I first met Evan Brown at a writers’ gathering in Nelson. There was an immediate rapport. I enjoy the intellectual sharpness of those brought up in the old Eastern European satellites, who while suffering the Russian-imposed ‘communism’, also lived, in Solzhenitsyn’s words, ‘socialist relations at the street level’. This elderly Hungarian, despite having been in exile for close to fifty years (escaping in 1956) retained that sharpness. After all, she had Lukacs as a lecturer at university. Her poems, written under the name Panni Palasti, were both well-made and unusual in content for a Nelson writer; for example, describing a child’s fascination with the beauty of a WW11 aerial battle, only to realise that one of the parachutes floating gently to the earth had a dead body attached.
We became writing buddies and she proved an astute editor. She brought a specially-composed poem to read at the opening of the Blackball Museum and started the boutique publishing company, Maitai River Press, which published a collection of her poems and a collection of my stories. But she quickly became frustrated with the publishing game, unwilling to devote her life to it.
Instead, fragments of a memoir of her childhood in Budapest began to arrive for comment, and I realised she had begun to research her family history. Writing challenges surfaced. She wanted to capture the child’s innocent eye, yet there was also the perspective of the seventy year old writer, and she wanted to include stories of research visits home. There was tension between the poet capturing a moment and the demands of prose for a more linear narrative. There were the skeletons in the family closet, including one at the heart of her own family, to be revealed or not? There was background material to be fitted in as necessary context. It became a complex task and one driven by a deep personal need, and something of a race against time. Eventually there was not much I could contribute. And then there was the unsuccessful search for a publisher, not surprising given the increasingly narrow range of the market: cooking, gardening, romance, crime, celebrity biography, recreation… that tends to be it.
I was glad to hear that she would publish it under Maitai River Press’s imprint, and the handsome book, Budapest Girl an immigrant confronts the past, by Panni Palasti, arrived as a Christmas present. Immediately I realised that publication gives an authority that the e-book lacks. It’s real, you can hold it and smell it; this work required that sense of authentication. And then reading through the work (some of the material I was familiar with) I understood that this was Eva’s whakapapa, her mihi, and that she had waited to the end of her life to compose it. The concept of whakapapa is complex, moving through waka, river, mountain, family lineage, to the gods, to the void (te po) in which, nevertheless, float the male and female spirits.
In Eva’s case we have the complex Hungarian story of tribal and feudal roots, the ease with which border towns changed nationality, some peasant origins, a Jewish atheist father, various scandals, some illegitimacy, and finally the war which saw the Hungarian government collaborating with Hitler, the Jewish pogrom which swept up her father and members of his family, and the eventual arrival of the Russians. A child sees and locked in subjectivity, doesn’t see – and for a good portion of this story, despite the need to be frugal, this child is pampered by parents and grandmothers, so can avoid the mess of the world. To counter this is the overarching consciousness of the writer, with her need to fill in the gaps. And then the unavoidable war arrives. Told in fragments of prose interspersed with poems and with many photos (her father the free-lance journalist was a compulsive picture taker), it becomes, like all mihi, a treasure.
In this time of globalisation, with a large proportion of the world’s population living in exile, this book poses the problem of exile. I consciously chose not to live in exile. Chose is too strong a word. I had an intuitive need to – I won’t say ‘come home’ because I was unsure of ‘home’; but anyway I moved back to the country I was born in. Eva, after fifty years (most of her life) living away, had the need, as a writer, to go home. Perhaps, only by writing this whakapapa, can she fully claim the rest of her experience. This I took to be the sub text to one of the more striking poems in the book:
When I die
When I die
I’ll take with me every tune I’ve heard
Every embrace and every word
Every child I’ve held in my arms
And all the kisses given and taken
Sacred vows and false alarms
That feed an eternal flame
The fierce faith of youth
And what later came
Sweet forgiveness of blows
That missed their mark
And taught me about the shades of dark.
I’ll take reluctant winter sunsets
As they dissolve over the hills
The wistful tenderness of men
Too shy to ask
Laden with manna and wine
I’ll take the whole show
It has been mine.
So, in a market of formulaic books, this one is as unique as a life. I suspect it will receive few reviews, would get lost at the Frankfurt Book Fair, nevertheless, it is there, it exists, it will find its readership. As I said, a taonga.