Dour

The airport road is irregular, lined with ugly, communist-era buildings, and billboards advertising products from bygone years.

One of the ads shows the face of an obscure French girl with bangs—she’ll be giving a live performance in Budapest on March 17th. I watch a succession of identical boards in amazement, because the woman’s name is Mireille Mathieu, and she is seventy years old.

I’ve driven in from the southeast, a stone’s throw from the Romanian border at Vărșand—they’re big on accents in Hungary also, piling three or four on top of a single word. I’m stuck in a mental mire of childhood, somewhere between Radio Moscow and Tintin.

My history was essentially learned from Tintin books—when the young reporter is in the fascist country of Borduria the diacritical mark is a set of whiskers—and this trip is like a journey through the past.

Toward Romania, the roads are narrow and dangerous, and the locals overtake the endless lines of trucks with suicidal abandon. And no one smiles. Not when I get the car, not in restaurants, hotels, TV, not anywhere.

Radio stations reveal the soul of a country. On the road, only one station is barely tuneable, providing endless monotonic discussions. No one laughs. There’s no music. Finally, they play a track—a cross between heavy metal and the Eurovision song contest.

I pass buildings with triple barbed wire fencing. Mounted in the center of a traffic circle is a Mig fighter, climbing at thirty degrees, painted cold-war green. I’ve been embedded in the bowels of a Le Carré novel, and around me I see Jerry Westerby, Toby Esterhase, and of course, Karla.

These are the flat plains of central Europe, the ones you saw on TV with columns of refugees lining the verges. Timisioara is down the road, and from there it’s a straight line to Sofia and Istanbul.

This is the Syrian trail, and I wonder out loud how many of those big rigs are smuggling people, desperate to flee a war they didn’t start.

The House of Terror on Andrássy út holds some clues to the dour disposition of the population. I know this isn’t going to be easy, so I fortify myself at the Regõs tavern in Sofia Street. Hungary is big on sweet white wine, whereas I like mine dry and red—even when I’m eating pike.

A drop of Portuguese villany, Hungarian-style.

A drop of Portuguese villany, Hungarian-style. None of that ‘hints of quince and peach nose’ crap, this one is smooth, easygoing, and charming.

I’m piqued by something that loosely translates as Portuguese villany—perhaps an echo of The India Road, and a couple of glasses later am face-to-face with a genuine Soviet T-54 tank, the most widely produced beast of that ilk. The Soviets manufactured about ninety thousand from 1947 onward, and the tanks became a mainstay of Warsaw Pact armies.

The T54/55 range have fought more battles than any other tank, and you can purchase one for about forty-five thousand bucks from a company called mortar investments—a Czech outfit fully appraised with Soviet ordnance—if you’re wondering, a mortar is a ‘short smooth-bore gun for firing shells (technically called bombs) at high angles’.

Andrássy is one of Budapest’s most emblematic boulevards, taking you west across the chain bridge toward Buda. But east of the Oktogon, Nº 60 has the dubious honor of having been party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, and subsequently HQ for the ÁVO, the Communist secret police.

There is no spirit of ‘truth and reconciliation’ here, just some extremely graphic artifacts of suffering. Without any mollycoddling, you watch live footage of bulldozers pushing truckloads of bony corpses, some with missing limbs or heads, into mass graves. The Nazi section is mercifully short, with Arrowcross uniforms and memorabilia, but that’s only because the subsequent Soviet part is huge—after all, the Nazis were there for six years, but the Communists (Soviets from 1956 onward) were there for forty-five years.

The arrowcross of the Hungarian Nazi party, a fearful image during the Second World War. In the 1939 elections, one in three votes from the working class area of Budapest went to the Arrowcross Party. Sound familiar?

The arrowcross of the Hungarian Nazi party, a fearful image during the Second World War. In the 1939 elections, one in three votes from the working class area of Budapest went to the Arrowcross Party. Sound familiar?

I go down and sit inside a basement cell, and think of the Dukes of Ferrara, their prisons in the XVth century, and the abhorrent cruelty of human nature. That was then, this is now, five hundred years on, and nothing has changed.

The Arrowcross came, then the Germans in 1944, then the Communists with their PRO, ÁVO, and ÁVH—identical, bar the name changes, just as the Portuguese PIDE renamed itself DGS a few years before the revolution.

The cells have framed photographs with the birth and death dates of the inmates. The torture chambers are there, including hanging posts, both for torture and execution.

I was delighted to see so many young people at the House of Terror—given the rise of European nationalism, we need to show this horror to as many youngsters as possible. The teenagers wandered around in a daze, staring at the appalling carnage, the sharp tools used to torture, maim, and kill their parents and grandparents.

Bryan Adams has a song called '18 till I die'. Peter was.

Bryan Adams has a song called ’18 till I die’. Péter was.

And for all those kids who can’t be there, who think this can’t happen again, I selected just one photo, out of a collection that now qualifies as the most horrific I own. It is taken in one of the cells, a 6 X 4 foot hole with a low ceiling and a tiny window, barred and blocked.

Péter Mansfeld was a young man, braver than I’ll ever be, who was murdered by the Soviets in 1959, three years after the invasion.

Perhaps it’s why Hungarians don’t smile.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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