1. Letter from Budapest
It’s here in East Central Europe that Eastern and Western culture collide; it’s here that they intermingle. Here we see side-by-side the physical and psychic baggage of industrial and preindustrial civilizations. Our heads, like old radios, hiss and buzz with the claims of Soviet-style state socialism and Atlantic liberalism; we try to adjust the tuner, but get the same static again and again. As intellectuals we groan under, and revel in, our own authority. Personified contradictions, we’d like to see ourselves in a clearer light. But that’s hard and risky to do. So we drink instead. Nowhere in the world are there as many drunken thinkers as in Eastern Europe.
* * *
Neither Westerners nor Russians, we Middle Europeans never became true bourgeois, and it seems we never will. The answer to what we really are is forever stuck in our throats. Even our status in society doesn’t reveal much about us: whether we are on the top or the bottom of the social scale, the state hangs over us, and always has. We have been under pressure so long, the constant, senseless weight has conditioned our feet to giving way. We have been argued over, agreed upon, traded, sold, dismembered; we have been the subject of peace conferences and settlements. The First World War began in Sarajevo, the Second in Gdansk; the world had better pay attention to us.
We are all unresolved, still pending questions, “popular democrats,” which means neither one nor the other, but something else. We are not liberal democrats and we are not Soviet communists; we are not even social democrats. That would be too rational for us, we are much crazier than that. There have always been too many secret anarchists among us: rebels, outlaws, partisans, insurgents, terrorists. We’ve had more than our share of murderers and suicides, and we never lacked for gendarmes and political prisoners either. We cursed our kings under our breath, then one day we stung them. The truth is, we became sneaky—it would do us good to be treated like human beings for a change. However, we do not want kind words wedded to loaded guns.
* * *
When we Eastern Europeans arrive in the West, we stick together and protect our own. We listen to what our Western friends have to say, but don’t believe half of it; and when alone, we have a good laugh. We are bad boys, skeptics, rogues, con artists, wheeler-dealers, survivors. Deep down we love destruction and derision; our historical legacy, our stock in trade, is cynicism. We are always thinking of ways to clear out, or show up, if we must, with one foot in the door. How could we not be artful dodgers, long-shot players, sneaky idlers, rascals? We paid a price for being honest more than once. Those of my generation who respected the law had a much smaller chance to stay alive than those who broke it. We’d be crazy to give ourselves…
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