18 May 2020

Review of Écska, a book of lawyer’s stories by Tibor Várady, on life in Tito’s Yugoslavia

Tibor Várady: Mi történt Écskán? [What Happened in Écska?]1


There is a story that could pass for a sort of erudite joke which yours truly has heard from his friend S. Z., a philosopher, collector of curiosities, and expert on so-called cultural memes (or genes, if you will) – a story yours truly is known to be fond of recounting with nonchalance. It concerns a damning review of D. H. Lawrence’s world-famous novel
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a while back on the pages of Field and Stream, an enthusiast magazine devoted to hunting, target shooting and angling. The summary verdict delivered therein admits that the picturesque depiction of the illustrious British gamekeeper’s daily life merits the attention of the outdoorsy reader on account of its detailed descriptions of the breeding of pheasants, the catching of poachers, and the shrewdest methods of exterminating vermin, just to mention a few of the responsibilities incumbent upon the gamekeeper’s trade. Regrettably, however, so the review goes, one must stodge through a lot of tedious and superfluous material discovery and relish the details of game management in the Midlands. Consequently, as concluded by the critic, under no circumstances can this book replace J. R. Miller’s book on Practical Game-keeping. – This is a circuitous way of asking what exhaustively thorough treatise it is, if any, that Tibor Várady’s book challenges, by force of its sheer existence, in terms of its rigorous thematic, focused strictly on contemporary Serbian reality as regards sport fishing and hunting in the village of the village of Écska (Ečka in Serbian). Such professional literature must surely exist somewhere, except that we have no need for it. Várady’s third book processing the estate of his lawyer forebears will stand its ground perfectly as a documentarist novel, without eclipsing the sun from your face. It is a relatively easy read even if you are less than well-versed in jurisprudence and history, and if you happen to possess a bit of fondness for irony, it can be not only enjoyable but downright magnificent, rolling out a cast of everyday people and their trifling affairs, as well as famous huntsmen of old such as Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of the Monarchy, who, as we know, fell victim to a far more consequential shooting in Sarajevo.

As for the consequences of shooting, mallards may beg to differ, although they can be made to talk intelligently with far more difficulty than they can be gunned down. Taking a clue from this observation, let me recall Várady himself quoting Bertrand Russell in a display of wit that remains characteristic of the book throughout who once said: “No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest.” Even if we add that eleven thousand dogs are barking – the number of them allegedly kept in Écska to guard the cattle and the virtues of female members of the Lázár family, of Armenian descent – this will not get us any closer to comprehending the author’s message. On the contrary… True enough, if those eleven thousand canines had done a better job guarding, by biting more than they barked, T.V.’s opus would be significantly shorter on racy details.

This is a fact, too.

But retracing my steps, I would now like to indulge in rummaging through my huntsman’s sack for a rather poignant little story. It, too, has lots of humorous overtones. More importantly, it may serve as a basis on which to compare the events recounted in the book and their historical backgrounds. It is all the more suitable for the purpose as the comedy, which nearly reached a tragic end, is set in Écska, a small village in the Vojvodina region that numbers fewer than a half thousand souls, but boasts the largest artificial lake in Serbia, which had long before turned the place into a veritable Mecca of fishing and hunting buffs. Tito’s Yugoslavia, including the Banat region, would be routinely invaded by hordes of trigger-happy Italians who earned a reputation for firing at anything that moved – in sight, and on sight – as they do in spaghetti western films. This was how, people related, that a certain Giovanni (a pseudonym, of course) shot himself a wife, then not only stayed on in Yugo but came to claim a central role in setting Écska’s tourism industry on a burgeoning path, as had Felix Harnoncourt before him (the latter in a more modest way, without touting a count’s title).

The episode in question happened in those blissful seventies, when flock of young ladies began to escort the valiant Italians. Most of them spoke Italian; let us give them the benefit of the doubt that they restricted their services to translation. Giovanni’s party included a schoolmistress from Novi Sad who taught Italian. Somehow she haplessly found herself in the line of fire among the reeds, and was hit by a lead shot on her forehead, barely missing her eyes. The doctors removed the piece of lead, but that is not the end of the story. Who was at fault? “The presumption of innocence must always prevail” as noted by the jurist Zoltán Lomnici Jr. When it turned out that the ominous shot had almost certainly been fired from Giovanni’s weapon, he protested that he had no ill will toward the victim, and he was believed. There must have been some kind of disciplinary action brought against him, but we cannot be sure. What we do know is that the litigation for damages dragged on for a while before it flattened out just like that lead shot had on the supraorbital bridge of Gordana (to use another pseudonym). This happened when Giovanni proposed to Gordana, who answered in the affirmative from the bottom of her heart. Then life went on.

It is not a canard, I assure you; this is really how it all transpired. Indeed, there must have been something about the locality of Écska that invited flares of love and the channelisation of requisite energies, despite the proximity of a highly flammable plot of reeds. The place is named after one of the wives of Attila the Hun, whose fierce intensity of cruelty was only matched by that of his amorous passion. T.V. can only guess what the king was doing here, although the end results are fairly clear. Poor Franz Ferdinand himself apparently experienced a few heated moments in this precise location, smack in the middle of the wild duck shooting season, cuddling up with one Sophia Chotek in the splendid residence of the Harnoncourts – the crown jewel of the place where Franz Liszt had played the piano as a child. And this is not to mention the innumerable anonymous pairs and pairlets who may have elected the reeds as the scene of their trysts or, later in the motorised era, yielded to drive-in pleasures in the parking lot of a local company that had been left vacant by the evening. To record their names in the official annals of history would have been a futile, and mostly embarrassing, enterprise. On the other hand, they could easily enter lawyers’ archives on account of some astonishing string of lawsuits or a smooth (or ragged) divorce case, from where some of them were salvaged and elevated to immortality, courtesy of the book under review, as so many fascinating mementos of the struggle against forgetfulness.

That said, the celebrities of history hold an advantage as usual. By the same token, it is safe to say that, by and large, protagonists shrouded in the distant past tend to be less exciting than those closer to us in time, and the same goes for those chronologically too close to us for comfort. This is surely how Franz Ferdinand got the upper hand of Attila in our memory, and this is how the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy can loom larger before us, theoretically at least, than Yugoslavia, the latter not yet having acquired enough patina. While this thesis is open to debate, we can be certain that a story involving a stolen hoe and two hussars will not fail to draw multiplied attention.

To wit. The story of Armenians, including the Lazarians, arriving in what used to be the Southern Provinces of historical greater Hungary, traces a long, meandering line from spectacular prosperity to eventual decline, to the point in 1963 when the Armenian church in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, was demolished by explosives to clear the way for the Marshal Tito Boulevard, and Father Polikárp, the last Armenian priest, boarded a train bound for Vienna without looking back. (Later he may have moved on to New York.)

Nota bene: In this mosaically fragmented, almost Faulkneresque saga novel, the detour from the Armenian path branches off much sooner, at the juncture in 1871 when the widowed Viktorina Lázár marries Prince Egon Maximilian of Thurn and Taxis, and the new husband moves to Écska (instead of her taking up residence in Berlin). Incidentally, Maximilian was an industrious steward of assets who founded the famed stud farm of Écska and organised hunting tourism there. Viktorina’s daughter Marianna followed in her heels by marrying a count from Luxembourg, Felix Harnoncourt, who also settled in Écska to become a key figure in the local scene and the present work of literature about it. T.V. mentions that of all the documents he found related to Écskan history most revolve around the Harnoncourts. The author-publisher goes on to explain that nobody could precisely recount everything that transpired in the mansion and its surroundings any more, although certain details have managed to survive the Kafkaesque obscurity. Not only can these details often be stringed together, but the litigation documents allow us to infer that what all these counts, noble invitees, farm hands, estate managers, housemaids, tenants, and cooks (who frequently exchanged slaps in the face) conspired to perpetrate were novels in their own right.

Or, to be more precise, this particular novel at hand, which tells the tale, among other miraculous stories of transformation, of a fish that was turned into a ticket to the movie theatre. From its overtones, the discerning ear can also decipher the puzzle of how eleven thousand dogs became just two at the end.

 

Note:

1 Forum Publishing: Novi Sad, 2019.

 




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