The book is green with golden letters, cloth bound. Sunlight faded the spine into autumnal yellow so that you can no longer make out the title and the author very well. When you open it, the yellowed pages rustle, feeling slightly stiff to the fingers. The title page is followed by the picture of the author printed on smooth, glossy paper that contrasts with the coarser pages that follow it. I turn the pages and think: they don’t make books like this anymore.
And then there’s the way it smells. The smell of decades which lingers on your fingers even after you put the book down.
The book is Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. The copy I’m holding in my hand was published in Hungary in 1955 and comes complete with an ideologically overloaded preface that teems with phrases like ‘financial bourgeoisie’, ‘sharpening class struggle’ and ‘Marxist-Leninist’ – par for the course in those Stalinist times when even children’s adventure books were tinted by Marxist ideology. On the bottom of the very last page, there’s the faded indigo stamp of the State Book Distribution Company with the address of the bookshop in Budapest where it had been first sold. I found it in a second-hand bookshop in England: my theory is that it was sold to them by a descendant of a Hungarian émigré of the 1956 revolution who can’t read Hungarian.
As luck would have it, I came across the book exactly two days before Christmas and that same day my brother-in-law ordered me the English version from my Amazon wish list. If he had been less quick on the ‘buy now’ button, I’d have had time to remove it.
Clearly I was destined to re-read the Persian Letters of Montesquieu.
You might also like: ⇒ On Goulash Communism ⇒ The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents on the National Security Archive