Magazine article The Spectator

You Will Go to the Ball

Magazine article The Spectator

You Will Go to the Ball

Article excerpt

Back they came, like ghosts from a long ago and beloved past. Only spiritual atavism explained such pronounced throwbacks. The mysterious yet insistent voice of blood, which is quiet for generations, or utters only a confused murmur, speaks, at rare moments, in a more intelligible language. Then race claims its own and forgotten ancestors assert their rights.

So the couples stepped on to the floor of the Hungarian State Opera House to open the Opera Ball; the third year of its revival since communism had passed like a cloud. There were debutantes in white - as blushing as the first roses of spring escorted by cadets and pale youths in tails. Their cast of countenance was picturesque; sometimes Asiatic, the disfigurement of modern tyranny had not destroyed its distinction.

The 1,100 guests rose and were still. The orchestra played the Hungarian national anthem, not the dull dirge of Soviet somnambulance but the strains of a singular and independent past. In the pregnant aftermath the minister of foreign affairs strode out on to the floor. He was wearing a black mask, Li la Die Fledermaus, since this year it was a masked ball. One wondered if Robin Cook would be improved by a similar disguise.

The foreign minister introduced the debutantes and cadets who, masked likewise, danced the traditional first quadrille. The guests looked down from the boxes, ornamented with oriental gold, the legacy of Turkish occupation in the 18th century. They watched with questing, panthers' eyes. `Did you ever think you would live to see this?' asked one visiting Briton of a tall distinguished man, who had recently returned from exile abroad. `No,' replied the distinguished other, rubbing his eyes, then suddenly concealed behind the braid and burgundy of his domino mask.

Across the house the lilting waltz airs seeped like musk. `Kaiser Waltz', `Tales of the Vienna Woods', `The Blue Danube'. My Hungarian mother, who had fled in the wake of the communist tanks many years ago, stepped on to the floor. She seemed to look through the dancers, glaze over and see something beyond. Was it her salad days before the war? The memory of some young blade? The cadets danced with abandon. One drew me aside. He had volunteered to learn the waltz, he confided. …

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