Csilla Toldy writes about the creative process of fictionalising in her short story collection Angel Fur and other stories
Thirty one years ago I watched the Berlin Wall being demolished, and relished in the global euphoria that signalled the end of the Cold War. The Iron Curtain had a personal significance in my life and I was happy to witness its destruction. I fictionalised aspects of my defection from Hungary in my writings and many of the stories included in my collection “Angel Fur” are based on facts I heard during my childhood, or based on research into the lives of people whose personal stories touched me in some important way.
My growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Socialist Hungary was a somewhat schizophrenic experience. I suppose, I was imbued with my mother’s fear, and her bedtime stories about her childhood during the Second World War and the Stalin Terror in Budapest. As a young girl she watched the Arrow Cross soldiers taking Jewish people to be shot into the Danube, and Pest being carpet bombed by the Allies. She was terrified when Hungarian Nazi soldiers threatened her pregnant aunt, telling her that she would be pushed into the line with the Jews, for showing compassion. My mother believed that by telling these stories to her children, she could stop history repeating itself. She inspired me to research and write about the actress Katalin Karady’s life who saved Jewish children, in “Kata’s Ark”.
Hungary was ‘liberated’ by the Russians and after a while my mother accepted this, too, even though she had to hide together with all the other women left behind, trying to avoid being raped by their Russian liberators. My maternal grandfather had served as a field nurse on the Russian front and was interred for three years as a war prisoner in Siberia. On his return to Hungary it became clear that he had not only contracted TB but also Communist Propaganda. His advice to his children was to join the Communist Party, for he had seen how Stalin treated his own people if they disagreed with the doctrines of his regime. Joining the party was a survival instinct, but it also resonated with a sense of social justice they shared, having come from a working class background.
On the paternal side, my father was always critical of the regime and my mother’s party membership, calling her a “sheep”. The analogy came to him naturally. I am sure that he had never read Animal Farm. It was first serialised in Hungarian in 1978 in a samizdat magazine. As a silent protestor behind the closed doors of his home, my father never joined the party, not even the trade union. I followed in his footsteps, when I was old enough to make up my own mind. Outside, in the street my father was quiet and aloof, while my mother was bubbly and open, yet her cheeriness always felt somewhat false. I was much older when I found out about my great uncle who had been taken from a tram for telling a ‘joke’ about Rakosi – the Stalinist leader of Hungary in the nineteen fifties. Uncle Endre became one of the disappeared but people knew that he must have been beaten to death in a cellar with his body never found – this was a treatment so many suffered during the terror years of the Stalinist ‘purging’. So, my mother knew how to behave in public and this might have still influenced her when we were travelling to the kindergarden on a yellow tram in the nineteen sixties. There was always a tension between being “outside” and “inside” and ultimately, people kept to themselves and to their families. My memory of travelling to the kindergarden is speckled with my mother’s outside stories. During her trip to Moscow, sponsored by the Trade Union after her first husband’s death she saw Lenin’s embalmed body laid out in a glass coffin, just like Snow White in my fairy tales. The most intriguing detail for me was the fact that Lenin’s beard and nails were still growing. This old childhood tale inspired the opening flash fiction piece “Necrophilia”, about Lenin’s barber. One of the inside stories is “The Joke”, in which I was trying to imagine how my uncle felt in his last hours in that cellar before he died.
While in Germany it was a double line of heavy concrete walls, the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary was a parallel running high electrical fence that enclosed a 300 feet wide stripe of a ‘no-man’s land’, layed with mines. Many people died trying to get over this, but in Yugoslavia the Iron Curtain was perforated with many holes and it was much easier to cross. This was all we knew when we ventured on the journey with my boyfriend, shortly after my eighteenth birthday. He had more reason to leave than I, for he had been enlisted. My reasons were partly emotional and mostly ideological: the constant pestering by the police, and the general cruelty and disrespect of the basic Human Rights, especially the Freedom of Speech. My boyfriend, like many other young men of his generation had staged fake suicides in public toilets to be exempted from military service, and I fictionalised the witnessing of these in “Freedom”.
Reaching freedom after defecting was nothing like the ideal, though. In my story, “Mother’s Words” a Polish girl finds it in a refugee camp in a similarly disillusioning form.
I was numb for many years and was completely disappointed with both systems, yet I learned that most of the population, including my family, had been conditioned to put up with them. They were the happy prisoners on the other side of the Iron Curtain, like my fellow refugees nurturing the hope of a future, happy life on this side in the camp in Germany. People who knew how to manipulate the system enjoyed liberties that others could not. In my flash fiction story, “Howl”, about a pack of wolves, I played with this idea taking it a bit further into the future.
I was numb for long, not only because of the traumatic experience of the escape, having made myself homeless, but also because of the guilt about leaving my family behind. Yet, nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother tongue. I spoke a few European languages well enough to get by, and enjoyed reading works in original, but the language of my heart, Hungarian, the intimate melody of my childhood was muted, and for good as it seemed. You think in your mother tongue for a long-long time until one day images take over and then suddenly you have a choice – which language would describe it best? Now I write in English and sometimes translate my own work into Hungarian for reading events, but always with a certain dread of censoring myself. – This could have been my inside story, but here you are.
Csilla Toldy is a tutor on A215 Creative writing. Her book is published by Stupor Mundi.