The story of the 20th century can be told in big, sweeping brush-strokes charting the rise and fall of dictators and political movements, the vast spread of world wars and the chaotic effects of natural disasters. But so often the stories of individuals have so much more to say to us about the day-to-day impact of world movements, the way in which the super-scale phenomena of geopolitics can shape a single life from birth to death and say more about the past than any text-book history.
Yudit Kiss’s book, The Summer My Father Died, tells the story of her father, a Hungarian academic and ardent communist, a Jew, who as a child found himself in a foundling home and somehow missed being transported to an extermination camp unlike most of his relatives. Yudit’s book focuses on the last years of her father’s life, during which he suffered two brain tumours, surviving the first one for seven years until being hit by the second which eventually killed him.
However, the book is more of a memoir than a biography for as she writes at the beginning of her book, “the story of my father’s death is interwoven with another story that is not concerned with the series of real changes in my father or the events surrounding him. This other story is made of memories, thoughts and emotions that followed, blended with and, in some cases anticipated reality”.
Yudit’s father, Fűlöp Holló had a long career teaching in the universities in Budapest but the driving force in his life was communism and a belief in human progress. He had turned away from Judaism believing that communism had supplanted all tribal loyalties –
As far as my father was concerned Jewishness was a form of atavism. Not only because survivors of the war were of the generation that had tried to rip from their very being the ties that bound them to the terrible exterminations, but because he was convinced that if he redefined himself as a communist that would trump every other definition.
Yudit’s father was convinced that “everything was imbued with meaning, that progress was irreversible and that mankind could be saved”. The stubbornness of that belief in the face of so much evidence to the contrary was the driving force in his life and meant that as a father he was little involved with the details of his children’s’ lives unless that involved political activity such as study or debate.
As a young woman Yudit went to work for the summer at a Budapest steelworks in order to earn some money for travels. She was surprised to find that the workers at the steel works had little interest in the great issues of life but spent the days talking about daily frustrations, the uselessness of management and the difficulties of making a living. When she went home and told her father that as far as she could see, the working class didn’t believe that it was in charge of the nation, her father replied “They’ll learn . . . they don’t know it but they will” and then went on to give “a passionate exposition of Hegel and the role of the unconscious forces in the historical process”.
Despite her father’s obsessive belief in the communist system, Yudit seems to have had a rich family life. The political arguments round the dinner table were obviously times of bonding rather than division. Life in Budapest was hard but seems to have been imbued with a sense of community and common purpose. Of course, her father lived through the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and lived to see the fall of communism in 1989. In the early spring of 1992, he tried to convince Yudit that the Serbian leader Milosevic was bravely fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia and hoped that he would be the last bulwark of socialism. He could never forgive Comrade Tito for becoming a running dog of imperialism and allowing the system that millions had staked their lives on to collapse from within.
With such a father, you would think that Yudit lacked any sense of having been nurtured by her father, but although he was little involved with the practical development of her life such as swimming lessons, school parents’ evenings, cycle rides and so on she writes,
. . . when he did rarely appear, he always gave me something to help me along. Once he consoled me when I was unhappily in love, with all the concomitant despair and fires of first love; on another occasion he explained why it was always necessary to be honest; on another he told me that I must be responsible for my actions.
By the early 1990’s, Fűlöp Holló was dying from his second tumour. Yudit describes poignant scenes of the old man in hospital where he gradually sinks away from his fiery convictions and she writes movingly of arriving early at the hospital one day to find him washing –
He washed slowly and systematically. Face, neck, ears, the shaving foam behind his ears, under the arms, his chest and the upper part of his back. The careful movements that covered every part of his skin were a reminder of his childhood, when there was no properly equipped bathroom and he had to bend over a full basin or a tub to perform the most thorough of ablutions.
Yudit was reminded of the poem by a Transylvanian poet Arpad Farkas, “When Old Men Wash”, in which he talks about old people bending over a sink trying to wash themselves clean of all the filth of the twentieth century.
Yudit writes movingly of the time after her father’s death when the family was mortified with grief –
My father’s death excused everything. When the children shrank from strangers, when I found myself ringing home all the time, when I didn’t finish my work to the given deadline, it was my father’s fault for dying. Autumn produced its usual fruits: pears, apples, full-bodied grapes . . . death was the constant presence in everything I did.
I enjoyed reading this well-written book which gives a detailed picture of daily life under a communist regime and the loyalty to the system engendered in so many people of earlier generations. It is at all times interesting and often moving, for this is above all a human story of love of a child for a parent. Fűlöp Holló was undoubtedly a difficult man at times, but his commitment and faithfulness raised him above the ordinary and I am pleased to have been able to read about him. It is a compliment to Yudit Kiss that sometimes while reading the book I found myself thinking of Magda Szabó’s great novel, The Door, in which she writes about her cleaner, Emerence, another difficult Hungarian character.
The book was translated by author and translator Georges Szirtes, winner of the T S Eliot Prize and Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. He translated the much-admired (by me at least) book Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy. I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of this translation but I felt that the translation certainly didn’t intrude into my reading of the book, it flowed well and left the author with a distinctive “voice” which was believably Hungarian.
The Summer My Father Died would almost certainly have remained inaccessible to English speakers if it had not been for independent publisher Telegram Books who once again have produced a high quality book of unique value.
Note 21/09/2012 Parrish has added a fine poem by Georges Szirtes in the comments below.