A Brief Extract from Those Absent by Jill Culiner
Publication day for our first release of 2024 is fast approaching! Those Absent On the Great Hungarian Plain by Jill Culiner will be out in just a few weeks on February 28th.
An account of her unintended six-year residency in the hinterlands of Hungary, Jill Culiner records her search for traces of its vanished rural Jewish community. Here's an extract from the prologue to whet your appetite:
The Count, a slight man with a fine moustache, possessed exquisite manners and great dignity – qualities scarce in our howling arriviste milieu. I was a scrawny and sulky child of twelve, but he was the first man to kiss my hand, thereby earning my eternal loyalty.
Along with 200,000 other Hungarians, the Count had clandestinely slipped out of his country during the 1956 Uprising. More fortunate than most, he had managed to smuggle out rolled-up paintings, those once gracing the walls of his family’s pillaged and ruined manor. His was a tragic story, but it could have been far worse: under the post-war communist regime, Hungarian aristocrats had been persecuted, sent to horrific prison camps, or sentenced to death. Alive and well, but with no financial resources here in his new country, Canada, the Count was obliged to sell the precious artworks.
Thanks to an enthusiastic collector – my father’s square-shaped multi-millionaire crony – the Count appeared in our life along with other colourful characters: the millionaire’s buxom mistress with her rigid yellow coiffure, and a ruddy clutch of businessmen eager to insert culture into their splashy mansions. My father, although an enthusiast, lacked the funds to purchase the finest beauties – a Vlaminck or two, several Courbets and a Modigliani.
Because the Count, inhabiting a flophouse in downtown Toronto, had no place in which to store invaluable works, several came to nestle, albeit temporarily, in our house: what thief would imagine such pearls stored in a suburban lookalike? My mother, soured by my father’s financial insufficiency, set out to copy the Modigliani hanging on the mauve wall above our yellow upright piano – she was an adequate amateur painter. Thus, when the original departed weeks later, her admiring lady friends believed it was still in our possession.
Back then, I couldn’t have cared less about fine art, but was thrilled to bits when the Count gave me a necklace (not to be worn until I was older). It was a beautiful piece, a complicated wreathing of gold leaves studded with tiny pearls, a flowery centre with a small diamond, and one uneven pearl droplet: easy to imagine it had been worn by a Magyar princess in some forbidding castle. He also presented me with a record of traditional Hungarian music: how entrancing the sweeping melodies, how exquisite the cimbalom. Thus, he opened the world for me, and Hungary became a romantic place I longed to see.
The multi-millionaire and his pals soon purchased the Count’s collection; my father acquired a few lesser paintings at a cheaper price. All was well. Until, abruptly, proud acquisition became rage and dismay. It was discovered that the paintings were forgeries and the Count had disappeared. Further investigation revealed he was no Hungarian. Instead, he came from neighbouring Quebec, worked hand-in-hand with a highly talented French-Canadian forger. Both were sought by the police. My mother’s fake Modigliani journeyed from the mauve wall to the trash can; visits from the multi-millionaire and mistress ceased (four decades later, my father claimed he had also shared the brash lady’s favours); and my father’s business buddies no longer talked fine art.
Still, despite my itinerant life and endless mishaps, that beautiful necklace has remained with me, as have my curiosity about Hungary and my love for its traditional music.
Those Absent will be published on 28th February in paperback and ebook, and is available for pre-order now.