How to laugh off your
HOW do you come to terms with having a Hungarian mother? James Jeffrey tries to come to grips with his maternal Zsa Zsa Gabor by turning her audacious indiscretions into jokes and writing a humorous book about them.
The blunder that most occupies the author is his mother’s marriage ( the second of three) to his father, a mining engineer from Derbyshire who landed in a mining town in the southwest of Hungary in 1968, still single at the age of 35.
The staid, calm, precise Englishman against the impetuous, acquisitive tornado in a miniskirt produced a volatile union which gave the new bride a ticket out of Hungary but to Derbyshire, where she ‘‘ cried for four years’’ ( it seems communist rule is preferable to the English weather and bonhomie), so his parents migrated to Australia with the author as a young child.
It was the idea of solving the mystery of this unfathomable matrimony that inspired Jeffrey to spend six months in Hungary with his wife and young family, though you get the feeling the sabbatical is an excuse to discover the land of his ‘‘ almost’’ birth and his own budding Hungarian- ness.
He falls in love with the countryside, the Mecsek hills that vibrate with the song of thrushes, chaffinches, blackbirds and woodpeckers, meadows filled with the wildflowers of summer, the majestic oaks and firs of the forest. Even riding the roads riddled with potholes becomes a quaint adventure.
It seems that in his rapture the author’s eyes remain shut to Hungary’s failings; someone such as the Hungarian satirist George Mikes would have aimed his poisoned arrow at vital national traits such as forcing immense helpings of chicken paprika and strudel on visitors, sarcasm, cynicism, an insane national pride and complaining about everything and everyone.
The vitriol- dipped pen of Mikes, who lived in England in the 1950s and ’ 60s, sent up that country and others mercilessly. This book is more gentle, passing by contentious issues and current affairs, though it does expose some faults, such as bribery ( on the railways: ‘‘ Would you prefer to pay the fine or something a little more sensible so that I can mark things in my book?’’).
Jeffrey’s humour is probably not arrogant or aggressive enough to be classified as ‘‘ Hungarian’’ when you compare it with gems such as the Hungarian waiter he quotes replying to a tourist’s request for a vegetarian meal: ‘‘ If you don’t want meat, go to Romania’’, or, in my case, inquiring what was good on the menu: ‘‘ Good? If you want good, go home.’’ Gallows humour is another word for it.
The laughs come easily whenever the author tries to come to grips with his mother’s resolute character crashing through obstacles such as bystanders, husbands, children and relatives. She tries to offload her car on her son: ‘‘ So safe, so European. And it goes like a rocket! Don’t you want the Volvo then? Why? I sell it to you for a good price. Oh well, if you don’t want it, it’s up to you, I am not forcing you to buy it. The second question is, do you want to buy my house?’’
The author does his best to get his parents to recall the heady days of their courtship: his father obfuscates; his mother goes straight for the jugular. When she recalls her fiance returning from England without an engagement ring, having been warned in drastic language not to bother coming back to Hungary empty- handed, she tells her son: ‘‘ Bullshit! It was his mother, she didn’t want him to marry a Hungarian divorcee.’’
Jeffrey’s discovery that his inimitable mother had rewritten family history to suit herself, of his father’s confession that he had ‘‘ done another man wrong’’ by taking his wife’s children from her first marriage out of Hungary, stop short of going deep. And although the book is meant to be a light- hearted romp through Hungary and family relationships, the barbs need to sting more.
What we get is a picaresque ramble through the countryside, recounting events as they roll by without probing into ones that might serve to define the land of the Magyars.
It explores what it is like growing up with two cultures: the real one in Australia and the romanticised one in Hungary.
Children of migrants often return to the land of their parents, as Jeffrey has done, to sift real memories from fantasy, to better understand their parents and therefore themselves, and maybe to end that uncomfortable feeling of straddling two continents, which they sometimes manage to overcome by standing halfway between the two in no man’s land. Jeffrey’s description of the experience is poignant and often very funny. Alice Spigelman has written plays and a biography, and is working on a novel about the end of communism, set in 1989 in Budapest, where she was born. Read an extract from Paprika Paradise in today’s Weekend Travel and Indulgence .
Heady days: The author’s parents at their wedding
A long way from Budapest: Slow transport in a Hungarian village