Fragments From Budapest


in Archive


Everybody was excited about Eastern Europe after the Wall came down and during the transitions of the early 90s. Prague became the new spot for young American literary types and artists looking to recreate the ex-pat feel of the first half of the 20th century in Western Europe. And then, quickly and almost imperceptibly, the attention shifted, the fascination dried up.

Budapest is once again in its own corner of the world, not entirely sure to what history it belongs or to what future it will re-attach itself. This is the second stage in the story of the great transformations that brought the 20th century to a close and that ended the tragic and then tragic-comic story of communism in Europe. The first chapter was euphoria mixed with a slight tinge of trepidation — the Soviet empire was no more. The second chapter is more like a hangover, a vague depression after a night of over-indulgence.

Hungarians have always been a depressed lot, famously so. Even as they were finding their modern national voice at the turn of the last century they were already in the process of losing it. Hungarians don’t really trust anything, least of all themselves. In that sense they are almost the diametrical opposite of Americans. Hungarians know very well that it will certainly get worse. Just wait.

Across the street from my window on Andrassy Utca is a building covered in relief work. There are little naked men running up and down the sides of the building wearing funny hats. There are cauldrons of something or other and long stone vines carved willy-nilly over the building’s façade. In short, the people who built modern Budapest, in a flurry of activity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries that turned a minor dust hole into a major European city, were feeling extremely fricking exuberant.

For a short period they were having fun. In retrospect, perhaps, even the fun shows the mark of desperation. It is the exuberance of the manic depressive or the morphine addict, the joy of the doomed. It is like the frantic copulations Geza Csath talks of in his Diary. The stories he wrote in the first decade of the 20th century grabbed Hungarian prose by the lapels and dragged it out of its provincial idylls into the present. All the while he was in the grip of madness. A doctor, he banged his young female patients and anyone else he could get his hands on. He would ravage one hotel maid while her friend, madly in love with him, listened in tears from the next room. He is a strangely beautiful monster in his lusting and his pain, and then he destroys himself in morphine addiction. He murders his young wife and at 33 he is dead. He wrote a crisp prose, utterly mean in its honesty.

It is nearly impossible to get screws in Budapest. I’m speaking of the metal fasteners. They don’t seem to have them at any of the hardware stores or, if they do, they are so expensive as to be unattainable. Screws are a dream here, an unfulfilled fantasy. I have never wanted to buy screws so badly before. No one has.

Finally we found the screw man. You have to come into his office and you have to have a sit-down about screws. You have to talk to him about the kinds of screws you want and why you want them. Suddenly, this seemed right to me.

And always the streets are strangely empty. On the weekends, especially, you can hear the lone steps of infrequent passersby ricocheting up through the buildings of stone and brick and in through your open window. Late at night a couple stumbles out of a cellar bar somewhere and scampers giggling down the street. They are whispering to one another, but the whispers are carried in the night air and amplified so that their private nothings become public performance. “You little devil you, you little devil. I’ll eat you up alive.” On Sundays everyone goes to a long family brunch that they hate.

The karyatids of Budapest are a special delight to me. The initial architectural impulse behind the karyatid is the idea that a column can take any form, that it can be a piece of sculpture even as it provides structural support. But these two roles normally have some effect on one another. You can make a column into a sculpture of a man or a woman but generally it still needs to be holding something up. And because it does this holding, the karyatid is usually portrayed as doing just that. Often, the karyatid is sculpted precisely to show that strain. The karyatid must look like it is doing exactly the work it is doing.

The karyatids of Budapest have been liberated from this literality. They are stone, and by being so they have already done their structural job. So why not let them dance? Why not let them twirl around or contort themselves into all manner of poses? Why not simply let them stand there with a hand on the hip, fey and as indifferent as pretty adolescent boys? • 21 August 2007