Memoir

The gift of tongues

LANGUAGE AND PLACE no longer define us as simply as they once did. We can slip and slide between languages and places in ways difficult for our parents, impossible for our grandparents. Language, culture, family, place. Out of that mix emerges the individual personality. And, increasingly, in a world that is shrinking, in which people move ever more easily and in ever greater numbers, the interplay between the language(s) we speak and place(s) we find ourselves, is a subject of complexity and contemplation, a minefield, a creative conundrum ...

In our house we spoke two languages, which was still a bit unusual back in the early '50s. We spoke Hungarian and English, plus a few half-languages. Our first half-language, the family shorthand, was basic Hungarian peppered with bits of English when we kids couldn't think of a Hungarian word. Then, as the years in Australia lengthened, the family started to speak more "Hunglish" – an English that could instantly transmogrify into Hun­garian for an untranslatable phrase or a word that didn't have the requisite rich set of connotations. Hungarian would make an appearance for the length of an intimacy, endearment, curse or joke, then disappear again just as quickly.

There was also the private language I invented when we first arrived here. I was five years old and humiliated by my inability to make myself understood. When I chattered to myself in my own lingo it didn't matter that no one at Willoughby Infants spoke Hungarian or that I couldn't yet speak English. My pretend-language was my castle and my comfort. Then there was German, the second language for many former inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My parents spoke German to each other when they did not want us to understand something – "nicht fur die kinder" – so nat­urally we acquired a smattering. And finally, Hebrew, which only made its awesome guttural presence felt at twice-yearly visits to the synagogue.

Hungarian was the language of endearment and family fug, and of parental wrath. It was grandmother-language, because my granny, in the few years she lived with us in Australia, never learned anything else. It was the resentment language, too, because within a couple of years of living in Australia we kids spoke English perfectly and resented this weird other lan­guage we were forced to speak at home, which reminded us that we were not "real" Australian kids. Strong, long Hungarian sounds were the first human sounds I heard. It was the language in which I stuttered my own first words. In my deeper self it has an inalienable, mysterious and powerful hold. Yet for many years I could neither read nor write it, and it never occurred to me to feel the lack.

My schooling began here in Australia. The books I began to devour were all in English. I entered Australia through Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the larger world through English boarding-school books and abridged versions of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. By 10, I was writing little "novels" and timidly thinking that I might become a writer – in English of course. I had fallen deeply and unquestioningly in love with the English language; a love affair for life.

And yet, something was not quite right ...

At 21 I went to England, as most young women aspired to do, to the land of Dickens and Shakespeare, the Bront's and Donne. I expected to revel in the experience. I was puzzled to find myself without reaction, alienated even. England held no resonance for me, no light and shadow. The language, yes, the country, no. Then one day I crossed the channel to France. An unex­pected feeling of deep familiarity, of feeling comfortable settled upon me, despite the traumas of being young and alone in a foreign country.

What was going on? It occurred to me that somewhere deep in my soul I might be a European. At the time it was not a welcome insight and I sup­pressed it. I had an overwhelming need to belong in Australia. I remembered no other home; I had no knowledge of another culture. My Oz accent broad­ened, I acquired a female version of a larrikin "fuck-you" persona. I did not deny my Hungarian connections but such things were not dwelt on in the '60s and '70s by the children of migrants. Our different home life was just something to put up with, as were our parents' defiant accents and awful grammatical mistakes. We bore such embarrassing burdens as best we could.

 

MY FIRST BOYFRIENDS were Australians. Then an older man, he was 30 to my 20, took a flattering interest in me. He was Hungarian by birth, like me. We had similar backgrounds as middle-class Jewish kids from Budapest. We were both Holocaust survivors. I was a baby in the war years, he a 10-year-old starving in the city's cellars until he was saved by the famed Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The strange thing is that George and I began an affair despite our shared history, not because of it. It was barely mentioned between us. We spoke strictly and only English to each other. He was surly and uncommunicative with my parents, as if this common back­ground gave them a resented advantage over him. When they spoke to him in Hungarian it was as if he hadn't heard them. He replied in English. I was never allowed to meet his mother. I knew why and I didn't even protest. I was too suitable a girl – Hungarian and Jewish. He was a rebel against that background, as I was. Our "rebel" status was all we allowed ourselves to have in common back then. When we broke up we both went back with relief to Australian lovers.

Fast forward 25 years: George and I have kept sporadically in touch. I have finally written my first book, in large part about my family's survival of the Holocaust in Hungary. George wants to discuss the book. For the first time he talks to me about the long-gone Hungarian past, about his uncle who died in a labour camp in the harsh Russian winter, the uncle who reminded him of the uncle I lost in similar circumstances. We even discuss the meaning of a few Hungarian words that have come up in the book. Yet I am still too shy with him to discuss these things in detail. Why is that?

George knows that in recent years I have been visiting Hungary quite fre­quently. He hasn't been back in 50 years, never wanted to go. But he's been thinking of it lately, he says. He might come with me next time ... The possi­bility is left hanging in the air.

Forward another 10 years: George is struck down prematurely by a heart attack. He is lying in a coma on the point of death. I am called to his bedside, not because we are so close but because his girlfriend wants someone who approximates "family" to be there. George has no one from his boyhood. I am the only Hungarian connection she knows of. A small group of friends has gathered at the hospital. George is deeply unconscious. Each of us will spend a few minutes alone with him before his life support is switched off. When it is my turn, I hold his hand and talk to him softly. I hear words coming out of my mouth in Hungarian. "It vagyok kis fiam. Zsuzsi. Minden jo lesz, It vagyok es szeretlek, jo kis fiam."

I am talking to him like a mother to her child. I hardly know what I'm saying, but I call him my dear, good little boy and tell him I love him.

I have heard somewhere that the last sense to go is hearing. If he can hear the sounds, they might give him a deep primeval comfort. He will die hearing the language of his mother, of his earliest years. Suddenly, finally, this is the only language possible between us.

 

SOME YEARS AGO, without my knowing it, Hungarian became not a nuisance language but something that gave me pleasure and began to interest me. And along with that came frustration. I couldn't read or write it. In my trips to Hungary I could barely make out the news broadcasts on tele­vision. They had a high-flown tone and vocabulary completely foreign to the "kitchen" Hungarian that got me by with family and with taxi drivers. I couldn't conduct a complex conversation in it at all. With a bit of help I taught myself to read. But it was painfully slow. I read a book whose style I knew instinctively to be beautiful – sophisticated, measured, with the right melancholy fullness that so suits Hungarian. But it took me nearly a year to read it. Word and sentence construction, so utterly different to English, slowed me down unbearably. It was too hard.

I tried the translations that were frequently given to me by Hungarian friends who enthused about the riches of their literature. But this, too, proved a source of irritation and frustration. English and Hungarian are polar opposites in every way, especially in mood, and good translation is immensely difficult. Almost every translation I picked up was wooden and clumsy to the point of absurdity. Then a couple of months before my last trip to Hungary I read in an Australian magazine a free translation of a famous Hungarian poem. It was magnificent. I looked up the poem in the original. Extraordinary.

My resolve was renewed. I wanted to read and write this language. Just for me. To take in the resonances that were in my blood. To regain, even in little part, the culture I had lost when I left Hungary as a small child ...

 

WHICH IS WHY I found myself earlier this year in Budapest doing an intensive Hungarian language course. I decide on a group course rather than individual lessons. I'm curious to meet other people who've chosen to study this obscure language with no connections to any other beyond (possibly) Finnish, and (this theory is now generally discounted) Turkish.

In my class are two Russian women, a young Finn whose father has a NATO job in Hungary, a Japanese girl doing a kindergarten training course (it seems there is a 30-year tradition of Japanese kindergarten teachers train­ing in Hungary) and an Egyptian travel agent who wants to be able to communicate better with Hungarian tour groups. Our teacher is from Romania, one of the persecuted Hungarian minorities there. To say we're a polyglot group is to put it mildly. In the morning tea break, in which I devour pogacsa, a savoury Hungarian scone, I notice we tend to slip into English, the lingua franca for most of us.

I am the only one for whom Hungarian is the mother tongue, so I have a certain advantage. Sometimes I tend to teach along with the teacher. But grammar and spelling are another matter. Heavens, is that sound I've been using all my life a verb ending? I never knew, far less, that it is the plural past perfect. Synonyms for this noun? I have them somewhere in the back of my brain but I've never had to think like this. Hungarian words are just words that pop into my mind, or don't as the case may be. I have no grammar, no structure, no literature, no points of reference.

In the language class my mood fluctuates. I am happy: a long-lost word regained, rich and strong. Ah, so that's how the conditional works. But then unease and alienation make an unexpected reappearance. I am working through a comprehension piece about Easter customs. The piece is quaint, self-consciously Christian and nationalistic with a capital N. Suddenly a dis­taste for and fear of this birth land resurface. This is the place we fled from, where other Hungarians had been willing to kill us or have us killed. This is the place I lived in for just five years of my life, so much of that time full of threat and violence. What am I doing here? Back to my beloved easy English.

Back to fresh clean Australia. Back in Australia something is resolved for me. I am, after all, an Australian. For years this has not been entirely clear to me; the Jewish and Hungarian parts of me have always lurked in the folds of my consciousness, disallowing an easy and natural identification.

But since Tampa and the ensuing storm of debate over how we treat asylum seekers, something falls into place. I am so intensely involved, so intensely ashamed of some of my compatriots, and I realise that my shame and anger come from my Australian-ness. Such strong feelings can only happen if this is my country. I go into battle for my country's reputation; its true worth, deploying my best and most familiar weapons – English words.

These days Hungarian is for me, in its way, as important as English. It will never displace English, as English can never displace it. Somewhere in the slippage, in the quiet places between the two tongues, is where I live.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I HAVE a fantasy. When I am an old woman with time on my hands, I will spend my days methodically translating the Hungarian prose and poems I like most into truly good English. It won't matter that my Hungarian is inadequate and slow because, despite that, I understand it well, at some deep and inalienable level. When I am old I will have the time to play, turning one loved language into my other loved language. And maybe in the process I'll give others with a less fortunate – and less troubled – relationship with language a glimpse into my double world.

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