By Raphael Rothstein (USA)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Budapest -- Ilona Rachidi, a tall, slim and rather severe-looking woman in her early 50s, was organizing a section of mail-art files when the visitor arrived. He was accompanied by a local girl, a pretty student who was acting as his guide and translator.
He was not unexpected, but neither Ilona nor her partner, Gabor Buchler, knew exactly when he would arrive that week. An acquaintance in New York had e-mailed a short note of introduction.
Ilona’s greeting was polite, but not friendly. It was her practiced professional demeanor whenever she dealt with people in English or German, a manner Gabor called korrekt. Often people were put off by it, especially men who were physically drawn to her and then disappointed by her apparent lack of humor and warmth and her dogged refusal to flirt or banter. There were other men for whom her stiffness and unapproachable air were intriguing and challenging in such an attractive woman, blessed with large hazel eyes, high cheekbones, a delicately molded nose and well-shaped lips.
Although Gabor was a nice-looking, kindly and outgoing man whose English-- although not as good as Ilona’s -- was adequate, it had by unspoken agreement come about that Ilona would always be the first to greet and size up clients and writers from abroad.
They were both wary of strangers. Suspicion was a natural feeling for them after having lived through years of Communist rule.
Gabor was considerably older than Ilona and had even more experience with repression, secret police, informers and an overall atmosphere of fear and distrust. He was also more familiar with the local demimonde of intriguers, poseurs, petty criminals and all manner of louche and shady types.
The visitor was a middle-aged American journalist specializing in cultural topics. He explained that he was working on a substantial piece about contemporary art in Budapest and had heard of their archive devoted to avant-garde and contemporary movements. He knew of their interest in postwar Dada, existentialism and Fluxus, as well as more recent schools like conceptual installations, video and digital works, pop art and whatever the new, new thing was. Gabor and Ilona prided themselves on curatorial inclusiveness.
The journalist was short and portly and exuded an air of self-importance. Ilona could tell that his clothes were expensive and reflected a trendy, casual style, running to fine- woven wool and tweed, cashmere sweaters, soft, fine fabric shirts, silk scarves and corduroys or jeans accommodated to even the most unfortunate body type by costly, skillful tailoring. His appearance was what the French call bobo – bourgeois-bohemian. Ilona thought he was at once splendid and ridiculous; a squat, pretentious man with a good eye for color coordination as evidenced by his choice that day of a wheat-colored jacket, ochre shirt and tan, wide-ribbed corduroy slacks.
He was attentive as she showed him the various sections of the crowded rooms. Gabor, busy in one section of the suite, nodded hello when they passed through. The journalist showed interest in the many catalogues of the different shows, some dating back to the early decades of the 20th century. Ilona was surprised when he asked to see the catalogue of a local exhibit of some years before. It featured the work of collage artists who had been suppressed under the Communists.
“But why would you want this?” Ilona asked, her tone distinctly challenging.
“I heard it was an interesting show,” the American said.
“But,” Ilona said, “none of these artists ever became well- known abroad. In fact, it was a pretty mediocre representation.”
“Really?” the American said, “I would have thought that some of them, like Sóos or Tihanyi, were worth noting. I would like to have the catalogue if you can spare one. I will gladly pay.”
“It is not a question of money,” Ilona said, “I just cannot understand why any of these artists would interest you.”
“I just heard it was something worthwhile.”
“Who told you this?”
“I just heard it or read it somewhere.”
“I am sorry,” Ilona said. “It is not available.”
“Too bad. I would have liked to have seen it. Well, thank you for the tour.”
Ilona nodded and Gabor at that moment came to the door to politely shake the visitor’s hand and say goodbye.
“He was definitely after something,” Ilona said to Gabor after lighting a cigarette. Smoking was not allowed in the office and they would often have coffee at a café next door where Ilona would smoke and they could talk freely away from the archive’s secretary and research assistants.
Gabor could see how agitated she was and he, too, wondered about the American writer. What did he really want? Nevertheless, he thought Ilona, as was often her way, was overreacting.
“He’s not from here.” Gabor said. “He just heard about that exhibit and was curious. It did get some attention at the time.”
“He’s a Jew, that journalist,” Ilona said, her hands busy with her cigarettes and coffee cup.
“So,” Gabor said, “I’m also Jewish.”
“Most people don’t know that Gabi. You’re not very Jewish.”
“Believe me, those to whom such information is important know what I am.”
“This is different. A Jew looking for something. A Jew on a quest. Very determined.”
“A Jew on a quest?” Gabor said. “Sounds a bit anti-Semitic.”
“You know I am not anti-Semitic, Gabi. That’s ridiculous.”
“Yes, I know Ilonka. You aren’t an anti-Semite according to my favorite definition: ‘someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.’ Still, ‘a Jew on a quest’ sounds sinister.”
“Well, I know he’s after something.”
It disturbed Gabor to watch her deeply inhale as she smoked. “But why didn’t you give him a catalogue? We have plenty and it doesn’t mean anything.”
“I didn’t want to encourage him. He’s looking for something and I have bad feelings about it.”
“Ach, Ilonka, we have bad feelings about so many things. We did what we did. This has been our life.”
“That’s in the past, finished. Our lives are different now.”
“Yes,” Gabor sighed and sipped the last of his coffee. “So different now.” He smiled and looked at her. They were no longer lovers, but he still felt a great deal of affection and fondness for Ilona. Her beauty never failed to stir him.
“Now everything is good, but a bit boring don’t you think?”
“Better to be bored than wretched. Don’t be foolish, Gabi, you remember the fear. Always fear like a tumor in your stomach.”
No more was said and they returned to the office. They had always been good at ending arguments quickly and never reviving past quarrels and disagreements.
They had been partners and collaborators for a long time. He missed the physical intimacy and closeness of earlier times, but had reluctantly become resigned to the present arrangement. It had been Ilona who ended their sexual relationship and after several subsequent affairs, Gabor had taken up with a woman closer to his age, a widow who was pleasant and attractive and, thankfully, quiet and independent.
He did not complain, but he still desired younger women. He dreaded exposing himself to possible rejection and humiliation in their pursuit and was cautious in making approaches. He feared appearing ridiculous, but he still savored the stirrings of arousal when he saw lovely girls all over Budapest , a city that boasted a high degree of female pulchritude.
Gabor thought that centuries of tribal and ethnic intermingling had resulted in a winsome female prototype. The keen edge of physical longing was for him an affirmation of life. He knew that when he no longer felt sexual desire he would really be old and close to death.
As for Ilona, he suspected that by changing lovers often she was desperately attempting to find assurance that she was still beautiful and irresistible to men. She was, indeed, still a striking woman who managed to retain a youthful figure and long, shapely legs. Although she no longer had the bloom of youth, her skill with makeup enhanced her lovely face. She also took great pains with her coiffure and dressed stylishly in excellent taste.
Ilona found Gabor’s randiness amusing and often good naturedly chided him for his constant and obviously lascivious glances at women. She called him a “dirty old man” and he would respond, “You, dear, you should know.”
He liked to flirt and she always indulged him. There was a pretty waitress at Café Gerloczy where they often lunched. Gabor would always talk to the girl about her studies and other matters. The waitress, Sheila, had a disarming smile, was cheerful and witty and seemed to enjoy her exchanges with Gabor.
“Why,” Ilona would say, “do you always ask her about admirers? Of course she has boyfriends. She’s young; it’s natural.”
“I enjoy listening to Sheila,” Gabor said. “It reminds me of when I met you, Ilona.” He gently took her hand. “Of course, you always had men after you.”
At such times he wanted to hold her as he used to. Ilona smiled wistfully and moved her head in a slight nod. The moments after love making had been so precious, he thought. They were closest then and would tell each other things that no one else knew. Sharing secrets in their deep intimacy, recumbent and relaxed.
He often would glimpse some aspect of Ilona that was new to him, a hitherto unknown facet of her personality. It could be a little jealousy of another woman or attraction to a man she had met or disdain for someone he thought they both held in esteem.
She did like to hear about the women he fancied, but she was puzzled by the omnivorous quality of men’s desire. How they could imagine sex with so many different women, even the most implausible or unapproachable.
Their love making had for a long time been satisfying, but Ilona found herself becoming bored with its predictability. Sometimes, by movement or gesture, she altered their routine. Even though Gabor did not mind when she suggested an innovation or guided his hands to a particular place, her initiative was still not enough to completely satisfy her or subdue her mounting interest in other men.
Gabor was gentle and solicitous and responsive to her hints, but he no longer excited her and she knew that men closer to her age were available and several had sought her company. Gabor knew from long experience that this could not be argued. Ilona did not want to deceive him, so she said she would no longer sleep with him, but that they would remain partners and, she hoped, friends. Friendship, Gabor knew, was easier to sustain than love. He had known rejection before; it is inescapable and comes with the territory of love affairs.
“It happens with age,” he said to her. “I understand you, but I will miss our togetherness. I did give you pleasure, no?”
“Of course you did.” She hugged him. Gabor knew better than to plead.
“Yes,” he said, “it arrives with age, this kind of situation. I always knew I would eventually lose you. This happens. Love does not stay.”
“I will always love you Gabi. That will not change.”
“But,” he said, “we will not be lovers. Language is funny.”
They had then sat silently for a bit and then Ilona said,
“Don’t be angry with me Gabi. It is just the way I am. You know me, I have to be true to my instincts. So do we go on as partners, like before?”
Despite his great disappointment he accepted the way it was now because they worked well together, complimenting each other’s strengths. The resource they had developed was unique and was much appreciated by curators, art critics and historians, as well as gallery owners.
Their archives, annotated catalogues and registers of Hungarian, European and even North American avant-garde artists was an acknowledged and authoritative reference and an indispensable aid in establishing reputations and, consequently, market value.
Subscribers and grants were abundant.Their frequent e-mail updates and special projects helped their grateful correspondents create and maintain the impression that they were totally au courant with the latest trends and enabled them to talk convincingly of past and current styles and whatever was emerging and being talked about.
They had no further visits or communication from the American visitor whom Ilona had decided was really a CIA agent.
“CIA, CIA,” Gabor mocked. “It’s like the old days when everything was blamed on the Americans and CIA and their West - European and British toadies. But Ilonka, no one has clean hands. Everyone is complicit. There are just degrees of evil and great and minor monsters all over the world.”
His air of resignation was, to Ilona’s thinking, typical Hungarian world weariness.
“Yes,” he would say, “we are weary; we’ve had too much history. Let’s take it easy now. This new Europe is nice, even if the old excitement is gone.”
They both saw that it was a good time for Hungary , which had suffered for so long, always backing the wrong side in every war and conflict, a party to abortive revolutions, disastrous compromises and entanglements. Inevitably, the outcome was a loss of territory, deprivation and brutal occupation. Different regimes and economic crises had caused vast suffering and dislocation.
By contrast, they thought the new European Union was a wonderfully peaceful and prosperous arrangement. There was money to travel in Europe for conferences and even beyond, to such places as Egypt , India and China .
And yet there persisted a certain discontent. In the old days there had been an air of adventure and struggle providing an element of excitement and, despite the tension and fear, a certain measure of fulfillment. Ilona and Gabor understood that adversity is a catalyst to art.
Now things were predictable and easy. A great deal of art nowadays was ordinary and mediocre, uninspired, and certainly not worthy of being thought avant-garde or revolutionary. Gabor spoke of the irritating grain of sand that spurred an oyster to produce a pearl.
But despite their well-being and success, they felt a constant dread that some embarrassing incident from the past would come to light and they would be exposed.
These days there was so little intrigue apparent to Ilona and Gabor. Everything was ostensibly correct, as if German standards of work and probity had achieved hegemony over all other European ways.
In the old regime nothing was ever clear except endings. Day-to-day things were murky, a life where innuendo and intrigue, betrayal and corruption, were commonplace.
Slogans, euphemisms and cant were the lingua franca. One did not express opinions or press for the truth. One just got on without asking too many questions. But there was humor, always humor. So many people who could travel abroad defected that it gave rise to a popular joke: “How do you define a quartet? The Budapest Philharmonic after a tour in the West.”
Ilona had originally been Gabor’s apprentice, coming to the archive when it was just a small part of the gallery called Art Depot and was only a shadow of what it would eventually become.
The first AVH Secret Police approach had come during an ambitious show Gabor and Ilona had organized to display artists who had had little exposure and were largely unknown to both critics and the public.
It attracted large crowds and then the unwelcome attention of the culture ministry whose representatives were frequent visitors, taking photographs and carefully noting the titles of works and the names of artists.
The work itself was a mixed bag of paintings, drawings, sculpture and poster art. There was no overt political content, but a good deal of what was displayed might be thought dissident if only because it was not in the officially approved realistic and inspirational style.
Vivid colors in paintings, heroic depictions of struggle and proletarian themes were praised in this regime. Abstract was unwelcome because, as the minister of culture declared, “Abstract art is just that, abstraction – a deviation from the true revolutionary path. Separateness and dislocation, vagueness and confusion – not concrete reality – are the properties of abstraction, and these tendencies are to be scorned and rejected.”
The official attention was disquieting to Ilona and Gabor. Istvan Tidhar, ostensibly a functionary of the Ministry of Culture, but who was rumored to work for the AVH, was a genial type who visited the show several times.
One afternoon he came by and invited Gabor for coffee at one of the city’s finest cafes. Tidhar was a thin, neat man who always wore dark suits and some sort of sleeveless sweater, even in warm weather.
When they were seated, he ordered coffee and strudel for both of them and then busied himself with his pipe. Once they had been served and Tidhar was satisfactorily drawing on the black, lacquered stem of his large-bowled briar and exuding smoke, he talked about the exhibit, praising Gabor for its broad reach and inclusiveness.
“We had no idea such creativity abounded here in our dear nation. You are to be congratulated.”
Gabor nodded in acknowledgement. “You are kind. It is just an attempt to show something of the contemporary scene.”
“You have succeeded admirably,” Tidhar said. “The minister and the commissars were fascinated. So much creativity in our progressive society. It is reassuring.”
“I saw your people taking notes and photographs. Is there to be some kind of register?”
“Register? Dear Buchler, I wouldn’t use such an official-sounding term. Just to be au courant, you know, just to keep tabs on trends and styles.” He smiled at Gabor and urged him to have more coffee, which was superb at Le Chat Noir, the last of Budapest ’s grand Art Noveau-style establishments with dark wood paneling, tile floors, intricately designed tables and chairs and a magnificently ornate and gleaming espresso machine. A brass Hapsburg eagle was proudly mounted on top of the apparatus, its pipes and valves polished to perfection.
“Art is so vital to our lives, Buchler, and you and your charming assistant, Ilona Rachidi, are so devoted to it. Art, yes, wonderful, but not art for art’s sake. No, not in our society. Art must express, but it must also serve.”
“Serve?” Gabor said. “Surely a work of art exists for itself. It reflects the artist’s experience. It is personal and unique.”
“Yes of course my dear Buchler.” He tamped down the tobacco with a small metal device and re-lit the pipe. “ But it must also serve the people. The revolution goes forth and the people must be inspired. Art can delight and move people, reach their emotions, but it must inspire, above all inspire. The muse inspires the creator and that spirit must reach the people. No?”
Gabor nodded his assent. He knew it would be prudent to keep his thoughts on artistic freedom to himself. “It is good Commissar that you have this appreciation of artistic effort. We are grateful.”
“My dear Buchler, Gabi, you must not call me commissar. I am an equal. You must call me Istvan. Please not so much formality. Yes, art is supreme, but there are ultimate limits. There cannot be unbridled license. Artists must respect the people and know their place. Loyalty to the revolution is paramount.”
Gabor could now discern the direction of the conversation and the reason for Tidhar’s invitation. He had given up smoking long ago, but now wished for the comfort of a cigarette. The fragrant smoke steadily billowing from Tidhar’s well-burnished briar was stimulating his desire for nicotine. He sipped the second cup of coffee and looked expectantly at the official.
“Artists are a lively bunch, are they not Buchler?”
“There are all types, like in every group.”
“No, I don’t agree Buchler. Artists are individualistic, they like their own way and they can be opportunistic, thinking themselves above the moral order. It is egotism, this hubris.
“Look at your great Picasso, a believer in world peace, a progressive and sympathetic to our true Socialist revolution. But in Paris he made his peace with the German occupiers. He did nothing to save his dear friend Max Jacob from the Gestapo. Poor Jacob, whose writing did so much to establish the great Picasso, died in an internment camp. Picasso did nothing.”
“Artists are men, leaky vessels like all of us,” Gabor said.
“Quite so,” Tidhar said, “and they must be watched because they can be dangerous if left completely on their own, unobserved.”
“Of course, Buchler.” He pointed a finger upward in a cautionary gesture and looked closely at Gabor. “Think. They are in contact with other artists, they have acquaintances abroad, follow trends and innovations. They can even knowingly or unknowingly be in the service of unfriendly and enemy interests.”
“But all the artists I know are Hungarians. They love this country. The older ones suffered when they were young, like so many others, during the war. They would not hurt their own country.”
“Perhaps so,” Tidhar said, “but artists can be naive and are sometimes easily misled. I must go now, but we can talk more about this. I think we have established a rapport.” He smiled once again and called for the check.
Gabor thanked him for the excellent coffee and pastry, but said nothing more. A few days later Tidhar appeared as Gabor and Ilona were closing the gallery for lunch. He invited them to a nearby restaurant and spoke of the regime’s sympathetic interest in the arts and the social responsibility of artists.
He said what was being created at present was fascinating and merited close attention, but that the officials responsible for this area could only do so much and depended on experts, like Gabor and Ilona, to keep them apprised of what was going on.
Tidhar made it seem innocuous, just a question of observing and gathering samples of work, which was easy to do as part of their gallery operation. “Just do what you are doing: cultivate contacts with artists and note their activities.”
He did not threaten and never alluded to what might happen if they refused. Nevertheless, they were aware he knew of their vulnerabilities: Ilona’s aged parents, living in government housing and dependent on their meager pension and public health care. Gabor’s son from a previous marriage, who was doing well at the university, was subject to ministry of education certifications.
Then there was the gallery itself and Gabor’s comfortable apartment, which was located in a good building in a desirable section of Pest, near the old Jewish quarter.
“It’s just a question of keeping tabs on things.” Tidhar said. “You will be rendering the state a valuable service.”
He had finished eating and was lighting his ever-present pipe. “We are all for free expression, but there are limits. You wouldn’t want reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, Fascists and Zionists exploiting any weakness.”
He suggested they meet a few times a month. “Nothing fussy or formal. Just coffee and conversation.”
Afterwards, they barely spoke of their misgivings. They knew they had no choice but to go along with the arrangement if they wanted to survive and carry on their lives.
Besides trends and current styles, their informing covered such subjects as who was interested in going abroad, what exhibits were afoot and which artists were somehow in touch with counterparts in the West.
Although they relayed the information orally, Tidhar took copious notes and they were sure that files were assembled. It was necessary for them to think that no one was really harmed by their informing. They were assured that if anyone was detained it was for a short time and there was no question of torture. And if certain artists were denied permission to travel abroad, it was a hardship shared by most citizens.
And so for years they had sold and collected paintings and graphic art, arranged shows, annotated other exhibit catalogues and maintained a first-class archive of dossiers concerning every avant-garde artist in Hungary . Their brief did not extend to recognized government propaganda artists or traditional, decorative folk art.
The sessions with Tidhar continued until 1989, when the Russians left and the Communist regime collapsed. Tidhar was nowhere to be seen and no one else contacted Gabor and Ilona. The payments also stopped. One did not make inquiries into anything regarding the old regime. A new order came into being and everything that had gone before was denounced and discredited.
The Berlin Wall came down, the borders opened and one could travel freely to the rest of Europe and beyond. In a short time, journalists, artists, curators, and dealers from the major cities were contacting them for background information and documentation regarding contemporary Hungarian artists whose work was being noticed abroad.
They were paid well for their services and found further income and encouragement from America and European foundations. The European Union, in particular, seemed to have generous funding available to support all manner of artistic institutions. They constantly received invitations to conferences and shows abroad, often with travel expenses and stipends included.
For quite a while they felt amazement that the Russians were actually gone and the hated regime and the AVH were also finished. All kinds of exhibits and art journals were appearing now with nothing to restrain the outpouring.
It was a heady, exciting time and they worked hard to keep abreast of all that was current. The atmosphere exhilarated them, but always there was that question of Tidhar’s files. Where were they now? Someone, Gabor often thought, but never said to Ilona, is bound to find them one day.
They sometimes discussed moving their operation to Prague or Berlin, which were currently more cosmopolitan, trendy, and important in international art commerce than Budapest . They both spoke German and found these cities appealing and stimulating. But Gabor, even more than Ilona, felt rooted in Hungary and so they stayed. They closed the gallery and concentrated on the archive, working out of a modest suite of rooms off the fashionable Andrassi Boulevard .
There was also a notion of responsibility. They both possessed a sense of mission about their work, as if they could somehow make amends for their past betrayals by protecting the quality and integrity of their project.
Every so often a well-known writer or intellectual was named in one of the former East-bloc countries and charged with having once served the secret police. There were many revelations, including an accusation that the novelist Milan Kundera had been a police spy when he was a student in Prague in the 1960’s. Both Gabor and Ilona were aware of these developments but, as was their way, nothing was said between them.
After lunch, when the weather was good, Gabor liked to take long walks. Sometimes he would cross over the Danube by one of the bridges to Buda and walk among the hills. It was during one such outing, as he was passing the majestic Gellert Hotel, that he saw a man his age waiting for a taxi.
He immediately recognized him as his childhood friend, Tibor Feldman. He had last seen him during the anti–Communist uprising in 1956 when Tibor and his family, along with tens of thousands of others, were leaving Hungary , fleeing to the West.
Now they were both stunned by the encounter. So many years had passed, almost a lifetime. They sat in a café near the river and tried somehow to catch up with each other.
“Why, Gabi, didn’t you leave in ’56? So many Jews and others did.”
“My parents weren’t well,” Gabor replied. “They couldn’t leave like that, so we stayed. They’re both gone now. So we stayed and now look at you, an American.”
“Well, there’s something to be said for it. We had shops and then got into buildings and real estate like a lot of our landsmen. We’ve done all right, one mustn’t complain. So how did you manage all these years? It must have been tough.”
“Well, I was teaching at the university and I had a small gallery. We managed. Somehow it worked out.”
“But now,” Feldman said, “you’re doing well.” He brought his cup to his lips and Gabor noticed that his one-time friend’s finger nails were manicured and buffed. Also that he was dressed well, wearing a nice blazer and a cashmere sweater. He tried to picture the intense and somewhat awkward young man of so long ago.
“One does what one can, Tibor, no?”
Feldman nodded, “C’est la fucking vie.”
“I like your version,” Gabor said.
“Improving on the French; it’s the American way. We improve everything.”
“You like America , don’t you, Tibor?”
Feldman shrugged. “It’s okay – been good to me. It’s a really fascinating place. Anyone can succeed there. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what kind of an accent you have. I’ve been there a long time. It’s home.”
“And here, Budapest , how do you find it?”
“Still lovely and quite pleasant now that the Ivans are gone – drunken louts.”
They spoke of old friends and other times. Gabor found it strange that Feldman was now more at home in English and had to search for words in Hungarian.
“And imagine,” Tibor said at one point. “I used to write poetry. Now I’ve lost my Hungarian and I speak English with a dreadful accent. The plight of the wandering Jew.” He held Gabor’s card and read it aloud, “Art Depot.”
“Silly name,” Gabor said. “We liked the idea of something industrial, like a warehouse. That was a kind of vogue when I started the gallery. But now I just maintain an archive and a research center.”
“Now I see the connection,” Feldman said. “There’s an American journalist staying at the Gellert. I see him at breakfast and he mentioned visiting your archive – ‘Art Depot.’”
“Yes,” Gabor said, “what do you make of him? I don’t remember his name, but Ilona, my partner, has his card.”
“Bloch, Joel Bloch,” Feldman said.
“So he is a Jew.”
“Yes, of course,” Feldman said. “Did you think he wasn’t?”
“No, it’s nothing. I didn’t know his name and I wasn’t sure. It doesn’t matter.”
“Since when, my dear old friend Gabi, does it not matter? It has always mattered, especially here in our fatherland.”
“Did he say what he’s after?”
“Just writing a general piece on the current Hungarian scene. I don’t think he has another agenda, as they say. Why so suspicious?”
“It’s nothing. Nothing. Ilona and I were curious about him.”
“I wouldn’t take him too seriously,” Feldman said. “Just a pumped- up little dilettante. There are many in New York like him. He’s the kind of person who knows everything. But that’s all he knows.”
Gabor laughed. He recalled that Feldman always had a good sense of humor and was even witty at times.
“Well, Ilona thought he was after something, I mean beyond what he says he’s writing.”
“You mean digging into the past? Don’t worry about it. You weren’t an informer, not you Gabi.”
“Why do you say that?” Gabor had to raise his voice above the bells and noise of a tram passing outside.
“Well, you weren’t an informer, were you?” Feldman smiled.
“Of course not. It’s just that this Bloch seemed a bit sinister. Ilona thinks he’s CIA.”
“CIA?” Feldman said. “Who knows, but I doubt it. I think the CIA could do better. Anyway, digging up the past is all the rage these days.”
“It seems so futile this digging into what was, a past best left buried,” Gabor said.
“But that’s now what they want to do, study how people coped during those times. I personally think it’s an exercise in feeling moral superiority. But I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Gabor snapped. “I’m sorry, it’s just that nowadays there is a mania for denouncing people, accusing them of treachery during the old regime. It’s wearying.”
“You know the way it goes with our Hungarian countrymen,” Feldman said. “When the Red Army occupied us at the end of World War II, how many Communist Party members were there? A few thousand. And by the time they left in ’89 there were a few million. And then all of a sudden everyone became a fierce anti-Communist and said they were victims of the system and anxious to point their finger at someone else and cry ‘traitor.’”
“Opportunism,” Gabor said. “It’s the mindset in this part of the world. Always revising our loyalties to serve the new people in power.”
“Yes,” Feldman said, “in this part of Europe people sleep with several different flags under their beds. You never know.”
Gabor said, “History, Napoleon used to say is ‘a fable agreed upon.’ Who’s to say what’s ultimately the truth. Now retribution is the rage. One never gets to the end of it. One can dig and dig, but there will never be a final revelation. The reality is always so complicated. It just seems so futile.”
“We are all children of our time,” Feldman said. “This is inescapable, and that’s now what they want to do: see how people behaved during those evil times. Everything is being released and they comb through the police and secret files finding connections and associations. They do it everywhere: Czechoslovakia , Poland ; they’ve gone through the Stasi files and thousands of East Germans have been named and compromised.”
“But,” Gabor said, “it was so long ago and who can be trusted anyway? Don’t people seek to settle old scores?”
“Yes,” Tibor said. “That’s certainly a motivation. They’ve got researchers who cross check testimony and denunciations and find documents and papers. It’s much easier now with computers than after the war when Nazis were being hunted.”
“A witch hunt,” Gabor said. “People want revenge. Those were terrible times after you left in ’56, Tibor. Not like now.”
He gestured towards the Danube and the elegant refurbished buildings and flow of traffic on each side. “After ’56 everyone feared their neighbors.”
“‘Always something --- immer etwas,’ my grandmother used to say. Ach, Gabi, it has always been so here in Mitteleuropa and Hungary for centuries. Invasions, occupations, repression, informers. It was always so.”
“Probably,” Gabor said. “Most people want to be left alone to have a decent life. Just to be left alone to get on. That’s every man’s dream .”
“A dream, Gabi, a dream. But there are always the ambitious and the greedy and the downright evil who hide their own selfishness in patriotism and nationalism. There’s never been a lack of those in Hungary .
“And what, after all, is the great patrimony of this country of peasants and poseurs descended from marauders, thieves, murderers, and gypsy-and-Jew haters? No one is fooled by this overlay of Hapsburg civility. But anyway, the empire splintered into small angry and suspicious nations and ethnic groups, mostly barbaric.”
“Well,” Gabor said, “we’re part of the pattern, aren’t we? Now we have our own little Jewish state always at war. So I stay here in Hungary and you, Tibor, live in America and we meet by chance. Old Jews, old Hungarians.”
“At least, Gabor, most Hungarians don’t dwell on past crimes and misfortunes like the weepy Poles who’ve made a religion of being victims. They’re always singing a dirge: ‘Oh my Polish brothers, we are without love, ruled by cruel nations. Our mother Poland is our faith, our martyrdom.’”
Gabor laughed at his old fiend’s mimicry. “Still, he said, “this is a better time. Now it’s capitalism. The winner in the great struggle. Free markets; laissez – faire. Everyone competes.”
“You know what they say, Gabi, Communism is fear mixed with greed.”
“And capitalism is exactly the opposite.”
“Always the quip, Tibor. Still the joker.”
Tibor sipped his second coffee, and remarked approvingly how good the coffee was in Budapest . He lowered his cup and grinned at Gabor.
“Joking is better than crying old friend. Anyway, look at us, alte kakers, old farts. We got here somehow.”
They watched the passers-by for a minute and then Tibor said, “Do you still bother with women?”
Gabor nodded. “When the occasion arises.”
“Bravo. I think it’s healthy, but you have to have patience to listen to their prattle. You lose the capacity when you get old. After two marriages, I like not having to listen to them when I don’t want to. When I think of how much energy and time went on chasing women I am amazed and sometimes full of regret. And it was always the same pattern.
“You remember how it used to go –you’d meet someone and there was desire and even passion and then after you became lovers, wonderful shtuping, bliss for awhile and romantic excitement. And then—too soon—routine, boredom. You grate on each other’s nerves and then betrayal or just an end, sometimes friendly but most often rancorous.”
Gabor smiled. “Who said that in love affairs only the beginnings are amusing?”
“The great courtesan, the Marquise de Sèvignè,” Feldman said. “And she recommended that you should start over again as often as possible.”
Gabor was enjoying Feldman, but was reluctant to reveal too much of his personal life. “You must come to dinner with Ilona, my partner. You will find her interesting.”
“With pleasure,” Tibor said. “I’m here for a few more days on some family business. Call me at the Gellert. And I have your card.”
“Whatever happened to your girlfriend, Nagysaga Eva – we always called her Madame Eva?” Gabor asked as they were settling the check – Feldman insisted on paying – and leaving. “She was so pretty, always the grande dame. Didn’t she leave when you did?”
Tibor smiled at the recollection. “She didn’t think much of my prospects as a refugee and dumped me. She had some notion of acting or modeling and even went out to Hollywood to try her luck, ‘seek her fortune’ as they say. She was good looking. I sometimes wonder what happened to her, the grande dame. Beauty she had, fidelity none at all and, who knows, maybe she achieved nobility, but probably she ended up selling cosmetics.”
Upon his return, Gabor ran into Drago Tamoula, Ilona’s latest lover who had arrived at the office to pick her up. Of late, Ilona did not seem to care if Gabor saw her lovers. She had been careful to keep that part of her life well apart from the work and concerns she shared with her partner.
He wondered why the change and it irritated him. Her current lover was a musician who played gypsy music in a small band and passed himself off somehow as authentic without actually labeling himself a real gypsy.
That would not have been prudent or advantageous given the widespread prejudice and contempt most Europeans felt for the Romany nation. But their music was something else and was popular with the younger generation, as well as with older Hungarians who were sentimentally nostalgic for the infectious rhythms and plaintiff violins of the gypsy sound. Gypsies, although reviled and frequently attacked, were always present in the Hungarian folk imagination.
Drago was polite to Gabor, but his cheerfulness and dark good looks only seemed to worsen the older man’s mood. The next morning he remarked to Ilona that she was being indiscreet even, he suggested, reckless in her behavior.
“What do I have to hide?”
“It is always better to be discreet,” Gabor said. “People gossip and you don’t want that.”
“Why? I think it’s better to be truthful.”
“Truth,” Gabor said, barely concealing his contempt. “That phony gypsy fiddler is your truth? At least be honest. You wanted a younger lover, one more capable, although I always gave you pleasure. Just recognize Drago for what he is – a convenient shtup.”
“Shtup? Why is it that lately you keep lapsing into these weird Jewish words? You always prided yourself on your correct Hungarian.”
Gabor shrugged. “I guess as I get older my true colors are showing. Anyway, it’s a good honest word – genuine, not like that fake, fraud Drago with his earring and Romany affectation.”
“That’s just his presentation,” Ilona said. “He’s a decent fellow and I’m happy with him for now. I don’t see that it’s any of your business.” She abruptly turned her attention to a pile of documents on her desk.
These days, Gabor found, she could be quite short with him. As she became increasingly sexually independent and assertive in choosing different lovers, she had grown more confident and deferred to him less on business and aesthetic issues.
She made it clear in several ways that she no longer was willing to be dominated by him. A few days later, while discussing an upcoming exhibit in Amsterdam , Gabor remarked that from what he could see the show was not worth attending.
Ilona was taken aback and said it was a comprehensive collection of recent Dutch photos, collages, drawings, multi-media blog entries, diaries and single-sentence stories written in cinemas in the dark. There would also be graffiti from the docks of Rotterdam and visual and aural transcriptions of Mayan hieroglyphs, as well as digital photos of iconic film images photographed from a TV screen. “Very exhaustive,” she said. “It will be worth our while.”
“What does it really mean?” Gabor said. “All this drek. What does it amount to? Is it really art?”
“What do you mean, Gabi, ‘is it art?’ It’s what we do. We document the zeit geist, what is contemporary. We cannot discriminate and set ourselves up as cultural commissars. We’ve lived through that.”
“Who knows,” Gabor said, gesturing in a way that indicated speculation, “maybe the commissars had the right idea. Instead, we have inclusive, comprehensive, eclectic drek.”
“Drek, drek – there you go again with your peculiar Jewish language. What is it, some secret Yid code? Do you communicate with the Jew journalist Bloch this way?”
“‘Jew journalist Bloch,’ you are really one for labels now, dear Ilonka who sleeps with ersatz gypsy fiddlers.”
Ilona did not reply. She rose and began to gather her things before leaving the café where they had been having coffee.
Gabor sighed, “I’m sorry, Ilonka. It’s not worth fighting about. You’ve become an anti-Semite and I no longer think what we do or argue about is worth the effort. So just try to be decent. Decent.”
“I wonder Gabi. Do you think some of the things we’ve done are decent?”
“I’ve washed my hands of all that,” Gabor said.
“If only we could, if only we could. If only it were up to us.”
“Whatever we did, we did to survive and who was really harmed? No one was killed or badly hurt.”
“We don’t know for sure.”
“Just some artists were inconvenienced.” Gabor said. “Otherwise we would have heard.”
“Gabi, you know as well as I do that when someone finds those files and someone like that Jew journalist Bloch publicizes it, we won’t be judged kindly.”
She looked contemptuously at him and he sighed with an expression of weariness.
“Yes, inevitably, Tidhar’s files will come to light,” he said. “We will be disgraced. Those who are jealous of us will revel in our humiliation. We will have to go out of business. Art Depot will be no more or will be confiscated. It will be the end.”
He immediately felt badly that he now relished saying such things to Ilona and he was surprised to realize that he now liked causing her pain. The spurned lover lashing out. Not, he thought , that what he was saying was untrue or farfetched. Their fear of exposure was well founded. If only his old friend Feldman knew. What would he think? Probably make a joke of it.
Perhaps the next time they met, Gabor would say, “Yes, I was an informer. One does what one can, Tibor. Difficult times they were.”
The weeks went by and Ilona and Gabor, former lovers, friends and collaborators, one-time enthusiasts and curators of the avant-garde, the cutting edge in all media, with a solid standing in their world at home and abroad, became increasingly defensive and brusque in their encounters.
The shared affection and comradeship of complicity that had once bound them steadily eroded as trust gave way entirely to resentment and suspicion.
And they knew, as more time passed, that nothing would ever be the same. Nothing could be restored and made good again.