Proemcards from Hungary (Part 3)

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 2 and Part 1.


Today was the unveiling. It was 35 degrees Celsius outside. I haven’t been able to sleep through the night since we arrived. The air-conditioning only wets the carpet and cools nothing. I toss and turn and wake and stay awake. I watch my mother sleep, body curled into a fetus-like smallness, her nitro patch like a full moon on her back. I haven’t slept in the same room as my mother since I was seven, when I slept between my dad and her in our sole bed in Hajdunánás. I remember the warmth emanating from their bodies under the goose down duvet. I don’t think I ever felt as safe as then.

Morning caught up with me. I donned my never-before-worn, bought-for-this-occasion suit and tie that my mother, who spent most of her life behind a sewing machine, guilted me into buying. She never misses an opportunity to lament my lack of appreciation for fine clothing.

Did I tell you that it was 38 degrees Celsius outside?

Though I sweated profusely, I was glad that I wore the suit. Everyone else was in short sleeves and casual pants, except the Rabbi. We lent a solemnity to the occasion. I escorted my mother, dressed in her finely tailored clothes, through the narrow aisles between old and crumbling gravestones to her sister’s grave. It was of dark granite in the shape of an open book with her and her husband’s names and dates on facing pages. I felt my mother sag when she saw it. Her sister was the last of her family left. Her youngest sister and her mother both died in Auschwitz. Her father died in 1972. At 85, my mother is now the only one of that generation left.

We gathered around the stone and the Rabbi said Kaddish. My mother’s hand tightened around mine. The service didn’t last long. Once it was done and the crowd dispersed, my mother walked over to the stone and caressed it. Stroking it, she leaned over and kissed it as if it were her sister’s head, and cried.

This was my mother’s oldest sister, the one she worshipped. The one who, in Auschwitz, watched over her like a hawk; who always made sure she had something to eat, who stood up to the SS guards when they yelled at my mother, and who took the beatings for interfering. She was her strength when she had none left, and now she was gone. Before we went home, my mother grabbed a handful of earth from the grave and put it in a plastic “Dollarama” shopping bag.


Later, my cousin told me that her mother’s second husband, also buried in the same cemetery, pre-purchased twin plots so the couple could lie next to each other. He even had her name engraved on the double stone he had had made for them. Only the death date needed to be added. After he died, my cousin asked her mother who she wanted to lie beside. Jewish law states that it has to be the most recent husband. After much soul searching, her mother picked her first husband. My cousin told me she would have buried her there anyway. She’s decided to have her mother’s name removed from the second husband’s stone and to sell the plot.

Imagine the second husband’s surprise when he discovers who ends up lying next to him.


My cousin’s husband, who has become my window and doorman into Hungary’s psyche, took me to meet a professor of linguistics at the University of Debrecen. “I want to show him that I also know professors,” he whispered to me, winking as we entered his office.

We had a cordial phatic conversation about language, academic life and educational reforms. My cousin’s husband, who is no scholar except in the hustle for things, mentioned that the new Rector of the university was related to my parents’ friend in Montreal. And that he, the Rector, was Jewish. My cousin’s husband, wearing his ‘chai’ bling necklace, boasted about the Jews in Debrecen and their accomplishments. Suddenly the professor, who was also Jewish, lowered his voice and told him to do the same. He informed me that the Rector did not want to publicize his ethnic background. And that we shouldn’t talk too loudly about it because it was dangerous to do so.


“A prick with a degree,” said my cousin’s husband after we left. “His kind of attitude is the real enemy.”

He drove us to the synagogue where he introduced me to Tibor, a young Christian man who volunteers there as a self-defense instructor.


Tibor is not only a karate teacher but also a budding actor. When he found out that I had written plays, he invited me to his group’s rehearsal for the finals of the regional district talent show. They were presenting a couple of Monty Python skits in Hungarian.

This I had to see and hear.

I arrived late. Rehearsal was in progress. The space was small, humid and filled with costumes on racks. Two men and two women were sitting in the middle in a semi-circle— perfectly still, legs crossed and holding imaginary wine glasses. Standing before them was their salt-and-pepper haired director talking a hundred kilometres a minute. When the man saw me, he fell silent and stared intensely. “Yes?” he asked, in an arrogant tone of voice. Tibor, one of the four who sat as still as those silver-painted street performers pretending to be statues, said softly that I was the “writer and playwright gentleman” whom he had invited.

Immediately he walked over, bowed and shook my hand in an old-world, melodramatic sort of way. We exchanged names. He had the eloquence and tone, if not the fashion sense, of Oscar Wilde. Then he returned to his directorial task of interrupting every move, every line, every gesture, every breath that every actor made. He gave everyone six or seven directorial comments at once, lacing them with a sarcasm that only Hungarians are capable of.

“My dear little son, an analphabet oxen, is capable of a stronger gesture. No, Dearie, don’t separate the words like a stuttering idiot. Pause…don’t pause…no, no, didn’t you ever listen to your mother, perhaps that’s the problem…that you listened to your mother. Listen to me. Again children, I ask you nicely, say your lines with a sense of aristocratic snobbishness that only the British are capable of. Jaj, jaj jaj, you are mules, you all lack that British air. Let me show you how you do it, how you say it. Let me ask our distinguished guest to tell you how badly you do it. My dear sir, how do the Americans say ‘Mrs. Perkins’?

I was taken aback but gave it a try.

“No, my dear sir, the British don’t pronounce it that way. They do not pronounce the “R.”

“But you asked for American, not British,” I managed to say.

He paused, stared at me and was off on a tear about other faults.

He punctuated his criticism and berating with putdowns of Hungarian actors, and gossip that sounded as if he were on intimate terms with the Pythons. The rehearsal was about him; he was the skit.

After a half hour, I couldn’t take any more: my head hurt, my jaws clenched, my shoulders tensed, my ass tightened, my legs cramped and my toes curled. I excused myself. He looked over, thanked me for coming, asked me back and promised not to interrupt as much. Before I could say goodbye, he was back to abusing and performing instead of directing.

I walked back to the synagogue to meet my cousin’s husband. I entered the courtyard to find him and eight others in a circle, breathing deeply, practising “smiling yoga.” The group leader smiled and invited me to join them.

Later I learned that a few years back, the director got so caught up in a psychodrama class for preteens that he almost choked a twelve-year-old boy and was banned from directing kids for life.



The heat was oppressive, a punishing 35 Celsius, again. The up side of this heat was that the flood, which had a large portion of the country underwater, was evaporating and receding. After a month of rain, only the tourists were complaining. So with the flood almost gone, a man-made disaster took over front page. The new government’s first financial statement had the forint (the Hungarian currency) in a free-fall.

The Danube and the Royal Palace in Budapest. Photo: C. Adam.

Summer sun – The Danube and the Royal Palace in Budapest. Photo: C. Adam.

I was sitting under a parasol in Heroes Square Café contemplating this disaster and having a delicious cappuccino. No dobos here.

There is not much a tourist can do in such a heat except sit in a café and watch Hungarians stroll by on their way to work. And write. Not a bad life. At this moment, with the forint tumbling, I, with my American dollars, am quite well off. I ordered a second cappuccino.

The financial mess was triggered by a member of the recently elected (FIDESZ) party, who declared that Hungary was on the “ledge” of bankruptcy. That sent the forint tumbling by fifteen percent and the people, two thirds of whom voted for the party, screaming for heads.

It’s not unusual for an incoming party, soon after its election, to declare that it’s just seen the books and cannot keep its fiscal promises due to the lies and mismanagement of the previous government—meaning cuts to programs and institutions that they were promising to strengthen. This is a normal and accepted way of breaking promises in politics. It is common practice in Canada too. But I’ve never heard an incoming finance minister announce the imminent bankruptcy of the country. If he did, he would be strung up by his new shoelaces. But this is Hungary, the land of poets and politicians, both masters of the hyperbolic hyperbole!

The outrage is loud. It can be heard everywhere. Even the waiters are discussing it. They aren’t outraged over this “betrayal,” they are enraged because they, like everyone else, are convinced it was a deliberate act to manipulate the money market. The people of the “food market” are convinced that there is collusion between the politicians and the cowboy capitalists who were warned in advance and who cashed in. My waiter, looking over the nearly empty café said, “It’s enough to make you yearn for Communist times and Communist truths. At least you knew you couldn’t trust them and you knew you couldn’t believe their truths.” Truths are lies and lies are truths. The Hungarian 1984.

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.

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