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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

On whales

In the Netherlands, there is a lot of water, as you might know. Their coastline is longer than their country is from North to South. Last years some shocking events happened on the beach. A lot of whales stranded on the beach. Sad for them. Good for scientists. An attraction for tourists. But mostly it says something on our eco-system: how come whales lose their way and end up on the land?

Here in Ferencvaros, there is a lot of water too. The Danube passes by, sometimes flooding the neighbourhood. The flooding of Ferencvaros in 1838 caused for grand spatial renovations in this part of town. But there are connections with us, humans, too.


In 1961 a dead and stuffed whale called Goliath was exhibited in the City Park. The whale went on tour shortly after, in 1962, and once again in 1963. Thousands of tickets were sold all over the country and people flocked to the cities where the whale was on show. Not that Hungarians had never a whale before, but rumors had it the whale came from the other side of the Iron Curtain. That was something to see.

Soon urban legends accompanied the whale, and its tour. Maybe the whale – 22 meters long – was weighting just as heavy as a ballistic missile and thus the CIA might have thought of using the whale to test Hungarian roads. That of course is just make belief, but as a story it is great.


More narratives evolved around the whale. Lajos Parti Nagy’s short story Giuseppe undo Pusztay, László Krasznahorkai’s novel, The Melancholy of Resistance and Béla Tarr’s film (based on the latter book) Werckmeister Harmonies all feature the whale. So even without a sea one can say the Hungarians love sea life. Or was it the ecosystem of those days which caused Hungarians to think of such an explanation?


These days mysterious things are happening with whales in Budapest.

In 2016 renovations began on Ferenc Ter. This square park was decorated, well decorated, actually the park revolved around a whale. It had arrived via the Danube and decided to rest itself in the park. It could have arrived on the same defaults in the ecological order which caused whales to strand on Dutch beaches last year. Who know? Anyways, the whale was there. Centrally located in the park.

Little children liked to climb on it, elderly women admired the lean image of the muscular body, younger women even went close to the whale and put their feet in the water flowing from the whale’s fountain. Young men tested each other guts by inviting their friends to throw precious belongings over the whale and have other friends catching it on the other side. Old men watched all this and did what old men do best: sit and think. Their minds wandered off to the days of 1962 and 1963, when Goliath toured the country. Back then, they were still young and life was in front rather than behind them. Aaaah. What times lay between this park whale and the days of Goliath.


Earlier, in another part in the city, a whale appeared. A new cultural centre – also serving as a shopping mall – opened along the Danube in 2013, apply called Balna. The last time I was there it was empty. Being in the belly of the beast is a scary thing. It can be dark and warm, you are not breathing fresh air and your wifi doesn’t work. It is an ecosystem almost nobody likes.

What is the connection between all this? Is there some secret we don’t know of? But that whales do understand? A secret system of tunnels reaching out from Dutch beaches to Ferenc Ter? A international connection between the biggest mammals on the planet, speaking their own language, way beyond ours? And that the way they arrive in our societies could tell us something? Something we would understand if we could only understand their languages. But their communication is still a mystery to our scientists, even though they know one thing: they can speak over thousands of kilometers with one another.


Yes, I can hear you think, that is something humans can do as well. But does it wake up the same emotions as sitting next to one another? As with Goliath traveling the land? As amongst Dutch tourists on the beach? As with old men enjoying a park? Or do the whales want to tell us something special? I wonder. And perhaps you too...

[This column was spoken out on the occasion of the performative walk on May 25th 2016]

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