Authors: Andrew Riemer
Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring
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Andrew Riemer is a well-known critic, academic and bestselling author, and is the
Sydney Morning Herald
chief book reviewer. He is the winner of several literary awards and he taught at Sydney University for many years. The experiences of his early years outside Australia form the basis of his award-winning memoir
Inside Outside: Life Between Two Worlds
. His other books include
A Family History of Smoking
This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012 First published by Collins/Angus & Robertson Publishers Pty Ltd in 1993
Copyright Â© Andrew Riemer 1993
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And in the good old days when there was still such a place as Imperial Austria, one could leave the train of events, get into an ordinary train on an ordinary railway-line, and travel back home
All in all, how many remarkable things might be said about that vanished Kakania!
The Man Without Qualities
HUNGARY AND ITS NEIGHBOURS IN 1991
SQ24 is scheduled to land at Vienna International Airport at 06.55 Central European Summer Time. This morning it has been delayed because of a late departure from Singapore and by head winds over India. The pilot apologises for the delay and announces that we will be in the terminal by 07.23. Below us an unremarkable landscape glows in the September hazeâneat rectangular fields, clusters of houses and, near the horizon, a sizable town with plumes of smoke snaking out of thin chimneystacks. A network of roads binds together fields, villages and town; they converge on a broader stripe, obviously an important motorway.
This could be almost anywhere in the world, except that a shimmering band cutting across the toylike symmetry and neatness must be the Danube, my destination. Yet nothing other than an uneasy trust in the miracle of aeronautical navigation and in the relaxed, confident sound of the pilot's voice as he assures us that we will reach our objective within the next three quarters of an hour makes me believe that that band of water is the Danube. From this height all great rivers look the same: the shimmering band below us could just as easily be the Moldau, the Rhine or even the Volga. I believe, nevertheless, in the way that a religious person believes in God or a crank in extraterrestrial beings, that we are floating above the Danube basinâabove Austria and Hungary, a world filled for me with the emblems of a powerful mythology.
I left the world unfolding below us in the morning sunshine almost forty-five years ago. It was a day of bone-numbing frost.
The bright disc of the sun shining in a pale blue sky set sparks in snow-covered fields and hills. Thirty or forty of us were shivering in a wheezing bus, heavily guarded by two GIs with their fingers poised on the triggers of their submachine guns. The scratched and crazed windows of the old bus were opaque, fogged up by the heat of our shivering bodiesâbut if you rubbed your sleeve against the glass you could observe (until the film of mist obscured the view once more) a white world, spotted here and there by a ruined farmhouse or a gutted church. What we saw was the Central Europe of 1946, torn apart again during the previous six or seven years by war, hatred and brutality. We in that shuddering bus were the fortunate ones, those on whom the gods had smiled, for we were on our way to Vienna airport (in all probability the same airport to which this humming machine is now hurrying) where a gleaming Pan American plane was waiting to convey us to New York and freedomâprovided, of course, that we reached the airfield and received permission from the Russians, who controlled that part of Austria, to take off into the icy sky.
My father had been quite friendly with some of our fellow passengers for several weeks. They were remnants (like us) of a polyglot worldâcitizens of Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the despised Balkan Statesâcountries which had, not so many years before, been the domain of the pompously styled âImperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Empire'. He had got to know them during the weeks he had patiently waited in the queue that formed each morning outside the hastily established Pan American office in the bomb-pitted and soot-blackened heart of the old city. Each day, from a grey dusk to the early dark of a winter afternoon, forty or fifty cold, anxious and disconsolate people stood about, stamping their feet on the hard-packed yellowing snow on what remained of the footpath, pulling the collars of their topcoats about their ears, and discussed, endlessly and circuitously, their terrible plight.
All these people had purchased, in Vienna, or in Budapest (as was the case with us), or in some other city or town, obscenely expensive tickets for the weekly flight to New Yorkâfor us
the first stage of a long journey to a new life in Australia. Their hopes and expectations were quickly shattered, or at least severely discouraged, once they discovered that possessing those tickets counted almost for nothing. Before they could board the gleaming bird of their dreams, they had to obtain elusive and mysterious cards, precious reservations slips and boarding passes that alone could ensure flight and freedom. So they waited and stamped their feet, trying to keep out the biting winds and flurries of snow, and discussed from one day to the next how best to bribe the mean-faced and rapacious officials behind the makeshift counter. No doubt they kept their best ideas to themselves, for inevitably their plight produced rivalry as well as comradeship. My father returned each evening to our ill-lit hotel room, shaking his head to indicate his lack of successâuntil inspiration struck him one day when he discovered the magic key to unlock that intransigence in the shape of half-a-dozen bottles of Hungarian apricot brandy.
The other occupants of the bus had obviously found their own means of securing those magical cards. The rivalries and suspicions of earlier weeks vanished in our anxious happiness. A murmur rose as we caught sight of the outskirts of the airfield and, a moment or two later, the squat, shiny machine standing on the tarmac. We were comforted by the sight of a group of American soldiers, each of them reassuringly armed to the teeth. Half an hour later we were strapped into our seats; the smiling airhostess distributed boiled sweets to protect our eardrums against the stresses of take-off. Then the engines started with a roar, the plane lumbered forward to the runway and began trundling along its length, apparently earthbound. After what seemed an eternity, it finally began to rise with much clattering and shuddering. We watched the fields and hills, the ruined buildings, the thin grey stripe of a road sink away below us, as we prepared for our long winter flight. Elated that we had at last managed to escape from this world, we were also terrified because none of us had ever flown before, and all entertained, therefore, dark suspicions concerning wings and God's intentions.
I have returned to this world several times since then: one furtive, distressing visit to Budapest, my birthplace, and several much more relaxed short trips to Vienna, the city of glitz and schmaltz. Each time, however, I have approached this world of memories and phantoms from the west, by the overnight train from Paris or along Western Europe's great network of roads and motorways. It now seems appropriate that in this palindromic year of 1991, I should be describing a spiritual palindrome by coming back to this world by a reversal of the way I left it more than half a lifetime ago.
The purpose of this visit itself has a poignant though potentially hilarious symmetry about itâanother instance of life's turning back on itself, retracing its apparently aimless path. I have been invited to spend some six or seven weeks in Hungaryâthat country of bad memoriesâto give a course of lectures on Australian literature and culture in various colleges and universities to young people who have, it seems likely, only the haziest notions of that distant, exotic and, for them, probably outlandish place. The enterprise itself is slightly odd, even eccentric; that I should be participating in the inception of a scheme supported by weighty governmental and academic instrumentalities is just as odd, though no doubt appropriate. For me the coming weeks are, nevertheless, filled with dangers with which I am becoming more and more preoccupied as this contraption glides lazily above the morning landscape, following the path of the winding river below us.
My greatest fear is that down there, in Hungary, my identity will be tested in an unwelcome and possibly embarrassing way. That fear is greatly increased as I become aware that my last ties with Australia are about to be broken. Boarding the plane in Singapore, I noticed a couple of faces familiar from the flight from Sydney. They also had loitered for five hours in the brightly lit antiseptic wilderness of Terminal 2, inspecting the depressing abundance of watches, cameras and calculators displayed in the glass cases of duty-free shops, and commenting on these insignia of end-of-the-century consumerism in their
flat, laconic voices. A tenuous link still exists, therefore, with the place where I know, more or less, who I am, for I have lived in Australia long enough to make it possible to call myself an Australian. It is true that this identity may have been assumed or invented, yet it is an identity of sorts.