Across Europe

Issue 2/1990 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Mika Waltari (1908–1979) was a prolific writer, journalist and translator. In addition to historical novels, he wrote short stories, travel books, thrillers, plays, books for children, film scripts and poetry. The newly independent Finland of the 1920s, as it emerged from a traumatic period of civil war, declared that its windows were open to Europe, and Waltari’s first novel Suuri illusioni (‘The great illusion’), written in Paris when he was only 19, represents urban romanticism and the world of European capitals.The optimism and enthusiasm for modern life of the 1920s are strongly present in Waltari’s travelogue, Yksinäisen miehen juna, (‘Lonely man’s train’; 1929), an account, both ironic and engagingly naïve, of a great adventure in Europe after the post-1918 redrawing of the continent’s map. The book’s motto is a phrase from Paul Morand, a writer Waltari admired: ‘How is it possible to remain stationary when time slips like ice through our hot hands.’ This work of Waltari’s youth has never before been translated. The author travels by ship and train as far as Turkey; in the following extract, he has reached Hungary

Yksinäisen miehen juna (‘Lonely Man’s train’)

How adorable express trains are – the mighty engines, the rhythm of the rails, the sway of the carriages, the flashing-by of the milestones, the gravel embankments contracting into speeding lines. A train is the only place you can be completely at ease, free from heartache, free from longing, free from tormenting thoughts. Whenever I die, I hope it will be on a train flashing towards some unknown town at eighty miles an hour, with mountains looming on the horizon, and the points lighting up in the descending dusk….

Forward! What am I actually doing in Vienna? I’ve got a feeling I’ll never be able to love this place really. I’m already yearning for the clickety-click of the rails, the rapture of the onward rush. I want to be experiencing a new city; I want to see a hundred thousand new faces. Budapest is only five hours away.

Lunch in the restaurant car. A refined pleasure, even though the menu, with minimal exceptions, is almost invariably identical; and the meat is, in fact, tough and the vegetables desiccated.

My table companion is a Hungarian on his way back from Spain. He’s been in continuous movement for very nearly two days. He’s not been home for four years. His eyes are seeking, through the wide window, familiar features of the landscape. Cosmopolitan though he is, his native land produces a strange frisson in him. No: all he wants to do is get off the train. Two days and nights are enough…

At the next table there’s a discussion about Iraqi oil resources, possible funding. American priorities, England’s policy in South-West Asia.

The pudding skates across the plate. Over coffee, liqueur and a cigarette, one can arrange a business deal or tentatively suggest an evening rendezvous in the Café New-York.

Satisfied, contented, my legs accommodating the carriages, I return to my place. I apply the radio earphones to my ears. Music. The elderly gentleman opposite angrily snatches the earphones away from his: Donner und Blitzen, what a nerve – playing the gramophone!

Budapest. A tussle with a fellow who wants to wrest the luggage out of my hands… A new language domain. They all know German, though. A taxi – broad boulevards – the same everlasting neon signs – cafés – glinting eyes in the night glow: The Hotel Britannia.

The new city has shaken me. I reserve my first impressions for the morning.

I’m restless, sleep won’t come. I scan the city map. I memorise the names of the most important streets and the location of the public buildings. I dig a photograph out of my suitcase – a glimpse of blue and grey, blonde curls, the soft outlines of that child­like profile. How far away it all is. I marvel at my own coldness.

My limbs are still reverberating to the train’s rhythm. My closed eyes are crossed by the attenuated afterimages of the faces, stations and streets that have flashed by.

Budapest takes me by surprise. I hadn’t been expecting much from it – had, in fact, no projected picture of it whatever. I’m prepared for everything – and for nothing.

I cross the town on foot to the bank of the Danube. My first reaction is admiration of the giant bridges – the cold pulchritude of those steel constructions. Then I realise – in these reaches the Danube is no longer a dirty yellow: it veers between olive-green and absinthe, it’s almost beautiful.

I climb up to the Gellert height. Flowering bushes, pale grass. From the edge of a bastion I see Budapest spread out before me. On the left the colossal complex of the royal palace, viridescent and beautiful. On the far bank of the Danube the pointed­arch late-Gothic of the Houses of Parliament, the imposing dome of the Sophia Church. Here at least, thank God, there’s none of that silly and tasteless German enthusiasm for gilding buildings.

The boulevards are like green-balustraded streams, and the houses seem to be raining down on me – and I’m floored by the statues.

Hungary’s proud, bloody, brilliant past – enough almost to make you weep: it’s a people almost strangled to death. Wherever I turn, everywhere, it stares me in the face, the Great Disaster. Statistically, the Budapest suicide rate is significantly higher than the Viennese. The Vienna newspapers give space to suicides. Budapest no longer discusses them – they’re too common: they’re met with silence or a couple of lines of newsprint. Instead, the papers are crammed with politics. Even the tiniest alteration in the European political climate seems a flicker of hope.

I take a long look at the lions guarding the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. They show proud grandeur, force and noble defiance. Hungary…

I circle the city endlessly. It has overpowered me. It’s an experience. I sit in a café, chatting with people. The Hungarians have no trace of that languorous Viennese lethargy. Part of their charm is their energy, their activism.

Café New York. An artists’ cafe, a millionaires’ restaurant – as famous as Paris’s Café du Dôme. In the morning film-people and resting actresses; in the afternoon writers and painters; in the evening statesmen, money-men, nightbirds.

Decobra – spirituel, fizzy, erotogenic, abrasive, rebarbative Decobra: too lazy to be bothered even to plan his novels properly. The Café New York is his home ground many months of every year.

It’s an interesting psychological conjunction – this so-frequent mélange of bohemian penury and millionaire flash. As the night warms up, fifteen-pengö champagne is drunk with chasers of black coffee in glasses.

Café New York – open all night long. Budapest is Europe’s second Paris.

I’m sitting in the hotel lobby in the late evening, drinking tea. No palm court orchestra tonight – only the radio. I’m feeling melancholy. The days go by all the time, and so do the nights – but late evenings in foreign cities, how deadly dispiriting they can be… The foreign lamps light up on the foreign streets, the dusk fades into darkness. People pass each other – their eyes shining with their own projects: lives that will never perhaps touch each other.

I ask myself whether, after all, there’s any method in my quest – do I, in fact, know what I’m looking for? Hotel waiting rooms, station precincts, railway carriages, cafés, cinemas, walking the bulevards – everywhere there’s that eager life that I want to be immersed in, that I want to tingle to, so that some day I might filter it through my brain into words, images, insights. I’m seeking out today in order to capture some foretaste of tomorrow.

I enter the lift: hermaek! A hotel employee has followed me in: green apron, red nose, hotel cap, stink of cheap wine. He follows me out into the corridor, stops me.

I’ve been looking pretty gloomy: I appear to be longing for a little companionship. Oh, he can arrange it – something special, fun. What sort would I like? Plump? Slim? No, I don’t want… not plump, and not slim, either. I’m going to get some sleep…

My friends from the Rax Alps arrive by riverboat. The Danube shines duskily. On the other side of the river the Royal Palace looms massively and darkly on its plateau. Evening at Spolavich’s. Cooled wine. Fried eggs still sizzling on their metal plates. Gipsies are playing, swarthy gipsies in evening dress, with expressionless faces.

Gipsies are playing. . . So much has been written about gipsies that I’m incapable of expecting anything special. And besides, I’m no musician. I love music – but in the sense that it stirs up images that would otherwise remain dormant; so that whenever I hear music, poems nearly always begin to infiltrate my mind.

Gipsies are playing. At first the leader’s bow strays slowly, almost hesitantly; then he finds himself in the mood, the violin resurrects, it becomes excited, passionate. Soon all life seems to be singing in the rush of music… gipsy blood’s wild wanderlust…. The familiar melodies metamorphose into something unheard before. The fiddler improvises, his body bending to the tune, and drops of sweat creeping down his dark forehead. Now the whole ensemble has become a single soul, auto-suggested into a groupmind – as if there were only one man playing. The grass of the Hungarian plain – the puszta – is swaying in the wind. The sunflowers are burning their golden flames. The hooves of wild horses are drumming from one horizon to the other. Sun, freedom, the romance of the open road: darkening evenings and starlight glimmer.

I take a look at the faces of the women sitting around. Lips are half open, eyes are moist and brilliant, their bodies are stretching forward. He could have any one of them now, for the asking, that man… No, a single pair of eyes have drained his soul; a single pair of cruel hands have squeezed his heart dry; the bewitchment of a single woman’s mouth is hovering before him. He’s insane, panting, driving back the shadow­graphs of his dreams… Now, now, he wants everything, he’ll take everything, he wants to tear, crush, smash. The horsewhip is whistling, the thunder rumbling and flattening the grass of the puszta; foxgloves of fire are flashing a ghastly yellow in the lightning. God’s laughing.

Gipsies are playing – the despised, hated, flogged gipsies: robbers, fortunetellers, tinkers – princes!

Gipsies are playing. Our Finnish girls too are being liberated. What a delight to follow the process set off in them by foreign travel! They’ve been a trifle too well brought up, they’re a little too rigid, they’ve been educated along precise lines, taught to look at things from a precise viewpoint. Now their own critical powers are awakening. They’re beginning to see people and events with new eyes, making comparisons and arriving at new and different conclusions.

We walk up Rakoczi Street. The night is scintillating, hot, lovely. And the world’s a small place. Look: the white of a cap – the cap Finnish students wear. He too is on his way to Debreczen. Our little group is expanding.

The girls go back to the hotel. They’re getting tired. We men decide to go on. Why break it all up just to go to sleep? Budapest is a miniature Paris, and the night is hot and lovely. Now even I can go on the town – now there are a few others to beat it up with.

But Hungarian wine is a bit of a menace to anyone not used to it. And it may tum out that we, all three of us, will need a lot – quite a lot – of soda water; and a high pillow…

Debreczen. A large, low-lying provincial town. The streets are swarming with people: students from various lands, tourists, choral societies. Tomorrow there’s going to be a great festival of song. Twenty thousand visitors have arrived in town.

We are loaded into cabs. Torchlight processions circle the town: balloons; a thousand peep-peeping penny whistles. The Hungary of the puszta is celebrating.

Some professor takes charge of my friends, takes them off to find lodgings. I’m left alone. I get myself a room in Bika and go for a walk. And there’s nowhere you can be more alone than in the midst of a jolly crowd on the rampage.

Then suddenly I stand transfixed in front of the brightly lit display window of a toy shop. There, sharply illuminated, is my new friend, my travelling companion, my mascot. It’s a dog. It’s An Outsize Dog – one of those light-brown, sweet, shaggy ones, with a broad nondescript black muzzle, a tiny red tongue, and black bits on its ears and front paws. It’s not Bonzo, it’s prettier than Bonzo. It’s the biggest, shaggiest and most lovable toy dog I’ve ever seen.

All dogs of that sort are intelligent, but intelligence and play of feature on that scale I’ve never seen before. I’m a little boy again: it’s Christmas week. Large snowflakes are fluttering down, and I’m standing in the City Passage in Helsinki before a toyshop window and longing, longing so much, to love and squeeze that big, shaggy toy dog. But they’re too dear, they’re de luxe dogs; you can only love them through the cold thick glass. I have to turn away: the snow sticks to my heavy galoshes: I leave black footprints behind, glistening inkily on the electrically lit alleyway tarmac.

This is the dream-dog of my childhood. He’s sitting shaggily behind the display glass with the most unutterably sad expression in his eyes. I understand his feelings perfectly. He’s been created to live in the big world outside: he’s been created for express trains and passenger ships; he ought to have a silk cushion and wicker chair for five­-o’-clock tea at a café near the Paris Opera; his life is intended for the company of beautiful slim women for dance music and barstools. Instead, he has to sit here, in this out-of-the-way spot, in the main street of a provincial town; and there are even passers-by so cruel, they can bring themselves to laugh at his sad expression.

Torchlight processions, student caps, multicoloured balloons, a thousand peep-peeping penny whistles. I can see, hovering behind his shaggy forehead, a presentiment of how wonderful life could be.

He’s my dog – I have to get him – I can show him Constantinople and Europe. He’s a faithful, good dog. He’ll never betray me. He’s the ideal travelling companion.

The girl behind the counter looks at me in astonishment. My dog is actually for window display. He’s too expensive for anyone here to buy. Then she has a brainwave. I must be an American: Americans can do any crazy thing they like – buy toy dogs, for instance, and no one will raise an eyebrow.

Now he’s mine in full accordance with the rules and regulations of the bourgeois world. No one can snatch him out of my protection. We become more closely acquainted. He’s a personality, all of a piece and secure: when you squeeze his tail, he laughs.

We all meet up again in the large hall of Bika. My dog is the big draw. There are a lot of us now: the Finns, a professor, some Hungarian officers, students from various countries. The girls are all set to love and hug my dog to death. Hastily I rescue him and get him his own chair – he can sit there in the place of honour. Attached to his collar floats a large balloon.

Naturally he has to have a name. Bottles of Tokai are uncorked, gipsies – gipsies from the puszta – play in Bika’s large hall; the wine glows with a yellow shine, there’s laughter and the clink of glasses: Long live Le Prince Rax.

Distantly, outside the town, the Hortobagy puszta starts. There, even in the daytime, the sun is red… There are thistles and sorrel … Whirling clouds twist across the sky… Mirages vanish into the horizon mists.

I return to Budapest with Rax in my arms. Forward! I can’t linger any longer. I’m feverishly restless. Far ahead of me looms the unknown I’m seeking: adventure, romance: the Balkans.

I get myself a third-class ticket to Constantinople. Everyone I’ve asked for advice has severely warned me against travelling third class in the Balkans. Robbers, vermin, dirt, thirst, smell have been the prime examples of the conveniences offered by the Balkan railways.

Now I want to solve the problem of why one may not travel third on the Balkan railways. Also, in my view, I’m an excellent candidate for third-class travel: even in the Rax Alps my raincoat had got to the point of being just about fit to be carried on my arm, and no more. My suit is unpressed, and I’m confident that, unless all the prognostications are baseless, that too will soon conform to the third-class environment.

My last evening in Budapest – a restless one, from my fidgety anticipation of a new trip. I’m about to drop into the Café New York, and at the paper kiosk I fall into conversation with an Hungarian writer. He has spent about a year in Paris – we have mutual acquaintances from the Café du Dôme. He’s thrilled to be able to speak French and recall Paris.

We go to Spolavich’s together. My last evening in Hungary will reverberate to the music of gipsies. Tomorrow I’ll be in another country again – a more foreign, more exotic one still. In a week I shall be in Constantinople….

We eat sizzling eggs, we drink soft, delicious wine. We get on wonderfully together. He is a playwright. In the autumn he will be having a first night in Berlin: Alexandre, Je Vous Adore. ‘Adorer’ – how I have loved that word: admiration, worship, idolisation – all that and still more suspended in the rhythm and brilliance of a single word. He doesn’t recount the plot – and I don’t ask. We two understand each other well enough. How could one put into a few words something one has invested one’s whole life in, heart and soul?

Instead we talk about wine – alcohol. After the third glass the world’s always a lovelier place than before; all the people are better, all the problems solve themselves. Remembrances no longer hurt: they surround themselves with a delicate, sentimentally tinged sheen. Sentimentality is a pleasure. Wine is liberating – it equalises everything and everybody – it uplifts one to a feeling of controlling life.

Wine is a source of inspiration… On that we take opposite sides. I admit that wine may promote thought – bring brainier, more brilliant, more scintillating thoughts than ordinary. It may generate fanciful poetic imagery, fervid colouring, inventive rhythms. But for me all that is perfidious. I can never write a thing if I’ve had a drink. Well, perhaps sometimes, after my third glass, I might feel I could write better than ever before. But I can’t – I don’t want to write. For me it’s a self-betrayal to write under the influence of wine, even if not actually drunk. No; when I write or work, I’m a total abstainer. To write, one must write with a clear head, so that one can be absolutely responsible for what one has written.

He disagrees. Fair enough: each has his own conviction. That needn’t bother us. Instead we get involved in the psychological aspect. True: wine can relieve long-drawn-out nervous tension. No wonder many who come to spend years and years doing exhausting nerve-wracking mental labour turn into alcoholics. The best tranquilliser is half a bottle of wine. But drinking is nearly always linked with staying up late – and continuing, which is the greatest peril. It takes a lot of experience and self-control before one has the nous to stop in time, before the line is overstepped where self-possession is lost – and some begin to weep, some to smash glasses, others to fight, to chase after women.

We end up by deciding that alcohol’s dangerous but women are still more dangerous. The gipsies play. The night scintillates on Jozsef Street. We’re able to stop in time – while we’re still in a cheerful mood. We collect our travel gear and Rax from the hotel … The bill. Tips. The taxi springs like a tiger towards the Ostbahnhof.

I tell my new friend the story of Rax. He understands perfectly. Rax laughs. Midnight. The train to Beograd.

Again the point-lights whirling backwards – the lights of the town diminishing to dots and disappearing – darkness beyond the shiny windows. I’m happy: forwards, forwards! The wheels thunder; the train is a giant beast puffing out fire and smoke and speeding towards some unknown adventure.

The evening at the cinema in Budapest comes back to me: as it became dark, the roof slowly opened, revealing a black sky and tiny, motionless stars. In the hot, sultry air I sensed the odour of strange perfumes, of grasses and sunflowers, the first premonitions of the East: the Levant begins in the Balkans.

I roll up Rax and my raincoat to form a pillow. I doze off on the hard seat. I sleep more soundly, more happily than in my own bed – with the wheels’ thunder and the train’s whistle falling in a shining arc though my sleep.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

The Egyptian. (Sinuhe, egyptiläinen, 1945, translated by Naomi Walford, 1949)
In 1949 The Egyptian was selected as book of the month in the United States; it reached the top of the best-seller list where it remained for two years, selling 500,000 copies. The book returned to the top of the best-seller list in 1954 and 1955, after a film based on it was released in the US

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