Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.
When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.
British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?
Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’
His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.
There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.
I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.
All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.
If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.
Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.
First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018