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Stories of RomeStories of Rome by Alexander Lenard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A memoir in two parts. The first is set in 1938, from his arrival in Rome to his discovery of a means of living there. The second part is set on 13th August 1943, the day the Americans bombed the San Lorenzo railway station. After Mussolini’s dismissal three weeks earlier, many had assumed that the war was over for Italy. That hope died in the raid.

I enjoyed the first part more, it is a natural narrative set in an pre-war milieu that reminded me of Between the woods and the water. The second narrative is more structured, reminding me of Ulysses as Lenard moves through a twenty-four hour period, using his daily interactions with his neighbours as a platform to sort through his memories of Rome under Mussolini in wartime, and his hopes for the future.

I enjoyed this book this immensely, because I found Lenard such sympathetic company. A polyglot who fully recognises the difficulty of learning languages: “A simple man will get his full vocabulary back relatively quickly, once he’s managed to master the grammar, but woe betide the man who has to relearn all the words from prep school, secondary school and university!”: he is fascinated by politics – “If you don’t understand gonorrhea, you won’t understand politics”; and by religion – “Not even God was satisfied with just creating the world, he had a book written about it…”, but humorously cynical about both.

Like me he looks at the world through the eyes of an exile, an exile from both Hungary and then Austria, whereas I am merely an exile in Hungary. I had to wonder how much his experiences of one culture influenced his perception of another. His observation about the Italian family; “the core of the community is your immediate family, which presents a unified face to the world while waging its own internal struggles” seems to me an equally valid observation about the Hungarian family.

Perhaps though the real clue to Lenard’s Hungarian origin lies in his attitude to food – the foundation of Hungarian family life. The two parts of the memoir are pinned together by the experience of slow starvation. Firstly through his lack of an income, and secondly through the lack of food in wartime Rome. This kind of hunger is described as a turning point in a person’s life as significant as first love, or the loss of talent; “…during times of famine, something breaks in the mechanism of the mind, or of the stomach, or in that mysterious “cavern under the bedroom of our brain” – the hypothalamus, and from that time on, the immemorial fear of starvation stubbornly turns into fear”.

Luckily, Hungary has always been a rich agricultural land. This has made the Hungarian fascination (obsession?) with food seem strange to me. But Hungarians like to say that they can always rely on their families, perhaps what they really mean is that they can always rely on food.

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Homo HungaricusHomo Hungaricus by János Lackfi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the fourth anecdotal study of the Hungarian national character I’ve read, and really, we’re not getting any closer to the mark. The mark is George Mikes’s anecdotal study of the British national character How to be a Brit.

An important element in a successful national character assassination should be the intent to kill. I remember how disappointed I was on reading The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Hungarians and finding it was not nearly as murderous as The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swiss. I put this down to the fact that TXGTTH was actually written by Hungarians, and reflected that this in itself was very Hungarian – in the revolving door aphorism kind of way.

Two books later, my high hopes of Englishmen taking up the challenge and doing in Hungarian self-satisfaction were disappointed. Bob Dent’s Inside Hungary From Outside never even sets out with vicious intent, he was obviously very happy living here. And although he had read the pages of the master, Colin Swatridge’s criticism in A Country Full of Aliens was only intended to be constructive. He was obviously sympathetic to the historical plight of Magyar Man (though I suspect the “very special Human Beings” he dedicated the book to were more likely to be Magyar Women, which led to further suspicions about why they couldn’t be acknowledged openly). But this latest read, Homo Hungaricus, IS murderous in intent. So much so that it had me wincing on occassion. The best piece in this vein is “Peacetime Antics” in which he points out that Hungary isn’t actually under foreign occupation at present, so all the subterfuge and sabotage is actually hurting themselves and not the oppressive powers that be.

But this suggests a explanation as to why TXGTTH was so anodine and HH so sharp. The former was published outside of Hungary and its intent is to present a good impression of Hungary to foreigners – Hungarians love that (cf. Russians, who don’t give a damn what foreigners think of them). HH was published in Hungary, to let other Hungarians know what a bunch of toerags they are. Hungarians may think that collectively they’re great, but individually they don’t really like each other. They get around this conumdrum by claiming the individuals they are presently disparaging are not really Hungarian at all, but in fact Jews, or Gypsies, or, in extreme cases, a mixture of both. All in all I’m surprised that HH made it passed the Hungarian amour propre censor into translation.

So full marks for the energy of the blows, but somewhat lower marks for choice of targets. It goes on to cudgel things Hungarians think are important, but foreigners not. There are three whole sections dedicated to Hungarians’ foreign language skills, and all of it spot on, but who cares? There is nothing on the vexed subjects of sexuality, gender roles or family life, topics which I still struggle with after 20 years residency. Most frustrating of all are the sacred cows that have still not been sent to the butcher; a) Hungarian contains an amazing number of curse words and constructions, and b) Hungarians are heavy drinkers. It doesn’t and they’re not. It seems one day I’ll just have to write my own national character assassination.

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