This is being threatened
March 23, 2012
Approaching Budapest down the Danube, having spent the previous night sleeping wild in the woods underneath the full moon, I watched the double city take shape like the cardboard scenery of a puppet theatre — domes, spires and bridges silhouetted in diminishing shades of blue. I had the impression that I wasn’t moving, but the city was reeling me in. I was happy to be reeled. Budapest is a perfect city.
Soon I will have to talk about politics. But before that, these, in no order whatsoever, are some of its perfections:
Facades of nineteenth-century apartment buildings crumbling like corroded biscuits; wrought-iron balconies overhanging courtyards, deep windowed pits that never see the sun; stairs winding inside apartment buildings, rattling lifts that look and sound like ancient mining machinery; the netted stone heads of bulls and lions embedded in porticos of stained brickwork; covered markets with fruit and vegetables garish underneath yellow bulbs, banks of iced fish and bloody choppings of meat; stalls where you stand up to drink coffee and eat fried dough-cakes smothered in sour cream; innumerable luridly-lit Szex Shops and general backstreet seediness; the Parliament building that looks like the war helmet, spiked and crowned, of a savage prince; the bridges like necklaces strung across the Danube with startling and unexpected grace; the sixteenth-century Turkish bath where rugged stone pillars support a domed ceiling from which daylight filters through coloured glass, old pink naked sagging men wallowing in clouds of steam, or sprawled asleep on stone benches, or reading crisp-dry newspapers like a scene from a railway station waiting room at seventy-two degrees; the streets less streets than hollowed-out ravines, the buildings less buildings than deposits of architectural sediment; the sudden yawning gulfs between houseblocks, bomb devastation still unrepaired, the traces of doorways and landings six storeys high on cliffs of sheer brickwork; gutted townhouses, long since abandoned, now transformed into artists’ bars, warrens of graffitied chambers cluttered with statues, salvaged furniture, orange and yellow and green coloured lights, the ceilings held up by wooden girders, the effigy of a hooved, breasted owl swooping from a courtyard wall behind scattering fuckchains of plaster rabbits, as if a great flood has washed through the building depositing the wreckage of a culture.
Chaotic, crumbling, grand, elegant, mysterious, seedy and beautiful — Budapest is everything that a city should be. It has a bohemian energy that seems very genuine, rather than the gentrified artiness attempted in many other cities. But it doesn’t take long, once you get in conversation, to hear how much this is being threatened by the government of Viktor Orbán, which came to power two years ago with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Rightwing, nationalist and anti-EU, Orbán is quite openly placing restrictions on the free press, politicising the legal system, attacking independent cultural institutions, and has replaced the director of the new Budapest theatre with a fascist. Among the artists and musicians I’ve befriended in Budapest, there’s a sense of disbelief and shock at how far these changes have gone — extending far beyond the political sphere, deep into Hungary’s social and cultural life.
On March 15th — a national holiday to commemorate the 1848 revolution — I witnessed the pro-government demonstration, led by hussars in dark green uniforms and martial drummers in medieval clothes, supported by rightwing Polish groups specially invited by the government, cheer Mr. Orbán as he dismissed criticism of his reforms as meddling by EU socialists trying to destroy the country. He played the crowd like a pantomime performer, producing a chorus of boos and hisses whenever he named the baddies of the drama — EU bureaucrats, left-wingers, whinging journalists, foreigners in general — invoking Hungary’s glorious past and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped the country of much territory after the First World War.
Elsewhere in the city there was a small but nasty demonstration by the far-right Jobbik party, dressed in fascistic black uniforms and waving flags adorned with runes. The opposing anti-government demonstration was reassuringly large, but apart from a few Hungarian tricolours and an EU banner or two, there was hardly a flag to be seen. As always, the right-wing has co-opted the flags, the costumes, the national symbols — in other words, the spectacle of power.
‘Orbán is not just stealing our present,’ I was told by one woman. ‘He is stealing our future too — laying down a foundation of something that will remain after he has gone.’ It’s a deeply troubling time for Hungary, a slide towards the kind of ‘managed democracy’ associated with Putin’s Russia. I hope that something of what I’ve discovered under the surface of this wonderful city — the energy, the creativity, the openness, the intelligence — will be resistant to these changes.