Books

Anna’s Journey

Canadian publisher Anna Porter talks to Maclean’s Senior Writer Robert Sheppard about her childhood in postwar Hungary

October 2 2000
Books

Anna’s Journey

Canadian publisher Anna Porter talks to Maclean’s Senior Writer Robert Sheppard about her childhood in postwar Hungary

October 2 2000

The author is squirming in her chair, fidgeting with an elastic band like a schoolgirl kept after class. On any other platform, Anna Porter is clearly the one in charge. The woman who jetted through the ranks of Canada's book world like a rocket—from Jack MCClelland's right-hand lady in the 1970s to the undisputed boss of her own savvy publishing house, Key Porter Books—has an enviable life. The darling of international book fairs. Pals (her word) with the fun crowd of Canadian letters: Margaret Atwood, Peter Gzowski, Allan Fotheringham. The exotic half of a storybook marriage to Toronto lawyer Julian Porter, an Ontario blue blood with a refined sense of the absurd. That along the way she has found time to toss off three mystery novels and raise two daughters is modest testimony to an energy level that borders on the driven.

But it is Anna Porters other life that is under the microscope now. She has just written The Storyteller. . . Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies, a memoir of her childhood and the 500-year story of her family compressed into the maelstrom that is postwar Hungary, teetering from the Nazis to the Communists—stylistically, a far cry from the safe confines of the mystery genre. And so she fidgets, girlishly, her famous throaty tones muted and self-effacing. “I’m finding it quite hard to talk about this book,” Porter says. “It’s very personal. And I’ve managed to avoid talking about personal things for a great many years. Even Julian was surprised at some of the stories that have emerged.”

Little wonder. Porter’s own story is quite fantastic. Born in the latter stages of the Second World War, while the Allies were bombing Budapest, she tasted the rich velvety life of the Viennese-style coffee houses and the gritty reality of the people— Jews during the war, and then fugitives from the Communists—who hid in her basement to escape the authorities. She was 12 or 13 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution in October, 1956; she is deliberately vague about her age—artifice has been a survival tool (even, maybe especially, in the world of publishing). And she roamed the streets of the revolution with an oversized rifle, shooting at Russians. Did she actually aim at anyone? “Oh yes!” The answer is immediate, her eyes almost flashing with excitement. “Whether I succeeded or not, I have no idea. But I was raised, psychologically at least, to be a warrior.” Raised by the extraordinary man who is the storyteller of the title, her grandfather Vili Rácz.

A big, raw-boned landowner’s son who could lift a chair in each hand with someone sitting on each one, Vili was a larger-than-life character. A hussar in the First World War, a champion swordsman and athlete who represented Hungary in the Olympic Games, he became a publisher—as his granddaughter would also be one day—of theater and movie magazines and, above all, a consummate raconteur. He was also a magician who could charm not just children with his sleight-of-hand. “Years later,” Porter writes in her book, “I heard about a man at Recsk [a Soviet work camp in Hungary where her grandfather had been imprisoned] who entertained the other prisoners with magic tricks. He used tiny stones and bits of paper fashioned to look like cards, and he asked them to guess what he would turn up next. He had made them laugh.”

Memory, secrets, magic and lies, the memoir is “really a debt to my grandfather,” Porter says in the cozy clutter of her Toronto office. “I think of it as a suitcase—bits of bones and stories and remnants of people—that has been carried from the steppes, across the mountains and handed on from generation to generation.” Now it is her turn to hand on, not just the stories but the telling. And maybe that is why she fidgets: Vili is a hard act to follow.

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Of all his talents, I think he was proudest of his prowess with the sword. He had been, arguably, the best sword dueler in Budapest. His duels were mostly fought in the early hours, at five or six in the morning, somewhere in a park where you could barely see your opponent in the dawn fog. Yet a crowd gathered when Vili Rácz fought. No one in my home liked to talk about my grandfather’s duels. “It’s because they were all about women,” his brother Béla told me. By that time, Vili had already fathered three daughters with my grandmother and, though I didn’t find out till much later, some 16 other children by an assortment of women who had found him irresistible. His “gallivanting,” as his daughter Leah used to call it, created little rivulets of tension around our dinner table.

Leah’s second husband was a wounded Hungarian army captain. My beautiful aunt Leah learned to drive trucks to support them. In the summer of 1950, at a truck-stop café some 40 miles south of Budapest, she was raped and beaten in the cab of her four-ton diesel-engine distance hauler and left by the roadside. The three men climbed back into their trucks, still laughing at her bourgeois ways. It seemed, they said later, that comrade Leah Rácz hadn’t understood the new spirit of sharing. They had shared their apricot brandy as a sweetener for her coffee and that was all they had. Afterwards it was her turn to share.

I had just started school in 1950 and already knew that “bourgeois” was a bad word, almost as bad as kulak (landowner). When my grandfather took me to see Leah in the hospital, his feet hammered the hard-shined floors in the all-white corridors, the tiny bottles on nurse’s carts shaking with his every step. I had never seen him angry before that day. At her bedside, he took her shattered face between his large hands as gently as if he were holding an injured bird. Some weeks later, when Leah was home again, she told me that her father had run two of her attackers through with his 1908 Olympic sword. The third one he threw out of the window of his second-storey apartment.

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Are these stories true? Porter shrugs; it almost doesn’t matter. They are the stories she remembers, that her mother and aunts remember, though she acknowledges that each recalls things a little differently. Not to worry. These are the stories that sustain a family, as they sustain countless others whose lives have been torn apart by war and emigration. The Rácz family stories sustained Leah, the belle of the ball in the 1930s, through eight husbands and a lifetime of romance. They sustained Anna and her mother, Puci (Anna’s father had disappeared after the war), while in a Russian detention camp on their way to following Vili and his wife, Therese, to New Zealand. This was in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 uprising, the last of the family wealth having been spent as bribes. And they nourished a lifetime fear of tyranny, whatever its form, and even here, says Porter, in peaceable Canada.

In 1967, she attempted to enlist in the Israeli army at the start of the Six-Day War—though she is not Jewish— and made it as far as Athens before she was rebuffed. The Israelis were somehow unimpressed with her ability to fire a gun. Instead, an English graduate with a degree from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, she immigrated to Canada in 1968 (after a brief stop in London), and fell in love with the writings of Margaret Laurence and Leonard Cohen, and soon after, the crazy can-do attitude at McClelland & Stewart. There, happy warrior Jack McClelland was busy bluffing his way through insolvency and other business miseries, a kind of Canadian Vili. But he wore her out with his demands.


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In the beginning, my mother said, there were only two couples in the basement. One man was a journalist who had worked at one of Vilis magazines. The other had owned a small factory; he had been a Seventh Hussar with Vili during the First World War, and Vili said the man had saved his life once. The two women had been society belles. Now they fought over who would get the corner bed where a sliver of light fell in the mornings through a grate that opened on to the garden. They had brought their jewelry in identical mahogany boxes, and they argued over which of them had been the first to buy one and who had spotted it in the others bedroom. The men were quiet. The women talked too much. They were all frightened.

In late summer of 1944, Vili arrived home with another small group of people he had picked up as they were marched towards the Eastern Railroad Station. They were being collected for a work camp in the East or for Auschwitz. Somehow, Vili had bluffed his way into the long, silent row of men, women and children and insisted he needed an immediate work detail for a bomb shelter for Arrow Cross [the Hungarian version of the Nazi party] families. “Little men,” Vili told me, “used to taking orders are usually intimidated by loud, commanding voices of larger men. But you have to pick your targets carefully.”

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Anna Porter, too, has picked her targets carefully. The most common criticism of Key Porter Books, the company she co-founded in 1980 with magazine publisher Michael de Pencier, is that it makes money. In other words, it is too cautious for the adventurous world of book publishing. Porter doesn’t dispute that. With roughly $10 million a year in revenues, Key Porter has a large number of financial how-tos and other steady-eddy money-earners in its stable. When hockey great Wayne Gretzky retired a year ago—and Porter returned home to find husband Julian “blubbering,” as she describes it, in front of the television—her firm was the first to turn around a quickie Gretzky tribute to capitalize on the emotion of the moment. There is a pirate side to Porter, a friend says. Part of her wants to be respected for publishing serious tides and another part just wants to stick it to the boys and show she can make money. Her “only” bad year, she stresses, was when a new Ontario government changed its grant structure four years ago and she had to sell a minority interest to rival publisher Jack Stoddart.

In recent years, however, there has been noticeably more fiction on the Key Porter list, more high-end think books, like the personalized histories of Europe by University of Toronto historian Modris Eksteins, and more save-the-earth environmental editions, a hobby horse of the publisher. Now, she says, she wants to give up the day-to-day reins of running a publishing firm by “the end of this year” and concentrate more on the manuscripts and her own writing. She has said this before. This time, she says, she means it. Vili had wanted her to be a poet—a warrior poet, no doubt—but it is too hard, Porter says, to write poetry in a second language. Carting Vili’s suitcase of stories to a new land and displaying its contents for strangers to pore over may have taken its psychological toll, but it does appear to have opened a new door. “I really do feel,” says Porter, the rubber band stretched almost to breaking point, “that I have more stories to tell.”

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The piano tuner’s daughter asked if I could help her carry buckets of soapy, slippery water and splash them over the street. “The [Soviet] tanks will be coming this way,” she explained. Alice helped us, and later so did the doctors’ sons Alice had thought were informers. When the tanks came they slid around on the wet paving stones, hit the sidewalks sideways, bounced back and skidded to a halt. They were like three grey bugs, checking the surroundings with their antennae. In the late afternoon, one of my classmates, a girl called Zsuzsi whose one distinction was that she could swear as well as the men in the ice carts, came striding across with a bouquet of red and white flowers, went straight to the nearest tank, ignored its swiveling in her direction and placed the flowers into its turret. Everyone applauded. It wasn’t until the next day that the tanks began to fire.

Zsuzsi, Alice and I were coming out of Garibaldi Street, eating vanilla ice cream from a street vendor who was giving it away. There was still a carnival feel to the day. It had even stopped raining. Suddenly, there was the sound of machine-guns, louder and faster than the popping of the single shots the night before. When the screaming began, people behind us pushed forward into the retreating crowd. Nobody believed that soldiers were firing. “The army is ours,” someone said. Looking up to where I thought the sound was loudest, I saw two men in khaki uniforms on the roof of another government building, the rapid rat-tat-tat of their guns sweeping the street from side to side. The sound of sirens now mixed with the rat-tat-tat. There were stretcher bearers, some with white armbands, others wearing white coats. Tanks came hurtling down the Széchényi Embankment. A boy with cropped hair who looked vaguely familiar shouted for us to duck behind one of the old chestnut trees. “Watch out for the machine-guns in the back,” he yelled. The guns were swiveling quickly, firing short bursts at the lower windows.

The boy opened a sack he carried over his shoulder and handed Zsuzsi and me bottles with paper corks. His fingers were sooty. “Here,” he said. “You light the cork and toss it at the tanks. They go up like big whooshy firecrackers. You got matches?” I didn’t. “You can have this,” he said, “I’ll use my mom’s lighter. Now watch,” and he ran out next to a racing tank, tossed the bottle at its side, then he raced back. “Missed,” he yelled as the machine-gun turret swung our way. I pulled Zsuzsi down next to me. Earth splattered over our faces and hands. We were lying flat on the ground, our cheeks on the wet pavement. There were soggy cigarette butts under my lips. The boy sprang up and shouted something, then flopped on his belly beside me. The tanks careened past the corner and rumbled down the next street.

I got to my knees. Zsuzsi was already standing. Only the boy remained lying down behind the tree, his face turned to us, his eyes open. “Were going now,” I told him. There were five or six more bottles leaning against the tree. “We could maybe take one,” I suggested, to appease him. “Perhaps there will be more tanks along the way.” He didn’t move. I prodded him with the toe of my shoe. He still didn’t move. “Here,” Zsuzsi shouted to a woman in a white coat. “Will you please look at him?” It was so quiet now that Zsuzsi’s voice rang out loud as a school bell. I could hear a crow up in the tree over our heads. When the woman reached us she bent over the boy, lifted his arm and turned him over on his back. “He is dead,” she said.

I don’t remember how I went home, not even which streets I had to avoid. And I don’t remember when Zsuzsi said goodbye or whether she ever did. But I was alone when I stopped at the piano tuner’s apartment and asked if I could clean up before I went upstairs. He shook his head with disapproval but he let me in anyway. He didn’t ask whose blood had stained my clothes. He was tuning his own piano, his eyes fixed on the keys. I washed my shirt in his bathtub, but when his daughter saw me she gave me one of her knitted sweaters.

I noticed that they had moved the grand piano to the back, near his kitchen, away from the windows. “My father,” she said, “has bad memories from the war. He hates the sound of gunfire. The Russians used his family for target practice.” She mixed a glass of strawberry drink and we sat near the window, listening to her father’s scales.

I was so tired I crawled up to the fourth floor and waited outside Alice’s door until I heard her voice inside telling her mother we had been playing in the cellars all day. Then I went home. That was the day, they said later, that the real revolution began. Until then, it was just an uprising.