A scene from Keleti Station
The boy was perhaps seven or eight years old. He wore a grubby white vest and blue jeans and sat next to a man with one leg, who in turn sat on his crutches. Each time a television crew walked by, a journalist stopped to interview someone, or a passer-by raised their mobile telephone to take a photograph, the boy held up a sheet of brown cardboard. On it was written “Syria Germany” with two hearts. The boy was engaging and photogenic. He – or someone – certainly had an excellent sense of the kind of media image that would humanise a growing crisis.
It was the late summer of 2015 and I knew that the scenes I was witnessing at Keleti station in Budapest would be the start of a book. The boy was one of several thousand refugees and migrants who made the station their temporary home. Budapest, or more precisely its biggest rail terminus and the surroundings streets, was the epicentre of Europe’s refugee crisis. Headlines that summer brought news of a seemingly endless exodus: from Syria and Iraq; Afghanistan and Pakistan, a clutch of African countries.
Many made the trip to Europe by boat and landed in Italy. But others traversed the Mediterranean to Greece, from where they travelled north overland to Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary and Keleti station on what became known as the Balkan Route. They slept in the forecourt, down one level in the entrance to the metro station, down the sides of the majestic Austro-Hungarian station building. Signs marked the way to something called Keleti’s ‘Transit Zone’, in reality an open piazza where a few taps and toilets served the crowds. It was a miracle that riots did not break out. Around the refugees and migrants normal urban life continued. All international trains had been stopped. But local trains still served Keleti and the commuters picked a path through the sleeping bodies on their way to work.
The scenes at Keleti were surreal but soon assumed their own kind of normality. So how to use them in fiction? The scene-setting intro – start to a newspaper article – relies on a few key details to portray the broader picture. The same holds true for a novel. District VIII is a noir crime thriller, the first in a series featuring Balthazar Kovacs, a Gypsy detective in the Budapest police Murder Squad. The fictional plot, imagining Balthazar, his life, loves, fears and hopes, and the cast of other characters, all demanded imagination. So does the scene-setting. District VIII opens in Keleti station:
The human tide spread in every direction, filling the plaza in front of Keleti Station’s main entrance, spilling along the sides. A busy intersection in a European capital was now a giant open- air refugee camp. The ground was covered with discarded food wrappers, cigarette ends, half-eaten sandwiches, rotten fruit, empty bottles of spring water, pairs of shoes taken off for the night. The lucky ones had tents, donated by tourists and music fans who had attended Budapest’s Sziget Festival a couple of weeks earlier in mid-August. Half a dozen white vans were spread among the sleeping crowd, television network names emblazoned on their doors, giant antennae and satellite dishes pointing skywards.
It’s those telling details, I hope, that bring the story alive.
I want to thank Adam LeBor and Head of Zeus for this wonderful guest post.