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 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. .
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.