Many years ago, I had a job helping write a man’s autobiography. He was Hungarian and migrated to Australia in the late 1940s. His story contained many eye-opening details (the late 1960s didn’t invent casual sex) but the details that intrigued me the most were those of the night-life of Budapest in the early 40s. Despite the war raging around them, Budapest swung to a beat not unlike that described in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. In nightclubs called The Moulin Rouge and The Arizona, Chappy’s Big Band jived through the hits of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, the lyrics translated to Hungarian. Each evening, the owner of The Arizona would appear in a finely-tuned evening gown, accompanied by two Afghan dogs. The dance floor rotated. The stars of the Hungarian film industry mixed with the A-list visibles. Almost anything went...
|Chappy's Big Band|
But amongst these stories was a paragraph or two about a family of converted Budapest Jews. They owned an enormous manufacturing plant on Csepel Island on the Danube River. When Hitler finally lost his patience with Regent Horthy and occupied Hungary in March 1944, this family were so wealthy they were able to bribe the Gestapo to fly them to neutral Portugal.
Two things astounded me. Firstly - that the Gestapo could be bribed. I’d always seen them as an inhuman military machine, driven by ideology. But they were all-too human. Of course they could be bribed to do almost anything if “The Price is Right” – deal or no-deal?
But secondly - that a family could have that type of wealth. The price imposed by the Gestapo was indeed very high, including signing over the manufacturing plant. In the latter part of the war, Germany had lost most of its manufacturing plants to allied bombs and was in dire need of functioning plants to manufacture the machinery for war.
So I began a literature review. I ratified the story but really didn’t find much, certainly not arriving at a personal drama for a novel. The review of available material was definitely hampered by my lack of Hungarian but also the story seemed relatively unknown. A librarian at the Sydney Jewish Museum eyed me with great suspicion.
|Based on a real story of a wealthy converted Jewish family|
“You’re talking about the Kasztner train,’ she said, lips pinched.
Rudolf Kasztner paid the Gestapo an inflated train fare for many Jews out of Budapest. But I knew of that event too and this wasn’t that story. She thawed slightly when I found some information but it was largely just reiterations of the bare facts.
During my search I noticed there was very little in the way of novels available in English about Hungary’s role in WWII. In recent times we’d had the French experience reconfigured with Sarah’s Key, the British with Atonement, even the German with The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Maybe The English Patient (shouldn’t that have been The Hungarian Patient?) touched on the Hungarian experience (remember Almásy spoke all languages but assumed no identity) but largely there wasn’t much.
But, I had no story, just an event, so I shelved it. But while I played with other projects, this story did play on my mind.
|Budapest during the later part of WWII|
For another project I pondered the limits of survival. How far would I go to survive? Beyond a few armed holdups at work, I’ve never really been threatened. What could I be made to do to survive?
And I thought about being young, only seventeen again, with all that raging uncertainty but living that out in a hostile, uncertain time. And I thought about a first affair, played out against a backdrop of secrecy, an impossibly private affair that could never be spoken or celebrated. And I thought about the damage and wounds inflicted by love. All these stories tumbled back at me again and again like washing in the rinse cycle.
One afternoon I saw a photo of a statue on the Danube. It was a collection of shoes. The owners had simply stepped from them, left them behind on the retaining wall as they were shot into the Danube. The statue is at once playful and horrific. The faithful shoes remain waiting for their owner’s return.
|Heart rending sight along the Danube|
I wrote a scene of a young man of seventeen spotting a beautiful woman in a forest near Lake Balaton, the Hungarian Rivera, in 1943. He sought to capture on moving film the ephemeral nature of the incident, her beauty, the play of light, her hesitation, caught between two worlds, her decision to run in one direction.
And I was away. The meniscus was broken. And the lovers began their tryst...
The Skin of Water had begun.