Brautigan, Buchenwald, Budapest/Bucharest

By Stan Persky | September 5, 2004

Richard Brautigan

On the cover of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1962; Dell, 1967) there’s a photo of Brautigan and a woman friend in Washington Square in San Francisco, posed before a statue of Benjamin Franklin in the background. The photo, which I’m looking at right now, shows the tall Brautigan standing in front of the statue, in his early thirties, with a floppy blond mustache turned down at the corners, giving him the appearance of a man with a whimsical sense of humour trying to look serious for a photograph. He is wearing an open navy peajacket, drawn apart by his hands behind his back, a tan, narrow-brimmed cowboy hat over his straggly blond hair, a buttoned vest, a geegaw necklace worn outside his paisley shirt, and rumpled blue jeans.

In the first chapter of Trout Fishing, called “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” Brautigan describes his idea for the cover of his book, “a photograph taken late in the afternoon, a photograph of the Benjamin Franklin statue in San Francisco’s Washington Square,” in short, a photograph pretty much like the one on the cover of his book, minus Brautigan and his woman friend in their mid-1960s hippie outfits, which makes them look, oddly enough, like American Western frontier people that you see in 19th century photographs.

San Francisco’s Washington Square is just a couple blocks down from the writers’ bars-Gino’s, Katy’s, one or two others-where we hung out in the early 1960s.

That’s where I first met Brautigan, although I don’t remember him as a regular in the bars. Perhaps he just went occasionally to visit Jack Spicer, who presided at the “poets’ table.” I got my initial sense of what went on in Brautigan’s mind when I read a poem of his that Spicer published in his magazine J. The poem was called “The Pumpkin Tide”: “I saw thousands of pumpkins last night / come floating in on the tide, / bumping up against the rocks and / rolling up on the beaches; / it must be Halloween in the sea.” Not much of a poem, but I liked the image of the orange pumpkins glimmering at night, bumping against the rocks and each other in the waves, brought in by the tide toward the shores of, perhaps, Aquatic Park, where Spicer and the rest of us often spent our afternoons, or maybe further up the coast, at Stinson Beach or Bolinas. I also liked the idea that the sea celebrated Halloween.

Brautigan was a gangly, soft-spoken man and had already acquired a slight stoop. I saw him as a Don Quixote figure who lived by an obscure chivralic code, a notion I got upon witnessing a curious incident one evening. Brautigan was standing outside of Katy’s bar getting his boots shined by a black boy (itself an unusual occurrence, since I can’t recall any other time when I saw a shoeshine boy in North Beach). The sight of the boy at the lanky Brautigan’s feet caused an acquaintance of Brautigan’s, who was going into the bar, to make an obscene remark in passing, suggesting some sexual activity between Brautigan and the boy. Brautigan made no reply, but when the shoe shine was completed and paid for, Brautigan went into the bar (I accompanied him), and in a very deliberate manner offered and bought the man a drink. He then demanded that the man apologise for besmirching, not Brautigan’s, but the boy’s honour. It had been a stupid, vulgar remark, and the guy, of course, should simply have said he was sorry for the thoughtless insult, and that would have been that, but it was one of those emotionally jammed situations. When the man refused, Brautigan, with some formality, invited the guy to go into the nearby alley and settle the matter by means of fisticuffs. It wasn’t until they left the bar that I was struck by the oddness of the incident and the curious complexity of Brautigan’s challenge on a point of honour-including the purchase of a drink for the person you’re seeking satisfaction from-which Brautigan had delivered in such a mild-mannered way as to be seemingly without personal hostility. A few minutes later they returned to the bar, only slightly worse for wear, the matter apparently settled to Brautigan’s satisfaction. Brautigan, of course, had been in the right, but it was the sort of thing that might as easily have been concluded by Brautigan just calling the guy an asshole. I suppose it is only retrospectively that I see the rigidity of Brautigan’s chivalry as a dangerous trait, something that could possibly get you killed, but at the moment I was merely taken by his unusual stance, by his character.

The statue of Benjamin Franklin which, as Brautigan notes in “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” stands in front of three poplar trees, is there because, well, it’s there-in Washington Square, a place where Brautigan liked to hang out, as did various local winos-and because Franklin and the statue of him is a notion of America, its industrious, inventive, commercial nature. Trout Fishing in America is an elegy for America, for “a pastoral ideal,” as one critic put it, “being lost to commercialism, environmental degradation and social decay.” That loss is on Brautigan’s mind from the beginning.

Across the street from Washington Square is the massive Peter and Paul’s Church where, as Brautigan writes, there’s “a vast door that looks like a huge mousehole, perhaps from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and written above the door is ‘Per L’Universo,'” a phrase from a line in Dante’s Paradiso. “Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry. It’s sandwich time for the poor.” But the poor aren’t allowed to cross the street until the signal is given, then “they all run across the street to the church and get their sandwiches [which] are wrapped in newspaper. They go back to the park and unwrap the newspaper and see what their sandwiches are all about. A friend of mine unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all.” At the end of this bare anecdote, Brautigan drolly remarks, “Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin… Kafka who said, ‘I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.'”

A lot of the stories in Trout Fishing are like the one in “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” off-centre in a revealing way. Mostly, the stories, as might be expected (although almost no one mentions this), are fishing yarns. Brautigan knew a considerable amount about trout fishing, and did a good deal of it. In fact, he started writing Trout Fishing, his first prose book, in the summer of 1961, during a camping trip with his wife Ginny, and their baby daughter, Ianthe, in the wild outback of Idaho. He fished for trout and he wrote on a portable typewriter alongside the trout stream. (For people in need of details about Brautigan and his works, see John Barber’s website, “The Richard Brautigan Bibliography plus,” at, a charming compilation of information that no doubt would have tickled Brautigan himself.)

What’s unexpected about the book, which is often mistakenly billed as a novel, is that its “chapters” are held together, or operate on, poetic principles, and I think it can best be described as a “serial prose poem,” no different in spirit from Jack Spicer’s After Lorca (1957) and other serial poems of the time. Not coincidentally, Spicer is one of the book’s dedicatees, and apparently edited the manuscript once Brautigan came back to San Francisco from his fishing trip and finished the book.

You can see Brautigan’s characteristic poetic move in “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America” chapter. At first, the cover is presented as simply a photograph of the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Park, a version of which actually ends up being the cover for the book. But in the middle of the story, Brautigan writes, “Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry.” That is, the photograph metamorphizes into a living scene, a clip from the life of Washington Square.

Just about any chapter displays Brautigan at work, transforming similes and metaphors into surreal, offbeat, realities. Take “Knock on Wood,” where Brautigan tells about his first attempt, as a child in Portland, to go trout fishing in America. In a strange part of town, where “a row of old houses huddled together like seals on a rock,” he spots a long, grassy, bush-covered field sloping off a hill, and at a distance he sees “a waterfall come pouring down off the hill. It was long and white and I could almost feel its cold spray. There must be a creek there, I thought, and it probably has trout in it. Trout. At last an opportunity to go trout fishing,” something he’d heard about from an alcoholic stepfather when he was seven or eight. “The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal. Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing. I’d like to get it right. Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.”

Early the next morning, the boy goes out with his fishing tackle, which consists of a bent pin tied onto a piece of white string, and a slice of white bread, from which doughballs could be made to be used as bait. “How beautiful the field looked and the creek that came pouring down in a waterfall off the hill.” But then, “as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right… Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was. The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees. I stood there for a long time, looking up and looking down… Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood. I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself.”

There’s an addenda to the chapter, headed “The Reply of Trout Fishing in America”: “There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘I thought you were a trout stream.’ ‘I’m not,’ she said.” Gradually, we see that a trout stream can be, or can be mistaken for, just about anything. Sometimes, as in “The Hump Back Trout,” it can be a string of several thousand telephone booths with their doors off and their backs punched out, and fishing it can be like working as a telephone repair man. In “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard,” you can, in a distant corner of the yard, find used trout streams for sale by the foot-birds, bushes, and insects sold separately.

Even more important, the idea of trout fishing in America morphs into various figures and ideas. Trout fishing in America is, first of all, an activity, an almost innocent activity that is America itself. And Trout Fishing in America is a book, a serial prose poem, with a cover, but it is also a character named Trout Fishing in America who replies to events in the book, or a legless, ranting wino named Trout Fishing in America Shorty, whom Brautigan imagines crating and shipping to the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, and it can even be the gold nib of a pen named Trout Fishing in America Nib, with which to write the book. Often enough, it’s just a good fishing yarn in which trout are caught and eaten, but equally, in the tradition of yarn as tall tale, it can be a story about a trout who dies drinking port wine. The wooden streams, telephone booth streams and streams for-sale-by-the-foot, as well as dozens of actual, rushing ribbons of water resonate against each other in the geography of America, just as the winos in Washington Square (and a boy Brautigan knew as a kid who was a Kool Aid wino) correspond to the trout who dies drinking port wine.

If the tall tale and the pastoral are among America’s fundamental literary forms, it’s easy to see Trout Fishing’s lineage going back to Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. It was Thoreau who wrote, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Among humourous writers of his own time, Brautigan’s “trout stream of consciousness,” as someone once called it, connects to a range of kindred spirits from Kurt Vonnegut to William Saroyan. I’ll get to Saroyan in a bit.

In 1962, Brautigan gave a reading of Trout Fishing in America over two nights at a former church located at Market, 16th, and Noe streets in San Francisco. I was there, along with most of the other writers I knew, but the only one I remember, apart from Brautigan himself, was Jack Spicer, the brooding angel presiding over Brautigan’s book, who sat there enthusiastically nodding his head over some accurate, unexpected metaphor, or laughing uproariously at something funny. The reading in the church was like a combination of Black Mass and a constitutional convention ratifying Trout Fishing in America as a work of art.

Trout Fishing had a complicated publishing history whose details I’ll skip. It was only published in a commercial form in the later 1960s, about a half dozen years after it had been written. It arrived in the midst of the hippie and anti-Vietnam War movements, and struck some kind of chord, with its oddball humour that appealed to people smoking marijuana, and its lament for lost American innocence. It sold two million copies and Brautigan became a cult, a legend, and a book-producing industry. He was rumoured to be living on a ranch in Montana, where a group of other American novelists lived on similar ranches; he was said to be spending time in Japan; he had a house in Bolinas; the books continued to appear and different women friends appeared on the covers alongside Brautigan. But at a certain point, Brautigan ceased to be fashionable (the literary critics had never been interested in him), the books stopped selling, and the publishers no longer wanted them, or perhaps Brautigan was having trouble writing them.

I hadn’t seen Brautigan for many years. Jack Spicer had died, the poets I’d known had moved out of San Francisco to nearby towns like Bolinas or distant New York, and I had become a college teacher in northwestern British Columbia. In spring of 1977, I traveled with a group of political activists from B.C. on a three week tour of China. On the way to Shanghai, there was a stopover in Tokyo, and for some reason, we were billeted for the night in an expensive hotel tower, the New Otani. The next morning, I went up to the restaurant on the hotel’s 31st floor where breakfast buffet was served. Standing in the entrance to the restaurant, I became aware, through their alcoholic smell, of two men standing next to me. One of them was wearing a sort of cowboy hat and had a floppy blond mustache. “Richard?” I hesitantly asked. It was Brautigan. He and the other man, a British engineer he’d met in the course of the evening’s wanderings, had been up all night drinking, and had now landed at the New Otani for breakfast. I joined them at a table after we’d filled up our plates from the line of silver serving trenchers loaded with scrambled eggs, baked beans, potatoes, bacon, and the rest. I only recall one fragment of the conversation, as we sat at the table, looking out the wraparound windows at Tokyo thirty stories below. I wanly asked, “How’s the fishing?” Brautigan blearily gazed at me, and said, “I can hear your mind going. Tick-tock, tick-tock.”

That was the last time I saw him. Of course, he couldn’t hear my mind, but perhaps he heard something going tick-tock. I soon left to catch the flight to Shanghai.

Some fifteen or so years after Brautigan’s death in 1984, I read an essay by a San Francisco poet, August Kleinzahler (“No light on in the House,” London Review of Books, Dec. 14, 2000). The occasion was the posthumous publication of Brautigan’s last manuscript, and a memoir by Brautigan’s daughter, Ianthe, whom I’d known when she was a baby. Kleinzahler (I’ve met him once) begins, “Bolinas is a sleepy little seaside community about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, at the end of a long, windy road over the hills,” which is how I remember it, just beyond the long beaches and town of Stinson Beach, and not far from an egret sanctuary that I used to visit. He notes that the turn-off isn’t easy to find, and hasn’t been helped by residents who have camoflauged the road signs to discourage tourists. For many years, Kleinzahler says, a fair number of artists and writers have made Bolinas their home, and Brautigan was one of them. Kleinzahler recalls that when he gave a reading at the Bolinas library many years ago, a couple of Brautigan’s friends from his San Francisco North Beach days in the 1960s mentioned that Brautigan had recently turned up in town.

“I remember hoping that he might come to the reading if he had nothing better to do,” Kleinzahler writes. “But there was little chance of that. Brautigan was lying dead in his Bolinas house, having taken a .44 calibre handgun and shot himself in the head. His body lay there for weeks until finally discovered by friends.”

That stark memory serves as an introduction to the essay, which is one of those periodic literary soundings about a half-forgotten writer. “Time has not been kind to the writings of Richard Brautigan,” Kleinzahler reports, recalling that the critics were already having a go at his inflated reputation by the early 1970s. The critics were, he agrees, “on the whole, quite right: he really wasn’t very good after all. The work is not without charm or felicities of style, but it is pretty thin stuff: precious self-indulgent fluff.” I didn’t pay much attention to Brautigan’s later books, but I’m prepared to take the critics’ and Kleinzahler’s word for it, however, that judgment fails to take account of Trout Fishing. Later, Kleinzahler remarks that “the poetry is just flat awful, no two ways about it, and now embarrassing to read, not least, I suppose, because I was so infatuated with it thirty years ago.” As for the posthumously-published manuscript, a collection of diary entries from 1982 that revolve around the death of a woman friend, Kleinzahler says, “It was unkind of the publishers to release the book. Brautigan is now exhausted and in despair. Two years later, he will be found dead… Only some of the tired old mannerisms identify the author, but these, too, have grown faint.”

Like others, Kleinzahler wonders what happened. Clearly, the huge success of Trout Fishing took its toll on Brautigan. “For someone as gentle, bewildered, alcoholic and vulnerable as him, it must have been powerfully upsetting to be taken up so fast, then dropped so hard,” Kleinzahler remarks. That’s one of the reasons that Brautigan makes me think of William Saroyan, another California writer, from the generation before Brautigan, the 1930s and 40s, who employed a somewhat similar faux-naïve manner, and rocketed to celebrity with a book called The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, a title borrowed from a hit song of the period. What I’m thinking about is not so much the inevitable fading popularity but the danger in a certain kind of voice. Unlike Brautigan’s violent end, Saroyan went on churning stuff out in his distinctive style, for an increasingly indifferent readership. But there’s something about an overly recognizable voice that invites parody, and worse, as the writer loses energy and something to say, a self-parody within which the writer is finally trapped. It was one of Jack Spicer’s more intransigent lessons to us younger writers: Don’t repeat yourself, don’t write the poems you already can write, or else you will be doomed. Finding oneself cornered in such a situation, mixed with a quixotic ethical code, and a lot of alcohol, might produce a fatally combustible outcome. In any case, Kleinzahler’s account of Brautigan’s troubled life and end, comes out sounding a bit like one of those tearjerker Country and Western songs that ends with an empty bottle and a bullet.

I thought that Kleinzahler, who I tend to think of as a bit of a Grumpy Gus, might have been a bit more, what?, forgiving, or generous, but on re-reading him, I notice that he does allow that Trout Fishing in America “is arguably Brautigan’s best book, and although largely rough-going forty years later, the writing remains highly original and inventive.” Mainly, he remembers the effect of Trout Fishing at the time: “There was in the writing something that felt new and fresh… Brautigan had a lightness of touch, gorgeous timing and a delicious off-handedness that always managed to hit all the right notes, in just the right sequence… Breathtaking stuff.” Well, that’s fair enough. But, still, it’s not enough. Maybe the only difference is that I think that Trout Fishing is still pretty breathtaking stuff, a moment of American vision that sees right to the bottom of time’s stream, where the current slides away, but eternity remains. Brautigan may have had only one great book, but as those of us who drink at the trough fed by the muses say, One great book is better than no great books. At the end of his essay, Kleinzahler cites William Carlos Williams’ remark that “The pure products of America go crazy,” then adds, “Sometimes they are simply overwhelmed.”

In San Francisco’s Washington Square, it’s probably around five o’clock in the afternoon again, and the people are no doubt gathering in the park on the cover of Trout Fishing in America, across the street from the church where they give out the sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. I hope the sandwiches have more than just a leaf of spinach.


When I walked through the black wrought-iron gate, I expected to see the famous and bitterly ironic slogan of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work makes [one] free”), but at Buchenwald the entrance gate bears the puzzling inscription, Jedem das Seine, “To Each His Own,” which could also be translated, “To each, what he deserves.” Inside the enclosure, the sites of the once-crowded prisoners’ barracks are marked by rectangular beds of black stones, amid paths laid with white and grey pebbles, the whole giving the effect (to postmodern eyes) of a large minimalist earthworks sculpture. From the slope of the camp, beyond a small woods, you look down into a farming valley with a patchwork of neat green and yellow fields. That afternoon, the sun momentarily broke free of the cloudy sky, illuminating the velveteen fields beyond. My first thought was incongruous: “How beautiful it is here!” It’s a view shared by writers going all the way back to Goethe, who often strolled on this patch of ground. Later, wandering between the beds of black stones where the barracks had been located-along with other visitors, pilgrims, and groups of adolescent German schoolkids-I felt the urge to tell myself, “This is where it happened,” as if I had to insistently remind myself of a fact that’s impossible to grasp.

When I travel in Europe and occasionally seek out the sites of my tribal ancestors, I usually visit the old Jewish quarters of cities-Krakow, Vilnius, Budapest-rather than the concentration camps; I prefer the remnants of places where Jews lived and flourished rather than those where they were slaughtered. But some five or six kilometres outside of Weimar, the small German city in Thuringia where Goethe lived, and whose name was given to the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, the most notorious concentration camp in Germany is located on a slope of Ettersberg Hill.

Now, more than a half-century after the execution of over 50,000 prisoners there, what remains are the entrance gate buildings, surmounted by a squat clocktower, some concrete posts on which was strung the barbed wire around the 200-hectare enclosure, as well as a few preserved and restored sample barracks, the crematorium and a memorial at the site where the ashes of the incinerated dead were dumped into an accumulating mass grave.

The singularity of the Holocaust in the twentieth century, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, is pinpointed by cultural critic George Steiner. The Shoah (as the Holocaust is known in Hebrew) was driven, says Steiner, by the unique principle that “a category of persons, down to infancy, was proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, the mere claim to life.” (Cf., George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, Yale, 2001.)

Not only Jews perished at Buchenwald-also gypsies, prisoners of war, homosexuals, and political prisoners. The best account of what happened there-as much a masterpiece as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (Free Press, 1961)-is former political inmate Jorge Semprun’s Life or Literature (Viking, 1997). There, Semprun sees himself not so much as a “survivor” but-in contradistinction to Wittgenstein’s claim that “death is not an event in our life”-as someone who “crossed through death, which had been an experience of my life.”

No one of Jewish descent growing up in America in the 1940s and 50s could be entirely unaffected by the Holocaust. Indeed, in the necessary Jewish insistence on remembering it, there could even be a kind of mis-use of memory, a nagging for attention. I like the brutal Jewish quip criticising the excesses of exploitation of Holocaust memories, cited by Jacobo Timerman, “There’s no business like Shoah-business.” (Cf., Timerman, The Longest War, Knopf, 1982.) After all, twentieth century politics produced sufficient millions of other deaths, driven by various comparably evil principles, that the Holocaust claim of uniqueness need not be an appropriation of exclusivity with regard to suffering.

In my family, Uncle Walter and Aunt Holla were presented to us (I’m tempted to say, exhibited to us) as our survivor relatives. They had managed “to make it out just in time,” I was repeatedly told, in what became a recitation of a family legend, whose moral concerned the dangers of procrastination and the vagaries of luck. Yes, Uncle Walter and Aunt Holla, now placidly seated on a sofa across someone’s large living room (that of my mother’s brother, Irving, perhaps), had sailed on “the last boat out of Europe.” As a ten-year-old, I somewhat confusedly tried to imagine a Europe out of which no more boats sailed.

In the late afternoon, under a lowering sky over Buchenwald, I rode the bus back to Weimar, and quickly returned to its tourist-crowded quaint streets and town squares bordered with outdoor cafes. I lingered in the sunshine (it had reappeared), sipping cappuccino, far from history’s darkest shadows.

Budapest / Bucharest

Dream city, nightmare city:

The first time I went to Budapest, in 1990, shortly after the end of communism, I stayed in an apartment just below one of the squares near the Danube River, the great river that runs through the city and is spanned by a series of bridges. From the beginning, I saw Budapest as the kind of city you find in dreams. Because you had to walk up a little hill to get to the square by the river, I always had the sense that the city was somehow under water.

Recurrently, little incidents occurred that were like scenes from sleep. One night, with my travelling companion, Tom Sandborn, I walked out into the narrow street outside our apartment building, looking for a place to have a drink. Suddenly there appeared, just across the street, a shoebox-sized bar, which we had never previously noticed though we had walked up and down that street several times. Above the door, there was a hand-daubed circular sign with the words “Orpheus Drink-Bar” on it, as if it had been hastily painted and hung minutes before our arrival, a dream sign for aspiring poets. Inside, they served a liquor called “Unicom,” a Hungarian specialty.

Again and again, I found myself walking over the hump of one of the bridges over the Danube, as you do in dreams, crossing from the Pest side to the Buda side, or vice-versa, the water far below. The city is aqueous, punctuated by temple-like buildings housing thermal baths, ranging from elegant spas like the one at the Geller Hotel to ordinary, everyday establishments, like the Rudas, where Tom and I went one afternoon. The vast central pool is located under a cathedral dome, with bits of translucent coloured glass in the ceiling. Through the fogs rising from the heated water, you catch glimpses of middle-aged men in loin-cloths, reading newspapers while half-submerged in the pool, or younger male couples, perched on the bath’s edge, like water nymphs.

The people we talked to were also like figures that your unconscious mind presents while you’re sleeping, but they were magical and reassuring rather than the frightening demons produced in nightmares. The first person I met, on the night of the first free Hungarian elections since the political collapse of communism, at the headquarters of the youth party, was a beautiful boy, about nineteen, who became my guide to the city for the rest of the time I was there. He was as striking as a Hermes statue, with black, curly hair, but when he turned his full face to you, there was one brown eye, and the other was completely occluded, like a milky moonstone.

When I returned to Budapest a few years later, it was as dreamy as before, even as Hungarians were waking from the fantasy of freedom into the realities of international capitalism. The one-eyed boy had become a computer technician at an advertising agency. I was staying in an old Jewish quarter, on the hilly, Buda side of the river, and my host, a man named Christoph, who lived in a garret above the apartment I’d been given (he came downstairs from time to time at night, to use the kitchen), was a composer of a visionary kind of music he called “Refulgence,” and which he played for me on the baby grand piano that had been winched into his tiny studio.

There were long, engrossing conversations with intellectuals whose books and articles I had admired-Miklos Haraszti and Gaspar Tamas, among them-but to find them, I had to wander at night through narrow, dark, Kafkaesque streets just off the Danube, before suddenly emerging into a lighted, book-stuffed study, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. In addition, piles of books and journals occupied every available surface, spilling onto chairs, tables and a small day bed against the wall. “Here, let me,” said my host, Gaspar, hauling away a tottering heap of volumes to make a space for me to sit down, as in a dream. Or, another time, I stepped into a sun-drenched square high above the Danube, on my way to a lecture at the newly-established Budapest Collegium, and at the same moment, entering the square from the other side was the lecturer, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, in a light-coloured suit, floating like a person met in dreams. I went up and introduced myself, as I have in other dreams to statesmen, writers, movie stars.

On my last night in Budapest, I went to dinner at a neighbourhood restaurant with my composer friend Christoph, and on the way home, walking through the dark streets, he stopped to show me something I would have otherwise missed. It was a five-storey apartment building, set back from a tram stop in a little square. An ornate metal grille gate opened into the courtyard, around which rose several floors of apartments. There were lights here and there, laundry hanging to dry, bits of sound from television sets, the normal life of a block of flats at night. But in the centre of the courtyard, instead of a tree or patch of cement, there was a dimly visible, squat, round building. What is it? I wondered. As I drew closer, I saw that its windows frames of crumbling cement held a Star of David motif, as did its locked entrance. It is a synagogue, Christoph informed me, and in the darkness I had the sense of encountering a temple underwater, as if from a Jewish Atlantis.

In Bucharest, Romania in spring 1990, no one I met was really certain about what had happened, whether it had been a popular revolution or an internal Communist Party coup or some other sort of plot-like conspiracy that had violently overthrown the previous government only three months ago. On our first afternoon, Sandborn and I, having barely settled into a 19th century inn Tom had discovered in a guidebook, took a neighbourhood walk through the narrow, twisting streets and emerged into a boulevard where a memorial had been established at the edges of a traffic round. There were candles in glass holders, vases with flowers, and at one place a thick line of red paint had been brushed across the road. The nearby sooty buildings were scarred with bullet marks. But when we talked to some people holding a vigil there, we were unable to determine exactly what was being memorialized or why. We met a man and his wife in their thirties and struck up a conversation. He was a lecturer in a technical faculty at one of the universities. They invited us to visit them at their apartment. But the explanations we were seeking remained elusive.

Is that where we first saw the legless beggar, hauling himself up the cobbled street on a kind of leather apron, using wooden clogs that he clashed down to propel himself forward? Or was it later?

The only thing that was clear was that the former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and his wife, had been executed by firing squad in an underground room. We had seen that on television, back home, around Christmas time, a repeated clip of the dictator and his wife toppling over and crumpling to the floor. But now that we were here, the rest of the story was murky.

In the centre of Bucharest, we found the architectural remnants of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal intentions. A whole neighbourhood, filled with old houses and a labyrinthine tangle of narrow streets and lanes, had apparently been leveled, and cleared away. In its place, a monstrous square was laid out, filled with huge mosaic-decorated reflecting pools and dozens of fountains, adorned with sculptures of gargoyles, mermaids and dolphins from which water was supposed to spout. At one side of the square, ranks of six-storey apartment buildings for the Communist Party’s officials, not yet finished, had been constructed in white marble, their facades designed in undulating waves. Across the square, on a slight rise, was an even larger structure, also incomplete, Ceaucescu’s palace, in the same white marble, and unique architectural undulations. The whole thing was grotesque, but had a sort of chilling grandeur, like the models for the city of Germania, Hitler’s notion for the Nazi transformation of Berlin. Here, it wasn’t just an architectural model, but an actual construction site. Everything was unfinished, abandoned; there was no water, the reflecting pools were empty, baking in the sun, the spouts on the sculptures of the gargoyles and mermaids were not yet connected to water pipes, the fountains were dry. The skeletons of buildings remained in their incomplete state. For a moment, seeing the site was like peering into the mind of the madman who had envisaged it.

We retreated to the inn. It was a three-storey enclosed wooden structure, like something left over from the Ottoman Empire. Once inside its gates, there was a large circular courtyard in the centre where a bustle of activity unfolded through the day-the delivery of goods, cackling chickens scampering under the feet of a tethered donkey and wagon, carpet-beating, dogs barking at imaginary caravans, women carrying baskets of laundry. Around and above the courtyard were the facilities of the inn, corridors with rooms to let containing sleeping divans, and a restaurant whose tables spilled out onto a terrace from which to view the scene below. The stairways to the terrace were made of weathered, rotted wood. Several of the steps had been punched through, threatening to plunge you into the melee below. It was timeless, indifferent to empires, communism, or whatever rule was now taking its place. The communists had given way to a mafia, whose local representative, as far as we could tell, included the captain of the waiters in the inn’s restaurant.

He was an ominous figure, his obsequious service masking his powers. I observed him one evening serving a table of drunken English louts, who were shouting for this and that, making vulgar joking remarks about sex and the defeated Russians, bellowing, “Russkie, Russkie!” at him. But the head waiter was also the source of various goods-items not listed on the menu, bottles of expensive whiskey, drugs, sex. He was equally imperturbable whether dealing with visiting yobs or local oily businessmen, but he seemed to me like a man into whose debt I wouldn’t want to put myself. The inn was an enclosed world, far from whatever else was going on in Bucharest, yet reproducing the city’s mentality.

It was a city caught in a swirl of rumours, rife with superstition, paranoia, conspiracy theories. We visited a government ministry, and talked with a man who dealt with ethnic minorities. We entered a large room, with a conference table, and the government official introduced us to a visitor with whom he was finishing some business, an elderly heavy-set man in an old-fashioned suit and wearing a bowler hat, apparently an important gypsy chief. When the chief left, we interviewed the ethnic minorities official, who told us he was part-gypsy himself. He was a sophisticated, witty man, who readily confirmed, with a certain amusement, the great confusion about who was in control of the government. At one moment in the transition, he told us, he had been held at gunpoint, suspected, because of his swarthy appearance, of being a Libyan agent. In the end though, he didn’t say who he represented. He said, “A Romanian is a man who, just before he leaves his house, looks in the mirror, and winks. And sometimes the reflection in the mirror winks at him.”

Before we left Bucharest, we visited the couple from the technical university whom we’d met the first day at the memorial. They received us at their apartment, and gave us coffee and little cakes. At first, the conversation proceeded normally as we talked about Romanian politics. But then they began to talk about shadowy figures who were behind recent events. Gradually it came out that the ones pulling the strings were Jews, connected to an international ring of fellow Jewish bankers and dealers. The man said something to his wife, and she went out of the sitting room for a moment, and then returned with a book. “It’s all in here,” he said, as she nodded in agreement. The book was a volume of the 500-year-old prophecies of Nostradamus, some of whose lines he read to us and then interpreted in terms of Romanian politics. Afterwards, outside their building, Tom and I exchanged a glance, gritting our teeth, raising our eyebrows, and almost simultaneously shuddering.

Finally, one night toward the end of our stay, we were coming back to the inn after a long, hot day of travelling through the city and interviewing people with whom we had appointments. We were physically weary and thirsty, exhausted in the particular way that is produced by working through a baffle of half-comprehended languages and explanations. It was dark and we entered a narrow lane that was just a street or two away from the inn. We turned a corner, then another, and then we were unsure of where we were. Even Tom, who has a sure sense of direction that allows him to plunge into a strange city for a morning’s jog, certain of finding his way back, was momentarily baffled. The streetlamps were dim or out, the winding streets were empty of people, there was only the occasional skinny dog, skulking along the base of a building. Tom asked for my cigarette lighter to hold up to a street sign, but the flame flickered, sputtered. Is that when we heard the wooden clogs crashing on the cobblestones? Did we glimpse the legless beggar disappearing around a corner? And for a moment, only a moment, we were lost in the maze, tantalizingly close to our destination but infinitely far from it, trapped in the nightmare of Bucharest.

Berlin, Sept. 5, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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