Back in elementary school, Yours Truly was spoon-fed the dictum that history was an exact discipline, a concatenation of specific dates and, for the most part, intolerant of idle chatter – a set of hard facts to abide by. Entering grammar school, the same Yours Truly was astonished to learn, nay experience on his own skin on the occasion of being flayed while reciting the lesson, that history was really a fairytale. Not historia mind you, as the old folks would call it, nor a narrative, the term we favour these days in the web of subtle and blurred distinctions, but simply a tale, and a fairytale at that. The author of this brief overture, since then freed of the ballast of specific details and taken to wings, perhaps indulges in more than his fair share of rambling, chant and babble, all the while making an honest effort to remember those damned dates of his, a string of milestones glimpsed far below. Without these points of reference, he as a human being, unlike migratory birds, would surely lose his bearings. And he takes pleasure in reading pointed sentences from wise authors of a perceived kindred spirit, for instance from Brian Friel of Ireland, a playwright of fame and name sonorous far and wide, a clear sight and a good shot, wielding a pen instead of a weapon. Friel once observed, point-blank, that people believe they need to know the facts, but what they really want to hear is the story. Not just the gist, but the full length and width of it. And if they do not get it, they will complain.
Well, the confines of the present essay are far too narrow for a boundless positivist enumeration of all the possible sources, ways and means to mould and fashion a story or fairytale, for a taxonomy of the modes of resurrecting the past, or possibly of dragging its skeleton out of the closet, to be interrogated. Nobody succeeds entirely, but some have come quite close. One is the Danish philosopher S. Kierkegaard, who attempted, in texts verging on the literary, to show us the meandering paths leading to the abode where God resides, where we may find solace and respite in his embrace. Instead of a closet, Kierkegaard’s furniture of choice was a battered bureau which – if memory serves, but if it does not it will not be the end of the world – he needed the coup de grâce delivered by an axe to crack it open to access the papers he suspected to be hiddenin there. On these papers he would build his extensive oeuvre, all the while claiming that not a single sentence sprang from his own wellhead, but that he merely served as a messenger delivering all those ideas. In a similar vein, Tibor Várady – author of the work under scrutiny here, chronicler of those virtual socks hanging on the chandelier, a widely travelled, distinguished professor of law, a fine man of letters and of a long career – seems, at first glance, only to report and publish, rather than invent. And indeed, unlike the playful philosopher whole ads us down a shockingly early postmodern labyrinth of multiple mirrors and reflections, he bases his work primarily on actual (as opposed to imagined) case files found in the desk drawer in the family study. And while he does supply some commentary on his own, he takes due care to prevent his observations from upstaging the facts and overloading his text. Instead of philosophy or religion, he relies on a corpus of law as a profane canon that seeks – rather futilely at times, it seems – to create order out of chaos, and keep it too, in God’s empire on earth.
The lawyer’s desk drawer yields letters, court files, personal documents, newspaper clippings, posters and photographs, through the prism of which he painstakingly scrutinises the visible relics of the past to draw his own “historical” conclusions – laconic-ironic, sharply pointed, and informed by a wisdom distilled from the intimate familiarity with many human lives.
These conclusions are mainly offered in the form of interjections and commentary which manage to hold a remarkable fascination, even as the stories themselves, by their very nature, hardly ever reach a resting point in the narrow sense of the term. More precisely, they fail to unfold to reach full bloom. In fact, they remain vestigial or snapped in the bud, but let us not complain! It is quite clear that the lawyer does not go, nor has ever gone, roaming far and wide in search of his client. Nor does the author tread far afield in an attempt to track down his protagonists, despite all the evidence of their having existed and inhabited a familiar space. And as he declines to follow their footprints beyond the Oberenz and the Glass Mountain, there is no more investigative journalism than sheer illusion about what he does. Hardly ever straying from behind his desk, it is only rarely that he indulges in guesswork, which he generally seems to consider pointless. Instead of giving free rein to his imagination to fill the gaps in his narrative, he draws on his life experience in the mirror of history. It is this experience – and a deep compassion nourished by it – that his writing exfoliates before us, this side of the divinity, at the second Kirkegaardian stage of ethics.
“Fairytales” do not abound in Várady, yet he is not entirely averse to the genre. He will use them, if only to the extent of mixing in a personal life story that is altogether his own. Indeed, glancing back from the end of his book, one gets the impression that there has been more storytelling here than first meets the eye. He might have gotten the same impression himself on his way to the printer’s, presumably happily for all his weariness, as he bade farewell to his manuscript.
But is it really his? Of course it is. For no matter which way we turn around this object, no matter the angle from which we look at it, ultimately we will have no corpus delicti in our hands. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the book – in spite of arising from legal papers from the first page to the last – is his very own. His inimitable signature is all over it. (A second-instance examination will bear this out, at least as far as we are concerned.) The touch with which he elevates into the present tense his scrutiny and contemplation of the documents is so masterfully tactile that the situation is re-enacted in the most vivid colours. The study is suddenly populated; there are voices everywhere.
Many of these voices belong to people who, far removed from Kierkegaard’s prolific and profuse hotbed of ideas, are endowed with a much more straightforward and pragmatic frame of mind on their mission to reveal the true abode of God to the common man – man reduced to being a suffering subject, a victim of history or, rather, of the constant flux of time. They also show us that we need not embark on a long and meandering journey to reach that destination, for the paths leading there can be quite short. This is surely one of the lessons gleaned from the depths of that drawer in Becskerek. But for the most part, the memories revived by Várady are those of ordinary fellow human beings, teeth knocked out, torso quartered, testicles pinched; humiliated, violated, evacuated, removed, moved-in, enlisted, shot to death, executed, deported, swept clean, shoved into mass graves or, as the case may be, let vanish into thin air via gigantic smokestacks. These lots, which the word “sour” is hardly strong enough to describe, emerge with superb lucidity from the sentences moulded by the experienced hand of the lawyer-cum-novelist.
The small-town lawyer, long since as he may have passed to the bar, cannot help but watch idly while these lives rush headlong toward their destinies. The upheaval is so overwhelming, the cataclysm so ubiquitous, that he has no way of knowing if he will survive himself. Yet he must do his best to save “his flock”, this motley throng of his clients. This holy obligation of the lawyer, undertaken under oath, is not unlike that of the physician or the priest administering a confession while acting as a sort of guardian. He will have to do the same if the confessor is not simply the suspect of a crime but a confirmed bloody murderer. And, horrifyingly, none of this transpires on the pages of a whodunit that you can leaf through for diversion, shove in the garbage can when finished, empty it from your mind, wash your hands and call it a day.
But one need not automatically think of the most heinous crimes either, as we have just prejudicated, to use a word in line with the legalese we all know too well yet find so alien.(Incidentally – and happily – not only does this legal lingo not proliferate out of all proportion in the work under scrutiny, but it is positively restrained, almost to the point of being repressed.) It is not necessary, because the devil dwells elsewhere in Várady’s copious case files. However, the fact remains that passing time does have nodes and longer periods of lull when small things are magnified like the image of your toes when you dip them in the water of a pool, when all of a sudden the most frivolous, most trivial fender bender litigation gains unusual significance because it can shed light on something of far greater importance. Petty thieves, ordinary knackers, second- rate limners can, on occasion, mount on cothurni to take a peek and pitch in on the dialogue that has hitherto flown over their heads: the perpetual dialogue between present and past, which many tend to identify with history. To what extent Várady was aware of this as he set about editing for print the documents of a law firm in business for three generations in Becskerek, whether as a “semi- automatic” historical novel or as a collection of shorts, does not matter any more than Kierkegaard’s notions preceding the actual creative act, which notions have formed the subject of passionate controversy in so many circles.
In any event, Várady, if only as former Minister of Justice, must know a great deal about this subject, but this knowledge never for a moment prejudices his ability to fall under the spell of a newfound experience with how the text behaves. Even if you stow it away as it is, tightly sealed while it’s hot like some fruit preserves, and give it some time, the text will no longer be the same when you take it off the shelf again. It will have transformed into something else, and you cannot do anything about it – not with flattery, by main force, or, least of all, by legal ordinance. (The only thing that works is the true and tried method of express book-burning.)
But who knows, who knew, how much beforehand really makes no difference, just as the philosopher’s skeleton key or axe appears immaterial after the fact of writing. Not least because Várady did not need to resort to vandalism in order to access useful information. At the end of the day, only the end of the day matters. (There are not many alternatives here…) The bottom line is that, at one point or another, the author became irrevocably privy to a knowledge of inconsequential things occasionally morphing into things of consequence, a knowledge indispensable for this kind of authorial-editorial enterprise, which he puts to very good use. At the same time, he takes due notice of the metamorphosis or, more precisely, of the shift in emphasis whereby, as he emphasises himself in his book, the question is no longer whether, say, Uncle Misi Aufsatz of Becskerek or Grószbecskerek (“Greater Becskerek” or Nagybecskerek) was really German or Hungarian, or, for that matter, whether he had Hittite, Macedo-Romanian or Catholic Croatian extraction. The case files have come to serve a different purpose. It is not the outcome of the lawsuits that matters any more but the world itself in which they unfold.
Viewing the documents from a new angle and with a fresh curiosity, he realises that they can serve as an imprint of the world that generated them. Reading them brings one closer to the violent emotions shaping and shaped by the times of war.
They render visible the climate of emotion that constituted daily reality for people back then. One might add that, in everyone’s experience, a heterogeneous medium such as that of historical Nagybecskerek is far more prone to become a theatre of incited passion than a homogeneous community. (Disdain multiculturalism as you may, there is no denying that it is all over the place.)
From this somewhat lofty vantage point, let us now take a cursory glance at this historical Banat region of ours. This region provides a practical, adjustable modular frame for the settlement of Nagybecskerek, today Zrenjanin, where the law offices of the Várady family accumulated those pertinent papers for some hundred and twenty years. Having dusted them off, the grandchild decided that these case files were too precious to discard, and proceeded to edit for publication two sets from his grandfather’s legacy even before contemplating the present volume.
None of this of course took place as luridly as in the flick in which that legendary French comic actor with the horse-like, long-drawn face (probably Fernandel, if memory serves) goes to bed in one country and wakes up in another without moving a limb, only to find that every time he attempts to cross from the kitchen to the pantry he will transgress a national border. Or something to that effect. Not so bizarrely, then, but the Banat region – once a part of Hungary and quite integrated, at least in terms of its territory, and belonging to three different states today – used to be the theatre of similar incidents in its own way. Torn into three parts courtesy of the Trianon Peace Treaty, this formerly unified historic-geographic region of the Carpathian Basin had been subject to turmoil long before it had to endure the horror of entire villages being swapped across some nearby border. It had suffered for long, before, under and after the Ottoman Occupation. There had always been forced settlements and deportations, including schemes difficult to comprehend today, such as the plan sponsored by Maria Theresa who, driven by some unfathomable consideration of the crown, elected the region as a rather peculiar tolerance zone for the empire’s prostitutes in exile. It would be difficult to estimate the number of divorce suits such a measure would have brought to the table of the region’s numerous law firms, in a more or less direct concatenation of cause and effect.
Imperial oddities aside, powers and armies came and went here for centuries to the tune of canon blasts and brass bands, with banners, horses and tanks. From maps redrawn on overtly stated grounds to home turfs assigned by the toss of a coin, the territory had certainly seen and become hardened enough to withstand vicissitude, although many of its residents – discounting a small core of middle class that had managed to plant itself firmly and permanently in the land – inevitably went overboard in the process, like some of the pebbles collecting at the bottom of a bowl when you swirl the water in it. At least this is the overall message of history that emerges from the work of Várady, native son of the Banat.
Inasmuch as we are still willing to view the region as a whole, lest we get called to task, it is mainly inhabited by Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians; its separate section, which belongs to Serbia and includes Nagybecskerek, is predominantly Serbian in its composition. It would be arduous as well as futile to devote meticulous and possibly painful examination to the question of how the colourful ethnicities of the defunct Yugoslavia carry on today with their lives in the parts acquired by Serbia, asking whether they have managed to prosper. In any case, there is a lesson to be learned from the fact that the Italian, French, and now the Spanish minorities are among those who have vanished from this veritable Bermuda Triangle of the Carpathian Basin. Who would have thought? For the most part, these ethnicities have blended in with the Germans, a group that has in turn embarked on an almost total exodus in the recent past. This sheds rather keen light on the motivation of all who, at various junctions of history, have done their best in these parts to deny their origins as frantically as Hercules (or Heracles, if you prefer) sloughed off the Shirt of Nessus, not infrequently marshalling positively comic evidence in this universal tragedy in order to support their case. These episodes are among the most poignant in Várady’s book.
Of course, incidents of a different mood also abound, some more cheerful than others.
Having mentioned music toward the end of this essay, and because “Life is not worth living without a good tune”, as the Hungarian saying goes, let us now have a ball!
But beware lest the revelry get out of hand. In this corner of the world, one’s choice of music commissioned from the gypsy band on duty in the tavern has always been an awfully sensitive matter, pregnant with risks all too often fatefully ignored by inebriated patrons with bloodshot eyes and chests suddenly swelling with unbridled national sentiment, who jump up to perform an ill-advised traditional dance on the table. That is all a political rat needs to make his report, and they seldom go for any stretch of time without being served a job on a tray. And when things get this far, they tend to spin out of control to enter a strange orbit obeying a law onto themselves, potentially winding up in a sock or stocking wound around the neck on one end, and fastened to the ceiling hook of the chandelier, or a bar of the prison cell, on the other. A case in point is the story of the worthy gentleman in Várady’s book, who bends over backwards to asseverate to everyone in public, and to his wife in private, that his habit of going out to get drunk is really an act of self-sacrifice on the altar of the best interests of his people. The comic power of this story is remarkable in and of itself, regardless of any merit to the arguments behind it. There is no need to explain it any further.
Živeli, or Cheers!
(May we all keep cheerful in our hearts.)
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
1 Tibor Várady: Zoknik a csilláron, életek hajszálon [“Socks on the Chandelier, Lives by a Thread”], Forum Publishing, Novi Sad – Magvető, Budapest, 2013.