WE PERSIANS

“His sharp observations, his balanced serenity,

his playful style, all bear witness to the fact that he knew

both people and animals fundamentally, and loved them anyway.”

Végh Katalin’s entry on Gerald Durrell in

the Lexicon of World Literature, 1972.

 

I never enjoyed thinking about my identity. Nor did I especially like it when others spoke about theirs, although I knew this wasn’t quite acceptable, since from a politically correct standpoint everything must be measured by its individual identity, nothing else matters. I didn’t have much to say to anyone who asserted that they identified with the majority (national, political, sexual, religious, etc.), whereas I always took those who fixated on the minority identity for the original class of victim: I understood them profoundly, but I still didn’t have the heart to denounce the majority with them. Or else I stuck to the classic liberal principle that everyone is free to choose their own identity, to create one, two, five, and then liberate themselves from them and so on. Those who deny this, claiming that identity is a genetic element of our birth and a determining factor throughout our lives, I would gladly have sent to an analyst (providing the therapy was not Jungian). In a word, I believed that we stood on the threshold of normality: more and more social groups and communities were extending solidarity towards one another, as the admirable Rorty put it, or history had come to an end at some point, as the less admirable Fukuyama expressed it. Or to put it less elegantly: we could know one another, even love one another, or at least leave one another in peace.

In the second half of the 1980s, Kundera, Konrád, Milosz and the rest of the crew of dissident intellectuals came up with the myth of a “Central European” identity. I pored over every word, naturally, because everything they said signalled the “de-Sovietisation” of the region. They spoke of freedom and how we belonged to Europe and how at last what belonged together was growing together. There was something ineffably messianistic about all this too: we Central Europeans were charged with bringing all the people/ nationalities/ countries/ states of the post-totalitarian region into the unified West. This metaphor got lost somewhere along the way. At the launch of In Search of Central Europe (1989, London), a volume intended to summarise the circle of thinkers, one of the editors, György Schöpflin, assembled an enormous quantity of cultural-historical blather simply in order to clarify the borders of (Central-) Europe: across from the Russians (as such) to the right, across from the Balkans (also as such) below. My Balkan identity flickered with the boding of extinction.

That’s when I decided to be Persian instead of Central-European.

            But how can anyone be Persian? asked Montesquieu, and I asked the same question. The “Persian” is, after all, the ready-made outsider, who is within and without at the same time: the kind of outsider who knows a certain medium at least as well as though she had created and operated it, but still tries to approach it through the concepts of another medium. Her attitude is not necessarily critical, nor is she blindly accepting. She is not in “border territory”, that is, she does not have to make a binding decision to belong here or there, she simply lives somewhere to wherever she feels more attached than elsewhere, and in the meantime she looks out for anything in the one medium which can stimulate the knowledge of the other.

            The “Persian” principle is the natural endowment of bilinguals, which manifests itself as soon as a person endeavours to instil an identity. In Bulgaria, where I spent the first twelve years of my life, I used to chant with the rest, “it gives me the greatest pride to be a Bulgarian child” (after Ivan Vazov, the Bulgarian classic, in free translation). At home, my mother used to tell me to think it through. My father used to discourse on the glorious past of Bulgarian heroes, while my Hungarian grandfather tried to make a Catholic out of me for a while, although he signed up with “the Party” in 1942. When we moved to Hungary and I learned to read and write in Hungarian, I had to wake up to the fact that that textbook history and this textbook history didn’t add up somehow: as though the borders of the two countries weren’t only 500 kilometres apart. Both here and there everyone wanted to know which did I feel myself to be more: Bulgarian or Hungarian. And since I didn’t want to displease anyone (neither here nor there), I generally answered half one, half the other. If they persisted enough I’d say it depended on who scored the first goal in the Hungary-Bulgaria match.

            I only realised the perfect absurdity of the situation when I was thirteen years old and discovered that one branch of my ancestors were not so much Catholic as Catholicised, and were not “simply” Hungarian, but Hungarian Jews. The discovery of my “third half” was an enlightenment: at last I didn’t have to decide if I felt like a Bulgarian or Hungarian child, all I had to do was wait it out while things cleared themselves up in the end. All the same, it wouldn’t be bad to know in advance what kind of relatives you have on your back. Ever since I have considered my name to be fate’s big joke at my expense: Krasztev, which means no more nor less than “cross-bearer”.

            So the ancient home was in Israel, the halfway house in Bulgaria and the new homestead in Hungary: endless possibilities for grandiose family mythologies lie hidden behind that trajectory... Only then there was Moscow, Vilnius, Prague, Dubrovnik, Ljubljana, Warsaw, Minsk, Belgrade, Tirana, Chisinau, Istanbul, Kiev and Skopje: all my homes, where I’ve left something or somebody, to which, to whom, I might return at any time, and would return at any time, to pick up that conversation where we left off. Each and every location interprets and explains the others, even when their individual independent histories are not “compatible” with one another.

            Nowadays my old acquaintances often ask me suspiciously: do you (Visegrad Four) people really want to introduce compulsory visas? was it you (NATO members) who bombed our country to bits? are you (soon to be EU members) going to turn us into a banana republic? How can I answer them? Listen, lads, sorry, you know I’m a Persian, you remember us talking about it, how we walk in the world with our many hats, how we’re inside and outside simultaneously, while all the while I’m the one with the passport in my pocket, I can go and seek out a new identity: they’re on the inside, they find for themselves what they can. In the end the winners are the very ones against whom I came up with this whole Persian idea: our borders are good and thick, anything that happens beyond them may as well be in Peru, it’s of so little import to those on the inside. And this is an inexhaustible source of new identities.

            

I believe we Persians failed Master Montesquieu’s test.

But, as we say in Pest, at least we ran a lap. A marathon, in reverse.

Since then the identities have swarmed back again. And so now we vote for our dictators voluntarily.

Now I don’t even want to be Persian. And it’s possible that I can never be Persian again.

Péter Krasztev

Translated by Stephen Humphreys