Panni Palásti’s Budapest Girl (Maitai River Press, New Zealand, 2015, 327 pages) is subtitled “An Immigrant Confronts the Past”, and while the title tells where this girl migrated from, she maintains that all emigrants’ views of the past, considered at eighty, will have much in common, whatever their country of origin. Although this memoir may be of immediate interest primarily to Hungarians, however far they are settled from the Danube, it should also speak to displaced natives of Prague or London or Christchurch, New Zealand.
To describe the book as you first see and hold it, open it and read it, I am going to quote, with permission, the response of another “Budapest girl being buffeted by echoes of a turbulent century”. Elisabeth Neal wrote:
First glimpse of the cover – an angelic little girl with her dolls…
Later, caressing the cover – it is wonderfully tactile with a silken swish. Inside the cover – the first and last pages are black. Shadow deepening over shadow? Or is it a symbolic gesture to the great Danube, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, while in between the pages a river of haunting memories flows? Or is the work composed as a mosaic? A tessera of prose poetry, history, personal observations and “snappy Hungarian rhymes”, which shimmer and shine like the river, whose powerful current slowly draws you in.
Neal’s stress on the physical as well as the emotional aspects of the book – the feel of the cover, the impact of the black end-pages – reflects the intensely sensory nature of Palásti’s memories, written as nearly as possible to match the impressions and understanding of a child.
The first few of the short chapters, describing a time when the family lived in Berlin, where Panni was born, pack a suitcaseful of background information into their fourteen pages, and each moment is momentous. Her parents’ eyes first meet when her mother skilfully fields and returns a tennis ball from the park path to which her father’s racket had lobbed it. They get together for coffee and begin their long relationship. The short chapters, vignettes almost, give us vivid pictures, rich with dialogue, of the privations and limits of life in wartime Budapest, the increasing hardships as the retreating Germans fought to the death, and its immediate aftermath when the Russian troops arrived. Panni has news for us: some of these rough, uncouth invaders are unexpectedly softened by the presence of children in the families they are quartered with – like the families they have left at home. From this it should be evident that it would be impossible to summarise this book without paraphrasing the whole thing. Its author has packed too many suitcases into it.
One amusing chapter (No. 66), set when the family was still living in Berlin, shows Panni’s father’s much admired best friend, Andor Zsoldos (whose daughter Éva became a lifelong friend of Panni’s), honestly tricking a dim-witted meat- packing magnate into backing a film for which Zsoldos had written a script based on Zola’s novel about the Dreyfus Affair. The trick is too good to spoil by telling, and it could be a classic joke of the kind Hungarians are renowned for developing into a fine art, to subversively deal with having been occupied so often.
Panni’s Apu, in a more deadly predicament than his friend Zsoldos, demonstrated the same distinctively Hungarian resourcefulness. Jewish himself, though his wife was Catholic (and for a long time Panni believed herself to be safely the same), he was in his daughter’s eyes “a reincarnation of Baron Münchhausen dodging danger with invincible wit”. Finally, though, he was drafted as a Jew and shipped to the famous labour camp in Bor, Serbia, source of half of Germany’s copper supply during the Second World War. The camp was noted not just for its minerals, nor for the number of Jewish inmates (six thousand) mining them, but because the great poet Miklós Radnóti wrote a good many poems there, including one titled “Forced March”. Radnóti did not survive the long march back to Hungary.
But Palásti did survive his march, and his daughter’s prose poem sets forth his instructions on “how to master marching orders”. First, be as fit as a tennis player; “feign obedience” to the guards, while staying “as nondescript and obliging as you can, rather than appearing “awkward” and “truculent”. Once on the road, try to find a place in the middle of the second row, “less visible than the first row” and not dragged back by the “straggling ragtag ranks” at the rear, many of whom drop out, tired with trying to keep up, and are shot and buried, Radnóti among them. (By the way, though, “be sure not to volunteer for shovel duty to cover the carcasses for the ground is hard to dig up on the run”.) An extraordinary poem, though the reality it describes was perfectly “ordinary” in 1944, and enables her to absorb and relay her father’s experience as helpful advice for anyone.
Panni Palásti’s own story is scarcely less emblematic, historically, as a single personal example of the post-war Hungarian diaspora. Fleeing in the mass exodus of 1956, she found a place in the Columbia University School of General Studies English Department, after being rejected by the Chairman of the School of Journalism because her accent was too strong for that profession. (He advised her to choose a career in fashion, where her accent could even be an asset!) Nevertheless, she worked as a journalist and high school teacher of English in Southern California, and married an Englishman who built an ocean-going sailboat in which he and his wife, then known as Éva (see Chapter 75, “What’s in a name?”), and their son sailed to New Zealand, and built a lovely wooden house in the Bay of Islands which she ran as a B & B (where my wife and I stayed in 1992, beginning our twenty-four- year friendship). Éva Brown wrote and still writes poetry in English, and published a practical guide for adults with diabetes. She edited the Russell Review, a substantial magazine for the surprisingly extensive poetry circle at the top of the North Island, and has latterly lived in Nelson, taking a leading role in its very active poetry scene. And now she has published this memoir, perhaps unprecedented in its tri-generic variety: one hundred and thirty-five short chapters of prose that wastes no words, forty-one poems in a great range of forms, and dozens of photographs, all together filling out the girlhood which prepared her for an adult life so out of the ordinary.
Simply as a memoir of childhood, Budapest Girl is remarkable for the details of a very young girl’s gradually increasing understanding of who these large people are, and how she fits in, or does not, among them, as well as with other children, and as she grows up, the reader grows with her, experiencing at second hand what a Budapest girl’s childhood would have been like. When that childhood is taking place in wartime, and, after that, in a country occupied by a hostile great power, it becomes fraught with greater, wider implications. All the millions of children presently captive in their own lands, or surviving as refugees in others, will recognise Panni Palásti’s perceptions and survival, as, hopefully, their own, which may not be the least of this book’s virtues.
Panni Palásti’s book Budapest Girl is another godsend that my friendship with John Ridland brought for us and Hungarian culture since meeting him in 1984–85, the year my family spent in Santa Barbara, California. The early first milestone was John the Valiant, Ridland’s lovely English translation of János Vitéz, the great comic epic of Sándor Petőfi. While I helped the incubation of that work, John was to translate many other Hungarian poems into English during the years that followed, working with various translator partners, in particular Peter Czipott, most recently on a book of Selected Poems by Dezső Kosztolányi. And now Budapest Girl, written by New Zealand friend Eva Brown, reached me through him – a painful, funny and elegant account of growing up in pre- and post-War Hungary. Through it, we can re-live what it meant to be an ordinary citizen in mid-century Central Europe ravaged by totalitarian regimes. The book deserves a new edition by a major British or American publisher, I believe.