Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 6
16 November 1998

C S A R D A S:
The Streets, the Twilight

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Sitting in the tranquil seclusion of my study, the light of the reading lamp spreading in a steady pool around me, only the hum of the traffic rising from the streets disturbs my thoughts. Gripped by the melancholy of late autumn, I look out of the window of my flat on Pozsonyi ut, the Danube ripples, the strings of coloured bulbs on the pleasure boats dance on the dark, restless surface of the waters and I shiver at the thought of the wind that rattles at the pane.

Seeking solace in memories of brighter hours, I am disturbed to recall an incident from the summer when I had set off on a pilgrimage to Kerepesi Cemetery, where the great and the good, the Party faithful and the martyrs of the 1956 revolution lie in tree-shaded silence, far from the strife of mortal dealings beneath monuments of black marble, simple wooden crosses or, as in the case of the grave I wished to visit, that of the poet Endre Ady, solemn portraits of the occupants. It was a particularly stifling day and I knew that the water sprinklers would be hissing as old women stooped to fill plastic containers in pious devotion, nourishing flowers whose splendour would fade too soon.

I was waiting for the tram at the first stop, a stone's throw from Terez korut, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Pest, next to the gigantic M belonging to a certain fast-food corporation where families were devouring thick shakes with the same carefree nihilism as you might expect almost anywhere on the globe in this age of multinationals, when shouting interrupted my innocent reverie. A man in his late forties was sprawled on the tarmac between the tracks, desperately trying to protect his skull from the cruel blows being inflicted by his assailants, two men of similar age. Blood poured from his nose, his forehead was gashed and - which was most disturbing to me - although it was broad daylight and he was surrounded by onlookers, no-one paid the slightest attention to what was going on, much less moving a muscle to intervene. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. I too was guilty of complicity, tainted not so much by indifference as fear. What good would it have done? There I stood, in the heart of Pest, seconds away from Blaha Lujza Square, but already beyond the reach of normal conventions of civilisation, in the 8th District, home of the deprived and depraved, in the perpetual moral twilight of aggression. I was sampling the streets, the grit and the violence of harsh, undiluted reality, a million miles removed from the embroidered tablecloths that billowed on the market stalls along the banks of the Danube, from the romantic clichés of gypsy violins and the picture-postcard magnificence of the Buda Castle and the Fishermen's Bastion.

From the safety of the tram I watched the stray dogs wander through the narrow, dusty back streets, crammed with grimy pubs and the seedy locales frequented by a generation of teenagers who have become known as the "children of the gaming halls". In defiance of their parents' bans, they head straight for the racing simulators seeking high resolution graphic techno-thrills, feeding their addiction by begging and even theft until they are turfed out and make their way to the temporary shelter provided by the child protection authorities where they remain until collected by their families.

The bleak mercilessness of the street life is best captured by the unedifying spectacle of a trip through the suburban wastelands with their rows of featureless high rises (unprettified by any of the middle-class fripperies such as the lace curtains that you might find in, say, its British equivalent) to the extreme outskirts of Pest, where, along the side of the M-5 motor way you cannot escape the rouged pouts, cheap leather jackets and uplifted skirts of the prostitutes showing off their wares in a display of candour that makes the most blatant courtship rituals of the animal kingdom appear to epitomise the height of decorum and subtlety.

In Budapest, which has been nicknamed the "Bangkok of the West" because of its flourishing pornographic film industry, business is booming for sex workers. Pimps' incomes may reach somewhere between 2 and 3 million forints a month, compared with an average of around 700,000 a month for their more successful protégés. Young girls are lured to the bright lights in search of fictitious jobs advertised in the columns of the dailies. Anyone who has travelled across the Great Plain will understand why...the Hungarian landscape between Pest and Szeged (also on the route of the M-5 and the biggest centre of prostitution outside the metropolis) is flat and monotonous with only the occasional strip of forest plantation to relieve the eye. Field after monoculture field stretches to the horizon; the population is elderly and money-making opportunities few and far between. Sordid copulations in lorry-parks contrast with the dreams of glamour that attract girls to the profession. A hierarchy exists even here, on the fringes of society, with distinctions being drawn according to the degree of coercion involved and, although it is possible to escape, many choose to remain in the knowledge that they are still managing to earn far more than their "straight" sisters could aspire to through "honest" toil.

Turning back towards my room, I am reassured by the disorganised clutter of familiar objects. Visions of the teeming crowds around the railway stations, of the telephone card collectors tapping on the shoulders of callers in the subways and of the barely noticeable figures of the homeless slumped in the doorways of public buildings recede temporarily. Night has fallen.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 16 November 1998


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