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The Adventures of Sindbad - Gyula Krúdy, George Szirtes

”’There is only one God’, proclaimed Sindbad with conviction. ‘He who lives in our hearts and is born out of our love. It is the God who protects us, who allows us to meet in secret, so that no one should know of our love; who tells me what you think; who takes care that our eyes should seek only each other’s, who joins our hands, and brings our hearts together like two tempest-tossed birds that have found each other….’
‘You believe in love?’ asked Mitra, gazing at him with big round eyes.
‘I believe in nothing but love.”

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The Széchenyi Chain Bridge that connects Buda with Pest.

Sindbad is a rake, an unrepentant philanderer, a seducer, a heartbreaker, and the Don Juan of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He is also dead.

Now even when he was alive he was very possessive of the women he had seduced. As a ghost he is even more so. They are supposed to be faithful and pine for him all the rest of the days of their lives. ”He could never forgive women. He thought he perceived miraculous qualities in them, a combination of the fidelity of the saints with the virtues of the martyrs. And how he would rage when one of them took up with another man though it was he who had done the leaving.”

This book was published in 1911 and became a huge bestseller. The Hungarian population could not get enough of the adventures of this Lothario. His stories and his novels were serialized in magazines before being collected into books. The Austro-Hungarian culture was passionate about love and morbidly romantic about suicide. In 1889 the crown prince of Austria, Rudolph, committed suicide with his girlfriend. Suicide was an epidemic among young males, but a problem with young females as well who saw death as something to rush towards than something to be avoided. After World War One the Austro-Hungarian empire was dismantled by the victorious Allies. They lost over a ⅓ of their population and ⅔ of their territory. Even now looking at the suicide rates of the countries that made up the old Empire they are still too high. Slovenia is 8th, Hungary is 9th and Austria is 29th in the world.

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Dismemberment of a country.

When I was in Budapest I asked the tour guide about the high suicide rates. She said and I’m paraphrasing “we (Hungarians) were on the wrong side of every conflict, then came the Germans and then the Russians. God turned his face away from us. We lost all sense of ourselves. We are lost.”

Sindbad loves women, but he loves their clothes even more.

”He moaned with the sheer joy of living, his heart in his mouth, every time spring and summer came round he could watch them parading their new clothes. The white blouses of women about town, the traveller’s green skirt and the secretary’s cheap shoes; the hairdresser’s black apron, the feathers in the hat of the forty-year-old grand dame, the nurse’s white uniform, the black scarf of the impoverished aristocrat from Buda, the actress’s loose pantaloons, the hand clad in mother-of-pearl gloves holding opera-glasses in the private box, the leg braced on the high step of the carriage in the process of alighting, the cooing and cackling of Jewish women and the white necks prayerfully bent in Buda churches; these had occupied Sindbad’s imagination throughout his life…women without their clothes were all the same, they never interested him.”

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Fedak Sari, a famous Hungarian actress, a pageantry of clothes.

I can still remember driving down Clement Street in San Francisco and seeing this woman dressed all in black with a big hat and a long veil. She had high heels and stockings. She had blond wavy hair that spilled all the way down her back providing the only relief in color to her ensemble. She was pushing this old Victorian style baby carriage with the big buggy wheels up this steep hill. I can only think she was coming from or going to a funeral. She absolutely took my breath away. I think most men have a Rolodex of images of, in my case women, who usually unintentionally created a lasting mental image for us. I just pulled up another one of a calf wrapped twice with a long telephone cord as the woman walked back and forth across the room curling her hair around her fingers as she conversed on the phone. I could do this all day. I’m blessed/cursed with an excellent memory.

Sindbad wraps himself up in these images, being dead can sometimes be lonely, and such memories provided warmth for his ghostly bones. He visits his old flames and the woman named Monkey who was his longest lasting conquest and also his most loyal lover thinks of him differently now.

”’You know, Sindbad,’ she said after a short silence, sometimes I love you so much, I feel less like your lover--your discarded, abandoned and forgotten lover--than like your mother. I know you so well. It is as if I had given birth to you.’”

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Is she thinking of Sindbad?

Sindbad comes back as a sprig of mistletoe on the belt of a Nun...not the best choice. He soon was pining for the hair comb of a harlot. He does find an opening inhabiting a crypt in a church.

”Fate willed that he should travel as a ghost until the great day of salvation chose to arrive. For some months he took shelter in an empty crypt under the threshold of a highland church whose occupant had wandered off somewhere. All day he watched legs stepping over the stones and learned to recognize people by them. Already there were a few well-known old acquaintances whose tap-tap he could tell from some way off, and he kissed the heels of beautiful women as they passed over him, sighing so violently that the flat stone above the crypt seemed to move.”

This is an ode to “velvet lips”, stockings, and lovelorn looks of lust. Budapest in this time period had more women than men and passions ran high. Assignations, passionate embraces, illicit meetings, clandestine lunches, and slavish devotion were pursued by not only single people, but just as assiduously by married people. With so much of the population “on the market” it lead to a cornucopia of ecstasy, misery, rapture, and melancholy. Gyula Krudy's character encouraged his readership to pursue love at the cost of everything else. Budapest embraced the concept with open arms. A strange book, but one that conjured up my past when I pursued and sometimes was pursued.