March 2012

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Budapest, Not Prague

If, in general, the contemporary American reader has been acquainted with the city of Budapest through literature, it's very likely that that acquaintance had something to do with Arthur Phillips's very successful novel Prague. And as the title of that book about expatriates in the Hungarian capital during the Eastern Bloc's transition to capitalist democracy suggests, it's probably more likely that people in general are better acquainted with (or have a rosier picture of) the capital of the Czech Republic. (The book is so named because its characters can't shake the suspicion that their counterparts in that other city are living the life while they wallow.) You don't, anyway, hear much talk of recent graduates taking off for summers of "self-discovery" in Budapest. But those who do manage to find their ways to that city should find more than enough to discover, if not in themselves than in the place itself. Even if its self-discovery scene may not be nearly as famous as the one in Prague, the Paris of the Danube certainly does rival its Czech counterpart in its grandiosity and its atmosphere of tarnished Old World mystery.

And maybe it's the very sense of Budapest's relative contemporary shabbiness that makes it seem somehow more distinguished -- or at least more mysterious. After its fall from imperial glory as a result of the First World War, the city and its people were then marked by an interwar alliance with the Nazis and, later, a communist dictatorship. And now, at the same time as the linguistically isolated Hungarians seem to be turning increasingly inward and away from the rest of Europe, they also seem somehow less inclined to cover the bullet holes in the walls of their capital's past. You get that feeling, anyway. Budapest is the kind of place that you can imagine would make for the brilliant setting a dramatic crime. Or at least that's the kind of dramatic fantasy you can indulge in reading Vilmos Kondor's Budapest Noir -- even, maybe, if you haven't been acquainted with the city outside of literature. That and you'll want a good cup of coffee.

The expats in Prague circulate in and around the famous Gerbeaud Cafe, but crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon prefers the Abbázia or the New York or the Sztambul -- or the Balaton if he can remember to ask the staff not to add sugar to his cup of black. Certainly though, the café culture nostalgized by the characters in Phillips's book is very much alive on the streets of the city trekked by Gordon in Budapest Noir. Two, however, are dead: it's October of 1936, and on the heels of the reports of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös's death in Munich, Gordon gets tipped to the location of the body of a girl, "very lovely and very dead," in a street known for its familiarity with prostitutes. From Gordon's reaction to the tip it seems apparent that the area also isn't unfamiliar with young female suicides. But the situation surrounding this very dead girl appears different. Not only does she have a Jewish prayer book in her purse, but her very lovely face is the same one that Gordon has seen in a photograph that he'd come across earlier in the day -- a nude photograph he'd come across in the desk of a section head in the homicide unit of the police department.

For his part, Gömbös had been in Germany learning the tricks of fascism in order to implement them in the emerging autocracy of his Unity Party back home. The historical record reflects that Gömbös had been obliged to officially recant his anti-Semitism by Miklós Horthy, who was regent and military commander of the kingdom of Hungary between the two world wars; but it's clear, at least from Gordon's perspective, that a Jewish person wouldn't have been welcome in any significant economic or political position in Gömbös's Hungary. Now Gömbös is dead -- and not by any foul play -- but in the position jockeying following his death, what if it should come out who had been involved with that Jewish prostitute...? "And as long as we're on the subject," as Gordon's girlfriend Krisztina puts it to the him, "if you want my opinion, the question is not how she died, but how a Jewish girl -- probably from a respectable, bourgeois family -- ended up becoming a prostitute in the first place." And why was it (as it turns out it was) that the girl should have had such a strong preference for the coffee beans bought from Meinl over the ones from Arabia?

From there, the Budapest of Budapest Noir becomes a blur of grand avenues and guarded back alleys, stylish cafes and seedy watering holes, of illegal boxing matches, newsrooms, pornography studios, underground political meetings... and speculation. Well, "a blur" maybe doesn't do justice to the lucidity of the author, or to Paul Olchvárym, his translator, but a crime reporter's beat in Budapest in 1936 does sound like quite the trip. And the day to day of Gordon and Krisztina isn't so unlike in Isherwood's Berlin. If it weren't for the exploitation and impending continental disaster, the picture of the party in interwar Budapest might have an absolute draw. Like The Berlin StoriesBudapest Noir conjures a disconcerting but powerful nostalgia, one which is made all the more potent in the case of the latter for the relative air of mystery surrounding the city in which it takes place (for non-Hungarian -- or non-European -- readers, anyway). And with all that on offer, really, who needs a summer in Prague?

Then there's to-do over the coffee: it's not just which variety of bean or which cafe might be favored by Gordon or by the very dead girl or by anyone else high or low, but that certain imports from Africa make certain partnerships with the Italians (Mussolini) important, and then there's the war in Abyssinia, and the big German market... (There's also the archivist who needs to be paid off with packets of a specific type of Egyptian tobacco, but, okay, that's really not much more than a beautiful touch.)

To be sure, fiction like Budapest Noir, especially of the type and quality that garners praise as being "classically" noir, is, to at least some degree, written as entertainment. And, to be sure, Budapest Noir is thrillingly entertaining. But it does, as well, call attention to an eerie political symmetry between its time and the present. Consider: that at the same time as we can read in Budapest Noir about Gordon and his cohorts sitting in their cafes reading in the international and domestic press about Gömbös and Horthy and the consolidation of political power in interwar Hungary, we could also search most contemporary international and domestic media outlets (from our laptops at our own favorite cafes, of course) and easily turn up information on a Hungarian political situation with a startlingly similar disposition. Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz (a.k.a. the Hungarian Civic Union) may not have any interest in the coffee trade, but their efforts to concentrate the influence of that one party in an impenetrable central field of power aren't unprecedented either.

Since a narrow majority in the Parliamentary elections of 2010 gave Fidesz more than two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, Orbán and his supporters have used their legislative machine to pass hundreds of new laws and to amend the constitution in order to secure the ruling party's supremacy and authority. Orbán is not, as Gömbös was in the 1930s, an outright advocate of fascism. But his efforts to establish the autocracy of his party appear no less driven and ordered than were the plans of Gömbös when those plans were curtailed by the earlier prime minister's death in 1936. In the present era, however, Budapest has found it much more difficult to secure economic and political support within Europe (or elsewhere). The European Union has even begun implementing punitive measures against the Orbán government in response to measures it has passed (often without regard for constitutional or parliamentary procedure) to limit the independence of the judicial branch of the government. Orbán's government has also been widely criticized for actions that have impeded the freedom of the press. But, are we paying enough attention where the press is freer?

Should it go without saying that it's easier to read about the political situation in Budapest during the week of the funeral proceedings for Gyula Gömbös in 1936 than it is to confront the looming reality of a similar political edifice in the present? The benefit of hindsight can distance and romanticize the situation of the 1930s into just the intriguing backdrop for a peculiar crime. And, of course, the edifice of fiction is at work too. A crime novel like Budapest Noir and a story of true crime (even a distant retelling) aren't one and the same. It certainly goes without saying that there's real crime on the streets of contemporary Budapest, whether or not it's tangled up in the political intrigues of the day. And we have authors like Vilmos Kondor to thank for imbuing the city with the mystery that makes all manner of heinousness imaginable. Well enough, sure, but that doesn't mean that all of it is necessarily better left alone.

And Kondor would seem to agree. Budapest Noir isn't an allegory. Okay. But all its classic noirishness isn't just pulp, either. "Do you remember who stopped off in Budapest a couple of weeks back for a friendly chitchat? The German minister of foreign affairs... and not quite two weeks ago our interior minister ordered a ban on public meetings," Gordon reminds his grandfather in a discussion about the future of the Unity Party. "And Hitler's speech at the end of September? That if Germany had colonies and raw materials, then it could allow itself the luxury of democracy? The luxury of democracy? Opa, democracy is not a luxury." Budapest Noir isn't an allegory, but neither is it without noteworthy historical and political bearing.

Maybe, though, that's simply the kind of thinking that had all those young people from the West rushing the stage of the former Eastern Bloc countries as soon as the iron curtain lifted.

Something... American? But Zsigmond Gordon did hone his skills as a reporter in the United States before returning to walk the crime beat in his native city. And Budapest Noir only helps to spin a web of mystery and curiosity and conspiracy around the place. Who knows: maybe there even exists a gin soaked madam like Kondor's Red Margo waiting in Budapest right now to spill the secrets of the highest echelons of the Fidesz in exchange for a kiss. Or an archivist to be paid off in exchange for his sharing some important but buried secret? Maybe I've had too much coffee.