Afoot Along the DanubeBy Olivier WEBER Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge
Never trust a genuinely fake café. Although Aristide had been in Budapest only four days, it felt like much longer. He was not one to make contact easily with other people, recoiling as he did before social niceties and declining the few invitations that had arrived at the hotel where he was staying, near the Chain Bridge.
All the same, Aristide considered himself to be “average,’’ which is to say just like everyone else, which is to say unlike anyone else, and he had chosen Budapest, a city in Mitteleuropa, in hopes of coming up with a milieu all his own. In fact, if he so abhorred social obligations, it was because he had so often been submitted to and concocted them himself. At 35, he was a bachelor and occasional art dealer who endlessly hesitated between donning the attire of a private detective, that of a traveling salesman or that of a well-heeled peddler of paintings, and he believed that he was too young to be married and too old to be a seducer. He was a middling man in middle age in the middle of Europe. He wore a little beard of medium length and his nails were “reasonably” clipped, as he pointed out to his barber in Paris. He thought of middle age not as an age, really, but rather as a threshold without a border, which was precisely what made it so haunting. The obliteration of time resulted in a strange map, he thought, where the stopovers were not at all clear, where countries would shrink or grow. The downward slope of Aristide’s life was still too far off for him to begin to perceive what his destiny would be, the upward climb too near to allow him to free himself from his roots, however uncertain they might be.
Aristide was a man in the middle who had not yet found his milieu. He was pondering all this as he left the kert, the garden-café that he had been frequenting for four days, something of a makeshift establishment that had taken over the courtyard of a building and was squatting three floors, including balconies and terraces.
Couples were lounging in dark corners on trendy couches, while an old East German Trabant, made of little more than plywood and perched on metal pipes, reigned over the goings-on. The café was a cross between an artist’s studio and a late-night watering-hole. The paint, although recent, was chipping. The plaster had been carefully damaged to produce the impression of age. The new wood floor had been battered with a hammer, or perhaps scratched with a fork, to evoke the extensive passage of spiked heels and time, centuries of wandering footsteps reduced to a few calculated gestures. Aristide had never felt better.
Nonetheless, he could see through the façade, sensing that behind the décor there lurked a hidden story that would be either his salvation or his ruin. It would be a genuinely false story, or the true story of a false past, or the false extrapolation of a tale that had been overtaken by the current story, the one that we are told and subjected to, the one that is fixed in our minds not by textbooks, scholars and libraries, but rather is the story of a tribe, of a lineage, conveyed by the word and the non-word, by what is said and unsaid, by authority and interdiction, a story that is transmitted by tutors and fathers and mothers, by pillars of families, by the founders and the elders.
Each time he left the kert, the garden-café, Aristide passed a woman wearing a sandwich board in Kazinczy Street. He was attracted to her because she fit with the décor of the café and because there was a curious air about her, a mix of something European and something almost Central Asian or Balkan or something that evoked the Black Sea. In Hungarian and in English, she repeated the same words, “Come to see Klimt, an exhibition at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts,’’ and on the double placard that she was wearing there was a work by the Viennese painter under the title of the exhibition, “Nudas Veritas.” Aristide was intrigued by the sandwich-woman’s face but also by her strange accent, which he heard when she spoke the few words in English proclaiming the merits of the exhibition. This could indicate that he was indeed in the middle of Europe, at the crossroads of fallen empires, or perhaps on the margin of vague entities. The painting on the sandwich board was doubly troubling, first because it gave rise to a certain haziness in his mind, making for blurred contours, blurred depth, blurred perspective, and also because it depicted a nude, which might be seen as a depiction of the sandwich-woman’s body. Aristide refrained from looking at the painting because he feared that his gaze might pierce the placard and that he would see the real naked body of the real woman, the false portrait of the sandwich-woman, the underlying representation of a foreigner, for he was now quite convinced that she must be an immigrant, probably from some distant city, from another corner of Mitteleuropa or a far-flung outpost of the slave trade somewhere along the Danube.
He returned again and again to the kert and it disturbed him to realize that he was more interested in the sandwich-woman than in the real-fake café with its prematurely aged walls and a floor battered by hammer or fork. The real-fake was splendidly represented in the features of this woman-object; she was perhaps trafficked herself, sold by a pimp or escaped from some backwater and offering herself up to art enthusiasts. Aristide was particularly troubled by this because he had come to Budapest precisely to examine and be done with the vagueness that he felt in himself, the real-fake that was hiding behind his glasses and his little real-fake artist’s beard. His name had been fashioned before the disappearance of his mother, who had been born in Vienna and posed as an artist’s model, and whose mother before her had also posed for Danube artists and Secession movement painters.
He had learned only much later that his real name was Abraham Hannibal, just like Pushkin’s African ancestor. His father had named him that at birth in honor of his Russian heritage, for he in fact had a link to St. Petersburg and to Pushkin, although his mother always disputed the claim, saying, “Your father will say anything, he likes to make himself seem important, he’s always vague, and he can’t even write.”
In the absence of knowing how to write, or at least how to write well, Aristide’s father sold Russian paintings in Paris, first on the street and then in a studio near the Seine. He had accumulated a small fortune and held on to a few good paintings, but he had not been able to keep his wife. One day she just left, in the middle of the afternoon: “Your father is too vague, it would be better for him to pay attention to concrete art, the art of everyday life.” Aristide was barely 10 years old. From one day to the next, the Seine had become a blur.
He had since cultivated the art of vagueness and melancholy. He liked paintings whose contours were imprecise and he collected a string of love affairs. As soon as the borders had been crossed into something resembling affection, however, he always reverted to the same tactics — this won’t work, you’re too intense for me, I prefer things to be more vague — and his conquests would leave, disappointed or hateful or both, and he would go on drifting from port to port. He bought himself glasses that were weaker than his necessary prescription, which thus allowed him to not see well, and he would regularly lean over the Pont Neuf in order to appreciate his blurred view of the Seine. He didn’t like finite lines, borders, frames. When a friend told him that he had joined the executive regiments of a financial firm, Aristide had replied, “And me, I’m AWOL.” In the art gallery that he had inherited from his father, with its tattered wallpaper and charged past, he hung paintings without frames. That was his Seine period. Then came the brief Danube period.