Kolozsvár, September 2009
On his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in 1934, Patrick Leigh Fermor passed through Kolozsvár. He wrote about it in his introduction to one of the volumes of Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy: ‘It was in the heart of Transylvania – in the old princely capital then called Kolozsvár (now Cluj- Napoca) that I first came across the name of Bánffy. It was impossible not to. Their palace was the most splendid palace in the city, just as Bonchida was the pride of the country and both of them triumphs of the baroque style. Ever since the arrival of the Magyars ten centuries ago, the family had been foremost among the magnates who conducted Hungarian and Transylvanian affairs, and their portraits, with their slung dolmans, brocade tunics, jewelled scimitars and fur kalpaks with plumes like escapes of steam – hung on many walls.’
Seventy-five years later, I’m about to visit Béla Bánffy in Kolozsvár. I’ve already met his son and after some urging the father is now willing to receive me. His son has told me about him and the strict upbringing he and his brothers and sisters were given: an appointment is an appointment and you must always stick to your agreements to the letter. If the son turned up a minute later than arranged, his father would give him a dressing down, since any form of misconduct was unacceptable. ‘He taught us to keep our backs straight. We bore the name Bánffy, which conferred obligations. Even without any possessions we had a duty to behave with dignity. We had to do our work well and be honest under all circumstances.’ Every Sunday the family would gather for lunch in the modest little house where his grandparents lived. It provided continuity, as if the grandparents still lived in a castle.
I drive through a district of 1970s apartment blocks. In the car park are long lines of Trabants and Dacias, plus a few Mitsubishis. Now that I finally have an appointment I don’t want to arrive late. I know what gentlemen of rank from the old times are like. Béla Bánffy senior is seventy-three, born in 1936, and he no doubt grew up with strict governesses and tutors. The Prussian and Hungarian school system is still evident in gentlemen over seventy. There’s a military discipline to everything they do. It’s as if they’re trying to preserve all the honour, class and integrity cast aside by the rest of post-communist society. In short, I’m in a hurry, trying to avoid immediately acquiring a reputation for Dutch insolence.
I’m in a jumble of long blocks of flats four storeys high with a maze of streets between them. They all look the same. There’s little to help you get your bearings. At last I find the street and the flat. I’m a quarter of an hour late. In Budapest I filled the boot of the car as a small grocer might, with bottles of Hungarian wine and chocolates from Szamos, the patisserie named after a river that winds through Transylvania.
I put a bottle of red wine for Béla Bánffy into my shoulder bag, along with an audio recorder and notebooks. It’s a decrepit structure, like many residential buildings in the former Eastern Bloc, built decades ago with substandard materials by men judged on quantity rather than quality. The collapse of communism’s planned economy, in which all anyone worried about was the production quota, was inevitable. The bankruptcy of that system can still be seen all over Eastern Europe. Tiles are missing from the shared stairwell; the metal entrance gate no longer shuts; the handrail has come loose.
Béla Bánffy is an extremely amiable man, it’s just that I’d imagined him very differently. Dressed in tracksuit trousers with a lumberjack shirt and white pointed shoes, he has a hefty paunch and thick glasses. In the living room the television is turned up to high volume, showing Formula One with a Hungarian commentary. It’s not clear to me whether the race is live or happened some time ago. Just as these countries are fobbed off with unmarketable batches of textiles and furniture from Western Europe, local television broadcasters are sold old football and boxing matches by the dozen. In the concert venues and football stadia you can watch entertainers who were put out to pasture in the West years ago and if there’s a major tennis tournament, Lendl and Wilander will play each other once again.
I greet his wife, who is also wearing a tracksuit. On a long table between the television and a three-man settee of an indeterminate colour, an ashtray overflows with cigarette ends. There’s a low veneer sideboard and little else in the room. I can’t see anything that points to an aristocratic past. The family seems to have been successfully severed from its history. On the sideboard are cartons of Viceroy, filter cigarettes sold these days only in countries with heavy smokers: the Middle East, Chile, Turkey. Romania is the only place in Europe where you can buy them.
I sit down on the settee next to Béla Bánffy and switch on my audio recorder. The television with Formula One is making too much background noise. Béla Bánffy turns the sound off but leaves the set on. The interview takes place in Hungarian. Béla’s wife brings black coffee in gleaming little fluted cups. He sits slumped relaxedly, using the stub of each cigarette to light the next. There are Bánffy counts and Bánffy barons. The baron branch was repeatedly offered the title of count by the Habsburg emperors but refused every time. The family is also divided between Bánffy pipás and Bánffy kupás: a branch of smokers and a branch of drinkers. The quantity of cigarettes on the sideboard, enough to get you through a short war, leads me to suspect that Béla senior belongs to the former.
Béla tells me his story. His father qualified in Vienna as a forestry engineer and managed the Bánffy forests near Hadad. Throughout the Second World War the family lived in Hungary and after the war they returned to their estate in Transylvania, but it was taken from them by the Romanians. Béla’s father accepted the communist revolution as inescapable. He moved to Kolozsvár with his family and opened a wine warehouse. He had five children to keep. As far as the family was concerned, not much happened on 3 March 1949. The change came later, when the wine warehouse was nationalized and Béla’s father was forced to work in a crate repair shop to keep his family fed. They moved to a small house in the Donát út, outside the city on the banks of the Szamos. Béla was barred from attending school. He became a gatekeeper at a factory, leaving at four every morning to get to work on time.
Béla Bánffy later worked for a while as a locksmith and then trained to be a truck driver. He drove trucks for twenty-five years, mostly ten-tonners. As a class enemy he wasn’t allowed to do any runs abroad, but he could work all over Romania. He never had any trouble from his workmates, only from the bosses, all of whom were party members.
As a child Béla did not have Domiciliu Obligatoriu. His father did, though, and he was under constant political supervision. Béla’s father had a problem with his eyes. Whenever he needed to make an appointment with an eye doctor in Marosvásárhely, he first had to go to the Securitate. If they were feeling well-disposed towards him, they would issue a document giving him permission to leave Kolozsvár for five days. Apart from that he always had to stay within the city limits. The Securitate kept an eye on him. His phones were bugged, letters opened.
‘Everyone had to watch what he said and what he wrote; you couldn’t say anything stupid in a letter. The aristocrats used to meet every week on Sundays in the Donát út and sometimes on a weekday evening as well. We played bridge until eleven or twelve o’clock, and before leaving we always agreed with our bridge partners what to say if we were interrogated by the Securitate, because after almost every meeting someone would be picked up and questioned. The men agreed to say they’d talked about women, whores and sport.’
‘So the Securitate would be waiting for you after an evening of bridge?’
‘Usually, yes. They liked to pick on people who’d been convicted of something, who could be blackmailed, which included anyone with Domiciliu Obligatoriu. Those detained were often released after they’d signed a document saying they would cooperate with the Securitate the next time. But it was pointless, because nothing important was ever discussed. When we were with the family, we deliberately avoided talking about politics, so that no one would be in any difficulty if interrogated. There were people who said things on the street that they’d have done better not to say; they disappeared.’
When I ask how the traditions were upheld, Béla tells me that the older generation explained which country estates had been in the family and the ins and outs of each one. I ask him whether he still has any photographs. He stands up and searches in a cupboard, coming back a little later with a beautiful worn leather photograph album. It’s an object from another world, right there amid the veneer and the cartons of Viceroy. The pages are of black card, with wafer-thin transparent paper between them. The album turns out to be a subtle record of decline.
It starts with black-and-white photos with scalloped borders: fathers and grandfathers with impressive faces and imposing grey moustaches; admiring locals in the background; babies in princely lace dresses; country estates with gardens full of blossoming peonies and lilac. The photographs from the interwar years are in tones of grey and have an aura of exclusivity: relaxed men in plus fours, hunting attire or riding gear standing beside their horses, with clematis- and ivy-covered walls as a backdrop. The country estates, the parks, the companionable dogs, the well-tended mounts and the long white dresses no longer feature.
Halfway through the book, simple square snapshots are suddenly in evidence, with a cheap gloss to them. The medium is the message. The decor shifts to nondescript houses and gardens. They show the family in the 1950s at the little house on the Donát út. The older generation is still elegantly clad in tweed jackets, the women in skirts and silk shawls, all radiating a kind of dauntlessness. In the later photographs that too is gone.
When the pictures switch to the polychrome of the 1970s, the colour slowly goes out of the older generation. They become frail, their jackets threadbare, but even so they preserve an air of distinction. Only the elderly who have left the country, photographed in front of Argentine museums and mediaeval French churches, still exude the natural ease with which life should be faced – a handkerchief sticking nonchalantly out of the breast pocket of a chequered jacket. The young lack such elegance. They wear shapeless Comintern clothes. They have grown up. They have turned inwards. They no longer have that air of distinction.
I ask Béla senior how he sees his family’s future. Béla: ‘The name Bánffy means something again now. When I go to the market to buy a string of onions they address me as “Baron”. The man who sells me onions calls me that. The title of baron is honourable. Under communism the aristocrats worked hard to survive. The communists did nothing. They were the weak ones. Others had to work hard and keep their mouths shut, otherwise they’d be taken away to the Danube – Black Sea Canal.
‘I’m trying to get as many family possessions back as I can, but it isn’t easy. Property deeds have been stolen and lost; the judiciary is full of Securitate and former party members. But the Bánffys have preserved their honour. My children are doing better. They work hard. People who work hard will always manage. It’s said of the Bánffys that you can dump us at the North Pole and we’ll still survive.’
I thank Béla Bánffy for his time. The Grand Prix continues. I walk down the shabby stairwell and make my way off under the scrawny trees between the blocks of flats. The sunlight falls through the yellow-green foliage above me.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).