Apr 19, 2008

A Lighter Shade of Red

Like Atlantis into the ocean sunk the world of my childhood into history, washed over by the waves of free market capitalism. Yeah I know, no place ever stays the same, but the change that hit the Eastern Block was swifter than usual. I saw an interesting little German movie recently, Good Bye Lenin! It's set at the time right before and after the falling of the Berlin wall. The protagonist is a young man trying to keep the political changes secret from his sick mother, fearing that the shock would kill her. It's both funny and poignant. I think a lot of people in the west seem to think of the former Eastern Europe in James Bond cliches: everything grey and drab. Naturally, like everything, it's more complex. People laughed, had fun, the sun shone. I had a happy childhood, especially the first seven years, but of course by the time I was born things were loosening up, Hungary was on its way to "Goulash Communism." It was my parent's generation who wore the the brunt of hard core communism. I think of them as a generation that was short-changed. Their childhood was occupied by World War II, their youth taken over by an optimistic fervor, just to be squashed by ruthless reality. Hungary was hardly a democratic country before the war. Both my parents were from the country, from families of peasants, small town trades people. They were probably the first ones in their families ever to go to college, and they got their unexpected chance of social mobility only because of the communist regime. I believe they believed that indeed "fényes szelek" (sparkling winds) were blowing, they believed with a naive enthusiasm that a better world was coming and they could build it, not unlike early christians, or the hippies of the 60's. What happened to them was the same thing that happened to throngs of idealist so many times before or since: their fervor was used and misused, co-opted. One of my favorite books of all times, one that I would take with me on deserted island, is Master and Margarita by the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. The premise of the book is that Satan arrives to Moscow at the hight of the communist era to hold his Walpurgis Night Ball there. From there it breaks out to multiple narrative strands following multiple characters as their narratives criss-cross each others. There is also a story-within the story about Pontius Pilate. The style of the novel is magic realist - something we expect to come from South American writers, not Russians. It is amazing to me how the novel folds together the satire of communist absurdities, a love story, fantasy, allegory. My favorite part is the deadpan portrayal of the society and culture to the smallest absurd details.
A great movie from and about the are is Jirí Menzel's Larks on a String. It was filmed in 1969, but was banned for a long time. In the US it had a very limited release in 1990, but it was shown in Hungary in the 1980's. Menzel is known to every film student for Closely Watched Trains, but unfortnately Larks... is impossible to get hold of even on VHS.
In the end, despite of the resentment and sadness, I can't help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for that lost world. Also, since then I learned that the absurd is integral part of all political systems.

(Photos from my family ablum.)

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