When I was last in Budapest (this is going back some years now — before the Coca-Cola signs went up) I was drawn into the extraordinary world of relics, icons and iconography.
Hungary had gone through several revolutions by then — some successful, some not. I am not talking about revolutions that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, nor necessarily of the Hungarian Spring of 1956, when Russian tanks filled with Russian troops rolled into those same streets of Budapest and other Hungarian cities to put down an anti-Soviet uprising — causing the worldwide socialist/communist alliance to split at the seams. (The rift never healed, by the way. It was the beginning of the end for the process that Karl Marx, Friederich Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Mao Tse Tung had attempted to put in place to change the world. And Leon Trotsky, of course, but we’re coming to that.)
It wasn’t only the icons of failed and successful revolutions that were interesting in Budapest. There was much more as I walked about the streets — such as the huge, hooded statue of the great writer Anonymous perched on a chair in the middle of one of the city’s great parks. You looked at the plaque that told you who this dramatic character was, then peered up to try to see his face beneath the massive, hooded cloak. Of course, there was no face to be seen. He was, true to form, anonymous.
But it was the deeper history, suggesting a much longer process of human strife and upheaval, that caught my interest, and ended up fascinating me into writing the play that I was supposed to have been there to write in the first place. The play became a completely different beast.
The most gripping moment must have been when I came across the relics of one of the great, ancient Hungarian monarchs in the deepest cellar of the great church that looms like a cross between a monastery and a fortified castle on the other side of the Danube river from downtown Buda. A guide took me through the obvious delights of the wall paintings, mosaics and sarcophagi in the main church, and then, with almost leering enjoyment, down the winding stone staircase that led to the series of chambers where the real history of this turbulent country was stored.
Between the yellow stone pillars there were eerily lit glass cases with books and relics of the monks and saints who had made this part of the world what it was. It was the sort of thing that the Voortrekker Monument on the outskirts of Tshwane must have modelled itself on, without as much access to the gory detail — chunks of saintly hair, cracked pages from ancient books, rubies and emeralds cast in gold rings that must have signified something to some throng of peasants being talked down to by some monarch at some time, but now were just covered in dust, peered over with mild curiosity by the odd passing tourist like myself.
The most interesting thing was the embalmed hand of St Stephen, yellowed and leathery, in a dingy box inside its glass enclosure. I think I felt my hair standing, in an unlikely way, straight up and vertical on my head. I don’t remember much of what transpired thereafter, except that I found myself gasping once again in the fresh air of the church battlements, handing over whatever change I had to the leering guide, having taken the long, curved series of staircases at a single leap, as it appeared, in order to get away from all of that and gather my wits once more.
Not that one is superstitious. Just that there are certain things that should be left well alone, if you’ve been brought up in a certain way.
Which brings me, I suppose, to my point. In the past week, two of the world’s most interesting, but at the same time most dubious, relics have come back into the spotlight.
One is the purported ice pick that was supposedly used by a Spanish revolutionary fanatic in Mexico to knock out the brains of exiled Russian revolutionary theorist Leon Trotsky on the orders of Joe Stalin back in Moscow. The ice pick came to light when a Mexico City taxi driver claimed that it had been handed down to her by her policeman father, and now, more than half a century later, seemed like it might be of some historical value. Trotsky’s grandson, who also lives in Mexico City, has expressed mild interest in establishing whether or not this really is the instrument that took out his grandpappy in this most unpleasant fashion.
The other relic, closer to home, is the tennis racquet that was supposedly used by Nelson Mandela during one of his rare periods of exercise on Robben Island when he was locked up there by the government of the day in the 1960s. The tennis racquet popped up at Sotheby’s in London with a hefty price tag, but was instantly denounced by all concerned as not being the genuine article.
The only reason the notorious tennis racquet (or racket) has come back into the limelight is because of the undignified, ongoing dispute between Mandela and his former lawyer Ismail Ayob, who now claims that he played no part in the racquet arriving in the auction room to be sold at an unbelievable price in the name of its famous former so-called owner. All this, of course, because there is much hoo-ha about works of art that the former president reportedly never painted, but nevertheless signed as his own, in order to raise funds from those same auction rooms around the world in order to benefit various good causes.
It would seem that the relic business is buzzing. Me, myself, personally, I prefer, in retrospect, the kind of relics that stay put in glass cases in distant countries. But it seems that the rapacious world we live in has other ideas, and prefers them to be moving around making good business on the open market.
Once again, and for a completely different reason, my hair, like the rest of the country’s, is standing on end.