Proemcards from Hungary (Part 4)

Proemcards by Montreal author Endre Farkas – a combination of prose, poetry and reflections on a journey to Hungary after having fled decades ago – continues from Part 3, Part 2 and Part 1.


In the 1970s, when I was just starting to write poetry seriously, (seriously, as only a young writer starting to write can) I returned to Hungary. While I was there, my cousin’s husband stole Elfelejtett Tüzek (Forgotten Fires) by Bari Karoly from the Debrecen Public Library and gave it to me—his gift to a budding poet. It was the seventeen-year-old Gypsy poet’s first book and it had sold over 100,000 copies. Karoly was the poster child for the country’s attempt to integrate the Gypsies into Hungarian Communist society, to show that they were more than just drunks and thieves.

I tried to read it but my Hungarian was rudimentary. I thanked him for his kindness and tucked the book away.

Once home, wanting to know what kind of poetry could sell so many copies, I bought myself a two-volume Hungarian/English dictionary and began a couple years of on-and-off translation. The topic was Gypsy life. The tone was of lamentation, celebration and anger penned in a lyrical/surrealist-like Hungarian that employed stream-of-consciousness – often a poem was one long sentence – and a thick weave of imagery. His Hungarian was Gypsy Hungarian. It was as though he were translating his Gypsy language into Hungarian, and I was trying to translate that into English.

I finally translated a couple of poems to my satisfaction and, on a whim, sent them to his publisher. I asked my father to translate my cover letter to him into Hungarian. He took great pride in making it “elegant.”

To my surprise, Karoly answered. And so began a correspondence that resulted in a literary friendship and a connection with a teacher friend of his at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. I was asked to contribute to a Karoly’s Selected in English. I even went to Hungary to meet him and spend time getting clarification on some of his phrasings, imagery, Gypsy references and myths/legends.

By that time, I had already published my first book, Szerbusz, which consisted of a number of poems dealing with Gypsies and my thoughts about their life and culture. I felt a sympathetic connection with them and with Karcsi (the diminutive of Karoly, used by friends). I probably felt it because as an infant, I had been breastfed by a Gypsy wet-nurse. I felt that I had, if not gypsy blood, then gypsy milk in me. As a Jew, I shared the experience of discrimination. And we were both poets.

After the publication of his Selected, we drifted apart. The letters got shorter, fewer and farther apart until finally they stopped altogether. There was no one thing in particular. Life, I suppose, got in the way. But now I was here, and what better time to re-establish our friendship?

On a whim, I decided to look him up. This involved serious detective work, his old address and phone number long lost. I started with the Internet. His name was there but all I could find was a brief bio and a list of his books. I couldn’t figure out how to get in touch. So I switched to an “old school” method: the phone book. But first I had to find one. In Budapest, the keeper of phonebooks is the post office. Now I had to find a post office. I asked my waiter at the Heroes Square Café to direct me.

After ten minutes of zigzagging in 38-degree Celsius heat, I found a little corner post office and a phone book. There was only one Bari Karoly listed and it was the wrong one. Calling information didn’t help. I then got the bright idea of locating a copy of his latest book and contacting him through his publisher. I asked a woman passing by to point me to the nearest bookstore. She didn’t know of any. I couldn’t believe my ears. Hungarians are famous, in Hungary, for being literate and cultured, and this woman didn’t know of any bookstores!? And on top of it, she admitted it? A young man unloading a truck overheard us and politely interrupted us. He told me he used to be a delivery boy and knew the city like the back of his tattooed hand. He gave me the address of a bookstore on the very street we were standing on.

Withering heat in Budapest. Photo: C. Adam.

Withering heat in Budapest. Photo: C. Adam.

Off I went in the direction he pointed, but I noticed that the numbers were going the wrong way and turned back. The young man was long gone. I couldn’t find a bookstore, only a book distribution center.

A greying, longhaired man with a beard and a son in Toronto – in Hungary, you don’t get information without a story – had heard of Bari Karoly and told me that there was a bookstore about fifteen minutes away that would definitely stock his books.

I strolled along the boulevard that is really a European boulevard with sophisticated boulevard trees. I passed a building that had, at eye level, convex oval shaped cameos embedded in the wall. They were the size of the palm of my hand. Embossed on each were photographs. They seemed to go on forever. Around the corner of the building a plaque explained that these were photograph-cameos of men and women who were killed or executed during the 1956 uprising. They were of all ages and occupations. Suddenly, the boulevard no longer evoked a Belle Epoque café-society and the pock marks in the building were no longer a sign of old age but the hard evidence of bullet-hole history and a testament to courage and the bloodshed for freedom.

The Millennium Bookstore was located on one of the sides of the Octagon. I octogoned it and found it on the last side. They didn’t have any of his books but the clerk said there was a store five minutes away that was sure to have them.

The Writers Bookstore faced two little parks and in each was a statue, larger than life, of a famous Hungarian writer. (Try finding one such park in the entire country of Canada!) The shop was filled with serious books, magazines, calendars and postcards. The second floor had wall-to-wall bookcases and its center was filled with café-like tables and chairs for readings.

They were out of Bari’s books at the moment. Wanting to be helpful, the cashier wrote down the publisher’s address and phone number. It was quite a distance outside of the centre of Budapest but I was grateful for the phone number.

While I was there, I browsed the shelves. I overheard a young man tell the cashier that he wanted to place some of his poetry books. It reminded me of my early days in Montreal, when my fellow poets and I tried to get bookstores to carry our first books.

On the way out, I approached the young man and introduced myself as a poet from Canada and asked if he wanted to talk a bit. We sat in the Ady Endre Square with Ady’s huge statue looking down on us. The place stank of piss. We talked a few minutes but soon neither of us could pretend not to smell it. I asked him if he had time for a coffee. He said that he had the time but not the money. I had both. We went to the Trattoria Coffee House.

He showed me his first (self-published) book Mots Vagy Soha. His nom de plume was Mots Tamas. The title of his book was a play on one of the lines from Hungary’s national poem (yes, Hungary has a national poem!) by Hungary’s most famous poet, Petöfi Sándor. It’s a poem about fighting for freedom.

I asked him if he had also meant to play with the French word “mots.” He shook his head. He neither spoke nor wrote French, but he was greatly pleased with this coincidence.

I thought he might be the new Bari.

Soon he became agitated. He gave me a very hard stare. He told me that he knew of conspiracies and that he was in danger. He wanted to know if I was after him. I told him no. He confessed he wanted to leave this “stinking country.” He wanted to become a flight attendant and fly.

I paid and headed off to call Bari’s publisher. No answer.


After a tour of the Beaux Arts Museum, I lay under a vinegar tree and contemplated the medieval paintings of pin-cushioned martyrs with arrows sticking into them, of martyrs with axes cleaving their Friar Tuck, bald heads and the wagonload, of nailed-to-the-cross Christs in period costume.

I closed my eyes and heard a voice.

“Hello,” she said.


“How are you?”

“Fine, and you?” I said.

“Very well, thank you.”

We were having this conversation in English, but she had an accent.

“I am Iranian,” she said. “I am visiting my daughter who is studying in Hungary. I am a psychologist who is no longer allowed to practise because of the Regime.”

“I am not dreaming nor am I having an Ionesco-ish conversation,” I said to myself. “Actually I am having an Ionesco-ish conversation, but I’m not in an absurdist play,” I said, correcting myself.

“Actually I am, but it’s for real,” I said to myself. I opened my eyes.

I sat up and looked around. There, sitting on the grass, in modern western dress, sitting against the same vinegar tree, was a woman quite real. She had strong, shoulder-length, black-black hair, piercing black-black eyes, an almond complexion, and a warm smile.

Then a younger version of her appeared. After a round of hellos, the daughter began to rage against the “bearded idiots” and the “stolen election.”

We sat in silence and watched women in workers’ overalls, who had been cutting grass with scythes and sickles, stop, sit and recline under a weeping willow in an impressionist pose to escape the Aix en Provence sun and the Budapest 40-degree Celsius heat.

“I’m from Canada,” I said. The daughter became excited and said that she hoped to end up in Vancouver to teach physical education.

“There, boys and girls are not separated and there is no need for martyrs.”

I agreed. “See you in Canada,” I said, and we waved goodbye to each other as we left Heroes Square.


The morning began with my mother waking me to say that she wasn’t feeling well. Her upper arms and ankles were on fire and numb, and she had chest pains. My mother had had a five-bypass thirteen years earlier and has been living with fifty percent heart capacity ever since.

I called my cousin whose husband used to work at the hospital and knew people— quelle surprise! For about thirty years he had been the chief electrician there and had accumulated enough favours to get whatever he wanted. Anytime a doctor or an administrator wanted a heater or a fan or even a second outlet and didn’t want to wait for the five-year plan to kick in or the bureaucratic paperwork to wend its way through the maze, they contacted him. He was also available for their outside, private needs. He could hustle anything, and usually for free. Well, maybe for a favour somewhere down the line.

He called in a favour and one of the chief doctors sent for an ambulance, which came within ten minutes.

The clinic was about ten minutes away. A turn-of-the-century complex, it had an old-world seriousness and charm about it— arched stone entrances, high ceilings, immaculate tile floors, large wooden windows and doors with brass handles that made you feel like you were in a sacred place. Everyone, from orderlies to doctors, was dressed in freshly pressed whites.

We were ushered in to see a heart specialist whose first question was, “How are you paying for this?” I explained that she had insurance and that we’re Canadians and have universal Medicare. She responded a bit roughly that it wasn’t insurance she was asking about but how were we going to pay for the treatment in the hospital.

“Cash,” I replied. She smiled and started treating my mother gently and respectfully.

Then began a seven-hour battery of tests: heart, lungs, chest, intestines, blood pressure, blood work, urinalysis, ultrasound. And all the sitting in hallways. My mother began to feel a little better. Having been seen by a doctor, she relaxed. The medical staff uncovered some of the causes of her pain. Just as the doctor began writing up a prescription, he asked how I was planning to pay.

We returned to the Thermal and Wellness Hotel, where word got out about her. Everyone from the doorman to the manager came to inquire about her well-being and made sure that she got two extra bottles of water a day. I’m guessing this wasn’t unusual at the Thermal and Wellness Hotel.


Endre Farkas

Endre Farkas, a poet, playwright and novelist, was born in Hungary and escaped with his parents in 1956. He has published ten books of poetry, had three plays produced and his novel Never, Again (about the 1956 uprising) is due out in Fall of 2016. His videopoem, cowritten with Carolyn Marie Souaid, “Blood is Blood” won first prize at the Berlin International Poetry Film Festival in 2012. The poet lives in Montreal.


  1. Avatar Charlie London says:

    “I passed a building that had, at eye level, convex oval shaped cameos embedded in the wall. They were the size of the palm of my hand. Embossed on each were photographs. They seemed to go on forever. Around the corner of the building a plaque explained that these were photograph-cameos of men and women who were killed or executed during the 1956 uprising.

    Of course this was the ‘House of Terror’ (Terrorhaza) museum – Maria Schmidt’s version of the two ‘occupations’ of Hungary. Not a respected historical interpretation of events.

    It is housed in the building where all the 56ers who failed to escape to the West were tortured – being the home of the dreaded AVH.

  2. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Small world! I have known Károly Bari from Miskolc where I was part of a group led by Imre Péntek, who is a remarkable poet himself. We were young and thought Bari was a genius, he published his first book of poems when he was in high school. It is a bit unfair to characterize him as “the poster child for the country’s attempt to integrate the Gypsies into Hungarian Communist society.” Bari was not political at that time, he was a “child poet” and his incredible talent was recognized and supported. Gypsies were not “just drunks and thieves” under the Socialist system, they worked in Borsod’s heavy industries: Ózd and LKM in Miskolc employed many thousands of Roma. The situation is much worse today since these jobs are gone….. I enjoy your vignettes very much and hope you don’t mind that I added these observations.

  3. It is a small world. By posting these “proemcards” I have come in contact with interesting people and continue to learn about my “birthland”. Thank you for your comments. I don’t mind at all. I enjoy feedback. When I say he was “the poster child…”I am repeating what I was told and the “just drunks and thieves” is also the stereotypical comments I got about Gypsies.

  4. Pingback: Proemcards from Hungary (Part 5)

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