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Café Society


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SOCIALISM | Cynicism

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Café society
When people are treated cynically - particularly by those in
power over them - they tend to respond in kind. In the socialist countries
of Eastern Europe this kind of cynicism from above begets cynicism
from below. Anton Gratz tells a story of cafe life in Budapest.

Thursday afternoon. Agnes left work about three in the afternoon and today, as every Thursday, was on her way to meet Gyorgi at the Cafe Prag. It was a fine October day so she walked more slowly than usual along the side of the Danube. Even the dusty statues that lined the road seemed to enjoy the bright, clean air; the statues commemorated Hungary’s failed war of independence of 1848,

The Cafe Prag was a relic of a more glorious period in the country’s history - the reign of the Hapsburgs and the might of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The dark furniture and the high gilded ceilings with their tiny classical figurines added to the air of genteel style, The waiters too, in their black uniforms and stiff collars served the coffee and cakes with elegant formality.

All a little out of place, perhaps, in a communist country, But the government kept the Cafe Prag going, partly as a tourist attraction and partly as a reminder of the country’s rich past.

Agnes found herself a seat near the window. The cafe had always been a gathering place for artists, writers and the politically-inclined and most of the faces were familiar to her, For all Eastern Europe’s reputation for grey conformity, in Hungary as elsewhere people take a lively and critical interest in the world around them. Agnes could hear snatches of conversation about the price rises that had just been announced, the latest events in Poland, and just the strands of political gossip - and jokes - that served as a human safety valve.

Agnes knew that Gyorgi could be relied upon to add to their collection of stories. But today he looked as though he was bearing a lot more. Gyorgi always seemed a little out of place in the Prag in his blue work-jacket - he came to the cafe straight from his shift at the shunting yard. Now as he picked his way through the marble-topped tables he was carrying an enormous plastic bag. And he seemed in a good mood,

‘I have made a careful study,’ he said. ‘a scientific study. you might even say, of the deliveries to grocery stores. He showed Agnes the fruits of his investigation. The bag contained twelve large packets of detergent. ‘You have to be quick off the mark - and dedicated. But I’m prepared to be generous, Here, take one.

‘You think we have problems with detergent?.’ He drew up his chair a little more closely. ‘Have you heard what happened when socialism came to the Sahara? First five-year plan - nothing happens. Second five-year plan - nothing happens. Third five-year plan - they begin to run out of sand.’

They added their laughter to general hubbub of conversation in the Prag. The talk was, as often as not, about shortages and price rises and the people who somehow never seem to have to join the queues. The Soviet Union too comes in for the sort of private criticism that never seems to surface in the official TV and newspapers: Soviet President Chernenko makes frequent appearances on Hungarian TV delivering fraternal speeches and attending one conference after another.

‘But,’ asked Agnes, ‘have you heard what happened when Chernenko’s old mother finally came to Moscow to see how successful her son had been? Can’t you just see her, the sturdy little peasant women in the black scarf? When she gets off the train she is met by a huge black Volga limousine that whisks her off to the Presidential apartment.

‘His mother is astonished. "How did you get the car, my son? You didn’t steal it, l hope." "No, no mother, it comes with the job. I have an important position." She wanders through his apartment barely able to believe the space and the luxury and the wardrobes full of imported Western suits. "This is also a part of the job mother. One has to make a good impression."

‘The old woman is impressed but looks a little uneasy. And that night at dinner, which includes liberal supplies of caviar and bottles of Georgian wine from an exclusive store in the back of the Kremlin, again she asks about his spectacular lifestyle - and gets the same answer: "It comes with the job".

‘Now she really does look worried. "I’m not sure that this is really wise, my son. You should be more discreet. After all, what will you do if the communists come back?"’

Gyorgi roars with laughter and tries to attract the attention of one of the waiters. ‘Ah,’ he says, patting Elizabeth’s hand ‘but you, my dear, have joined the Party again. Is this not the way you are going? Do you not have a mother to impress too?.’

Agnes can’t deny it. She had been a member of the Party in her idealistic youth. But now she had rejoined, though for more practical reasons. Now she sees it as a way of getting ahead in her job at the Hungarian Tourist Agency. She had forgotten, though how long and boring the Party meetings could be - ‘They seem to go on forever.’ she moaned.

‘What you don’t realise, Agnes,’ said Gyorgi. ‘is that that is all an important part of counter-espionage. Why only last week they used this technique to catch a spy. It was during a long Congress meeting about production in the metal industry. The Central Committee member was just getting into the third hour of his speech, when someone passed a note to him that there was a spy at the Congress. He naturally ordered that the spy be found immediately. The next minute a young man is picked out of the fifth row of the audience. The Central Committee member was impressed and called the Head of Security afterwards to congratulate him.

How did you find him quickly?’ ‘Very simple, comrade. We remember the observation of comrade Lenin - the enemy never sleeps.’

‘I will have to be careful just how long I stay awake in future. laughed Agnes. ‘But you have to admit that security is something that socialist countries do manage very efficiently.

‘And it seems to work even in the Third World,’ she added. ‘Why you know that Colonel Mengistu in Ethiopia once lost his watch and was so outraged that there should still be crime in socialist Ethiopia that he insisted that that the culprit be found immediately.

‘But the next day he discovered his little boy playing with the watch. He was of course slightly embarrassed so he rang up the head of security to tell him. "About my watch, Major ..." But before he could say any more the official interrupted him, ‘Everything has been sorted out, Comrade President. Please do not worry, fifty people have already confessed.’

The waiter arrived at the end of the story, so Gyorgi hastened to reassure him that they were talking about how efficiently socialism was working - you couldn’t be too careful. ‘Marxism is after all a science - a science of human affairs.’ said Gyorgi, warming to his theme. ‘So we can expect it to operate in a scientific and dependable fashion.’

But the waiter had worked too long at the Cafe Prag to let that go by. ‘If Marxism were a science, Comrade,’ he said as he placed the cups on the table, ‘they would first have tried it out on mice.’

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New Internationalist issue 153 magazine cover This article is from the November 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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