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22 November 2019

In Search of an America – Part II


 

FIRST TRIP HOME

 

Seeing the world in the vacuous ways tourists do, maybe observing strange alien cultures from a cruise ship as an upscale variant of consumption, is one thing, but it is quite another and a lot more gratifying to be able to do it with a useful purpose like in the course of exchanging hard-gained information of value with other scientists in order to face coming ecological challenges better informed and prepared. Yet his dream was not to visit exotic places like Machu Picchu or Iguazu while working on the greening of the world at the same time. No, the one destination that haunted him that would arise, come to life, in his sleeping mind was more down to earth. It was always the forbidden land. The land one of whose great poets had admonished him, unforgettably, before he left it as a child:

 

A nagy világon e kivűl / There is no place for you anywhere
Nincsen számodra hely; / In this wide world, except here at home;
Áldjon vagy verjen sors keze: / May fate’s hand bless or punish you,
Itt élned, halnod kell. / Here you must live and die.

 

At this time, the Iron Curtain had not lifted yet, but cracks were slowly being forced open. People had gone home from the West and came back alive! But things were trickier for him because of his military-intelligence background. It was a curious, quirky incident that called for care if he wanted to pass through that Curtain by himself.

While he was stationed in Frankfurt, in charge of the Military Intelligence (MI) outfit there, an agent of the Hungarian Intelligence Service had defected to the United States and was being interrogated in Washington by the CIA. But by inter-agency agreement, the other services could participate in such a process if they had reason to be interested. So since he spoke Magyar, he was summoned home to be the army participant.

By the time he got there, rapport was already established with the defector, and the meetings were casual, almost collegial. But when he introduced himself as Mr Bentley, the man could not suppress a smile. “Good to meet you in person, Major Bethlenfalvay”, he offered. “Your dossier is well-known to me. It has some good snapshots of you in uniform.”

So there, this was a useful pointer; it meant that they knew about him. Now, you must know that once you were a member of the intelligence system in the Soviet Bloc (unlike in the Free World), you could not just quit and leave. You could disappear from view for a while, maybe as a mole or a sleeper, but you were married to the system till death parted you from it, and they, over there, were convinced that this was the way we in the West operated also. Going home to Magyarország [Hungary] as a private American citizen therefore could have become problematic for him; they would have thought his new science career was nothing but a cover. He had to find some officially sanctioned crack to creep through the Curtain.

A splendid opportunity for this was offered by a programme of the National Research Council that administered grants for exchange visits of scientists between the United States and Second World countries. He got a grant for a one-month visit easily. Travelling with a red, official passport with an invitational visa from the Magyar government in it and with a detailed itinerary prepared by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose guest he was officially, there could be no problem with encountering snoopy molestations by the Államvédelmi Osztály, the Agency for Homeland Protection, as they called their secret political police.

The Academy managed the trip almost too well: in thirty days, he gave some twenty talks at that many different institutes. All in all, it was a good experience. People were friendly, interested and well informed; their science, especially on the practical level, was no worse than ours. Even their instrumentation was remarkably advanced, for they had a windfall gain in those years: poor harvests in the Soviet Union forced the Russians to import food from Magyarország, which they were obliged to pay for in gold. The Magyars used it to buy Western hardware, and they quickly upgraded their research equipment with that, for their theoretical preparation had always been first class anyway.

[His wife] Marina came along gamely everywhere and was his support in times of stress, something that she has always been, going on fifty years now. That trip, however, was not very stressful but all the more emotional. Before it actually came about at last, during the long forty years of waiting and hoping, he had always felt like Jews must have when they greeted one another with the words “Next year in Jerusalem” in the course of their long years in the Diaspora. In these days of worldwide free travel, this feeling of being locked in – or in his case, being locked out – is difficult to conjure up. That you simply cannot go somewhere even if you have the means otherwise to do it is a failing, a frustration, and a pain the current generation is no longer familiar with, and the young ones therefore miss out on the exhilaration when the obstacles finally fall, the bar of the gate is raised, and the road opens up.

Like the bar of that massive roadblock at [the western border town of] Hegyeshalom, strong enough to defy entry to a tank. The border guards made them wait for an hour, fretting over his passport, but then they waved them through. They were at a loss at first about the most elementary details of travel on the far side of the Curtain: did state-owned hotels, restaurants and gas stations (if there were any) function by the same rules as in lands blessed by free markets? They just noticed then that they had not researched this problem; it simply had not occurred to them that there could be one. So by dark, they were lucky to find a room in a workers’ recreation centre in Esztergom, and a somewhat simple maszek (that stands for magán szektor, private sector) eating place served them the only food they had: frissensült. That consists of small pieces of pork and beef thrown into hot lard for a minute or two like French fries.

No matter, once the Academy had them under its wings the next day in Budapest, their physical well-being was well taken care of. They were put up in a luxury hotel on the east bank of the Danube, every bit as plush as comparable ones in the West. Since that was not the right way to experience Magyarország as it really was, they requested to be transferred to a modest little apartment on the hillside in Buda (west of the river) that overlooked the City of Pest below. They noted the pockmarks all over the walls of the buildings there, some with the bullets still sticking in them, reminders of the siege at the end of the last war and of the bloody uprising of 1956.

But his problems were not with housing but with communications. To his acute chagrin, he found that he had to give his talks in English. His knowledge of Magyar, of fifth-grade level in the first place, not only lacked all the technical terms of his trade but had gone dormant and rusty on the conversational level also. Fortunately, the language of science had become English everywhere in the world, and so he was gratified to find that they generally understood his message and were genuinely interested in its insights. The intricacies of soil biology were not new to them, but they were more of a theoretical abstraction for them and not a modem, applied agricultural reality. The name of the game there was still chemicals: fertilisers and biocides.

 

LÉVA REVISITED

 

Important as the professional aspects of this scientific exchange experience were for him and his career, let me skip over all of its remaining details, for he was about to come face-to-face with an existential trauma of entirely different proportions. Das dicke Ende kommt nach, so goes the saying in German vernacular: the bulky part comes last.

Business completed, the next stop on their Odyssey was none other than Léva. There was now a border to cross to get there, and for an avowed, unreconstructed national chauvinist and politically incorrect irredentist like him, it is no small matter to have to cross a foreign border before he can get home. Léva was now in Czechoslovakia [Levice, in Slovak]. The town is sturdy; its houses (in that part of the world) are built of stone and bricks. Such towns are old and rock-solid, one might say. There were some 15,000 people living there, in Léva, who all enjoyed the sweet melody of their mother’s tongue when he left forty years ago:

 

Magyar vagyok, magyar. /A Hungarian, that is what I am.
Magyarnak születtem, / I was born to be Magyar,
Magyar nótat dalolt a dajka felettem. / My nurse sang Magyar tunes over me.
Magyarul tanított imádkozni anyám / In Magyar my mother taught me to pray
És szeretni téged gyönyörűszép hazám. / And to love you, home of my dreams.

 

The rain-washed, clean air with the fragrance of lilacs and acacias wafting through the quiet, dreamy streets replete with the feeling of peace and harmony of childhood memories. Surely, if the reality of anything can be permanent and indestructible, these must be such things. Nobody can spoil them, erase them, or destroy them.

Ah, but yes, they could. And they did. The first thing he saw was that the old streets of the centre of town had disappeared. Gaping holes remained where those solid stone houses had stood. A few landmarks remained: the Catholic church with its two towers, the city hall, the school building. The villas of the Kákasor. They were left there to make this work of wanton destruction all the more confusing for him.

What happened was that his eye of the present, in its desperation, tried to compromise and to coalesce what it saw with what it knew that it should see, but his eye of the past was in shock; it denied reality and refused to cooperate. This was not urban renewal. This was the result of ethnic cleansing. The people were driven out, and their houses were then torn down. Where was the Boleman patika [pharmacy]? Where was the Nyitrai könyvesbolt, the bookstore, and bindery that published his grandfather’s novelettes? They must have been there somewhere as one walked down that slight rise from the Kákasor toward the nagymalom, the mill on the old main street of the town that was no more. Just before one crossed the Perec csatorna, the swift-running, tree-lined canal that provided the power to the great gristmill, the town’s main industry, one passed a quiet side street, the Petőfi utca with its hundred-year-old wild walnut trees whose stumps were still all there. That was where his grandfather’s house had once been.

But by some malevolent quirk of fate, it had not yet entirely disappeared; it had waited for him to be recognised and cried over. The foundations were still there, showing the layout of the rooms, the room where his mother used to play Chopin. A few of the trees of the small park, the great elm tree on the far side, beyond the rose garden, were still there. The sidewalk was not yet bulldozed away, although the corner house, where his mother’s piano teacher had lived, was gone.

In front of this house, there was an uneven place in the sidewalk that his mother had pointed out to him when they moved to Léva. She used to jump over this bump, she told him, when she was learning to walk. That must have been around 1905, when Léva got its first hardtop sidewalks. He used to jump over that bump also when he was five. And that bump in the asphalt was still there, whole and unchanged, exactly like he remembered it, but everything else was gone or broken. Instead, a half-completed, now deserted, huge cement structure, meant to become a high-rise obliterated what had been the street. It seemed to him that they had torn everything down to put that monstrosity there, but then they ran out of malice and abandoned it.

An old couple, country folk apparently on a rare visit to town, was walking along that still present sidewalk, and since they spoke Magyar, he followed them; he knew not really why. Believe it or not, this is what he heard the woman say: “Jaj Istenem, a tótok hogy ledöntötték az öreg Karafiáth doktor úr házát!” [My God, how the Slovaks have knocked down the house of old doctor K.!] The doktor úr had died in 1943, and now in 1984, people still remembered his grandfather! She might have been a patient of his. But he was in such shock that he did not stop them. He was just crying like a child.

And over this nightmare hung like gun smoke over a battlefield the acrid reek that the razing of old structures leaves behind. For a moment, he was passing through Vienna again after that bombing raid. The fine particles of cement and other debris eventually settle out of the air, but every slight gust of wind swirls them up again, and so they hang on for a long time like a curse over a haunted house.

They did not linger. The old Denk Hotel with its twelve rooms and one bathroom down the hallway still stood but was closed, and in the new hotel of the newly emerging Slovak town, they had no room for them. They got into their Lancia, the big car that Chris, Marina’s younger brother, had lent them, to head back to Icking via Nyitra, Szenc, Pozsony, Vienna, Linz and Werfen, through all the memorable stops of that trek of the past into a then unknown future, when the world was still the unexplored promise of an America.

But since this is the first mention of Chris, let me just say here that he will come up again. He is the kind of guy who says: “So you are going to Hungary for a month? You will need a car. Why don’t you take mine? I’ll ride the bicycle to work while you are gone.” That is the kind of bro-in-law a man needs. Always helpful, generous, good-natured, bright-humoured, self-deprecating, tolerant of other peoples’ shortcomings, and above all, willing to laugh at himself. Marina talks to him for half an hour across the Atlantic in these latter days every other night. He reports on the snowstorms in Bavaria, while here, in the shadow of Bishop’s Peak, the apricot tree in the front yard has already finished blooming.

When the time came, they flew home again. He, with a newfound understanding of what it means not to be at home anywhere. This awareness had been there, lurking below the surface all along, but now it had moulted and emerged fully like a night-flying moth, like the halálfejes, that had been incubating over winter in the moist darkness of its underground pupa shell. Ah, the uncritical, accepting identification that people are blessed with who are born, for better or worse, to be raised into an unquestioning commitment to the same ways and values of home for an entire, unqualified lifetime!

(The present excerpt as edited by Éva Eszter Szabó of Hungarian Review is from Chapter 9 – The Biologist by Gabor Bethlenfalvay, In Search of an America. An Introvert on the Road, Xlibris, 2011.)




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