Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 16
11 January 1999

C S A R D A S:
Season of Good Cheer?

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Although the latest wave of price increases in Hungary is keeping pace with inflation, the cumulative effect of a simultaneous rise in the cost of virtually every imaginable product - ranging from electricity through petrol to the contents of the larder and the fridge, from non-prescription medicines to telephone calls- is being greeted with dismay and even resentment. This is especially true in the energy sector, where there are strict regulations in place concerning the amount providers can charge. Discontent is fuelled by the fact that, in the course of state asset sell-off, electricity and water companies fell into the hands of foreign owners who are assumed to be more profit-orientated than their predecessors and unburdened with scruples about exploiting compatriots. Cumulatively, there can be no doubt that the average Hungarian wage earner will be hard put to withstand this fresh onslaught on the wallet with equanimity, not to mention the difficulties faced by pensioners and families reduced to living off benefits.

According to an article published recently in Magyar Nemzet (31/12/98), one in ten Hungarians is an alcoholic. Hungarians are not exactly renowned for sanguine temperament, taking what appears to the baffled outsider to be a perverse pride in the leading position they occupy in the world suicide frequency league table, and idolising tragedy. At the Attila Jozsef museum at Balatonszarszo, for example, visitors can shudder in pity at the moving sight of the faintly bloodstained shirt the young poet died in after throwing himself in front of a train. It is hardly surprising, then that they are turning to the comfort of the bottle en masse.

Alcohol consumption has steadily increased in Hungary since the 1960s, a phenomenon that has been linked both to improvements in the standard of living and to unhappiness and depression. In the 1960s, 6 litres of alcohol were consumed per head of population annually. Nowadays, the corresponding figure is 11 litres, and the calculation includes the entire population, from infants to senior citizens approaching their centenary year (two groups not normally counted amongst the ranks of habitual tipplers). Somewhere between 800, 000 and 1 million Hungarians regularly drink to excess and some 7,000 die each year of cirrhosis of the liver. Spirits have gained the upper hand in the competition with wine for pride of place in the dining room.

Alcoholism is also on the rise amongst the wealthiest and best-qualified segments of society, debunking the myth about addiction being the preserve of the underprivileged, the deprived, the reckless and the marginalised who have abandoned any pretence of self-respect. The familiar sight of the homeless whose breath often reeks of stale booze, a permanent fixture in the subways and Metro stations, has become almost reassuring alongside the more menacing recent invasion of telephone card collectors. The latter persist in tapping you impatiently on the shoulder even before you have had time to put down the receiver to beg for a swap, or offer a small consideration for a particularly rare item in a series of trivial depictions on plastic.

More often than not, however, the abiding image of the alcoholic is precisely that of the semi-visible denizen of a brutal and unreal world; the world we prefer to leave behind when we close our front door, the world of bankruptcy, ruin and hypothermia, of weakness and loitering, of begging and sleeping rough. Just before Christmas, I was jolted out of my complacency by the sight of an elderly man desperately attempting to haul himself on board the tram. Other passengers were loaded down under the weight of their shopping, chattering excitedly about the deep snow which had fallen so suddenly and made the entire capital grind to a halt. The steps on the trams of Budapest are impossibly steep, without assistance, the man in question had no hope of succeeding in his endeavour. You could practically smell the certain disapproval of the fur-clad citizens: he must have hit the bottle to be in such a state. Eventually, a couple of strapping youths relented, the doors slammed shut unceremoniously. The man shuffled a few steps and collapsed to his knees, muttering, "My blood pressure, my blood pressure!" Knowing glances were exchanged. The same lads lifted him to a seat. Society is not tolerant of the vulnerable when it believes them to be at fault. What I witnessed that bitter December night was living proof of this conclusion. He had indeed had a few, and I surmised that he would not be able to stagger more than a few yards at best once we reached the final stop. My prediction proved correct. He struggled off the tram alone, before dropping into the greyed drift that had piled up by the kerb, on all fours, palms down. Surely a passer-by would help? As I turned to look back before descending into the harsh neon strip-lights of the passage beneath the main road, I glimpsed him, pathetically grubbing about in the freezing snow, unable to stand. At the flower and gift shop on the corner, the tinsel festooned display window and brightly-coloured bulbs proclaimed the season of good will to all men.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 11 January 1999


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