Under the Frog

Novermber 1955:

Tired of trying to crack the problem of the informer, Gyuri settled down to think about being a streetsweeper while he gazed out of the window at the countryside that went past quite lazily despite the train’s billing as an express. The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum that Gyuri popped in on long journeys. A streersweeper. Where? A streetsweeper in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn’t that fussy. Some modest streetsweeping anywhere. Anywhere in the West. Anywhere outside. Any job. No matter how menial, a windowcleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do it, just carry out your job and you wouldn’t need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn’t have to look at pictures of Rakosi or whoever had superbriganded their way to the top lately. You wouldn’t have to hear about gambolling production figures, going up by leaps and bounds, higher even than the Plan had predicted because the power of Socialist production had been underestimated. Being a streetsweeper would be quite agreeable, Gyuri reflected. You’d be out in the open, doing healthy work, seeing things. It was the very humility of this fantasy, its frugality that gave the greatest pleasure, since Gyuri hoped this could facilitate its coming to pass. It wasn’t as if he were pestering Providence for a millionaireship or to be handed the presidency of the United States. How could anyone refuse a request to be a streetsweeper? Just pull me out. Just pull me out. Apart from the prevailing political inclemency and the ubiquitous shittiness of life, the simple absurdity of never having voyaged more than two hundred kilometres from the spot where he had bailed out of the womb rankled.

The train went into a slower kind of slow, signalling that they were arriving in Szeged. This was, he knew from his research, 171 kilometres from Budapest.

Early November 1956:

Gyuri threw away his empty gun. If he needed another gun, he could pick one up off any street-corner, and carrying one didn’t do you any favours. ‘The Red Army won’t forget about its outing in Budapest,’ said Kurucz. ‘It’s been … well, people will write about us.’

Clinging to walls al the way home, Gyuri crashed into the British military attache, recessed in a doorway, observing the proceedings. The way Gyuri greeted him in English made the attache realise they were acquainted, though he obviously couldn’t place Gyuri. ‘Awesome, these new tanks,’ he said gesturing at a herd on the other side of Hosok Square, ‘those new guns, too, formidable rate of fire.’ Gyuri nodded because he was unable to add anything to the conversation. He merely smiled politely in the way one does when one’s country has been invaded by interesting new tanks. The attache was carrying an umbrella, Gyuri observed, as all Englishmen should. …

It was colder than usual for November, and it seemed much blacker at six than it should have been, as if the Russians had imported extra darkness with themselves and dawn had given up. There weren’t many trains running, but the Keleti Station had a train, greatly over-subscribed, getting ready to leave. It wasn’t a train taking people anywhere in Hungary, although nominally it had a Hungarian destination. Although no one said so, everyone knew it was the slow train to Vienna.

The centre of the city had quietened but as the train chugged out of Budapest, passing Csepel Island, explosions could be heard. Csepel, always referred to officially as ‘red’, since it was inhabited exclusively by industrial workers, was the last part of Budapest to hold out. They had a munitions factory. They had anti-aircraft batteries so powerful they could be used to turn most tanks into Swiss cheese. Their own leaders had told them to give up. They had been instructed to go to hell. Huge columns of smoke had hung immobile over the island all day as if pinned there. People who lived in Csepel had a reputation for tenacity, toughness and an implausible level of violence second only to Angyalfold.

Between these stations, it’s a terrific and extraordinarily funny book. Also very good is The Bridge at Andau, by the young James Michener.

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