Janos Szekely: Kísértés (Temptation)
Our hero/narrator, Béla, has not had a happy start to life. His mother, Anna, was sixteen when he was born and he was the result of a quick fling at a party. The father, Mihály, was a sailor and has not been seen or heard of since. Two weeks after his birth, Anna became a wet nurse in Budapest, leaving Béla to the tender mercies of Rozi. Rozi had made her money in various ways, including prostitution and as an abortionist. Most recently, she had taken in children like Béla, whose mothers had had an illegitimate baby and had to work to support themselves.
Rozi has only one weakness, her husband. He is happy if he is fed well and left to go fishing and, as Rozi feeds him well and lets him go fishing, things work out well. However, she is not so doting on the children. If their mothers pay well and regularly, the child is likely to be fed better. If, as is the case with Anna, she does not pay well, the child is not fed as well and, eventually, as is the case with Béla, not fed at all.
The children all sleep on straw in one room. The older ones go to school but Béla does not, because, as Anna does not pay regularly, he works. When he is not fed, his spare time is spent begging, stealing and earning money with his fists. Not surprisingly he has a very jaundiced view of the world.
He does get occasional visits from Anna, but, unlike some of the other children, rarely gets presents, except for a few sweets. He resents this. I developed a nasty, bitter hatred for my mother. I blamed her for everything. It was that unknown servant girl who’d ruined my life. However, when he bitterly complains to her about the food, Anna attacks Rozi and is thence banned from further visits. Béla will not see her again for a long time.
When he is nine, he learns, by chance, that he should be at school. It is compulsory in Hungary at that time (1920s). He wants to go to school and plucks up courage to call on the schoolmaster. The schoolmaster is sympathetic and forces Rozi to send him. He soon becomes a top student and does very well. The schoolmaster has left-wing views. (Hungary is under the Horthy administration, a very right-wing government that will continue to almost the end of World War II.) His views influence Béla.
Béla seem to be doing well but, one winter, when it is very cold, he has no shoes and is hoping to get some from his mother, to whom he has written. She does not reply. The local landowner hands out gifts to the peasants at Christmas and Béla and many others go the place where the handing out is taking place. However, the names of Béla and various others are not in the book – i.e. they have not voted for the landowner – so they get nothing. One peasant refuses to move till he receives something and suddenly there is a riot. Béla see his chance and steals some shoes. He is caught, beaten up and sent to prison. The schoolmaster rescues him but he is sent off to Budapest to join his mother.
Anna lives in a small flat, even renting out her only bedroom to a prostitute. Béla wants to continue at school but is soon disillusioned and Anna manages to get him a job as a hotel porter, unpaid but with tips.
We follow his difficult life in Budapest. Szekely shows that there is massive poverty and deprivation in Budapest at the time and that the rich and powerful do well and the others do not. Béla’s mother struggles with ill health and finds it difficult to earn money and is constantly behind with the rent and threatened with eviction. Béla is made the lift boy, which means that there are very few tips so he helps his mother by stealing food from the hotel.
He does manage to get a sort of promotion, first to reception and then as night porter, both of which bring in more money, not always in a strictly legal way. Bribery and blackmail pay well in 1920s Budapest. We also follow the fate of some of the other boys – syphilis, rent boy committed socialist are just some of the issues.
There are two other key events. Firstly there is the return of Béla’s father, who is welcomed back by Anna but does not behave particularly well, though does pay the rent. Then there is the visit to the hotel of a father and daughter from the United States. The girl, Patsy, takes a shine to Béla and gives him the idea of learning English and emigrating to the United States. He starts assiduously learning English. He also starts writing poetry and even gets a poem published in a newspaper.
We continue to follow in some detail his career as a bellboy and also what happens to his mother and father. There is a continuous struggle to pay the rent, with threats of eviction. Both the extreme left and extreme right try to recruit Béla, with unpleasant consequences in both cases. He is seduced by one of the hotel’s female guests, not the only bellboy to whom that happens, also with unpleasant consequences. More particularly, the Great Depression hits and there are huge numbers out of work and people starving. Béla and the author take a strong view that this is caused by the rich at the expense of the poor. As one of his colleagues says: The rich were behind the whole crooked enterprise and they’d have to be mad just to hand everything they’d stolen over centuries back to the poor when asked politely. Power had to be wrenched from their hands by force, like Marx said.
It is not just the poor in general who suffer. We hear a lot about Anti-Semitism, even among the ordinary people, with the Jews being equated with the Communists, though it tends to be only the poor Jews who suffer, with the rich Jews, like other rich people, doing well. We also also learn a lot about how domestic servants suffer. When the middle class are hit by the Depression, they simply do not pay their servants, though expect them to keep on working, and accuse them of being Communists and beat them (apparently, quite legally) if they do not obey.
For most people, there are few ways out. Indeed, in this book, there seem to be just a three: become the sex toy of a rich person, turn to crime or suicide. We see examples of all three in this book. As one of Béla’s colleagues says You have to run with the pack, the bourgeois will tell you, and in a way, they’re right about that too. You have to run with the pack. Or stand up to it. As mentioned, Béla is given opportunities to join the extreme right or extreme left and neither seems to offer salvation for him and his family, as he is quick to point out.
As this a very long book, we really do get to know Béla. He is certainly no saint and often his judgement seems, to us, somewhat flawed but, given the circumstances of his life and life in Hungary at that time, it really is not surprising. Szekely clearly takes the view that the rich and the Horthy government are concerned only with their own welfare and see the poorer elements of society as there to do their bidding. We get numerous examples of this throughout the book, as virtually every poor person we meet in this book – and we meet very many – will end up suffering, at least to some degree. Many die. None of the poor end up happy and contented.
We have seen this elsewhere. Theodore Dreiser is an obvious example though other US writers wrote about poverty and the Depression, such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and John Steinbeck. We have also seen grinding poverty in the likes of Balzac and Dickens and other Victorian writers. Doubtless many Hungarian writers have written about it as well – Miklos Bánffy is an obvious example – but this one does seem particularly impressive, not least because, unlike, in say Dickens and other writers, there seems to be little redemption or escape. It is a powerful novel, very well written but a very grim tale.
First published in English in 1946 by Creative Age Press under the name John Pen
Note that the US edition in English was the first edition of this novel