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Przekrój
In this extract from Mariusz Szczygieł’s “Not There”, the author visits The Dead People’s Shop ...
2020-09-02 09:00:00
Non-Fiction

A Time Bomb Explodes

Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Luca Sartoni (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Time Bomb Explodes
A Time Bomb Explodes

9 Döbrentei Street, Budapest, Hungary. At this address, The Dead People’s Shop is located. It is open every day, including Sundays, and has one rule: the items cost either one, two, five or ten euros.

Read in 10 minutes

At one time it was in dismal surroundings. The house it was in was a wreck, and it was like a junk room in an attic no one had visited for years. On either side of the entrance the plaster was falling off the façade.

Now the street looks bright, the house has been repainted, and it has been tidied up. All the objects have been sorted out, put into groups and dusted.

The old Christmas tree baubles have changed place, from a middle to a bottom shelf. Eighteen months ago there were seventeen of them: twelve red, two gold, two silver and one blue. They’re still lying in a small square wicker basket. Not a single one has gone.

Twelve used ladies’ hats, felt, fur and wool, ranging from white to dark brown – as if straight off the heads of women who have reached their eighties – have moved from the back of a middle shelf to a shelf by the window. Although they’re on view, and the sun has spent a long time disinfecting them with its rays, none of them has found a new wearer.

Five ancient clothes brushes with dark wooden handles and stiff black bristles have been transferred from next to one wall to another, but are still keeping each other company. One of them still has a silvery fibre stuck to it, possibly a hair, just as it did two years ago.

The countless empty picture frames are still countless, but now they’ve been freed from chaos and are lined up in size order. Like everything in here, they’re standing on plain shelves made of raw wood.

Six months ago, the general despondency was disrupted by the white plaster figure of a kissing couple − a semi-naked woman with long hair and a semi-naked man who, instead of embracing the girl with both arms, had his left hand on his own hip. Maybe the artist wanted to emphasise his triceps, biceps and beautifully carved pecs? The plaster figure, the only item to bring joy in here, has gone.

Unfortunately, nothing else catches my attention that could now disturb the prevailing gloom. Anything that doesn’t yield to it is doomed to a short-term stay here. Every more joyful item soon leaves the place.

 

The Dead People’s Shop at number 9 Döbrentei Street in Budapest is open every day, including Sundays.

Its name includes the phrase ‘flea market’. The customer expects to buy ‘antiques’ or ‘bric-a-brac’, but not things left behind by the dead. We want to blur the truth, because it’s easier to say and think: ‘I bought an antique’ or ‘I bought an old trinket’ than ‘I bought some evidence of death’. It’s probably just to do with wanting to stay in a good mood, but perhaps there’s more to it. Maybe it’s to do with our endless, favourite occupation – something that may in fact be vital to human life – putting off the thought of ᴺᴼᵀ ᵀᴴᴱᴿᴱ. 

And yet any object that’s over a certain age must have belonged to someone who’s not alive any more. There’s no other possibility, and no words can obscure this truth. Before the time bomb exploded, the object filled someone’s space, and once it had completed its mission, if it was lucky, it ended up with someone else; if it was less lucky, it ended up here. And with no luck at all it went in the dustbin. Joseph Brodsky described the time bomb in his essay In a Room and a Half, which is about his parents. Their bodies, clothes, telephone, keys and furniture had gone and would never be recovered, just as if a bomb had fallen on their room and a half (that was the share of a communal Leningrad apartment that they occupied). Not a neutron bomb, because it would have left the furniture intact, but a time bomb, which even destroys memory. ‘The building still stands, but the place is wiped out clean and new tenants, no, troops move in to occupy it.’ So I imagine that here, on the Buda side of the city, on the banks of the Danube, everything that has survived the explosion of a time bomb has accumulated.

And so I insist that the purpose of this shop is to gather evidence of death, and it is fulfilling this task extremely well.

 

The owner, Zsolt Rédei, often goes to dead people’s houses. The families invite him to come and choose whatever he wants.

One night in 2004 he was walking through Montmartre, in Paris. Suddenly he noticed a house with an open front door and a winding staircase beyond it. On the walls in the stairwell there were some small pictures, plates and items whose purpose he couldn’t recognise in the dark. He went up the stairs into a room crammed with furniture and objects from various periods, ranging from the 1920s to the 1960s. (He was an estate agent, so he knew something about styles of furniture.) And there at a table sat three elderly gentlemen, drinking wine.

They were surrounded by a clutter of old chairs, wardrobes and cabinets… all filled with glasses, china and tablecloths. He thought he must have entered a private flat, so he apologised, but the gentlemen explained that it was a shop. One of them was a retired doctor who had inherited a bachelor flat from his grandmother. He and his retired friends had formed a company, opened this place, and now spent most of their time here. They treated the Hungarian to a glass of red wine while he chose an object for five euros. He left with something more valuable as well: the decision to give up his job in property sales in fifteen years’ time, and to open a similar shop at home.

The rule at Zsolt Rédei’s place is this: the items cost one, two, five or ten euros.

Outside the entrance there’s an old bike with a dummy’s head wearing a hat and a pince-nez attached to the basket, and hanging from the handlebars there’s a worn-out leather valise with a Malev sticker – Malev was the Hungarian airline that was also killed by a time bomb when it went bust after existing for sixty-six years.

There’s always a large black dog called Maci lying on the floor by the entrance, so you have to step over him.

This is my favourite shop in Budapest, and possibly in the whole world. I visit it twice a year. Whenever I go back to my hotel from there or, like today, to my rented flat at 4/17 Ferenciek Square, I always wash my hands thoroughly. It’s not that they might be dirty, it’s more of a psychological issue. Now, as I’ve been writing about the place I’ve used the wash basin twice. It’s the mere topic that’s responsible: I have a physical feeling as if my hands are coated in a thin but invisible layer of dirt.

But that is no obstacle to my fondness for the shop.

 

So here, twice a year, I buy objects left behind by dead people. There are other individuals who like to spend their time rummaging in here too. We don’t want to buy things online. We want to look at them, touch them and fall in love with them. Does a picture in an old gilded frame on our desk mean one thing if we remember that it once belonged to someone who’s dead now, and another thing if we pretend it never belonged to anyone? Yes.

In the first case we form a metaphysical relationship with the previous owner. He too held the picture in his hand, he too wiped the glass. He shifted it a few inches this way or that on his desk. Simply knowing that someone enjoyed its existence in the past, and might have been pleased that someone else was still enjoying it makes me happy, and gives my life another little bit of meaning. I hope I represent a first-rate stage in the object’s existence.

I am convinced that being aware of the death of the former owner can help us to find the right proportions in life. If I know that I’m not immortal, I’ll live life in a different way.

(Hanna Krall has just written to tell me to be careful not to set my golden thoughts in stone too easily. And if I must express them, then I should do it with doubt, reflection, a question mark, helplessly, and as if asking for advice.)

If I know that I’m not immortal, will I live life in a different way? It also occurred to me that our death brings relief to objects too.

Does our death bring relief to objects too?

(I don’t know which is better.)

In one of Věra Linhartová’s Stories About Whatever, the wife of a mime artist who practises at home has decided to tidy up their cluttered apartment so that her husband won’t trip over any obstacles. ‘What if we have to leave here?’ she asks, and starts giving away old clothes and burning books, photos and letters.

‘Yet once removed, the things returned in the regret that she felt immediately upon their removal, and because she lost track of what she had put out of the house and what still remained, the flat had filled with all the things that had ever been inside it, and this lasting presence of theirs was even more oppressive than ever before.’ We can agree with that: the objects on Döbrentei Street are not burdened – they no longer return to anyone through regret.

But can we be sure? What if one of their owners is still alive, and relinquished the object to make money?

To make two or three euros? No way.

So their owners have to be dead.

 

As we can see, the things that accumulate in the dead people’s shop have an obscure history. It is a blank space for the customer. I may be committing a semantic crime, but it occurred to me that each of these objects is ‘a thing in itself’. This has to do with the noumenon that Immanuel Kant wrote about. A thing in itself, he claimed, is unknowable and exists beyond the scope of our minds. It is transcendental, we do not and cannot know anything about it, because we lack the relevant tools. So ‘a thing in itself’ cannot become ‘a thing for us’.

What for Kant is transcendental, in the dead people’s shop we can ascribe to specific physical objects. The things, like missives from the past sent by strangers with whom we shall never speak, give us nothing but themselves.

Maybe that’s better?

Maybe this is the only way they can be, or they are, a pure message? Ready to be interpreted like a poem? You don’t have to know a poet to interpret his verses.

 

Drawers full of private photographs. Thousands of homeless photos given away wholesale. The life in these pictures is not gracing anyone’s life at all. It isn’t bringing joy to the descendants of the people posing in them.

[…]

Who buys photographs from someone else’s life? I know from the owners of an art gallery that photographic portraits are the hardest thing to sell. You have to be very open emotionally to introduce a stranger’s face into your home, especially a close-up. Whereas pictures of a favourite writer or actor are of people we know and admire, so we feel as if they’re close to us, they’re part of the family. But what about an unfamiliar face? In your intimate environment? It won’t find many takers. And who would want to be the owner of an album containing forty-nine wedding photos featuring a couple they’ve never met, taken in the early 1950s? Or their wedding portrait? 

Zsolt Rédei explained it to me. ‘Just imagine, there are young people from western Europe or the USA who come into my shop. They were born outside the communist world, and they don’t know anything about life in our countries. So they buy this sort of photograph, or authentic artefacts from old, eastern Europe. They’re fascinated by every detail in them. I must admit that the main item I collect from dead people’s houses is photographs.’

Twice a year I buy gifts for my friends at the dead people’s shop. I give these objects up for adoption. I tell them I’ve brought them something from somebody else’s life, though to be precise I should say from somebody else’s non-life.

[...]

This is an abridged version of the chapter “Time Bomb Explodes” from Mariusz Szczygieł’s “Nie ma” [Not There], originally published in Poland in 2018.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

 

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Published:

Mariusz Szczygieł

is an author and reportage journalist, born in Złotoryja in 1966. He has worked for Poland’s biggest daily “Gazeta Wyborcza”, as well as being the editor of its supplementary magazine “Duży Format”, dedicated to reportage writing. He has published a number of award-winning reportage books, including “Gottland” (2006) and most recently "Nie Ma" (2018).