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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Hungary

Wet Gyor

Arriving in Györ after a short train ride from Bratislava, in the short transit money had suddenly become more of an issue, as Hungarian prices are on a level comparable to those in the old West. Despite our determination to exercise frugality (living on a budget of Ł15 a day), we had to catch a taxi to the motel just outside the city, after we failed miserably to work out how to pay for the bus, even after standing and watching queues of people embark, all apparently with identity cards. Our room was clean (if one concentrated on the small space in the centre of the floor and ignore the corners), had three beds with in-built creaks and lumps to ensure one would wake in the morning (and night) and had ensuite running water (if we didn’t mind getting feet and floor wet). The showers were hosepipes. And at some point, someone had tried to kick the door in. Still, it was cheap. Dumping our bags, we left as quickly as possible (forced to use the bus we found out that you can pay the driver direct). We ate at a place recommended by the Lonely Planet, but our view of the kitchen was probably better than theirs had been. The chef merrily munched on our dumplings and licked her cream-covered fingers, the waiter smoked his fag in the corner, and all the food was microwaved. Still, that too was cheap.

If our accommodation was unpromising on the inside, the weather remained as terrible on the outside. The sun streamed through the (curtainless) windows onto our faces in bed, hid behind a cloud when we were on the bus and turned to rain by the time we got off. It would continue more or less non-stop for three days. Nevertheless, after diving into a café for some warm drinks (cheeringly an apparent home for Serengeti zebras with its psychedelic, striped décor), we started to wander through Gyor’s mixture of medieval, Romanesque and nineteenth-century streets.

After a grim experience so far, the cathedral was, thankfully, well-worth a visit. It was re-built in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, which gave it a modern feel. It wasn’t particularly large, but the walls at the upper levels had been painted with arches as if of an upper-gallery, giving a peculiar sense of depth, as if the building was much wider than in reality. The frescoes on the ceiling looked magnificent, with strange perspectives making one feel like some human mole, looking up at the giant Blakean scenes of acts of sin and redemption. Back on eye level, though, we discovered that such acts happened here in reality, or rather, in a physical and more contemporary myth. A mid-seventeenth-century picture of the Virgin Mary, brought to Gyor by an Irish bishop fleeing persecution, started weeping blood one miraculous Easter. It is now set in a magnificent silver altar, quite overpowering for a relatively small painting, and is worshipped by the episcopacy every year.

We left our sanctuary in a dry spell, and finally wandered properly around the city. It’s a strange hotch-potch of styles: here walls built to keep out the Turks in the sixteenth century; there the Bishop’s Castle, built in the nineteenth; there a 1700s statue; around the corner from a series of contemporary pieces including, bizarrely, a well-endowed, naked man in a boat. There are lots of narrow side streets and alleys, but it’s impossible to get lost because all road lead either to the magnificent town hall at the south end of town, or to the river at the north – or rather, rivers, for Gyor is built at the confluence of the Masoni Danube, Rabca and Raba. Water, then, became for us both geographically and meteorologically the theme of this place. That night, it started raining around midnight, and when we woke the rain was still scattering the leaves and our plans to visit Pannahilino monastery. Instead, we spent the morning tracing the drops racing down the windows with our noses. Every few minutes, one of us would say, “It’s easing off", and every few minutes it would get heavier. Still, at midday, true to the form of our British birth, we donned anoraks and ventured out to the thermal baths, wet too, but warm!

Gyor sits on geo-thermal springs that reach a temperature of 67 degrees centigrade, and there have been baths for the last half-century. In 2003, some new baths were opened, and it was these we went to. There were fountains, bubbles, rapids and waterfalls everywhere, as well as many shouting, falling, bubbling and running kids in two indoor pools and two outdoor. But this was not the best of it. That came when we finally plucked up courage to walk past a group of arm-waving grannies shouted at by a lycra-clad instructor, and to enter a dark, enclosed pool. The water was yellow, with bits floating in it but, oh, so toe and back-curlingly warm at 36 degrees. We stayed floating for hours, staring up at the star-like ceiling, hypnotised by the hot bath that never cooled. I suddenly realised that the elderly people clutching and floating at the sides must not be old at all; they too were in their years as youthful as us, only they must have stayed for so long in this warm, foetal state that their skin had wrinkled as with age. We, luckily, were forced to get out after four hours because of the cheap ticket we had bought; otherwise, like them we too might have been trapped eternally by a cocktail of heat and healing minerals.

In the evening, we decided after some deliberation to eat at Pizza Hut, as it was one of the few cheap restaurants. There was something peculiarly communal in knowing that at the same time, in countries across the world, people were settling down at the same air-conditioned tables, beneath certificates proclaiming You are the Best Team 2003 (isn't it odd that these certificates seem to appear identically in every restaurant with its champion staff?), so good because they are able to turn out perfect standard thickness bases, with the correct amount of BBQ sauce and chemical pumped chicken.

The Left-Behinds

We sat in the waiting room of Budapest-Keleti. Opposite, eight or nine people in frayed clothes slumped at angles, torn Tesco carrier bags between their knees, looking at the wall, forming countries from the peeling paint, thinking and occasionally talking. Some found their sleeping positions, leaning forwards, arms on the tables and heads on their arms; some slouched low in the chairs, tipped their heads back into their arms and yawned with a tiredness probably drawn from boredom as much as fatigue. These are the people who were left behind when the Soviet train sped east, without warning, and almost immediately the capitalist wagons arrived. This waiting room has become their welfare state, indeed their only state for these the stateless, caught in this point of transit between two lifestyles and two cultures.

Somehow, Hungary has skipped a stage in its economic development. Silver coloured electrical goods, luxury items, fashionable clothes have become the important indicators of wealth, ahead of a large home, a car, a good diet. We spoke to a drunk who, like all serious alcoholics, had the air of an informed and absent-minded intellectual, serious and humorous, thoroughly unthreatening, at peace in the vapour of vodka. He had, he informed us, lost a child when still a baby and, now divorced, he lived alone in a one-bedroom flat with, its centrepiece, a widescreen TV in the living room. This gap is exposed in a subterranean environment at the centre of the city. Passing beneath the pavements, linking two or three underground stations, is a huge and strange neon nether-world of underpasses. Smoke hugs the ceiling and stallholders set up their shops along the walls, selling bras and fruit, cheap CDs and mobile phone covers. Old men, Kasparov's of their moment, play chess on cardboard boxes, applauded by tramps and experts hanging over shoulders. At the end of one of these roads, two large glass doors form a psychological wall for, although they slide apart with an easy and automatic hiss, it seems as if few of those who make the underworld their home ever manage to push through to the ecstasy of bright lights behind them. Here in the West End City Shopping Centre, glorious fountains play and erupt and people glide through the shops in a kind of calm, as if this is a sterilised heaven, a Wellsian world for the Eloi, the successful, the ones with income to spare, elevated to wealth by those on the other, dim side of the doors.

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This is, of course, fantastic speculation, and were I an objective economist I would surely be able to note the growth of a middle-class, to print statistics showing that social movement from lower to middle is being achieved, that the glass doors are not really a glass ceiling, and that it is my imagination which has created this binary, segregated world of consumerist Heaven and industrial Hell. Yet to observe in Budapest today is to see two different spheres working, the ones at the advance of the capitalist charge, and those in the rear, left-behind. Just as a decade has brought them to this point, so in a decade's time, perhaps, the two will have merged.

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This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Budapest, Hungary, Eastern Europe, travel journal

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