Sunday, June 17, 2012

Buddha In Budapest

I have just seated myself with my back against Buddha, in the Philosopher's Garden, high in the Buda hills above Budapest. Buddha is one of set of statues of people of the idea, life size in bronze, around what should have been a fountain but is only an empty basin. Some symbolism here I don't have time for. I've got a beer in my bag, I want to relax from the noise and pollution down in the city. A group of black booted, black military outfitted shaved head young men have come to inspect the philosophers. They are Neo-Nazis, parading through the city and attacking the weak. Stamped in my passport is my new visa to Israel.

I look into the eyes of one young man. He looks back. What is he thinking? The day before I'd had a conversation with a young Turkish medical student. She said:

- Something is wrong here. You aren't Jewish are you?
- Yes, I am.
- I lived in Israel a long time. Only Jews talk like you do.
- Is that a compliment?
- Yes. But you don't seem Jewish.
- When I was in Israel a couple years ago Israelis didn't believe I was Jewish.
- I understand.
- What do you understand? I'm Jewish, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.
- You are too gentle, too nice. Maybe you lived in Europe too long.
- You think that is it?
- Yes.

Does the Neo-Nazi see gentleness or niceness? He is looking for trouble. I look, he looks. Then he turns away and walks on, bored I suppose by the kindness he's seen. Good. I take out my can of beer, sit my computer in my lap, look out at the view of the city. Soon I will be gone never to return.

II.

The government of Hungary has written into its new constitution what it thinks are conservative principles of family, religion, nation. The principles are conservative in the sense they seek to enforce obedience to rules and punish disobedience. The swaggering patrols around the city feel implicitly authorized by the new government.

This afternoon, scavenging paper and tape from a bulletin board outside a Tel Aviv market, closed for the Sabbath, a man asks me if those were my things, my book on the bench around the corner. I go over, yes, my computer, my Celine book. Was that his Terry Pretchert book? Yes, he's leaving it. I can have it? I was looking for a book by him yesterday. Israel really brings me luck. Good and bad.

- What do you mean?
- When I first came to Israel, I flew from Thailand. I was selected for special treatement by the Israeli security. That means a two hour search. The only others selected were two Israeli Arabs.
- Why did they choose you? You're American. You're Jewish.
- That's what the Israeli Arabs asked me.

When I left Israel, again I was selected for special treatment. They refused to allow my computer on the plane. They said because it wasn't charged, and my charger broken, they couldn't check it. Why did they have to check it? They do. A week later it arrived in Budapest. And a week after that it burned itself up. It was just a year old.

But then, good luck, maybe, returns with my return to Israel. On the plane was a man reading a book on start-ups. I speak to him as we are walking the passages of the Tel Aviv airport, tell him I have an idea he might be interested in. I sent him an email, and now it looks like he has succeed in setting up a team to work on the business.

- Is that what you do?
- No, I write stories. Teach English.
- What is the book you are reading?
- That is another story, another piece of good luck. Do you know Celine?
- No.
- French writer, 1930s. This is his second book. I bought it a couple of days ago at a used book store here. Celine's writing is full a mockery, hatred of human life, and at the same time regret that it has to be this way. The ugly little details accumulate at times into surrealist exaggeration. It's amazing. His realism, his hatred of human life of human beings making each other miserable. The American writer Henry Miller who was living in France at that time admired him. And that is what makes this copy special: see here on the flyleaf? Big Sur, USA, 1949. Big Sur, the "Big South", was at the time a fishing village in Central California. Henry Miller moved there in 1944, and later the Beat writers went there. This book was there too, and somehow found its way here to Tel Aviv. Finding it was my good luck. Did you know Celine became the most virtuosic anti-Jewish writer in all of history?
- No, I didn't.
- Celine hated human ways and manners, and history brought him, with the advent of the Nazis, a ready made theme. The Jews excluded others, enforced on each other obedience to their archaic rules: you never even got a chance with them. Just like every other kind of human being, only more so, and if not more so, at least more openly so, and if not more openly, then making a conspiracy about it in addition. Carrying this book in my hands, talking to people here, as I am talking with you, I keep seeing what is happening through his eyes. The people here are smart, they can talk, talk well, they know what they are doing, but they don't want anything to do with me. I feel the exclusion, I feel anger, anger on behalf of the human race. Like Celine, like anyone looking for the answer, for the way to live that is livable, I am always at a beginning, demanding the world allow me to get started on the real life I'm waiting for. I get angry when I can't begin. I understand Celine. Not to say I think he is right or I am right getting angry. I think he is wrong and I am wrong. I prefer to read the book you bring me, comedy, fantasy, kindness. Pratchett is kind. Do you know him?
- No.
- Well, I see you want to go. I know I shouldn't say it, but like everyone else I talk to here you seem to be counting the seconds till you can get away and don't have to talk to me.
- My friend is waiting. He teaches English, has more work than he can handle. Maybe he can send work to you.
- More good luck.
- And I wish you more to come. Bye.

Around the corner and half way down the next block a cat is crying to me from the half wall above the sidewalk. I pet her and she calms down. A few more cats appear from the bushes. We watch together as a car, after many back and forths, angles itself into the parking space in front of us. I say to the woman driver:

- This cat invited me to join her. I think she wanted food, but settled for my company. We've been watching you.

She opens the back door of her car, takes out a stack of disposable dishes, a bottle of water, and a bag of cat food. She arranges the buffet on the sidewalk and the cats feast.

- Don't tell me you always drive around with meals for cats?
- I do.
- You know, this book I am reading is a book of hatred. I can be a hater too. I was just talking to a man about this book and hatred. That didn't help, and here I am with the cats. I see all the children, the babies in their mother and father's arms. This city is really a city of children. I see all the cats, wild and taken care of. I get angry at my life, at being here, just another foreign country, having to be here, another place I don't belong, another place I can't even get a start in. Then I tell myself, the people are the end, it's always and everywhere all over with people, you can't begin at the end, you can't expect to begin at the end, stop expecting the impossible. Look at the cats. The babies. There is an opening. You've seen it yourself. You've passed through the opening. Why can't you remember? You must be getting old....
- I've got to go. My friends are waiting.
- I know! I know! I'll stay here with the cats.