Café Niagara (Niagara Nagykávéház)by István Örkény, 1963

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CAFÉ NIAGARA (Niagara Nagykávéház)
by István Örkény, 1963

"Café Niagara" ("Niagara Nagykávéház") is a short story by Hungarian writer and playwright István Örkény. It was written in the late 1950s but evokes the atmosphere of the Stalinist period, which in Hungary can be dated from 1948 to 1953. On a wider scale it is about the conditions created by a totalitarian state with complete control over the life of its individuals.

The heroes of "Café Niagara" are a married couple from the provinces, Mr. and Mrs. Nikolitch. They travel to Budapest on holiday and go to the opera to see an operetta and a Soviet play. (The notion that to see a Soviet play is somehow expected of people firmly dates the story in the Stalinist period.) They also visit the "recently remodeled" Niagara Café, which is said to be a fashionable coffee-house (or night club). It is, however, not easy to find the café, for it is not listed in the telephone directory and the desk clerk in the Nikolitches' hotel has never heard of it. Thanks to a well-informed taxi driver, however, they manage to find it.

Once inside, the Nikolitches are disappointed. There is no music or dancing, not even a waiter in sight. The place is full and the patrons are waiting for something. Across the room there is a bar, at the end of which is a door "concealed by curtains." After a long and boring wait, the curtains part and a "stocky, red-necked man" appears "in a fishnet shirt." The patrons are called behind the curtains one by one; they reappear after a while flushed but "wearing a satisfied smile." This makes Mr. Nikolitch very curious. He keeps fidgeting to catch the stocky man's attention.

First Mrs. Nikolitch and, after her return, Nikolitch himself is called behind the curtains. He walks into an empty kitchen where three people are waiting for him; he is asked whether he would like to undress. Nikolitch decides to keep his clothes on. He is beaten up by the three individuals; afterwards "he had a headache and his knees were shaky, but otherwise he felt fine. Surprisingly, he felt light and free, as though he had just been given a massage, or had returned from a tiring but satisfying climb in the mountains. The secret anxiety which had tortured him was gone." (These lines were translated by Carl R. Erickson.)

Örkény suggests that in a totalitarian system most people have a sense of guilt about unknown crimes or about past shortcomings for which they may be called to account. There is an atmosphere of ubiquitous fear, an intangible anxiety pervading society: one never knows when the system will find it necessary to pounce. In such circumstances a totally unwarranted, in fact "ritual," beating by unknown people is a relief; once one is "chastised" there is no need to worry about further punishment.

The interpretation of "Café Niagara" given above seemed a plausible one to the Communist authorities as well. Although the story was published in a Budapest monthly in 1963, it created a furor. Örkény, otherwise an author favored by the Kádár regime, was asked not to include it in his collections of short stories. "Café Niagara" was translated into English and published in Albert Tezla's anthology Ocean at the Window: Hungarian Prose and Poetry since 1945 (1980). It is now regarded as a representative piece of Örkény's short prose.

—George Gömöri