People of the Puszta

When you come from a family of the ultimate not-haves, just how cool is it to be able to hold up a book and say: “This has been written about us.”?

And a good book at that?

People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (English translation)

Well, you can take it from me: it is cool. Precious, in fact. So much so that I wanted to make sure to pass this book on to my children.

Gyula Illyés

Gyula Illyés came from a piss-poor family in a puszta in the middle of Transdanubia, within a few kilometres of where my family comes from. By talent and hard work, he somehow managed to rise from the world of the puszta to become a famous writer and intellectual. He was only a few years older than my great-grandfather – who too was from a piss-poor family. The childhood Illyés describes was still pretty much the childhood my grandmother had; she remembered some of the events described in the book. I myself spent the long summer vacations of my childhood right there where many of these events happened; my grandparents, aunts and uncles speak with the same accent Illyés did. I used to drop into the same accent within days of arriving to my grandma’s house, every time.

The Puszta & its People

To understand where Illyés and my family come from, you have to understand the concept of the puszta as it then was in Transdanubia, Western-Hungary, because  generally in Hungarian and in the world this word is better known to mean big sweeping plains (like the steppes of Russia, say). A Transdanubian puszta on the other hand was a kind of a hamlet (if you can call the handful of buildings a hamlet) on the big farm estate.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when this book is set, most land in Transdanubia was held by a few big families who hardly ever even went near their estates but employed a farm manager or agent, who then managed the work force. This work force was invariably composed of the landless peasantry of which there was ample supply (despite of high rates of emigration to America). The peasants were hired as day labourers and if they managed to get a more permanent position, such as a coachman or a wheelwright, they were given some huts to live in right there on the puszta. Their life was very much like the life of a medieaval serf; their prospects to better themselves practically non-existent.

My great-grandfather was one of the lucky people: he had a permanent position. Moreover, he was employed as a coachman by the local landowner at a time when he couldn’t get any other work. He had come back from a Russian POW camp in the aftermath of World War I and as such he was ‘tainted’ by communist ideas and nobody would employ him. Thankfully the local land manager knew the family well and was not worried that my great-grandfather would want to start a communist agitation on the estate! (Nor did he.)

The people, my family included, lived in low single story houses which consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. These were strung out in a row:

room 1 – shared kitchen – room 2

Each family had a room to themselves, that sometimes meant twenty people in the same room: several generations. The families decorated their room as best as they could which was nothing much. They were often short of having enough furniture even. The floor was a dirt floor, ie. just the ground trampled solidly underfoot. This was the same in the kitchen which was shared with the neighbouring family. Each family had its side of the kitchen, so to speak, where they kept their pots and pans and their meagre supplies – having to borrow a spoonful of sugar or a few potatoes from the fellow kitchen user or the neighbours in the next building was common. No bathrooms of course; outhouses were built instead well away from the living spaces.

… I can remember only the house with its two tiny rooms adn the earth-floored kitchen in between. The yard stretched as far as the eye could see. When I first struggled over the well-worn threshold, the infinite world lay at my faltering feet. The house stood on a hill. Beneath it in the valley lay the puszta, which conformed to the usual pattern. To the right lived the steward, the farm foreman, the mason and the wheelwright; in the same block of buildings were the forge and the wheel-shop. To the left were three or four rows of long farm servants’ quarters, then there ws the manor-house among its age old trees, the the famr manager’s dwelling. Immediately opposite was a large cart-shed in Empire style, behind which on a little rise stood the granary and the ox-stables. All around lay the endless fields, speckled with the white smudges of distant villages.

The puszta families lived in a sort of timelessness. It’s not that area had no history (it has plenty and varied, all the way back to the Romans) but they themselves, being uneducated knew nothing much about it. Their life was ordained by the seasons.

It was something of a disgrace to be a puszta-dweller; it implied having no roots, no native land and no fixed above – which of course is true.

…If you want to know where a puszta-dweller comes from, you do not ask him where he lives or even less where he was born, but who his master is. My own family served mostly the Apponyis, then the Zichys, Wurms, Strassers and Königs and their relations – for the landed gentry were apt to exchange their servants for with their relatives: thus a clever cowman, a good-looking coachman or a deft-fingered gelder would be transferred or even presented to one of the relations, this being regarded by the servants themselves as a mark of special disctinction.

The lives of the families were mostly directed by the local landowner or his agent: it mattered little which puszta a child was born since the administrative arrangements kept changing (ie. which nearby village the puszta happened to be belonging) and the families could be uprooted from one day to another and transferred to another estate owned by the same land owner.

So we wandered from place to place, sometimes taking all our odds and ends, our collapsible hen-houses, our hens and the cow; sometimes it was only to visit relatives, a brother or sister-in-law who had suddenly been snatched away after living nearby for five or six years. Sometimes we drove all night and all morning in the wagon, but we were never away from a puszta, and felt at home everywhere. The house were I was born did not belong to my father, bu in the land of my birth, I received an unrivalled inheritance. I can call half a county my own.

The Gentle Back of Beyond

The Sió near Simontornya [Photo by blatniczky via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0]
If the lives of the puszta people sounds bleak, it is because it was. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t beauty or joy in it. Families were tightly knit and supported each other. The landscape was gentle and is captured by Illyés in a beautiful, lyrical manner.

It’s a landscape of gently rolling hills, covered in wheat and corn fields, or sunflowers bowing heavily with full heads. Rows and clumps of trees break up the fields here and there, together with streams and small ponds in clearings, where nothing stirs the surface of the water and the vegetation around is lush and fresh green even in the hight of summer. The smell of hay and manure wafts across the roads which lead to the villages. The roads are edged with rows of poplars and acacias, and in their shade in August you often see camping tables set out piled high with fresh watermelons for sale. A large number of the puszta hamlets had a name prefixed with mud (as in Sárszentlőrinc, Mud St Lawrence); not so surprising perhaps because the the nearby Sió (a river and canal in one which connects Lake Balaton to the River Danube) supplies abundant water in the area. There is even the odd castle or castle ruin: for example Simontornya castle (hardly more than a keep) still has cannon balls embedded in the walls; whether fired by the Turks or the Labanc (Austrians during the Rákóczi War of Independence) the locals no longer remember; it was just another siege they withstood.

Everybody knew everybody among the puszta folk in Illyés’s time, and that still applies a hundred years later. When I walk down the street in the village (there are hardly any pusztas that still exist), sooner or later I’m bound to be hailed “You, my child! Are you not the daughter of So-and-so?… How does it go with you?” And you find yourself answering deferentially to an old birdlike hag whose name you don’t know, and who is dressed in full black from the hand-embroidered kerchief tied around her head to the buttons on her sensible shoes. Because however far you have risen out of the puszta, you are still one of them. In the end, I’m only the second generation, the second person of the family to have let. I might not remember the old people are, but they sure remember me and this provides me with a strange reassurance that I, as an individual, matter.

Conclusion

All this and more Gyula Illyés writes about in his wonderful book. People of the puszta is a part an auto-biography, part sociography (of a society that has now mostly disappeared), part a description a landscape, meshed with bits of the cultural heritage of the people who inhabit that landscape. Overall, it’s a wonderful concoction of a book and I can only recommend it, even if you have zero interest in the topic as such. I leave you with this recommendation:

A beautifully written, moving work of art.

(The Times Literary Supplement)

Who’s Who: Obscure Authors

I had to write a Who’s Who page for the blog as Mr Anglo-Saxonist heard on the radio that in America an Anglo-Saxonist is not merely a person obsessed by Anglo-Saxon history but some species of unsavoury character… and requested that I make it clear that he’s merely the first but not the latter!

Since I was going to write a Who’s Who, I felt I might as well include the more obscure authors and historical figures that populate these pages.

It is a work in progress…

…but I thought I’d share the first instalment with you.

By way of kicking off the new year. Happy New Year to you all, by the way! 🙂

Obscure Authors

Anonymous [Photo by Alex Proimos via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0]

George Borrow

An enterprising employee of the Bible Society of London who went to  to peddle a forbidden book up and down the land of civil war torn, Catholic Spain in the 19th century. A gifted linguist and a born adventurer, Borrow wrote his highly entertaining story up in… The Bible in Spain. (I don’t have to spell out what book he was selling, do I?)

Ernle Bradford

An English sailor and historian who fell in love with the Mediterranean during World War II. He wrote histories and travel books in an entertaining, relaxed style, eminently suited for holiday reading. If you only ever read one book about the Battle of Thermopylae, read his. More about him in Sailing into History.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo

A Spanish conquistador who took part in the conquest of Mexico with Hernán Cortez. He described his experiences in the The Conquest of New Spain.

Alonso de Contreras

A Spanish soldier of fortune in the 17th century. Contreras mostly served in the Mediterranean against the Turks although he also visited the Indias where he fought against Sir Walter Raleigh. A hot head and a womaniser, he often got into trouble for killing when not on the battle field; he was imprisoned several times and even lived as a hermit for a while. He wrote his life’s story up in The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras.

Felix Fabri

A German monk with the gift of the gab who twice went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Red Sea and Egypt in the 1480s and then wrote a detailed account of his travels. He can be a bit boring on occasion – when he describes every stone and tree stump in Jerusalem and the number of indulgences he received for kissing them – but he had an open and enquiring mind and he did go on pilgrimage in a then enemy country. Well worth persevering with. (Or take him in small (tasty) bites here on Waterblogged.)

Antonio de Nebrija

The man who wrote the first grammar of a ‘vulgar’ tongue in Europe; he dedicated his grammar of the Castilian language to Queen Isabella and his foreword continues to be quoted to this day.

Arthur Ransome

Who is only obscure outside England…!

An English children’s author (and supposed spy) who wrote the Swallows and Amazons series about the outdoor adventures of some enterprising children. Unlike Enid Blyton, Ransome wrote well enough to be an entertaining read even for adults.

Venedikt Yerofeev

A dissident Russian author in the second half of the 20th century. He was kicked out of university for not taking the compulsory military training seriously enough (he cheeked the major in charge). Best known for his highly subversive novel, Moscow Stations wickedly funny.

Las verdaderas historias de… (The True Stories of…)

Hace unas semanas he escrito unas líneas sobre Alonso de Contreras, un soldado español del siglo XVI, cuyas memorias inspiraron la vida del capitán Alatriste, el conocido héroe de Arturo Pérez-Reverte.  Cosa que al parecer no le gustó a casi nadie (pero a mí sí que me gustó escribirlo). Si no lo has leído, puedes encontrarlo aquí:

Capitán y español (Las vidas de aquellos capitanes)

A few weeks ago I wrote some lines about Alonso de Contreras, a Spanish soldier from the 16th century, whose memoirs inspired the life of Captain Alatriste, the well-known hero of Arturo Pérez-Reverte. A piece that apparently almost nobody liked (but I did like writing it). If you haven’t read it, you can find it here:

The Three (Spanish) Musketeers

Bueno. Como mencioné en ese post, Alonso de Contreras no fue el único soldado español que escribió sobre su vida. Hoy os voy a recomendar dos libros más; porque, creed me, la historia es mejor que la ficción.

Anyway. As I mentioned in that post, Alonso de Contreras wasn’t the only Spanish soldier who wrote about his life. Today I’m going to recommend you two more books; because, believe me, history is indeed better than fiction.

Continue reading “Las verdaderas historias de… (The True Stories of…)”

The Three (Spanish) Musketeers

Leer esto en español

A murderer at the the age of thirteen, exiled from Madrid… what future would have had a boy like that?

Well, it seems that he had a pretty interesting future. So interesting that later he considered it worthwhile to write his memoirs. So interesting in fact that these memoirs gave life to a character in a well-known – at least in Spain – novel. And this character, in turn, gave life to a character in a TV series…

Do you know who they are?

The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez [Courtesy of the Museum of Prado, Madrid]

If you have seen the original Spanish version of this post, you may have noted that it contains several quotes by Eduardo Marquina. They are from his play En Flandes se ha puesto el sol, The Sun Has Set in Flanders. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an English translation of this work, and I most definitely draw the line at trying to translate poetry. My apologies, but apart from a brief excerpt, you'll just have to do without.

Continue reading “The Three (Spanish) Musketeers”

Capitán y español: Las vidas de aquellos capitanes

Read this in English

Asesino a la edad de trece años, desterrado de la Villa… ¿qué futuro habría tenido un chico como aquello?

Pues parece que tenía un futuro bastante interesante. Tan interesante que más tarde le valdría la pena escribir sus memorias. Tan interesante, de hecho, que estas memorias dieron vida a un personaje en una novela muy conocida. Quién, a su vez, dio vida a un personaje de una serie de la televisión…

Capitán y español, no está avezado
a curarse de herida, que ha dejado
intacto el corazón dentro del pecho.

(Eduardo Marquina: En Flandes se ha puesto el sol)

Te adivines ¿de quiénes se tratamos?

Las lanzas o La rendición de Breda por Diego Velázquez [Gracias al Museo del Prado]
Continue reading “Capitán y español: Las vidas de aquellos capitanes”

¡Elefantástico!

Read this in English

Mingling with Elephants: Young Friend of the Elephants on Elephant Apprecition Day in Whipsnade Zoo / En la compañía de elefantes: Joven Amiga de los Elefantes en el día de apreciación al elefante en Whipsnade Zoo

El sábado pasado (22 de septiembre) fue el día de apreciación al elefante. ¿Hay un mejor manera de celebrarlo que con unos libros memorables sobre elefantes?

Gente es tan complicada. Dame un elefante cualquier día.

(Mark Shand)

¡Que disfrutes!

Continue reading “¡Elefantástico!”

Elephantastic!

Lee esto en castellano

Mingling with Elephants: Young Friend of the Elephants on Elephant Apprecition Day in Whipsnade Zoo

Elephant Appreciation Day is on us again and what better way to celebrate these lovable animals than with a collection of memorable books featuring elephants?

People are so difficult. Give me an elephant any day.

(Mark Shand)

Enjoy!

Continue reading “Elephantastic!”

Hero Under the Death Sentence (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés II)

Continued from Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

Sometimes people have the misfortune to live in ‘interesting’ times. Exciting, even. In the case of Spain, in fact, it’s difficult to find a period of history when the times were not ‘exciting’ – so it shouldn’t come as surprise that the excitement in Cayetano Valdés’s life not ended with Trafalgar, but rather, it began.

I mean you’d think there he was, sitting ashore in the naval ports of Cádiz and Cartagena, figuratively licking his wounds… having been promoted to senior officer, safely behind a desk in an office, pushing paper in the grand Spanish fashion, into quiet old age – since there wasn’t much of a navy left for him to command, right?

Wrong.

Continue reading “Hero Under the Death Sentence (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés II)”

Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

Date: 14 February 1797 
Place: The Atlantic, off Cape St Vincent (Portugal)

If you’re English and into naval history, you will recognise the time and place as the Battle of Cape St Vincent – one of nine, that is. (Clearly it was a popular place for enemy fleet rendezvous.) This particular Battle of Cape St Vincent was the one which became famous for Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates1 so you’re now settling in for a nice read about Horatio Nelson and various associated heroics of the Royal Navy, right? Let’s go:

It was a cold and foggy day…

Er, no. It was a cold and foggy day but you should have taken a look at the title perhaps.

Rather than detailing Nelson’s heroics of which you can read on plenty of other websites, I’m going to write about a Spanish naval officer: Cayetano Valdés, who had been cast in the role of having to save the Santísima Trinidad, the pride of the Spanish navy, the largest warship of its time.

Twice.

A topic that you won’t find much discussed in English elsewhere (for entirely understandable reasons).

Continue reading “Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)”

Francis Drake and the North-West Passage

Franklin’s Lost Expedition

A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.

On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.

Continue reading “Francis Drake and the North-West Passage”

The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain

For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.

Continue reading “The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain”

A Digression On Pepys (Throwback Thursday)

About a year ago I started to write a post comparing two books that I had happened to be reading simultaneously, one of which was boring me to tears. I was not going to waste my breath on it too much – I was going to point out how good the other book was in comparison. As luck would have it, both were on the subject of history, so I started the post with an introductory paragraph about having read some good history books in my time… Unfortunately, the introductory paragraph ended up running to several paragraphs, neatly hijacking the entire post. The chief hijacker was Pepys – whom I found myself quite unable to dismiss in one summary sentence.

I feel Pepys deserves a post to himself, so here I proudly present you with:

Continue reading “A Digression On Pepys (Throwback Thursday)”

On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

Continue reading “On Goulash Communism”

33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

Continue reading “33 Days”

Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

Continue reading “Fever Pitch”

Paris Unloved (Miguel de Unamuno in Exile)

Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.
Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.

Paris, the city of light… Paris, home to the Louvre and the Notre-Dame. A great capital city whose fame and influence spread well beyond the city limits, well beyond the borders of France. In fact, at certain points in its history, Paris was quite simply the place to be for any intellectual. Famous writers and philosophers have been inspired by Paris: Dickens and Balzac, Montaigne and Nietzsche.

Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant. (Honoré de Balzac)

What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world! (Charles Dickens)

An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

I love Paris tenderly and am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world. (Michel de Montaigne)

But not Miguel de Unamuno.

Continue reading “Paris Unloved (Miguel de Unamuno in Exile)”

When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific

Just before noon on 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered his men to halt, then went forward alone, to complete the last stretch of the journey to the summit of the mountain they were climbing. Soon he stood, alone with his god, his ambitions and his sins on this peak rising out of the jungle in Darién; the first European to set eyes on a new ocean. A new ocean which he named Mar del Sur (South Sea) because he reached it by travelling southwards. The ocean that Magellan seven years later was to rename Pacific – coming as he was round the Horn via the straits named after him, well Magellan might have thought the Pacific peaceful.

Núñez de Balboa was no hero, no geographer, no selfless servant of his king. He marched across the Isthmus of Panama in a desperate bid to be first to reach the unknown ocean only because he knew that no less feat could save him from the scaffold. Continue reading “When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific”

Glassfuls of Water into a Forest Fire (Flight to Arras)

Flight to Arras, or to give it its original title Pilote de guerre, ‘Pilot of War’, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is set during the German invasion of France in 1940. In other words, it’s a war story. But if this makes you think you’re in for a cracking adventure, some kind of adult version of Biggles, think again. To take Flight to Arras for simply the story of a dangerous reconnaissance mission is falling wide of the mark. More than anything else, this book is a brilliant and moving description of the collapse of France fused with a philosophical discussion on the nature of war and defeat – told by a man in the cockpit of an aeroplane; a man who lived the story he’s recounting.
Continue reading “Glassfuls of Water into a Forest Fire (Flight to Arras)”

Commander (Or Reading Books on History)

Ever since I read a book about the Trojan War as a child, I enjoyed reading about history. Preferably novels.

Nevertheless, over the years I have sufficiently matured to the point of reading – voluntarily, that is – non-fiction, and some of it was very good. Like Herodotus. Or the Conquest of New Spain. Or when it comes to it, Pepys, although I wouldn’t recommend him to the casual reader, unless much distilled. Let Pepys bury the Parmesan or flee from his wife’s red hot poker in a single volume rather than in the eleven that I’ve got on the shelf.
Continue reading “Commander (Or Reading Books on History)”