An Eastern Europe Dream – On The Road To Bababag (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #7)

Distance is measured as much by the imagination as it is in miles. Eastern Europe and Omaha, Nebraska are thousands of miles and an ocean apart, but a used bookstore brought them closer together for me. One book shrank that distance down to nothing. Reminding me of the magical power of words to bring places lodged in the memory back to life.

Rare Editions – By The Book
Within an hour of getting off the plane in Omaha I was striding through the Old Market area of the downtown. I had spent only a few minutes at the hotel dropping off my bags before I was pounding a path to my favorite destination in Omaha, Jackson Street Booksellers. Omaha might not be a hotbed of Eastern European émigrés, but Jackson Street booksellers has an Eastern Europe section better than that of any bookstore I have visited in the United States. Its selection of used books on Eastern Europe is unrivaled in my experience. I have entered other famous used bookstores in the United States, including Strand Bookstore in New York City and Powell’s City of Books in Portland with high hopes of finding a treasure trove of tomes covering every country east of the old Iron Curtain. Almost invariably, I have left disappointed.

Books on former Eastern Bloc countries are still something of a rarity at even the biggest used booksellers in America. The interest from a critical mass of population just isn’t there. At best, there will be a scattering of the most famous books on the region, such as James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a magnificent history/travelogue of unrivaled insight on the region during the tumultuous 1990’s. Every so often I might get lucky and run across Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon on her remarkable pre-World War II travels in what was then Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these and a few other books are the most common ones on the region readily available at used booksellers. Everything else is conspicuous by its scarcity.

Portal to another world - The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Portal to another world – The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Nagykallo – The Other Hungary
Jackson Street Booksellers has an Eastern European section that covers several shelves. If you are looking for a volume on the Romanian perspective concerning Transylvania’s history, it is within reach. The same goes for an academic tome on the history of Medieval Ukraine. The owner of Jackson Street Booksellers has gone above and beyond what would normally be expected. Great finds on Eastern Europe can also be found in the travel section. I got firsthand experience with this when I pulled “On The Road to Babadag: Travels In the Other Europe by the Polish writer Andrezj Stasiuk. The book’s title intrigued me. Flipping through it at length, I came across chapter names that were mysteriously vague, yet held a magnetic allure, much like Eastern Europe itself. One of the first chapters was “The Slovak Two Hundred”, which I thought might be a road, but was instead a map. “Description of a Journey through East Hungary to Ukraine” sent visions of remote, dusty villages on the fringes of Hungary dancing in my head.

When I thumbed through this chapter I saw the word “Nagykallo”. Anyone who had been to that town was a kindred spirit. The fact that the author found his experience in Nagykallo worth writing about had me ready to purchase the book. I had been to Nagykallo and so had Stasiuk. That was enough for me. And still there was more. A chapter entitled Tara Sercuilor, Szekelyfold, Szekerland had my pulse racing. A window into the world of eastern Transylvania is something I have been longing for ever since I visited there myself. Other quixotic names appeared in the chapter titles, places such as Baia Mare, Shqiperia and of course, Babadag. These were places in an Eastern Europe that I had thought only existed in the furtive imagination of people like me. Stasiuk had actually visited them. I was filled with pangs of envy and a lust to learn more. This book was not just about travel in Eastern Europe, it was about the spaces in between the Pragues and Lvivs, the Budapests and Bucharests, that netherworld of sublime normalcy for Eastern Europeans that many see, but very few write about, especially in the English language. I needed to know more about the book because I felt like the author, Andrzej Stasiuk, had written the book for people like me.

Andrzej Stasiuk - Seeing What No One Else Can See

Andrzej Stasiuk – Seeing What No One Else Can See (Credit: Michal Kobylinski)

Nomadic Instincts – The Consummate Outsider
Stasiuk is a Polish author and as such, The Road to Babadag was originally written in Polish and translated into English. This is astonishing because Stasiuk’s travel writing would be difficult to translate. It can best be described as stream of consciousness. A master of words, his literary skill befits someone who is more poet and novelist than travel writer. Stasiuk comes from a non-traditional literary background. Not only does he not have a college degree, but he was kicked out of secondary school and later dropped out of a vocational school. A stint in the military ended in desertion. From reading his bio, I sensed that Stasiuk is the kind of magnificent misfit who was never suited to modern life. The consummate outsider, not by choice, but by his nomadic instincts. It is difficult to put Stasiuk’s writing into a literary genre. The phrase most often used is post-modern. His literary output has mostly been novels, but the Road to Babadag was an initial foray into travel writing than turned into a stunning success.

On The Road to Babadag is dreamy, to the point of hallucinatory. Take the following passage: It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. In a country you know nothing about, there is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects and events may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact. They begin only when we experience them, vanish when others follow. So they truly have no significance. They are made of that primal substance that touches our senses but is too light, too evanescent, to teach us anything.”

The Path of Stasiuk - A Village in Albania

The Path of Stasiuk – A Village in Albania (Credit: SuSanA Secretariat)

Stasiuk’s Sixth Sense – A Stream of Subconsciousness
Passages such as these had a magical effect upon me. I was reading Stasiuk and at the same time fragments of memories from my travels came flooding back…the container of orange juice I drank on my first morning in Bulgaria, a barking dog in the wrong room I entered at a hostel in Pecs, a prettily painted farm house in southern Romania, bare trees covering an anonymous mountainside in Transylvania, a lake shimmering silver in the autumn sunlight as seen from a train window in eastern Poland. Here was everything being brought back from nothing. Reading Stasiuk stimulated a sixth sense. His writing in The Road To Babadag is a portal, both to Stasiuk’s travels and to my own, starting in a used bookshop in Omaha and ending thousands of miles away.

The Ultimate Stimulant For Curiosity – Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

During each of my visits to Hungary, I have spent a fair amount of time perusing the English language sections of Hungarian bookstores in search of obscure volumes that I do not yet own. This means picking through the usual hardback picture books with names like Beautiful Hungary, the Architecture of Hungary and Budapest In Photos. Though the photography in these books is stunning, few of them interest me because they lack depth, as well as the historical information I crave. Such English language sections often contain a multiplicity of travel guides, most of which I own or tell myself I should have bought long ago. For some reason, Budapest: A Critical Guide by Andras Torok has been high on my list of potential purchases for years. For some inexplicable reason, I thumb through a copy for a few minutes only to place it back on the shelf. I tell myself there will be a next time, never knowing whether there really will be.

The English language sections are rounded out by a scattershot approach to subject matter. Translations of popular Hungarian novels, such as those by Mor Jokai, Ferenc Molnar and Sandor Marai are among a handful of authors on offer. They are the chosen few who have achieved an obscure renown in the English-speaking literary world. Either that or someone felt that it would been an affront to human knowledge by not going to the trouble of translating such masterpieces for a wider audience. My only wish is that someone would do the same for books on Hungarian history and culture. The lack of such works in English usually means my search for usually ends as an exercise in futility, but the hope of finding a hidden gem still leads me on to the next store. What keeps me going are the memories of certain discoveries which have stayed on my bookshelf to this very day. My favorite example of this is Hungary and the Hungarians by Istvan Bart. I came upon this volume at one of the shops operated by Alexandra, which along with Libri is one of the two largest bookstore chains in Hungary. My serendipitous discovery occurred in Szekszard, a city in central Hungary known chiefly for Bull’s Blood wine.

A Lexicon of Understanding - Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart

A Lexicon of Understanding – Hungary & the Hungarians by Istvan Bart

A Book By Its Binding – More Than Meets The Mind
Stumbling upon a copy of Hungary & the Hungarians is still fresh in my mind several years after it happened. Much of this has to do with my affinity for Alexandra and its correlation in my mind with literary discovery. That began on another trip to a different Alexandra Bookstore in central Budapest. That is where I stumbled upon a hidden treasure. The book was Eleanor Perenyi’s wonderfully insightful More Was Lost: A Memoir, concerning her marriage to a Hungarian noble prior to the Second World War. This discovery was much the same as the one at Alexandra in Szekszard where I searched the English language section to find anything of interest. While it is said that you should not judge a book by its cover, the same logic must apply to its binding. The color and font on the binding of Hungary and the Hungarians was less than eye catching when I first spotted it. The title was written in orange lettering atop a white background. On the bottom of the spine was a sketch of a crown with a raven inside of it. This was the logo of Corvina Press, a Hungarian publisher that specializes in English language titles concerning Hungarian subject matter.

From the binding I assumed the book was one of those lightweight volumes written for superficial appeal and easy reading. The cover was more intriguing. The main title only took up a fifth of the cover while a much longer sub-title was prominently featured. The sub-title stated, The Keywords, a concise Dictionary of Facts and Beliefs, Customs, Usage and Myths. This sounded unlike any book I had ever come across on Hungary. Despite its relatively slim size, the book was a reference work. Information is my addiction and reference works are often my drug of choice. I eagerly opened the book to find it arranged alphabetically, much like a traditional dictionary. The difference was that each word or phrase was in Hungarian with an italicized, literal translation following in English. The definitions were what I found most intriguing. They expressed the true meaning of the words and phrases rather than a literal definition. The book’s short introduction stated that these meanings were cultural. A sort of meta-language in which the true definition was hidden to all but those in the know. Only Hungarians or anyone who read this fascinating work might comprehend what was really being said. The book was a guide to deciphering a semi-secret code of the nuances of Hungarian words spoken in their proper cultural context.  .

Defining Terms - Hundreds of words and phrases can be found in Hungary & the Hungarians

Defining Terms – Hundreds of words and phrases can be found in Hungary & the Hungarians

A Lexicon Of Understanding – The Path To Future Discoveries
Choice examples were written on every page and decoded in clear explanations. From the nauseatingly mundane, albérlő (subtenant) which properly interpreted means “the image of the musty room of a crumbling apartment house giving out on the outer corridor…the smell of savoy cabbage”.  To the quasi-sinister ellenforradalom (counter-revolution) which happens to be a “perfidious and deceitful word used by the nomenclature for the revolution of 56.” A city such as Kolozsvar was noted as “the ‘capital’ of Transylvania…even by Romanian Hungarians, this despite the fact that due to the tens of thousands of new inhabitants settled there from other parts of Romania during the past couple of decades.” And on it goes for hundreds of entries. The book has become my lexicon of understanding when it comes to revealing another side of Hungary. It allows me greater understanding into the Hungarian mentality. What they are trying to say and why they say it. It is a welcome from the ridiculously useless phrase books one sees tourists mumbling from and fumbling through, Hungary & the Hungarians is much more useful. The Keywords come with a little translation and a large dose of interpretation.

From the matter of fact to the profound, Hungary and the Hungarians gave me a much deeper understanding of the nation, people and language. Several years later I still have it close at hand for both enlightenment and enjoyment. It is one of those books that was never meant to be read straight through. It is best consumed in smaller chunks. This means going from one entry to another while reading through a series of sometimes loosely associated definitions. I have traversed over a hundred pages at a time doing multiple cross-references. A half hour later, I emerge from such sessions knowing more than I could have ever imagined. More importantly, I am eager to read and reread Hungary & the Hungarians. There is always a new stimulant to provoke curiosity and provide illumination. The book was worth the bother it took to find it. I look forward to more happy returns from future discoveries.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.

Deeply Personal – A Mad Catastrophe: Recapturing Galicia’s World War (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #4)

I purchased Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the Natrona County Library Book Sale this past spring. I was not expecting much of a selection to choose from at the sale, especially when it came to Eastern Europe. This was mainly because the city of Casper, Wyoming, the Natrona County seat, happens to a blue collar energy boomtown, not known to be a community of booklovers. Case in point, though Casper is the second largest city in the state, it only has a couple of bookshops, both with very modest selections. The best chance of finding books on Eastern Europe in the area is by checking the mailbox, after an order from Amazon. I thought the book sale would be low key, with the usual volumes of romantic novels, self-help tomes and celebrity biographies usually on offer at these events.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

A Mad Catastrophe – the Austro-Hungarian opening offensives of World War I were just that

A Mad Catastrophe at a Bargain Price
Because my expectations were so low, I was shocked to find a hundred person long line had formed by the time the sale was due to open. Those who arrived at opening time were forced to wait upwards of an hour before entering the sale, as only a limited number of customers were allowed in at any time. Those who arrived earliest were the first to be allowed in to the sale. Soon they reappeared with shopping bags, baskets and carts filled with books. I began to grow a bit nervous that all the best volumes might be taken before I got inside. After 45 minutes of waiting I was permitted to enter. I was pleasantly surprised to find books on the history of the Serbs, the Poles and several that dealt with World War One in east-central Europe. These included a hard cover edition of Wawro’s book with a pristine dust jacket. The book had only come out a year before and dealt specifically with the Austro-Hungarian Army’s cataclysmic defeats in Serbia, Galicia and the Carpathians in the first six months of the war. I gladly purchased it for just five dollars. What a bargain!

I was interested to see what new information Wawro would bring to light concerning the Empire’s catastrophic performance in the opening campaigns. English language books on the Eastern Front of the war are extremely scarce. The most reliable scholarly work continues to Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front which was published in the 1970’s. A Mad Catastrophe was published just in time for commemoration of the war’s centennial, certainly not a coincidence. Like many books that I have purchased in the last several years, I did not read the entire volume cover to cover. I focused on the chapters concerning the Battles for Galicia and the Carpathian Winter campaign. Wawro illuminated the decisions, tactics and battles which occurred with many fascinating details. The book was well written, but Wawro could not help but take every opportunity to let the reader know just how bad the Austro-Hungarian leadership was. He had trouble hiding his opinions, to the point of bias.

Wawro used much of the narrative to point out every last flaw of the high command, both personal and professional. On many occasions Wawro would have been better off just letting the facts speak to the points he was trying to make.  Conversely, Wawro pretty much ignored the Russian Army’s incompetence. They were victorious only because the Austro-Hungarian high command was so bad. Both sides were sorely lacking in leadership, common sense and discipline. The Russians were victorious because Austria-Hungary committed suicide with frontal assaults, multi-day marches that exhausted the troops and a lack of artillery support. If anything, it is a wonder that the Austro-Hungarian Army did not disintegrate. Of course the Russians played a large role in this because they were not capable of delivering the fatal death blow that a more competent army would have done.

Zbarazh, Ukraine

Zbarazh, Ukraine – when Vasil and Anna Wawro left the town in 1914 it was at peace, but not for long

A Family Affair – The Wawros & World War
The most gripping part of the book – in my opinion the best – had nothing to do with battles and tactics. Instead it came in the acknowledgments. This is not a section I normally read, but in this case I was certainly glad I did. Wawro used the first half of the acknowledgments to talk about his family connection to Galicia and his trips to the region while researching the book. He tells of his great grandparent’s immigration from Galicia to the United States in 1914. This occurred just in the nick of time to avoid the war. If they had waited a few months longer, it is likely that both of his grandparents would have perished. Reading this suddenly made me aware of all those voices which had been silenced by the war. In all likelihood, the history of the Eastern Front has been lost to westerners as much because of the massive casualties as any language barrier. How many stories were lost, would be historians killed and descendants never born because of the war. Thank goodness that the Wawros left when they did.

Family was the critical force in both Wawro’s interest in the Battle of Galicia and his field research. The most memorable part of the acknowledgments section comes when Wawro writes about the research trips he took with his mother together across the region. He says, “my mother…gamely rented a car in Vienna and drove with me all the way to Zabaraz sharing the potholes, watery beer, bribes, thefts, and other tribulations (including being struck and nearly obliterated by an army jeep at an intersection in Bukovina).”  Wawro’s mother was well beyond senior citizenship when she traveled with her son to a wild and mysterious Eastern European backwater. She’s a lovably confused guide. Wawro recalls “an indelible memory of her in the passenger seat of our rented Opel, peering at grainy photocopies of old Habsburg general staff maps, patiently cross-referencing them with modern maps, and affecting not to notice as I slewed around country lanes roaring things like: ‘Mother, for the hundredth time, Hradec Kralove is Koniggratz.”

Geoffrey Wawro

Geoffrey Wawro – Author of A Mad Catastrophe The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Deeply Personal – A Mother and Her Offspring
Judith Stoughton Wawro raised seven children after her husband died in a tragic accident that nearly killed her as well. An entire family matured and prospered under her tutelage, none more so than her youngest son, Geoffery. She kept up with him even when they were oceans apart. When he was lonely and depressed in Vienna, drowning in a sea of archives, Ms. Wawro installed Skype on her computer (she was in her mid-80’s) and called her son to perk up his flagging spirits. The acknowledgements section of A Mad Catastrophe makes it quite apparent that without the deep bond between mother and son, the book would likely have never been written. Family roots are an abiding inspiration for Geoffery Wawro. From grandparents to parents to son, several generations of Wawros crisscrossed the Atlantic, first in search of a better life and then in search of the past. It is a story almost too good to be true. Like the best kinds of history, its roots are personal, deeply personal.

Truth in the Trivialities – The Radetzky March: Chapter 18 (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #3)

I hate nationalism and nation states. My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. The mansion has been divided up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for. – Joseph Roth

There is scarcely a better explanation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion than Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. It centers on a grand summer festival put on by an imperial dragoon regiment stationed in the eastern part of the province of Galicia. In a remote and insipid imperial army outpost, one of the most fantastic scenes in the whole of literature transpires as the officers of the regiment plan and then put on the festival, only to have it interrupted by a ferocious natural and geopolitical storm. During an ethereal thunderstorm they suddenly learn the news that the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Sarajevo. The shock of the news causes them to lose all inhibitions. The nationalistic instincts of the officers gush forth. The fault lines between the competing nationalities and dual loyalties of these men undergo a seismic shift in a matter of minutes after hearing the news. It all breaks apart and the world will never be the same.

Joseph Roth's classic work - The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Joseph Roth’s classic work – The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

A Motley Crew of Multinationals
Roth created a motley multi-national cast, representative of the empire’s conflicting ethnic identities. It is through these characters that we witness the empire’s disintegration. The Dual Monarchy had loosely knit together peoples of widely varying ethnic backgrounds for centuries. It had ten different national groups numbering at least a million, with the largest single ethnic group, Germans, less than a quarter of the population. The empire finally disintegrated under the pressure of a singular, transforming historical event. The final implosion occurred due to the internal contradictions of many different nationalities competing for autonomy or independence.

All the characters present in the chapter reflect an ethnic group which had either a sense of privilege or grievance that is offensive to another one.  Two of the characters in the scene are so brilliantly rendered that critiquing one of their seemingly, minor interactions, illuminates the tension at the heart of the Dual Monarchy’s most important relationship, namely that between the Austrians and Hungarians. Each is representative of national traits that cause even the most trivial of details to require delicate negotiation.

Violent arguments over stylistic niceties”
Rittmaster Count Zschoch is the man who had originally come up with the idea for the festival. An Austrian who spends many hours at a time in “violent arguments about stylistic niceties” regarding an invitation to the festival for the “honorary commander of the regiment, a minor German prince from an, alas, neglected collateral branch.” These arguments take place with Colonel Festetics, who comes from a family that is “one of the best in Hungary.”  The two work together, yet underlying tension exists over even the most trivial of matters.

An illuminating example is their dispute concerning the order in which invitations should be sent out to the invitees of the festival.  Zschoch wants the invitations dispatched in sequence of noble rank, while Festetics demands that they be sent out all at the same time. Zschoch is suspicious that Festetics wants it done this way, due to “a democratic leaning inspired by his Hungarian blood.”

Here Roth has given us the Austria-Hungary relationship in a nutshell. Trivial disputes plague everything, from the invitations wording to the order in which they must be dispatched. But these disputes are only superficially trivial. In actuality, they are rooted in the troubled history of the two protagonists. In this case, Festetics represents the rebellious spirit of the Hungarians who had revolted – most recently in 1848 – in numerous attempts to throw off the yoke of Habsburg rule.

A Swarm of Trivalities
Trivialities are metaphorical stand-ins for the continuous disagreements which threatened to undermine the relationship from 1867 onward. In the recently released The War That Ended Peace, concerning the lead up to and outbreak of the First World War, historian Margaret Macmillan uses some enlightening examples to describe the fraught relationship at the heart of the Dual Monarchy. “Even the simplest decisions were wound about with red tape or in reality colored twine, black and yellow for imperial matters, red, white and green for Hungary.” Or, “When Franz Josef [stated] that his armed forces were animated by a spirit of unity and harmony and treated all ethnic groups with respect , he simply threw more fuel the way of the Hungarian nationalists in Budapest. ‘Ethnic’ came out as ‘tribal’ in Hungarian which was seized upon as a deadly insult.”

One other detail of the Zsochoch-Festetics interaction to note is the worry and disagreement that arises over an invitation to “a minor German prince.” The imperial dragoon regiment is reduced to vying for the attentions of an obscure German noble. This is what the Dual Monarchy had been reduced to in the years prior to the outbreak of the war, vying for a smidgen of attention from the Germans. The weak and ossified monarchy had lost its importance and would soon lose much more than that, its reason for being. Why this happened is the subtext of many scenes in Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March. Roth shows us an empire coming apart at the seams, at the very end of its rope. It would take four more years of horrid war for it to finally strangle itself.

What History Did To Hungary – The Phoenix Land (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

“The true use of history is not external, but internal. Not what you can do with history, but what history does to you” – Jacques Barzin

Hungarians in exile, Hungarians abroad, this has been a reoccurring theme for the past one hundred sixty years in Hungary. Whether it was because of failed revolutions (1848 and 1956), seeking better opportunities abroad (the late 19th/early 20th century & 21st century since EU membership) or fleeing radical ideologies and chaotic political upheaval (post World War I, World War II and the immediate years thereafter), on numerous occasions Hungarians have found themselves far, far away from their homeland. Despite this dislocation or perhaps because of it, they have used their creative talents to make a name for themselves. Hungarians provided much of the brain power behind the atomic bomb, the moon and mars rover, supersonic flight, jet propulsion, full length motion pictures and Microsoft Office to name just a few of their innovations. Even personalities as famous and disparate as Joseph Pulitzer and Harry Houdini were both originally from Hungary.

This seems almost too good to be true. It makes one wonder what would have occurred if all those famous Hungarians who went abroad could have stayed in their homeland, what heights might the country have attained? Hungarians are justly proud of their fellow countrymen’s accomplishments abroad. Conversely, there is rarely any discussion of Hungarians who returned to their homeland. This is something which is rarely spoken of, if ever. In today’s installment of A Trip Around My Bookshelf, we will learn about some Hungarians who returned from abroad, the near abroad of Transylvania in the first case and the trenches of World War I in the second. In both of these cases the central figure is Miklos Banffy, as both subject and recorder of changes  that would roil 20th century Hungary.

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

One Hungarian who was cut asunder from the nation and also went abroad for a time was the author Miklos Banffy (1873 – 1950). Banffy left his homeland for a short time and was something of an internal exile through no fault of his own, since Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace which followed World War I. Many people who are quite knowledgable about Hungary have never heard of Banffy, that is such a shame. Miklos Banffy was born into one of the pre-eminent aristocratic families in Transylvania, back when it was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He was an incredibly talented writer, artist and politician. He wrote one of the great works of period literature, what is known as The Transylvania Trilogy, a three volume set of novels under the stark titles, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Counted and They Were Divided. The books follow the life and times of Transylvanian aristocracy from the turn of the 20th century up to the outbreak of the First World War. We get to know not only a cast of characters whose tragic excesses, love affairs and  aristocratic traditions are the essence of great drama, but also a people who are inextricably attached to a land which seems to almost be a physical part of them. Fortunately one of Banffy’s descendants saw fit to have these books translated into English. The trilogy is now readily available for purchase in the English language sections of good Hungarian bookstores, in addition to online.

Somewhat hidden in the shadow of this towering literary achievement is Banffy’s other book, The Phoenix Land. The name metaphorically implies the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, just as Hungary rose from the calamity of World War I, the chaotic aftermath of revolution and counter-revolution which followed and the disastrous Treaty Of Trianon whereby Hungary lost over two-thirds of its land and population, including Transylvania. Banffy was named the foreign minister for a time following the war. He offers insight into the negotiations and political machinations that took place in order to keep the country from totally falling apart. These memoirs deal with the interwar years, as the Hungarians attempt to deal with the shocking reality of defeat, occupation and dismemberment. This is not just a memoir of a man, it is also the memoir of a national trauma. Banffy is both insider and outsider. He no longer has his country, but his country will forever have him. The same could be said of the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania, even today. The exile of over a million ethnic Hungarians is all the more painful because of the mother nation’s close proximity. Banffy and his fellow Transylvanians do not have an ocean or a continent separating them from their mother country, they only have an invisible political barrier, a border. It is a scar that all Hungarians live with. The Phoenix Land is much more an interpretation of mental rather than physical scars.

The Last Coronation - Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The Last Coronation – Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The only part of the book which does not deal with the interwar years may also be its best. Banffy describes with eloquence and melancholy what became the final coronation of a Habsburg monarch.  In late 1916, long time Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which saw him lead the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was quickly arranged. This event would crown his great nephew Charles as the new monarch.  He would become King Charles IV (Emperor Charles I). Banffy was in charge of planning, organizing and staging the coronation which took place at the Matyas Church in Budapest on December 30, 1916.

It was at this final coronation that the coming fate of the Kingdom of Hungary was foretold by an unanticipated scene, one that is hardly known, yet symbolic of the state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In this historic moment we find Hungarians, specifically the Knights of the Golden Spur returning from the trenches in order to be present at the coronation. The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition and protocol. Soon after it begins, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this though, with the church now empty, protocol took precedence. Suddenly the ghostly Knights of the Golden Spur appeared to receive accolades from the newly crowned king.  Banffy describes what happened next:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.”

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

The entire ceremony was a metaphor, but not for traditional imperial principles. Instead, the glittering coronation represented what the Kingdom of Hungary had been. Then suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur appear and represent the stark reality of what the Kingdom has become: broken, feeble, on its last legs. The end is near. The future will be a different place, where nothing will ever be the same. The resplendent beauty of the empire is now transitory, fading fast. The Dual Monarchy is disintegrating at the front and the soldier’s scars, bear witness to the mortal wound that the Habsburg Empire has suffered. Reading this, it is much easier to understand what happened in the years that followed. The monarchy dissolved, Hungary’s best and brightest had been killed or irreparably wounded at the front fighting for an ideal that had been vanquished. This was foretold by those Knights of the Golden Spur who had returned to the homeland. Perhaps we should now acknowledge the ultimate Hungarian exile of the 20th century, the monarchy. It left, never to return and nothing has been the same since then. Ironically, it was returnees, the Knights of the Golden Spur and Miklos Banffy, who foretold the future and what was to come.

Some Damn Fool Thing Called The Balkans (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 2)

The Balkans, to balkanize, the balkanization of, a balkanizing influence – all of these are different usages of that singular, dreaded word Balkan. In the strictest sense it defines a geographic region which usually (italics are mine) includes Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. The region also can be defined by political, cultural or geographic terms as well. That is at least the official line.

For purposes of the 20th and now 21st century the word Balkan has actually come to mean some or all of the following: ancient feuds, economic backwardness, martial tendencies, religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing and underdevelopment. The borders of its nation-states are assumed to be fluid, based more upon facts on the ground than lines on a map. It is a place where empires falter and small states disappear or reappear depending upon the ill-fated region’s own inertial logic. Balkan can include the following entities which all no longer existed or only existed in the fertile imaginations of crypto-nationalists: Yugoslavia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Greater Greece, Greater Bulgarian, Greater Serbia and on and on and on.

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The word Balkan is the nastiest two syllable word a Great Power ever heard. The German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck said that the great European war would be caused by, “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.” He did not live to see his words come true, but that made them no less true. On my shelf I have a copy of The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower. It measures in at just 156 tidy pages. That may seem a trifle thin for a place you could spend a lifetime attempting to understand. How in the world can anyone do justice to such a complex place in so few pages? Well from what I remember – it has been about three years since I read it – Mazower does a pretty good job. I am not going to give a formal book review here, those are available elsewhere. What I want to talk about is one particular thing I found enlightening in the text. This made the entire book worth the reading.

Let me start by saying, isn’t it funny how one can read an entire book and hardly remember anything about it right offhand. That could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps it was indifferently written or indifferently read, it could have been that the subject matter was boring (the Balkans can never be called that though) or because the reader did not want to read it, in other words it was required reading. Let us settle one thing right now, I did not read the book because I had to, I read it because I wanted to. I did not read it indifferently, but I cannot say that I read it very actively either (i.e. I was not taking notes or pondering the author’s interpretations). I read it for information and to gain insight into the Balkans without spending my time sifting through scholarly works. I could not tell you now the main points Mazower was trying to make, but I did learn one thing which continues to fascinate me, so much so that every time I look at the book I think about it. That one thing was an explanation of how the term Balkan as we know it today came about.

In the book’s opening, Mazower spends several pages talking about the genesis of the term Balkans. The Balkans as we know the term today is a  product of the late 19th century. That’s right, this place which has become synonymous for ancient feuds and age old hatreds has been given a name about as old as the state I live in, South Dakota. I find this astounding. How can it be? Well the original term Balkan was nothing more than a geographic feature, a mountain range that runs from eastern Serbia through the central Bulgaria all the way over to the Black Sea. The region was known as Rumeli when the Ottoman Turks ruled it for centuries. According to Mazower, the term Balkan first began to be used incorrectly by geographers who wrongly believed the mountain range ran all the way across southeastern Europe. This started happening in the mid-19th century, by highly educated people no less. The common term for the region used in the 18th and most of the 19th century was either European Turkey or Turkey in Europe. This was a somewhat apt description, until the Ottomans were booted out of Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia among other areas.

Following these upheavals, the term used in reference to the region began to change. By the turn of the 20th century, diplomats, journalists and geographers were referring to “the Balkans” as a critical geopolitical region with increasing regularity. A new nom de guerre (quite literally) was born. This region which had been under the sway of the dreaded Turk for centuries on end could not escape the condescension of “civilized” western and central Europeans. From almost the start, the term became a synonym for a primitive place filled with primitive people who practiced a primitive way of life. Two World Wars and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia only added to this bias. Today, the term Balkan is firmly ensconced in the world’s geopolitical lingo. Perhaps the Balkans as a term will fall out of style, then again there is probably a much greater chance that it continues to be used in to denote a region as well as reaffirm prejudice and cliché.

How strange to think that not so long ago, it had a separate and largely unknown meaning. The word went from defining a little known mountain range to being a pejorative term for a wild, savage place that was hardly European at all except for its geographical proximity.  Just a century and a half ago, monarchies ruled most of Europe. Turkey in Europe was fast becoming an anachronism. The great powers of Europe rushed to fill the power vacuum. None of them suspected at the time that a region they hardly knew anything about or even had much of a name for, would cause the dissolution of an entire continental order. The Balkans only had definition after the tide of history turned, swept all before it and gave new meaning both to a region and also what happened to Europe in the 20th century.

An Unknown Friend: Only In Budapest by Duncan J.D. Smith (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #1)

This is the first in a recurring series about random books on my shelves that I find intriguing

I first discovered Only In Budapest at the Alexandre bookshop on Andrassy Utca. Just outside the glittering Bookcafe (formerly the Paris Department Store) in the English books section. The holdings were entirely predictable. Chain book shops like all chain stores have a way of homogenizing the inventory. Thousands of books begin to look like all the ones you’ve already read. There were tons of tour guides, concise histories that are anything but, large hardback albums full of photos that never look quite real, and a few novels from authors of popular Hungarian works translated into English, by the usual triumvirate of Marai, Moricz and Kertesz. Only in Budapest caught my eye because of its colorful cover and the snap assumption that such a title was a reference to odd and curious stories that would be worth at least a quick glance. Quite possibly, I hoped to read tales of Magyar derring do in this city that is both split and united by the Danube. At best this book could both inform and amuse, at worst it would be filled with tidbits of trivia best left to the Hop In-Hop Off Bus Tours. After a few minutes thumbing through one fascinating story after another – all surprisingly well written in at most three or four pages – I was ecstatic. I had to have this book. It looked like a cure all for indifference.

Only In Budapest - A fabulous addition to my bookshelf

Only In Budapest – A fabulous addition to my bookshelf

By this point, I had been in Budapest five times and seemed to be running out of interesting places to see. A ridiculous conceit to be sure, but I had visited everything from Castle Hill to Kispest . You know, it’s getting a bit thin on the ground when you while away an afternoon at the Postage Stamp Museum (actually quite an incredible collection). I was becoming numb to the beaten path. The Parliament building still glittered and gleamed, but a little less so. I began to notice its blemishes, such as the tremendous amount of work needed to keep up the façade. And then there was the Danube which was never blue to begin with, only now I began to notice. Budapest and I were beginning to have a problem. There must have been much more to see, but where was it at? Museums sounded stodgy, guided tours irritating, people watching – that’s what I did on the way to somewhere else. Websites that purported to tell me everything to see and do in the city, were a long recitation of tedious lists of what I had already seen and done.  Many things I had done twice, frighteningly there were a few things I had done on every visit. I tried to comfort myself with a phrase I had once read, “All learning is relearning.” That seemed to be a bit loopy, in the most literal sense. It also seemed to be the motto of my past week, shuffling aimlessly through meaningless streets, hither and yon, staring listlessly at city maps, ignoring my guidebooks. The beaten path had beat me to death and the off the beaten path was just a cliché used to seduce wayward wander lusters.

Thank goodness I had found Only In Budapest, it could be my own personal travel stimulus. With less than a week left to spare on this visit to Budapest, I decided to wait and order a cheaper, slightly used copy of from an online shop once I got back home. That’s what I did. The day it arrived I read the first entry, was satisfied and set it aside, waiting to summon it forth on my first day when I would arrive back in the city. Now I still have two weeks until I return so I picked it up again yesterday. I decided to read the introduction. This may seem strange, after all how many of us ever bother with intros or prefaces? We want to dive right in to a book. Impatience is one of my worst vices, it has caused me to skip titles, prefaces, subheadings and photo captions. I find all of these to be either disjointed or esoteric. I have been wrong on many occasions.

I first learned the value of introductions and prefaces to the meaning of a book, was from the aptly, if annoyingly titled volume How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide To Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. The title makes it sound like a book written for clueless dunces, but it should be required reading. Adler says the introduction should always be read before beginning a book. It will give us the most comprehensive overview of what the book is about. Of course, one could reply that after you read the book, you will know what it is about. Well not exactly. Consider this question: what are the chances you will read the whole book. Now compare that with your chances of reading the whole introduction. My bet is that you can make it through the intro. Even if like me, you suffer from an attention span limited by impulse and whim. In addition, the intro is the best place to discern what points the author is going to make. Then when you read the book, you can decide for yourself if the author makes those points well. An added benefit is that a well written intro should help you to get to know the author. It offers first contact with the author’s voice. Keep in, that if the preface confuses or bores, well then look out! If you can’t make it through a few pages, what are the chances of making it through thirty chapters.

Reading the introduction to Only In Budapest last night, I discovered two things about the book, one literal, the other interpretative.  The literal comes straight from the words of author Duncan J.D. Smith:

“The relatively few available guidebooks offer the undemanding visitor an amazing array of museums, churches, historic buildings, and eateries, reflecting the history of the city from Roman and Magyar times, via the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, up to the present day. However, for those with a little more time on their hands, and for those who want to discover (italics author’s own) something of the place for themselves, this new guide has been expressly written…Based on personal experience, and footslogging all twenty-three of the city’s districts, the author will point the explorer in a new and unusual direction.”

This was exactly what I was looking for! I am a little embarrassed to admit that I did not even consider reading the intro that day at the bookstore, shame on me. Smith laid it all out in just a page and a half. It was though he was reading my mind, and by reading the introduction I was reading his. Marcel Proust once said that, “kindred spirits come together, one has few really unknown friends.” Perhaps he was talking about a meeting of the minds, between author and reader as well.
My interpretative discovery happened to be what I believe is the raison d’etre (reason for being) of Smith’s book, found in the last sentence of the introduction:

“treat Budapest as a giant oyster containing many precious pearls – I just hope you enjoy finding them as much as I did.”

This is a simple, succinct invitation that is filled with of all things, love. Love of travel, love of the hidden treasure, love of seeking and finding, love of sharing, love of discovery, love of Budapest. Smith wrote this whole book, not just for money, but for love. The love of sharing one of the great cities of the world with travelers. He did it so they might first follow in his footsteps and then somewhere along the way step outside of themselves to suddenly find their own path. Make no mistake Smith’s audience is as big a part of the adventure as he is. Without fellow travelers, he would not have a reason for writing this book. He is imploring the traveler with an offer that I for one cannot refuse: to see Budapest in a different light and a different darkness, to lift the veil of obscurity and indifference, with an invitation to a series of unique experiences.

I can see myself now in Smith’s shoes as I thumb through the entries. Visiting a vanished district in Obuda, delving into the mystery of Raoul Wallenberg that haunts the city’s history, wandering through the Chinese moon gate where East meets West in Pest and scaling the heights of a Belevedere Tower in the Buda Hills. In these glossy pages and forgotten places I am being born again. That’s the very best of what traveling can do. Only in Budapest!

To learn more about the author of Only In Budapest, Duncan J.D. Smith check out his website at: