Monica Porter and The Paper Bridge

Over recent years Eastern Europe has become more and more important within the European Union, and to a lesser extent within NATO. Such a phenomenon would have been inconceivable three decades ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism when, one by one, the countries of Russia’s Eastern Bloc were regaining their political self-determination. The tearing down of the wall in November 1989 symbolised the arrival of a new dawn. The world at large, and Europe in particular, was inevitably marching towards a fresh era that embraced freedom of thought and action in the wake of the utter chaos resulting from years of ideological mismanagement.

The tragic history of the dark years preceding that turning point, and the economic and social consequences leading on from the Second World War, that saw the repression of virtually every individualistic initiative and the masses orchestrated into a frenzy of ideological disasters, were not entirely a tale of negative loss. The cultural heritages of the Eastern countries often proved to be indestructible, despite every attempt by militant officials to curb their natural energies and channel them within particular Soviet notions of political expediency.

In the early 1980s Quartet Books launched a new paperback series of twentieth-century European classics, which it called ‘Quartet Encounters’. More than a hundred titles were published, winning great acclaim from the literary establishment in Britain and abroad. It included many Central and East European authors. Alongside this project we also published, from Poland, Witold Gombrowicz’s Diaries (in hardback in three volumes, 1988-93).

Among the ‘Quartet  Encounters’ titles were, from Austria, Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons (1989); from Romania, D. R. Popescu’s The Royal Hunt (1987); from Czechoslovakia, Arnost Lustig’s Dita Saxova (1994); from East Prussia, Ernst Wiechert’s Simple Life (1994); and from Hungary, Esterhazy’s Helping Verbs of the Heart (1992). All of the above are still in print and available. We were also the first to publish the great Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, in this country with his books of reportage, The Emperor: The Downfall of an Autocrat and Shah of Shahs.

In 1984 Quartet also published ‘Antipolitics’ by George Konrad, Hungary’s leading man of letters, who recently wrote an autobiography entitled A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life. ‘Antipolitics’ was an important essay on the inimical effects of power politics on the lives and aspirations of ordinary people, which brings me to another book that we originally published in 1981. This was called The Paper Bridge, by Monica Porter, brought out to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, crushed when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest.

On publication The Paper Bridge was hailed as a vivid and insightful account of a  very personal journey that the author made back to her homeland. Noel Barber, a legendary journalist with a particular knowledge of Hungary, described it as ‘a moving personal document from a sensitive writer of great promise’. 

Monica Porter had been a small child when her family fled across Hungary’s border to Austria and migrated onwards from there to the United States. Later, working as a journalist, she became a Londoner and a young mother, and decided she wanted to see the land of her birth and find out whether there could be any real understanding between someone who had grown up in the West and those compatriots who had remained behind in an oppressive communist country. Her journey brought her into contact with a vast assortment of colourful, often eccentric individuals. With her keen eye for human behaviour and her astute observations, she painted an intriguing picture of an Eastern European state as it lurched into the final decade of the Cold War.

A revised paperback edition of The Paper Bridge has now been published by Quartet. It includes, as well as a new preface from the author, a foreword specially written by Sir Bryan Cartledge, one of Britain’s most distinguished diplomats, who was ambassador to Hungary in the 1980s and is the author of what many consider to be the best history of that fascinating nation. To help with illustrating what the revised version and the original book are all about, I have chosen a few extracts from Sir Bryan’s admirable foreword:

Monica’s ‘sharp eye for human behaviour and acute ear for dialogue…filled in some major gaps in in my own experience of Hungary’. Her writing ‘took me into the daily lives and apartments or cottages of ordinary Hungarians ­ shopkeepers, musicians, pensioners, students and artists among them. She recorded their views on everyday matters, their problems and hopes for the future…’

The Paper Bridge is much more than a lively travelogue. Monica Porter penetrates the surface of everyday life in 1980s Hungary, which she describes so well, to make wise observations on the prolonged tragedy which is the history of her motherland.’

Today, ‘Democracy and a free market economy both have their problems and difficulties; but few Hungarians would exchange the problems of the present for those of the past sixty years. The Paper Bridge tells us why.’

Monica Porter is endowed with a natural sympathy of approach and a journalistic flair that make her work uniquely engrossing. I feel that, even with the passage of time, her book will never date. It tells the story of a historical journey, worth preserving for future generations, but her own words express more eloquently the very essence of her journey:

It occurred to me that my entire trip to Hungary was an attempt to build a bridge of my own, which would allow me to pass from one side of my life to the other, from childhood to adulthood, from East to West, from my inherited background to the life which I have chosen to lead in London. But I knew, also, that I would have to tread carefully. I had a feeling that my construction might not necessarily last a lifetime. In fact, it was more like a paper bridge, delicate and lightly assembled…

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