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Authors: Andrew Riemer

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The closer Hungary approaches, the less secure am I in that identity. In Vienna, where I plan to spend some days before setting out for the disturbing country of my birth, I shall be safe enough. There a measure of ambiguity will preserve my otherness, largely because my command of German is so poor that no-one could possibly imagine that I was once intimately tied to that world too. In Hungary it will be otherwise. Even though I speak a version of Hungarian that was in currency half a century ago, and even though my command of its idioms and vocabulary is restricted to the horizons of a child, it is a language I speak with some fluency at a commonplace and everyday level. Will that competence be sufficient warrant for Hungarians to claim me as their own? In that resides perhaps the deepest of my fears and misgivings.

I do not want to be claimed by Hungary. My antipathy towards it far outweighs any residual fondness for a half-forgotten country. It is true that I know next to nothing about the place, not having seen it for almost fifty years apart from a few feverish days nine months ago filled with the anguish of the past, a time of raw nerves and gloomy introspection. For people like me, though, places are capable of possessing implications of limitless evil. We often invest the ordinary and the commonplace with diabolic intent; we see in the most mundane activities the seeds of cruelty and barbarity. For us some places have been irreversibly poisoned, like those tracts of land where radioactive material was buried long ago. We suspect that dangerous influences may still lurk under a pleasant and welcoming surface. And because we have spent our lives far away from such places, we have elaborated a mythology about them—both nostalgic and infernal—that colours all our attitudes and prejudices.

God knows what experiences will swallow me once I take that dangerous and perhaps irrevocable step across the frontier into that contaminated world. Will I fall into a void, becoming neither one thing nor another, but remain suspended between possibilities, as I am now in this marvel of modern technology, which is descending towards its destination?


My fears and alarms are balanced by other, much more pleasant and exhilarating expectations. These weeks of anxiety and apprehension are to be spent in what is for me the centre and the focus of that fabled realm—three parts fantasy, one of experience—which I call by the familiar name of Europe, the land of heart's desire I often find myself longing for in Australia, that place at the other end of the world I now know as my home. I realise only too well that for many people that mythic word ‘Europe' implies worlds and experiences very different from those that have sustained my memories and fantasies during the years of my life in Australia. My Europe is that part of the continent which stretches from the Alps to the Carpathian mountains. We, the children of those towns and cities, hills and mountains, plains and rivers, believe with a passionate intensity that this world represents the essence of all that is contained within that magic word ‘Europe'.

There is at heart no inconsistency, I believe, between my addiction to this world and my fears and alarms about Hungary. Hungary is real and substantial, it was the site for hardships and experiences of the sort that have been chronicled countless times by the survivors of the great conflagration that swallowed this part of the earth in the 1940s. ‘Europe', though its images are lodged in an experienced past and are inevitably connected to the lives of those whom I still remember, is largely a country of the mind, fashioned out of nostalgia and fantasy. It is, nonetheless, just as real and substantial as the towns, villages and fields below us which are now becoming visible
in much more detail as we continue to lose altitude, approaching our destination.

I have only confused and discontinuous memories of that world, for by the time of my earliest recollections it had all but vanished. I remember it perhaps more vividly than if I had lived in it, or enjoyed its blandishments and experienced its pressures and its texture, through the myth world my parents lovingly elaborated in the course of their life in Australia. Those beguiling myths found their characteristic emblems in a strangely muddled collection of images which have persisted in my imagination—the sights, sounds, smells, social rituals and music of the Austro-Hungarian world.

That world was certainly not Hungary with its passionate introspection, its need constantly to reassure itself of its greatness and excellence, and its obsession with those lands to the east of the river Tisza, extending as far as Transylvania, the site of the true Hungary according to nationalist rhetoric, which was shamefully lost to Romania after the Great War. Nor was it the Austria my family knew, with its fierce Catholicism, its hidebound preoccupation with caste and rank, or an Austria of Tyrolean fantasies of lederhosen and schram-mel music. It was an entirely different existence, a fantasy realm, superimposed on the physical and political realities of those nations, which found its true location in a kind of extraterritoriality reflected by the characteristic images of Vienna and of the many cities and towns built in imitation of its imperial pomp and grandeur.

The inhabitants of those cities and towns—for that world which I know to be my true heritage was an essentially urban phenomenon—may have been Austrians or Hungarians, Bohemians or Slovakians through domicile and by virtue of various legal and legislative definitions. They may even have felt some pride in, or patriotism about those nations or regions. Yet they were essentially cosmopolitan people, discovering their identity in that supranational concept of the Austro-Hungarian spirit so assiduously promoted by their political masters, the ministers and advisors of the Emperor Franz Josef,
the monarch whose long reign coincided almost exactly with the florescence of that strange world.

This world was given the nickname ‘Kakania' in the closing decades of the Empire, as its pomp and its fantasies crumbled away into the disaster of the Great War. The name blended scatology and nostalgia. Kakania sounds romantic, an ancient duchy or quaint principality, one of those long-vanished territories or fiefdoms that came at length to be absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet was still remembered fondly. It was, however, cobbled out of a familiar bureaucratic abbreviation, ‘k.k.', standing for the phrase ‘
kaiserlich und königlich
' (imperial and royal), which was used to denote the dual nature of this world—the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, the fiction of the dual monarchy which, by virtue of those two ‘k's, sounds like
, that is to say, ordure, faeces or manure.

The inhabitants of this realm, those people who moved easily among its various linguistic and ethnic divisions—as did my family, who had roots in Austria and Bohemia as well as in Hungary—would have been shocked by such a scatologically insulting term. Indeed, until the shadows of the disaster that was eventually to engulf them began to darken their orderly and predictable lives, they did not feel threatened by its prejudices, exclusions and hatreds. In the time of my grandparents' young adult life—in the years before the gunshot at Sarajevo that was to spread its poison through this world—these people felt safe and comfortable: safer and more comfortable than their families had felt throughout the turbulent events of the nineteenth century.

Suspended high above the fields, villages and towns of this essentially mythic realm I can only wonder, knowing what became of this world and of the people who lived so confidently within it, at the naïve trust they placed in its stability and benevolence. That trust, like Kakania itself, was based on sentiment and folly. It was touchingly fragile, only too easily blown away by that gunshot, the echoes of which are still reverberating in Croatia and Slovenia on this sunny autumn
morning. (None of us knows at this time that in less than a year Sarajevo itself will once again stand as a symbol of the hatred and enmities which have always disfigured this part of the world.) Nothing could quell the fundamental and endemic violence of this world—not Kakania, nor the idealistic fable of universal brotherhood promoted by the grim-faced comrades, nor yet the very recently arisen dream of an American-inspired consumers' paradise.

My grandparents, and millions of their kind, believed fervently in that benevolent fiction. It was in turn bequeathed to my parents' generation, and to their children. For us the myth of Kakania grew weaker and weaker with the passing of the years. Two wars and appalling cruelty, not merely of Auschwitz and Treblinka but of countless other atrocities against almost every nation or race living in this troubled world, tarnished but did not corrode the conviction that it contained the essence of civility, of the good life at its best, despite the pain, despite its inhumanity. These were all fantasies, humanity's sad readiness to put its faith in illusions. Yet even for me, for whom that world is only a dim echo remembered from family stories, myths and anecdotes, and preserved in books and in music, its allure remains irresistible. In an hour or so, I tell myself, I shall (if all goes well) be setting foot once more on the cobblestones of Vienna, that city commemorated in countless cloyingly sentimental songs and ballads, which provided for many members of my family a sort of nostalgic hymnal—‘My Mother was a Viennese', ‘The Fiacre Song' and ‘Vienna City of my Dreams'.

I know only too well of course that modern Vienna, in this palindromic year, which also marks the two hundredth anniversary of Mozart's death, is a very different place from that nostalgic fantasy-city. Yet, as this great aeroplane begins to lurch towards the earth, the images of that Vienna are superimposed on my recollections of the actual and, therefore, inevitably disappointing city I have visited fleetingly on several occasions. These images are discontinuous and quite vague. They are probably indistinguishable from images of European
bourgeois life at the beginning of the twentieth century—the decades in which my family flourished despite the nightmare of a war that, they were convinced, was to be the last. That life attempted to preserve the manners and social rituals that distinguished the bourgeoisie from those below and also from those above during the closing years of the nineteenth century. Their life was, in all probability, governed by the same aspirations, goals and conventions as the life of their counterparts in Brussels and Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm, Milan and Belgrade. For people like me, the detritus of Kakania, those commonplace experiences, dreams and prejudices are unique—they are flavoured by the creaminess of Viennese cakes, by the tang of Hungarian spices, by the fragrant ham and frothy beer of Prague.

At the distance of many years, thinking about that vanished world—to the site of which the plane is alarmingly hurrying—such images of food and its associated rituals seem to sum up its intrinsic nature. Perhaps my family, and the social phenomenon it represented, elevated food to an almost sacerdotal level because of the restrictions placed on their lives in that caste-bound world, where social mobility and indeed the expression of individuality were severely circumscribed. In that rigidly stratified society upward movement was impossible; becoming
, sinking down through the strata until you were indistinguishable from your maid or the milkman, was feared with religious awe. You were confined in your niche as surely as the peasants on feudal estates, some of which persisted even into my lifetime. For that reason you had to make do with what you had, and enjoy the benefits of nature's bounty.

What scope these restrictions allowed those people seems to have satisfied them on the whole—or so it would appear from the perspective of the present restless and dissatisfied world. They accepted, often without question, arbitrary and apparently unjust restrictions. The professions open to them, the resorts where they could take their vacations, the parts of a city where they might live were all governed by rigid codes of conduct that they did not question. They always travelled in
second-class carriages, even though many of them could afford to be conveyed in the plush comfort of first-class, and even though some could scarcely afford a second-class fare. They saw it as their birthright: a mid-point between plebeian third and patrician first class. When they went to the theatre they would congregate in those parts of the house appropriate to their station in society. The restaurants they frequented were not those to which the great nobility or even the minor gentry of the Austro-Hungarian world flocked for its pleasures.

Yet for all this they considered themselves an essential part of that world. My Viennese relatives lived in a comfortable but undistinguished flat in a grey block in a grey street on the far side of the Danube canal, remote from the Vienna of legend and of tourist brochures. On their walks, when they went shopping or to the theatre, or to conduct a piece of business, they would often enter the magic realm of the inner city, that small section of a large and often dreary metropolis that provided material for many myths and fantasies. They would pass through the handsomely planted gardens of the Hofburg, the stronghold of Habsburg grandeur, and walk across the great courtyard into a network of streets where I too hope to be walking in a few hours' time.

In those streets they would walk past outward and visible signs of the world from which they had been excluded—aristocratic palais after palais, a roll-call of the great and powerful families of the two realms, especially that of the Esterházys, the proud lords of those borderlands where German-speakers (like my mother's family) came into often troubled contact with Hungarians speaking their barbaric tongue. Around these structures—chastely rococo or elaborately baroque—clustered purveyors of goods and services essential to the maintenance of aristocratic and patrician life, each with its imposing emblem bearing the double-headed eagle of the Habsburgs to signify the patent of imperial patronage. Even those of my relatives who lived in a somewhat provincial and decidedly raffish Budapest would have moved through a similar, though perhaps less clearly defined, world of restrictions
and exclusions that nevertheless—and paradoxically—ensured their well-being and safety.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
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