, Prague to Budapest, to sit in the hot sun writing and thinking. To the visitor, the only intimations of a city that has lived under terror are in the stories—told by in the city’s synagogues, by iron shoes on the river banks, by tourist guides or played out in museums with their dungeons and story-boards that tell a particular version of history as though there are no questions, no nuance, no doubt.
Sitting by the statue of Attila József, a poet who killed himself at the age of 32 by jumping under a train, satiated by brunch at a tiny café that serves drip-coffee and work-of-art breakfasts, who can know the millions of stories being played out in this capital city of an illiberal “democracy”? A place straining under the burdens of escalating unemployment and inflation, while increasingly savage storms ravage its central plain,or Alföld, which feeds the country.
Each of us intersects with only the merest fragments of many of the stories we wander through in our lives. Our agency and focus is always partial, interpreted through the cultural and personal lenses we employ. But our agency is never nothing. And as writers we hear a call to listen, to see, to record—to craft a different story—one of witness, one of awkward questions, one of vision…
We are meaning making species—for both good and ill. Here’s to asking the questions that foster stories that push the doors of freedom and healing an increment more open.