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20 April 2016

George Jonas



Hungarians used to love poetry. In Budapest there are well-known statues of Hungarian poets, such as Ady, Petőfi, Vörösmarty, Arany, József and Radnóti. But in 1950s Hungary, the most famous poet was the little-known 15th-century French vagabond poet Fran
çois Villon. György Faludy had translated, or re-imagined, Villon’s poetry into 20th century Hungarian. Faludy was the favourite poet of both George Jonas and my mother.

Both George and I had left Hungary by the end of 1956, after the Revolution was crushed by Soviet armour. He ended up in Canada because in Vienna where refugees were processed the queue for “Canada” was shorter than the one for “USA”. I went to New Zealand meanwhile because my mother wanted to be with my grandfather Vili, who had been encouraged to emigrate after he had served eighteen months of a jail sentence for speculating in gold, which was a lie, and for not being a fan of the local Communists, which was true.

George was the first Hungarian I met in Canada. It was at a party to celebrate his birthday, probably the 40th. He wore dark glasses, though it was dark enough in the cellar of the apartment building where the party was held, a leather jacket and leather pants, with, incongruously, a shirt and tie. He was about 6 feet 2, with a straight brown fringe, high cheekbones and a cigarette-holder. He smoked constantly, lighting one cigarette from the still glowing end of another. He had a soft voice and a relaxed Hungarian accent. We talked about poetry, music, witty writers and motorcycles.

He was working at the CBC then, producing radio and TV dramas and documentaries – at least two hundred when I last counted. He was a motorcycle-fanatic, a racer and collector of motorcycles. He also loved to fly – he owned his own four-seater Cessna and wrote about the joys of flying.

Faludy was a frequent visitor of George’s midtown apartment. He had served hard time in both Nazi and Communist prisons. He was impeccably polite and flirtatious when he met my mother, who could still recite his Villon poems at the drop of a hat. I used to send copies of Faludy’s autobiography, My Happy Days in Hell, to publishers in the UK and US, in the hope of seeing it back in print, and am delighted to have at last found it available, online from Amazon.

George and his second wife, Barbara Amiel, co-authored the best-seller, By Persons Unknown, about the murder of Christine Demeter and the subsequent trial and conviction of her wealthy husband, Peter Demeter. The research and writing of that book led to the long-term friendship between George and the junior lawyer in Demeter’s defence team, Eddie Greenspan. Eddie later became Canada’s most famous or infamous criminal lawyer, depending on which side of a case you supported. Eddie and George also together created the long-running CBC series The Scales of Justice. They talked almost every day and dined together at least once a week. George flew his Cessna to Arizona for winter vacations, just to spend time with Eddie who owned a house there.

For some years, George and I used to meet in the Coffee Mill, a Hungarian restaurant run by the lovely Martha, who was once married to a Hungarian wrestler called Laci Heczey. He wore dozens of bracelets and told hilarious stories about winning and losing wrestling matches in Turkey and farther East. I signed him to a book contract but, much to Martha’s sadness, he died before he and his ghost writer could finish the job.

George was a master of witty, elegant prose, an unusually well informed columnist, a novelist and a fine poet, a true Renaissance man. The Vancouver Sun once dubbed him “the closest thing to Alexander Pope we have”.

I worked with George on Final Decree, a novel about a man from Eastern Europe whose wife, unlike him, easily converts to the New World. The wife takes the children, the courts rob him of his home and he is driven to murder. It’s the kind of story George and I understood instinctively, but can be more difficult for those with no Eastern European baggage. There were some respectful reviews but most critics billed it a crime novel, rather than a morality tale.

Our conversations were usually in English, unless we drifted into Hungarian territory, Faludy, for example. Or Sándor Márai, the exiled novelist, essayist, diarist, whose 1942 book, Embers, suddenly became a 2006 bestseller in Germany, and elsewhere, long after the writer’s suicide. Both George and I kept his Diary (Napló) by our bedside for late-night reading.

Being a true Central European, George could recite Heine and Goethe in German, Apollinaire in French and Pushkin in Russian. Both of us had learnt Russian, unwillingly, in school in Budapest, but we both admitted that when reading Russian literature it was not altogether useless.

His next book, Vengeance, came to him after a series of clandestine meetings with a mysterious Israeli who claimed to have been part of the successful Mossad mission to avenge the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Despite, or perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the shadowy source of the story, Vengeance became an international bestseller and the basis of a made-for-TV docudrama, and of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 Munich. George was one of the script writers on The Sword of Gideon, produced by his friend (and mine) Robert Lantos’ Alliance Communications.

In 2005, we published Beethoven’s Mask: Notes on My Life and Times, George’s finest book in my opinion. By turns, comic and tragic, anecdotal, opinionated and bemused, it confronts full on the shibboleths of our time as the grim facts of the twentieth century unfold. With his acerbic comments, and short essays, draped around the events in the autobiography, he muses on the rise and fall of nations, on human follies and foibles, on Hitler and the Pope, on political correctness, pomposity, ignorance, anti-Americanism, nationalism, on Hitler’s Willing Executioners, on the scope and barbarity of the Holocaust, the future of the European Union, and even life and death.

George’s father had been an opera singer. Their home, even during early Communist times, was full of music and invited guests who could sing arias. Eventually, George’s father had to give up his piano together with his hope that the times would change again. In the Preface to Beethoven’s Mask, George quoted his father: “‘Europe is a carnival in Venice’, he offered, ‘with assassins dressed up as lyric poets. Butchers lurk in ducal palaces wearing Beethoven’s mask. The voice is Beethoven’s, but the hand is Beria’s,’ he said, name-checking Stalin’s secret police chief.”

In his columns for The National Post, George was never interested in the easy way. He had a perpetually questioning mind. He wondered whether the European Union had a chance of survival, since no organising principle held it together, with the possible exception of economics. He asked whether the International Criminal Court could ever be a genuine court of justice and supported the idea that men such as Saddam Hussein and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi should be shot once they were found.

He also wrote about Israel’s perpetually bad press, at least since 1970. Then when the refugee or migrant (depending on your point of view) crisis broke out, he made dire predictions about Europe’s ability to survive. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán built a wall and called in the troops to guard Hungary’s borders, George was the only columnist anywhere in the world in Orbán’s corner. In one of his last columns1 he said that a country “cannot accept foreign countries imposing an immigration model on it that would dramatically change its cultural composition”. Being a realist, however, he also charted the downward arc of Europe’s ageing and shrinking population, and the inexorable march as he saw it toward a new Eurabia.

In the way of all migrant-invaders throughout history, whether Hun, Avar, or Lombard, “the new immigrant is an invader”, he wrote.2 Accommodating 25,000 or even 50,000 in Canada and a million or two million in Germany will not solve the problem, he opined, because there are more than 50 million displaced people looking to settle outside their original borders.

He thought it was great that his most popular columns were the funny ones – like the one about the squirrel stealing his bagel. The most reviewed parts of his autobiography were the ones about his flirtatious, lousy driving Viennese aunt and his Zionist uncle.

A small group of us proposed George for the Order of Canada, an honour he almost declined because his friend, Conrad Black, had just suffered the indignity of having had his terminated.

You can’t retrieve an honour you have awarded”, George fulminated. “And you can’t retry a case in the court of public opinion, and that is what has motivated the Governor General’s committee,” he said.

In the end, George did accept the Order but by that time was too feeble to travel to Ottawa for the ceremony. David Johnston, the Governor General came to George’s home to present his richly-deserved award. Conrad, it seems, did not mind at all. He continued his weekly dinners with George even after George could no longer enjoy eating his dinner.

During the last months of his life, George asked to hear Eugene Onegin, also my favourite opera. He sang along (very croakily) with the soprano during the Letter Scene, a moment I tried not to spoil by laughing.

There are two versions of the quote about Hungarians and talent. The Robert Capa version: “It is not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian”, and the Alexander Korda version: “It is not enough to be Hungarian, you also have to have talent.” During the last few weeks of his life, George Jonas and I debated which of these two statements was more appropriate for the world we have known and why.

George had always written poetry. His first poetry collection, The Absolute Smile, was published in 1967 by the House of Anansi. A fellow poet, Margaret Atwood, was to be the editor of his second book, The Happy Hungry Man, but, as she recalled, it did not need much editing. “George’s work was already finished. In fact, it was already polished”, she wrote in her Introduction to the Selected Poems, George’s last book. It was not published until after he died. But his friends gathered at his Yorkville home in late December when the book was first printed and he could read and enjoy it. He spent a few moments with each of us, discussing the book, the shared past, in some cases the future – though not his own.

When it was my turn, George raised the possibility of a new book, a collection of essays or opinion pieces on the future of Europe.

A few of his friends read Jonas poems we loved on stage at Harbourfront. My choice was Landmarks, about his arrival in Canada. These are its last lines:

with cardboard trunks, torn clothes, needing a wash,

an evil-smelling strange boy, tall and thin,

had asked to spend the night. And god knows why

they took me in.

In hindsight, I think I should have chosen this:

I met God yesterday

He sat on his throne

We were both slightly embarrassed.

I have no answers for you”, he said finally.

I was relieved but tried not to show it.

I had no questions.



 

1  22 September 2015.

2  9 September 2015.




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