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Continental Crossroads

East greets West as Hungary's history-rich capital embraces the future

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Torok, the guidebook author, speaks of Budapest as a layered city. "If you penetrate Budapest one way, it is a hectic, cosmopolitan place with wonderful museums, office buildings and shops," he says. "But approach it from a different axis and it becomes more humble and slower paced." On his advice, I board Bus 15 and spend 40 minutes crossing the city from south to north. The first half of the journey takes me past well-known landmarks: the massive Parliament building on Kossuth Square, named after the leader of the failed Hungarian independence revolt in 1848-49, and Erzsebet Park, the leafy preserve honoring the Hapsburg queen Elizabeth, admired for her sympathetic attitude toward Hungarian nationalists in the years before World War I.

But during the second half of my trip, the bus passes through far less prosperous neighborhoods. Beauty salons advertise long-outdated hairstyles; young men wielding wrenches tinker with motor scooters. Older women in dowdy clothes stroll by. Suit jackets sag on hangers behind open windows, airing out. Small family-run restaurants advertise home cooking and all-you-can-eat buffets.

"I still love those narrow, cozy streets—that is the city where I grew up," says Imre Kertesz, 76, Hungary's Nobel laureate in literature. We meet in the splendidly restored, marble-floored lobby of the Gresham Palace Hotel, a 1903 masterpiece of Art Nouveau architecture, where Budapest's most famous bridge, the Lanchid, straddles the Danube.

In Kertesz's childhood, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest—one quarter of the city's inhabitants. By the end of Nazi occupation in 1945, more than half of them had been killed, many by Hungarian fascists. Kertesz himself survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

After the war, he became a journalist, until he was fired for his reluctance to lionize the new Communist regime. "I could not take up a career as a novelist, because I would be considered unemployed and sent to a labor camp," he tells me. "Instead, I became a blue-collar laborer—and wrote at night." Still, he chose not to flee Hungary during the chaos of the 1956 uprising against the Communists. The Russian Army crushed the revolt, leaving an estimated 3,000 people dead, imprisoning thousands more and sending 200,000 into exile. "Yes, I could have left," says Kertesz, who was only 27 at the time and had yet to write his first novel. "But I felt I would never become a writer if I had to live in the West, where nobody spoke or read Hungarian."

His novels—the best known are Fatelessness (1975) and Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990)—take up themes of pre-war Jewish life in Budapest and of the Holocaust. Although acclaimed internationally, his works were virtually ignored in Hungary until he received the Nobel Prize in 2002. The next year, more than 500,000 copies of his books sold in Hungary—or about 1 for every 20 countrymen. "But at the same time, there were many protest letters from Hungarians to the Nobel committee in Sweden," says Kertesz. "Most objections were about my being Jewish."

Kertesz divides his time between Berlin and Budapest. He remains controversial in Hungary, especially among conservatives, who regard an emphasis on Hungary's anti-Semitic past to be unpatriotic. I was surprised, therefore, when our interview was interrupted by former prime minister Viktor Orban, a staunch conservative, who greeted Kertesz warmly and professed admiration for his novels.

Hungary's bitterly polarized politics create the impression that the country is mired in a permanent election campaign. The acrimony is rooted in history. Many conservatives refuse to forgive former Communists and other leftists for their support of the Russians in 1956. Many leftists denounce the right for backing fascism during the 1930s and allying the country with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Orban is only 42. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who heads a coalition of socialists and centrists, is 45. "There is a very deep gap between the two sides," says Minister of Economy Janos Koka, himself only 33. "One reason is that democracy is very young and we aren't yet used to the new rules of the game." Still, he notes with pride, there has been no bloodshed in the 16 years since Hungary moved from a state-run to a free-market economy and from a Communist Party dictatorship to a multiparty democracy.

After making a fortune as a computer-software entrepreneur, Koka accepted an invitation to join the government and apply his business skills to the state bureaucracy. "Unlike the business world, it is very hard to turn a decision into action," he says. "You need a lot of enthusiasm to break through walls of government bureaucracy."

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