The Objects that Speak of Us
Part 5 on writing a novel trilogy
Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I was been aware how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of Jewish citizens herded to the river in 1944 and 1945. Ther they were made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot. Their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.
The imprint on objects
Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bears the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case. And other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects. The retractable pencil that he wrote with. A facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none. And a small change purse.
The purse went into a scene when the Attila of my novel first meets Selene:
No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.
You are still feeling sick?
No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.
Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.
Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.
He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.
But you … I don’t think you can afford …
A special occasion, he insists.
He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.
Objects as connection
And other objects assumed even greater importance in communicating themes through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story. She find is by her bed when she is in Toledo searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:
When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.
Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.
I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.
When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.
The hamsa becomes Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world. And later it also becomes a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.
I never saw the enchantment, only story and facts aligned. Miriam was my Ben Haddaj. I was Casilda. I was not Cassie (Catherine Anne McManus) from the Lawn’s Estate. Miriam was so certain that in this lifetime Ben Haddaj would save me and that we would be together forever. And I clung to her until an incident so small, so brutal, sent my world spinning apart. And then I rationalised it all away. … I survived Liam and the first miscarriage, convinced myself that life was beginning to make sense. And it was, even through the shock of Miriam’s death, even through the strange experiences in Toledo — the sense of Casilda with me at the tiny mosque, the inexplicable certainty of Miriam comforting me after the sudden flow of blood, the mint tea that I found, cooling by my bedside when I woke, and the hamsa that I wear always, that Selene carries always, that I remember seeing Judith wearing the last time I saw her …
Objects as character
Objects anchor us. Objects can signal how people identify themselves and how they want others to perceive them. Objects become the repositories of memories, reminders of events.
There’s an antique pen in A Remedy for All Things, which Catherine gives to Simon after a visit to the artists’ colony at Szentendre. It will re-appear in the third book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. It’s personal, says something about the user, adds texture and depth to the narrative, shows the reader some vital detail without telling her what to think or see …
There’s a sketchbook given to Catherine in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father. It becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a motif for the future:
My father worked for Sándor and Marie Virág. Marie was Parisian, they both knew art and had met at school. Sándor had a particularly good eye. He could draw too — a very good sense of line, but he was a gregarious man, they were good with people, good at finding homes for art works and good at spotting whose work would sell. They lived above the shop here with their daughter. All was going well, but then …
It was before they arrived, before their foul ‘Ordances’, but by the late Thirties even so-called liberals were denouncing Jews, blaming them for luring us into a war with Germany that was nothing to do with ‘real’ French people. The rhetoric was more and more violent. Sándor decided they should leave. He could see what was coming. My father, Charles, wanted to buy the gallery, but he didn’t have the savings. They hoped to return and they liked him, wanted to make him a partner. So my father paid what he could, nothing like the worth of the gallery, but they drew up their own agreement — when they came back he would use the profits from the intervening time to make it a full partnership.
But they never returned.
My father tried to find them, but in Hungary …
Jews were forced to move into ghettos, it would have been hard.
Yes, and then Communism — but it’s preyed on him all these years.
He’s still alive?
Yes, eighty-eight and in failing health, but his mind is sharp.
I can’t imagine they’d think anything other than what good hands they left the gallery in.
The granddaughter — Miriam you said? — if she could write to my father, even visit. I know he’d want to compensate her, there is still a clause in his will…
She’s another missing person at the moment, my friends are trying to locate her, but if we find her …
Thank you. Marcel hesitates, lifts the package from the tray. If you find her, could you give her this or pass it on to relatives?
Catherine unfolds the carefully layered brown paper around a sketchbook, dark brown card covers, a taped binding in burgundy. Inside, thick sketch paper, each page a study of a person —
They are all of Marie or his daughter, Marcel offers. He leans over, stares at the open page. You look like you could be the Selene as an adult, he says. You are also related?
Catherine shivers. No, she says quietly, just … a coincidence, I suppose. They’re beautiful, very delicate.
Yes — so few lines, so much expression. You will take the book for Miriam?
Well, I —
For my father to know they are on their way to Sándor’s family — even if you don’t find her for some time — it would give him great peace.
Catherine nods. Thank you.
Objects as story
And there’s a book shown to Catherine by my fictionalised version of Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece. On this object the plot might turn, but you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that object …
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