Tuesday 18 August 2009

Tibor Déry - The Portuguese Princess

Tibor Déry was born in Budapest in 1894. As a young man, he was an active party member in the liberal republic under Mihály Károlyi. However, within a year Béla Kun and his Communist Party had risen to power. Hungary was declared a Soviet Republic and Déry was exiled. He returned in 1934, only to be imprisoned on numerous occasions by the right wing Horthy regime – once for translating Retour de L'U.R.S.S (he also translated Lord of the Flies and Kipling’s Naulahka into Hungarian). During this period he wrote his great (and ironically titled) epic novel, The Unfinished Sentence – an epic novel that is around 1,200 pages long.

He became a supporter of communism, but after being expelled from the Communist Party due to a “cleansing of Hungarian literature” in1953 he began writing satire on the regime and was a spokesman during the 1956 uprising. He wrote Niki: The Story of a Dog in the same year. His involvement in the uprising led to his imprisonment, but he was released in 1960. He died in 1977.

The Portuguese Princess (published by John Calder in 1966) is a collection of four stories (one of them divided in six parts) that centre on Hungary: predominantly during the German occupation of Budapest, its immediate aftermath and the post-war Communist regime. Despite the overtly dangerous or despondent circumstances he writes about, Déry writes vulnerable but humane characters, whose eccentricities and outlook on life amuse and often appeal. His style is deceptively simple in tone and structure, but contains passages of richly imagined or starkly effective description. This also means that his character-driven stories have a coherent, appealing narrative and that his themes are put across effectively.

This collection obviously would have had greater relevance during the more immediate post-war and Cold Wars periods. However, certain details that he describes remain strong in the public consciousness: the Jews being led to their deaths, and the heavy bombing of civilian areas, the effects of Soviet Communism. The descriptions of the war-torn streets of Budapest, under attack from foreign powers, which are meant to be their salvation, can be paralleled with the involvement of foreign nations in the Middle East in recent times. The dilemmas the characters face and the ways in which they deal with them – showcasing kindness, bravery, pettiness and selfishness – are realistically portrayed. Déry’s writing is both satirical and sympathetic, and he is an excellent observer of humanity and its foibles. He also provides a crucial insight into this period in Hungary’s history, of which not so many people now would have a clear understanding, such as the short-lived rule of the Arrow Cross Party, the immediate post-war situation in Eastern Europe, or the peculiar hypocrisies that existed within Hungarian Communist society.

The first story, the very short ‘A Charming Old Gentleman’, concerns Uncle Miko, who is exactly what the story’s title says. He is also a chronic embezzler: having lost his wealth a decade earlier, he insists on paying his own way by working himself, only to get sacked when they find him taking funds. In addition, he has a love of good food and beer, which he hides from his wife, who is happily convinced that he is looking after his digestion by eating light meals and taking a walk for his constitution each evening. This walk actually involves a trip to a local restaurant. He embezzles, but yet insists on working and not living off his son-in-laws; he lies to his wife, but does so to keep her content, and dreads telling her about his working ‘mishaps’ because she becomes ill. Miko’s dishonesty, used to fund his love for the good things, actually displays his obvious love and appreciation of all aspects of life – this, combined with his affectionate, mischievous nature endears him and his positive outlook on life to the reader.

‘Games of the Underworld’ begins on Christmas Eve in Budapest, 1944. The six stories focus on different characters inhabiting the “underworld” – citizens sheltering in the cellars of their apartment buildings from the near-incessant shelling. In the first, Frances Rusko, her daughter Evi and fiancé Janos, must shelter in the cellars when the Russians begin their bombardment. Frances and Evi share affectionate and witty banter; this and Evi’s description of cooking and eating duck shows a positive fondness for life which is juxtaposed with the shelling, the dead soldiers outside and the revolutionary activities of Janos’s brother. The second, ‘Dawn of December’ is mostly set in the cellars. As the walls shake violently, many of the characters get on with everyday activities. The old maid following her routine is both amusing and somewhat worrying: when the shelling stops in the morning, she cleans her flat, gets ready, and proceeds on her ‘daily inspection’ (complete with hen companion) of the deserted streets, noting a dead soldier – upon her return, she instructs someone to inform Uncle Lajos as to the street where his soldier son is lying dead. The attempts of the cellar dwellers to live normally, the description of the desolate urban landscape and the lady’s eccentric behaviour are alternately amusing and saddening. In ‘Horse’ an old man discovers a horse in a dairy. Not wanting the animal to be killed, he brings it down into the cellar. Most are split between killing and caring for the horse. This is paralleled with the of the Jews being rounded by the Arrow Cross in order to be killed, and the girl Juli’s decision that the horse ‘will not join the procession’ of those sent to the slaughter, whilst the citizens do nothing, leads her to commit murder. In ‘The Parcel’ the resident should obey a decree stating that if a citizen is found near a house, the residents must bury him in the nearest public park. Doing so would be dangerous, so they move him, pleased that the people in another building will have to deal with it – only for the body to be returned the next morning. Darkly amusing, this story looks at the petty behaviour of people, even when under siege. ‘Aunt Anna’ concerns the sudden arrival of Anna, whose outspoken manner sets her at odds with the others, who have quietly replicated their lives in the cellar and are frightened of speaking out. Anna sacrificing her life so that her deserter son can escape is the act of someone who refused to be cowed and took a stand against the war, and is contrasted with the passive inaction of the others. The last in the sequence, ‘Fear’, sees Aunt Mari and the widow Daniska moving into a safer cellar in a wealthier house. Existing class, political and religious tensions are raised; the wealthier residents continue to order those in lower positions around; those allied with the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party know they should hand over the two Jews with foreign passports, but fear being executed by the Russians by thus displaying their political sympathies; and the two women are terrified that the young deserter, now hiding in this building, may be found and denounced. The arrival of a group of rowdy, drunken Arrow Cross soldiers brings all this to a head.

The title story ‘The Portuguese Princess’ follows three orphaned children, Tutyu, Johnny and Peter. Displaced by the war and struggling to survive, these three unrelated children eke out an existence together. However, when they ‘treat’ themselves with the little money they have to watching a performance of the “Bloody Adventures of the Portuguese Princess”, the beautiful set designs, archetypal characters and moral undercurrent enthral the children, and allow them to be children for the first time in years. Whilst Tutyu feels an affinity with the princess, Peter sides with the villainous Black Knight, wanting him to abduct and kill. Thus Tutyu and Johnny finally see him for the vicious, heartless boy he has become and probably will remain, and part ways with him. The last story, the highly satirical ‘A Gay Funeral’ reveals a bourgeois society existing within a Communist state, in which the wealthy Mrs V. refuses to let her husband die, despite his crippling pain and desire to stop living. Before his death Mr V. claims that he has lived a lie, not making himself or anyone else really happy; he entreats his niece to appreciate life and to have a ‘sense of proportion’.


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