No Live Files Remain

by András Forgách

Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry

Scribner £14.99

Review by Todd McEwen

In our home murderous quarrels invariably broke out over the Arabs and the Israelis, the political goals of the Americans and the Soviets, and the whole situation in the Middle East, and they lasted until veins were ready to burst, faces turned purple, throats hoarse.” Welcome to Sunday lunch at No22, Kerek Street, Budapest. Not exactly the Good Ship Lollipop.

A few years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to the writer and artist András Forgách that he’d seen a file which suggested that his mother had been a government agent. Because even Hungary now has a degree of freedom of information, an astonished Forgách started digging in the archives of the interior ministry. What he discovered was enough to make him rethink his entire existence.

Forgách’s father Marcell was nicknamed Pápai (Papa) in the bureau where he worked, for his plump good humour. But unassuming Marcell became a Hungarian operative in London, with the cover of a reporter in the state news service. A sensitive, complicated man, the role didn’t suit him. He began to suffer from paranoia, which became extreme. The family returned to Budapest. At that point the security service had the idea of operating Marcell’s wife Bruria in his place. She became Mrs Pápai.

Bruria was an easy-going, loquacious woman with a ferocious intelligence and a way of getting anyone to talk – about anything. Her correspondence with her handlers is disarmingly offbeat. She was also beautiful – a fact not lost on her masters, who considered using her as a honey trap. They gave up on the idea because they couldn’t afford it.

The Hungarian government was intensely interested in the new Jewish state. As the Forgách family had relatives and important contacts there, Bruria agreed to go on several subsidised trips with young András. But she was a fiercely devoted Hungarian socialist and patriot and she hated Zionism.

“Mrs Pápai”, writes Forgách, “knew she was attempting the impossible and yet she went. As for myself, I can’t – and I don’t want to – undertake to analyse 20th-century Middle East developments, Palestinian-Jewish strife and/or the Israeli-Arab wars, and I don’t wish to have my say about world politics. No, here and now I wish only to understand my mother.”

This is the novel of what Forgách found out about Bruria, told with amazing simplicity and a unique, almost uncanny sense of detail and humour. Forgách has the arresting habit of setting scenes by describing the exact architectural history and nature of the buildings in which they take place. After the Second World War, the security services were housed in a large building in Budapest that, with gob-smacking irony, had once been the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary’s Freemasons: “The hermae of half-naked women that had projected from the rustic keystones of the ground floor had been dismantled by careful hands – or by bombs or a

well-aimed round of machine-gun fire – to make way for austere rhombuses.”

The novel is moving and intimate – it will remind you at times of Günter Grass and perhaps the half-hidden relationships that were often the subjects of Robert Pinget. Forgách, quite young at the time of his mother’s clandestine activities, has to recalculate over and over what everything meant in his childhood – was a cocktail party a party or was it a group of people his mother brought together for the purposes of observation and provocation? Perhaps we could all ask ourselves that one.

Families are families, even if they are confidential agents, though the Forgáchs were a little less fortunate than some in their decay. Forgách’s father lost his mind and acquired Parkinson’s; Bruria ultimately couldn’t contain herself about the relations between Hungary and Israel and told the spooks she was quitting. She had grief of many kinds to contend with in her last couple of years.

One of the dossiers András reads “perfectly sums up that schizophrenic situation, that labyrinth without an exit, in which Mr Pápai and Mrs Pápai, my father and my mother, existed and floundered here and in the big wide world”. This is a dark, eye-popping, must-read love letter – to lots of vanished things.