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'A Time Now Gone'

October 11, 2007 By:
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Adam Biro's One Must Also Be Hungarian, recently published by Chicago University Press, is a short book -- topping out at just 168 small pages -- but it contains multitudes. Within its series of portraits, it tells the long, wondrous but ultimately tragic history of Hungary's Jews through the lens of the author's family, following them from the 19th century, on to the dislocations caused by the first World War, as well as through the devastations wrought by Nazism and Stalinism. Biro offers profiles of a number of his spirited and resourceful forebears, all of the material adding up to a moving family portrait that also manages to tell much about the greater Jewish experience in Central Europe over the course of two centuries.

In addition, and perhaps most strikingly, One Must Also Be Hungarian, in the beauty of its prose and the inventiveness of its circuitous narrative method, is an object lesson in how to rethink and reanimate long-overworked literary genres, like the memoir and the historical essay. Biro's highly personal testament is like no other book I know of; often unbearably moving in its historical sweep, its effect is also at times like viewing an intimate series of drawings displayed in a perfectly scaled gallery that's been constructed only for you. Sentence by sentence, it is one of the most thrilling books of its type I've read in a long while. (The crystalline translation is the work of Catherine Tihanyi.)

Biro, founder and owner of the art-book publishing house Biro Éditeur in Paris, has added an introduction to this English edition, where he states that, beside his love of writing, the main reason for his tackling this new work was the death of his father. "His passing," writes Biro, "meant the end of an old Hungarian family in Hungary, a Jewish and Hungarian family, that is, a Jewish but Hungarian family -- my own family. Its history is now continuing elsewhere, in France where I live, and where my two daughters and my grandson Ulysse were born. Thus, at this historical moment, I wanted to take stock and put down for Ulysse and future generations what I knew about my family as it had been, then and over there. I wanted to tell the story of a world and a time now gone."

But the author also notes that his need to create literature kept him from doing any research that would make his project into a scholarly work of history. Biro does use the majority of his introduction to sketch in the tragic, blundering history of Hungarian national sympathies and alliances; and while it's helpful to keep these details in the back of your mind as you read, he collected these facts for his publisher's sake. They really have no bearing on his book at all, which appears to make its own narrative rules and does so with a creativity that is breathtaking.

Biro's book has a circular structure, as if a pebble had been thrown into a pond; each ripple that emanates from it is a new relative, a new layer of family history, until we get closer and closer to the present, and the inevitable and deeply moving death of Biro's parents, mother first, then father.

'Barely a Peasant'

The author begins by discussing the earliest relative he could trace -- Finkelstein Ábrahám (Hungarians put family names before given names), born in 1806. How did he learn about this distant ancestor? The information was in his father's papers, which Biro discovered as he dismantled the family apartment. So we know at the start of this tale that, no matter how far back Biro goes, his focus will never waver from his father's fate, which he must revisit before these lit-erary travels come to their natural end.

Ábrahám was a day laborer and, as Brio writes, someone who "couldn't imagine what his descendants were to endure, nor the name and the face and the way of being of one of his great-great-grandsons, me. He couldn't have imagined that against all mathematical probability I would be, in the year 2001, his only descendant -- and his opposite in gesture, in words, in thoughts, in all of my being. That I would leave the country and that I would speak with my wife and my children another language than his. That I would eat oysters and that I would like salami and even smoked paprika sausages. That I would go to the synagogue only once a year, at Yom Kippur, like all Yom-Kippur-yid -- atheist but ashamed. That I would make love naked, and even outside on the grass, and for the sole purpose of it. And that I would know nothing about him, born about 150 years before I was: except that he was a peasant, that he worked for peasants, pushing (or worse, pulling?) a plow and harvesting wheat, corn, everything. That he took care of the farm animals -- not pigs, but in Hungary it would be hard to avoid. He did not own any land, had no land of his own, he owned nothing, that is certain. He was a Jewish peasant, barely a peasant, the dregs of the agricultural universe, miserable, they did exist, believe me!"

There are wonderful bits of sadness and even touches of absurdity strewn throughout these early pages. Finkelstein Jakab, Biro's great-grandfather, a cart driver and seltzer water deliverer, was so poor he couldn't afford to raise his children, so that Biro's grandfather, born Finkelstein Jenö, was put up for adoption.

But that's only part of the story, complicated and fascinating as it is. Jenö had a brother named Aladár, who owned a shirt store in Budapest that was eventually nationalized by the new regime in the early years of World War II. Aladár "was tolerated" there only as a sales clerk; eventually, his son was deported to Auschwitz and never came back.

The death caused a rift in the family. "My grandmother is said to have asked her sister-in-law, shortly after the war, how she was doing. Her sister-in-law exploded in anger 'We have lost our only son, but you, all your family is still alive. You are in disgustingly good health and spirits, so how dare you ask me how I'm doing.' This is how I heard the story. The lady in question kept her resentment toward my grandparents till her dying days."

The son murdered in Auschwitz left behind a child, who became a close friend of Biro's, even though there was 10 years difference in their ages. "He was a great guy, a psychiatrist who was as well pessimist and negative, who looked upon life as absurd, and who met, while still young, a death as absurd as life: an accident in which part of a wall fell on him while he was walking his dog.

"The dog disappeared with his leash, forever."

The family history turns tragic, as the Nazi period looms up, and members of Biro's clan are subjected to acts of barbarity that horrified and sickened me. The pages devoted to that horrific period -- where the author never flinches from the truth -- will be etched in my memory forever.

Still, there are no sadder and more moving pages than the final ones, when Biro takes stock of his extraordinary father and his legacy, and what history and time made of them both. These pages are rendered with great delicacy and care, and they, too, will never leave me.

 

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