I don’t have children. The youngest “children” I’ve taught were adults in their first years of college. I have, however, eluded the stress, responsibility, and possible heartbreak that raising children entails by escaping into books—I’m no stranger to fantasy. When I started writing and editing for a living, experimental literature, with its promises of a cerebral experience, replaced the tall tales of my youth; the books I read as a child—such as Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox—have become a fondly remembered part of an increasingly inaccessible past, a past that seems less real to me as time goes on.
That past was momentarily illuminated as I read Tonke Dragt’s 1967 The Song of Seven (Pushkin Press, 2018). The tale follows Frans van der Steg, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher who woos his students with stories about his heroic alter ego Frans the Red. The division between the teacher and his adventuring alias disappears when a mysterious count summons Frans to a nearby castle. Frans, thrown into a quest to save an imprisoned young boy, watches his own reality begin to resemble the world in which his stories unfold: “Frans didn’t ask any more questions. It seemed that he’d ended up in a part of the world where antique cannons were as easy to find as buttons and marbles—a place where magicians could use their powers to send a person to sleep and eccentric counts lived in castles filled with staircases and hidden treasures.” Frans’s journey resembles the lives of children likewise coming to terms with their relationship to the supposedly real world; it also offers adult readers like myself the opportunity to reconsider the frustrations we encountered during our own passage to adulthood.
The Song of Seven stands apart from contemporary children’s stories because it comes from a different time and different place: English readers will receive a glimpse of a now bygone culture through Laura Watkinson’s skilled translation. Watkinson brings the linguistic play present in the Dutch original into her English rendering. Our first introduction to the antagonist Gradus Grisenstein, for example, is limited to the sounds “Gr . . . Gr” because a handwritten letter obscures his name. As its title suggests, much of the lore within The Song of Seven is conveyed by sing-songy lyrics: “Do you know the Seven, the Seven, / Do you know the Seven Ways?” Like many tales meant for young people, the book presents a series of erudite lessons in the form of amusing exchanges. The wizard Thomtidon, for example, annoys Frans with his whimsical logic on several occasions, but as Frans admits, “With that kind of thinking, you could undermine our entire system of arithmetic.” We’re also reminded that Thomtidon, silly as the name sounds, is pronounced exactly as it is spelled—the book doesn’t take itself too seriously.
At certain points in the narrative I wondered how parents would react. While the book’s key moral concern with deceptive appearances has stood the test of time, the culture under which the text was produced has since changed values; in fact, part of what gives the The Song of Seven its fairytale mien are the bygone customs it conveys. One scene shows Frans entering a bar filled with smoking patrons; several show Frans referring to his landlady Miss Bakker as Aunt Wilhemina—she also cooks his meals; and yet another describes Wilhemina’s sister, Miss Rosemary, as wrapped in a “colorful flowery scarf elegantly around her head” while a “snow-white curl had slipped out from under it.” If I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to send the book to friends with young children after the bar scene, I became concerned when the book repeatedly described Miss Rosemary through the clothes she wears and the color of her hair: “She’d taken off her coat and was wearing a grey silk dress with a large white lace collar. Her age was hard to guess; she was much younger than her sister Wilhemina, but her hair was as white as snow.” I leave it to other readers to decide if this classic European mythologizing constitutes a barrier for reading or cause for concern. The book, in the proper hands, could lend itself toward a study of stories we use to prepare children for society’s demands; others, namely children, will be able to ignore the historical minutia and absorb the fanfare undisturbed.
Without children of my own to consider, I can only speculate where and how others might react. But, as a somewhat experienced reader, I understand fantasy as a genre concerned with the means and devices of storytelling. The Song of Seven follows this trend by positioning Frans as both the hero and narrator in his own tale. For adult readers, this gesture and its implications may seem obvious: a story is always first and foremost a fiction. Whether or not this statement can be applied to children—thousands if not millions of which await letters from a magical school called Hogwarts each year—remains unknowable. But maybe times have changed and these children have new hopes, dreams, fantasies, and obsessions. The conventions of yesteryear stand out against the stark background of the present when we consider that Dragt was born in a time when Jakarta was called The Dutch East Indies and spent three years in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. If the literary phenomenon that united an international audience less than a decade ago seems to be losing hold, I can only imagine the lesser-known stories of which we’ve already lost sight. What does it mean to suddenly have access to these stories and the worlds, real and fictional, they contain? And how are we—as readers charged with passing information between generations—to acquaint young people with these texts and the contexts from which they originate?
A document of injustice, memorializing the names, professions, and ages of those who perished—many who were buried in unmarked graves. A celebrated modernist novel about a neurasthenic elevator operator, detailing the refugee experience in mid-century Manhattan. And a four-volume chronicle about the lives of the slachta, the Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, impeccably researched by an historian, narrated in ornate, Baroque style. This issue of Words without Borders thus introduces the Anglophone reader to three monuments of Lithuanian literature and history.
Shadows on the Tundra, written by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927–87), first appeared in print in the late 1980s, when the Lithuanian independence movement Sajūdis began to openly discuss previously censored topics and texts. Among these, the 1941 and 1944 Soviet deportations to Siberia of tens of thousands of Lithuanian men, women, and children, who, without due process, were arrested in their homes, transported in freight cars and barges to the inhospitable territories of the Soviet North and Far East, and exploited as slave labor. Among those arrested was fourteen-year-old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, who ended up in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle in the Altaj Peninsula with her mother and little brother. Their crime, like that of many other families, was that by virtue of their education, profession, wealth, or political activities, they posed a threat to the new Soviet government. Grinkevičiūtė, understanding the injustices she was witnessing and determined to document every detail while events were still fresh in her memory, wrote her memoir several times, secretly, piecemeal, on scraps of paper, hiding them under her mattress and inside her clothing. She wrote the first version in 1949 when she illegally brought her ailing mother home to die in Kaunas, Lithuania. She buried the memoir in a peony patch in her family garden. Fearing that this version was lost (this “peony patch” version was discovered in 1991 after the author’s death and published in the Lithuanian literary review Metai in 1997), Grinkevičiūtė wrote the memoir a second time. A third version was written in Russian and published in 1979 in Moscow. In 1950, the KGB arrested Grinkevičiūtė in Kaunas and sent her to prison, shortly afterward returning her to exile in Jakutsk, Sakha Republic, USSR, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle. She was released from exile and allowed to return to Lithuania in 1956.
Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea) stunned the nation: this was the first time many learned about what had happened to their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Many could not believe that this taboo subject was being discussed openly; others were simply amazed by Grinkevičiūtė’s fierce determination to survive in the face of unspeakable dehumanization and suffering.
Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir reads almost like a screenplay; each episode is meticulously constructed, evoking anger, empathy and awe. The story is realistic, although some details are so gruesome that they feel like they must have been invented. Despite the horror, however, the text (and Delija Valiukėnas’s skillful translation) cannot but inspire admiration for the protagonist’s tremendous mind and spirit.
White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (1910–61) presents another key theme of twentieth-century Lithuanian history: the frustrated talent and potential of the refugee, traumatized by World War II, living in a foreign environment and unable to practice his profession on account of language or the fact that his degrees are not recognized in his adopted land. Škėma, like thousands of his compatriots, fled Soviet occupation and eventually ended up in the United States. Like his protagonist Antanas Garšva, Škėma worked as a hotel elevator operator.
In this modernist gem, Škėma converts the tragedy of the refugee into a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition. The elevator operator transports wealthy hotel guests up and down, down and up, day in and day out. Škėma’s commanding stream-of-consciousness narrative, perceptively translated by Karla Gruodis, incorporates elements of folk songs and stories and religious and mystical imagery in the broken, accented English of the protagonist and allows readers to meander between the very specific life of the twentieth-century refugee and universal human experience.
The third text is an excerpt from Silva Rerum, an epic four-volume historical novel set in the waning years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1659–1795 and written by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (1974- ). These volumes were published between 2008 and 2017 to tremendous acclaim in Lithuania, as well as Poland and Latvia, where the novel has already been translated and similarly celebrated. (The phenomenal success of Silva Rerum has even inspired a “historical turn” in Lithuanian literature more generally. Some of the most widely read novels of the past two years, including works by Alvydas Šlepikas, Rasa Aškinytė, Sigitas Parulskis, and Saulius Šaltenis, have taken on historical topics.) As the author herself explains in a history of the Lithuanian historical novel, this work could only have been written under very specific circumstances: during Soviet rule, the experience of the aristocracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not conform to the dictates of socialist realism’s focus on the workers and their class struggle. Prior to Soviet occupation and immediately afterward, the construction of Lithuanian national identity based on the use of the Lithuanian language precluded this experience of Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen from national discussions. One might add that this novel could not have been written by anyone other than Sabaliauskaitė, an art historian as well as a writer. Written in the Baroque style of the time in which the novel is set, it reflects her extensive and painstakingly accurate archival research, its extremely complex and ornate sentences here expertly translated by Romas Kinka.
This is an exciting time for Lithuanian literature, which is finally finding an international readership thanks in large part to the energy and generosity of the Lithuanian Cultural Institute and the emergence of a new generation of talented translators. It is our hope that this Lithuanian issue will inspire Anglophone readers to seek out more work by Lithuanian writers.
© 2018 by Jura Avizienis. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her memoir, Dalia Grinkevičiūtė recalls the 1941 Soviet deportation to Siberia of thousands of Lithuanians and their harsh lives as slave laborers.
I am sitting in the dock along with the five others on trial for stealing boards from the storeroom. Across from us, at a table with five lighted candles and covered with red felt, sits the magistrate, an eighteen-year-old Yakut. An inspector by profession, he was ordered to preside by the Party. It must have seemed inappropriate to have an insider as judge. The magistrate is flanked on either side by two secretaries taking notes. One of them—Novikova from Leningrad, a teacher of draftsmanship at the school and a member of the Communist Youth. The other—Mironova, a higher-ranking member of the Communist Youth. This one spends her days and nights entertaining supervisors. The trial chamber is just an empty barracks next door that serves as a sewing workshop by day. The two cast-iron stoves are red hot, spreading warmth. My head is in a shambles; images, faces, a blur, my eyelids droop. I just want to sleep. I hear the voice of Riekus as in a dream:
“No, that’s not true, citizen magistrate, I did not steal. I had been making a coffin that day and took home only the leftover scraps of wood.”
Idiot, why defend yourself? What’s the point of lying? What difference does it make where we die—in prison or in this majestic factory of death called Trofimovsk? My head drops to my chest, I’m overwhelmed by sleep, the room is filled with spectators, I hear a buzzing in the room, the drone of voices.
“That’s not true, judge, I didn’t take that stick of wood. I did pick it up, but when I ran into Sventicki, I dropped it as soon as he yelled at me. I didn’t bring home so much as a sliver.”
I tear open my eyes. It’s the old Finn, who is about seventy years old, with the deeply sunken eyes of an abused dog. The face an artist might draw of famine. He had been in Leningrad during the blockade, where the daily ration had been 125 g of bread made of chaff and clay. Then he was upgraded to Trofimovsk’s factory of death (600 g of bread, frigid weather, scurvy, typhus, lice, and a polar winter). A felon, obviously. He’s undermined the state. How dare he bring back some firewood to light the stove in his ghastly barracks—just to thaw his face and eyes, dry his icy clothes, which are as hard as armor.
Nothing but lies. Markevičienė is lying. The brigade is lying. The entire Soviet State tells lies and will continue to lie in perpetuity. It stole, it steals and will steal. All four plaintiffs deny the charges. Behind me, I can hear the crowd murmuring in approval. It will soon be my turn.
A week ago, I had just come home from school. I found Mama too weak to get up. She was begging everyone for water, but no one had a drop. I fished around in the dark and found the bucket, which still had several bits of ice sticking to the bottom from the snow we melted yesterday. By now almost everyone was bedridden. So Žukienė lit her stick of kindling and said to me:
“Light the stove, Dalia. Bring back some boards. We’ll melt some water for your mother, you’ll feel warmer yourself, and I want some soup. No one has lighted the stove today. The sick haven’t had any water. There is no one else to do it.”
I slide out of the barracks. It’s quiet outside, profoundly quiet, even eerie. Not only is there no blizzard, there’s not even a breeze, just an immobilizing cold that has turned everything to ice—the mouth of the river, the tundra, the barracks, and us. The Northern Lights have illuminated the sky; it’s bright out, which is a bad thing. Stealing is going to be tough tonight. I sneak over to the depot, slip through the fence, and grab three marvelously thick boards. The snow crunches underfoot. Alerted by my footsteps, a guard wrapped in dog pelts heads in my direction. I drop the boards, drop face down in the snow and press myself flat against the tundra. I raise my head. Long pelts has turned back. I give him or her the finger and thrust the boards through the fence. In the blink of an eye, I’m on the other side, crawling with one end of each board tucked firmly under my armpits and the other end dragging in the snow. The minutes seem like hours. Faster, faster! Ah, here we are, our king of barracks—I’ve reached the first corner of the red brick building. But my energy is gone. I feel dizzy and ravenously hungry. I suck, I bite my lips, stuff my mouth with snow, chew, but my hunger does not go away.
Yet what splendor above. The Northern Lights are a magnificent web of color. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, hundred-meter pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the Aurora Borealis. Against a background of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here—starved and infested like dogs and nearly done rotting in our befouled and stinking ice caves.
Here we are—our barracks. Quick as lightning, I fling the boards inside. I chop them up and get the stove going. It turns red-hot in no time. We melt some snow, give it to the sick, they salt it, and drink. I spoon hot tea into my mother’s mouth. She doesn’t have the strength to speak. Male and female have become indistinguishable, just bones, bones, and more bones. Suddenly, Sventicki appears. He lights his candle. The construction boards are crackling in the fire, and the rest lie chopped up in a pile.
“Who stole the boards?”
“Who chopped up these boards?” The always proper but cunning Pole inquires pleasantly.
I pull the covers over my mother and slide off the berth.
“Will the accused citizen rise.”
I stand up. The magistrate observes my hideously wrapped feet, my tattered, padded pants, the jacket quilted out of a bathrobe, my thick braids, and raising his narrow piercing eyes, he looks directly into mine. The room suddenly falls silent. I see the school principal, Guliayev; the factory manager, Mavrin; and the food king, Travkin. They’re on the side bench whispering to each other. It is strangely quiet. I look the judge squarely in the eye. For about thirty seconds.
“How old are you?”
He reads the charges. He reads a long time. The candles on the red table flicker, and shadows writhe on the red brick walls. My legs tremble, as though they had weights on them. If only they’d let me sit down soon. Mama has probably died. They’ll also be charging Juozas. He began cramming cans of food into his mouth during the unloading in the fall right under the supervisors’ noses. He suffers terribly from hunger, it’s a lot harder for him than it is for me. Yesterday, he tried to get up and inch his way to the stove on his heels—he can’t walk since he got frostbite of the toes—but he crashed full length on the floor and fainted. His handsome face looked very white against the darkness, his slender body practically weightless. Mother is dead, Juozas will also die. He already has dysentery, and that’s usually a ticket to the pile of cadavers outside. Suddenly, Mother’s face appears before my eyes, as I remember it from childhood. Beautiful, gentle, eyes large, curls on her forehead, a smile on her face. “Mama, Mummy, you’re gone, you’re growing cold even as I stand here. I should be there to close your eyes. Juozas, who is lying by your side, will weep helplessly when he realizes that you’ve grown cold. Why did you have to starve yourself for us, just to let us starve a little longer, die a lingering death, become a laughingstock in prison, which is where we’ll be headed tomorrow? But I don’t care. You’re gone, and what happens tomorrow doesn’t matter anymore.” I hear someone talking to me.
“I’m asking you a question, which you’re obliged to answer.” A voice breaks through my fog, and I, finally, comprehend what’s being said. “Do you agree to the charges and acknowledge that they are truthful?”
“Do you understand Russian well?”
“Do you admit your guilt?”
The magistrate looks confused. There is a din in the room. “Stupid girl.” “A child.” “Defend yourself.”
“Will the defendant, please, answer the question thoughtfully. Do you admit that you stole boards from the storehouse?”
“And chopped them up?”
“Who put you up to it?”
Žukienė shuts her eyes and turns white as a sheet.
“Did you know that the boards are state property?”
“Were you aware that there’s a penalty for stealing . . . ”
“I was aware.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Where do you work?”
“I haul logs.”
“I’m told you attend school.”
“Yes, I also attend school.”
“What grade are you in?”
“Aren’t you ashamed, you, a schoolgirl, to be sitting here on this bench?”
I feel the prying eyes of the room on me. They stare intently. Am I ashamed? Ashamed of what?! Of giving my dying mother a drink of water? What is it you want to see, you Travkins, Mavrins, and Sventickis? You gluttons, you. Is it remorse? Shame? But it’s you that should be ashamed, you’re the murderers, not me! I can hear the question being repeated.
“No, I am not at all ashamed.”
The court leaves to deliberate. It deliberates a long time. I’m tormented by sleep, by exhaustion, by weakness. All I want to do is put my head down and sleep. I’m awakened by a sharp jab in my side:
“Get up, damn it!”
Riekus, Kobra, and one other Lithuanian, I seem to remember, get two years apiece. As a minor who admitted her guilt, I am acquitted. I probably have my teacher Novikova to thank. What a blessing. To think that such good fortune has befallen me. Lialė kisses me and weeps, but this time with happiness. You have a beautiful soul, Lialė. But not for long. Life will prove a hard taskmaster, and in time you will become less discriminating in choosing between good and evil, especially where others are concerned.
Extract from Peirene No. 26, Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, published by Peirene Press, London. http://www.peirenepress.com
Lithuanian author Kristina Sabaliauskaitė portrays how the traumatic destruction of his family leads bedridden and mute Jan Kirdey Biront to a crisis of faith.
To have called him a devil would have been a rhetorical exaggeration, but, to put it mildly, Bachelor of Philosophy Jan Kirdey Biront had some personal accounts to settle with God, and the fact that he would gladly have met Him on some dark evening in a narrow Vilnius alleyway and used his fists to come to an understanding as regards his relationship with the Lord was in spite of everything the surest proof of his faith. First and foremost he would have looked that all-seeing scoundrel in three persons, without whose knowledge not a single hair falls from anyone’s head and who proclaims that He is the arbiter of retribution and righteous vengeance, straight in the eye and asked where He was and in general what He was doing when a Cossack, called Bohdan by his accomplices, took his five-year-old brother and threw him with such force against the wall of the Biront family children’s room, on which Noah’s ark had been painted with all kinds of birds and animals climbing aboard it, that Antoni Hieronim’s brains were splattered all over the fresco in an instant. He would remind God, if He no longer remembered, where he, Jan Kirdey, was at that moment—in a hiding place in another wall behind a door hidden by wallpaper across which his father and mother had hurriedly pushed the heaviest Danzig armoire one could imagine; in a narrow stone-dark hiding place where he spent five days and nights, upright, where, petrified, he had emptied his bladder and bowels for the first two days listening to the screams of his mother being raped and his father tortured by the Cossacks from Muscovy, and later to the sound of blows, of furniture and dishes breaking, of wallpaper and wall hangings being torn down, then someone, who had emptied out the wardrobe that had been pulled across his hiding place, not content with that, had pierced the wall with his yatagan so that the tip was just a couple of finger spans from his face, then everything calmed down and after a little while all that was heard was the frighteningly quiet sound of the floorboards under the feet of the marauders who would just come by to have a look since, to tell the truth, everything had been carried out, torn out, or pulled down from the home of the Biront family on Horses Street. It was there that his uncle, Teodor Biront, found him five days later. Ignoring the Cossacks running rampant in the city, he had come to his older brother’s house to pay his last respects to the bodies of his family members and furtively had decided just to be sure to check out the hiding place known to him in which, in addition to his older brother’s savings and valuables, his last will and testament, as well as documents relating to the Biront family’s property, lands, and estates were kept; and when he pulled aside the damaged armoire, he found his twelve-year-old nephew Jan Kirdey, with his extremities numb and deprived of speech, the only barrier to him, Teodor Biront, inheriting the wealth of his Biront relatives; a sickly being, annoyingly alive only in the eyes of the law. Teodor Biront was a God-fearing Christian and so he dismissed the sinful thought that had fleetingly crossed his mind not to find his nephew alive who could have disappeared in the heat of the attack or who knows how, and so he took the half-dead boy to his home, but, to tell the truth, it would be a lie to say that he tried particularly hard to have his nephew nursed back to full health, believing the good Lord would find a way for his honor to be protected in the eyes of others and the inheritance to come to him of its own accord. Jan Kirdey lay for, it must have been, half a year on a bed in the servants’ quarters, visited only by his uncle’s housekeeper and a refractory servant woman who, if she did not forget, would bring him some broth once a day and, muttering under her breath, change his sheets and turn him so that he would not develop bedsores. All of that time he lay half-dead or, as the doctor, who had come to visit him, put it, adflictus, paralyticus hypnopompicus. However, he did not lie there completely alone, since he tried for days on end to speak with the Christ at the foot of his bed, in the picture of the Resurrection on the wall. He most often put questions to Him and the questions he most frequently put to Him began with “why?”, “what for?” Why his parents? Why his brother? Why him? Why were his hands and legs not moving? Had the two most hateful persons in his life, Bohdan, the Cossack, and Teodor, his uncle, been sent to him by Him, by God, on purpose, and if so, what did He wish to say by sending them? Why? However, Christ, seen dressed in pink between the clouds, had His eyes directed solemnly to the top of the picture frame and had not the least intention of answering any of Jan Kirdey’s questions, and for this reason when the doctor, who as usual would nod his head to say that his condition was unchanged, only now one could add with full confidence atrophia muscularis progresiva to the diagnosis, and that was undoubtedly the beginning of the end, it was his uncle Teodor who would answer those questions with: “What can one do? If that is how things are, may God’s will be done . . .” It was then that the speechless boy lying there like a wet rag became deadly angry and made the decision that he, Jan Kirdey Biront, whatever happened, would not become the instrument of the will of that heartless man, and may the devil take him, but he would get up from the bed—not because he particularly wanted to live but only to challenge God; out of anger with Him and anger with his uncle Teodor.
From Silva Rerum. © 2008 by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Romas Kinka. All rights reserved.
In this modernist classic from Lithuanian author Antanas Škėma, the tragedy of the refugee is a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition.
The elevator goes up, the elevator goes down. Not all of his memories return. A partial amnesia remains. The polyphonies and the nightingale have traveled to the depths of his unconscious. The spring snow has melted. No more footprints in the steaming earth. But a new craving to retrieve the damp fragrance of the acacias, the nightingale, the ancient signs. I am like a scientist who has lost his formulae. And I don’t want to write a popular pamphlet. I must start again. Wait for a winter consciousness, for snow.
I want to go back to that evening in Aukštoji Panemunė, to the veranda. I need geometric mercy. Mysticism. Judgment.
We gather in the Valley of Josaphat. I arrive in a blue bus. It’s good that it’s blue. That’s a sign of hope. The driver won’t answer my questions but I don’t mind, it’s best not to speak to bus drivers. I’m not being shown the passing sights. The windows of the bus are opaque. And the driver is blocked off by black fabric. Finally, we stop. I get off. The bus drives away.
The Valley of Josaphat is paved in cement and enclosed by a stone wall. It is the size of a room. A gate opens in the wall and three judges enter the valley. They are wearing judges’ robes, their parchment faces set off by white wing collars. The middle one opens a thick book and begins.
“Poet and unsuccessful earthling.”
“What was the worldview you were born into?”
“Formally, the believers’ one, but . . .”
“No comments, please,” interrupts the judge.
“Did you follow the commandments?”
“It’s possible that I didn’t follow them in strict terms, but . . .”
“Comments are unnecessary,” the judge interrupts again.
“Did you follow the commandments as you were taught them?”
“It appears not.”
“Very well. According to paragraph eight you are slated for liquidation. Thank you for your replies.”
“Could you please tell me what it says in paragraph eight?”
“It’s a rather long paragraph. In short: anyone who failed to follow the commandments is liquidated. For example. The faithful—those for the faithful, atheists—those for atheists, liars—those for liars, murderers—those for murderers, cowards—those for cowards, moralizers—those for moralizers. And those who followed the commandments are transferred to Heaven.”
“I followed the commandments for seekers.”
Now the three judges laugh rhythmically. Like members of an opera chorus.
“There is no such category in the Valley of Josaphat.”
“Forgive me. One more question. Why was I brought here in a blue bus? That color inspires hope.”
But the judges can’t answer in time. Antanas Garšva is already at the bottom, the door opens, and there is the starter.
“Listen, Tony,” he says sternly. “What did you do to the chinchillas?”
An elderly man and woman stand to the side. The cross-eyed old man holds a small wooden cage. One of the slats is broken and a pointy-nosed chinchilla sticks its head out, greedily sniffing the old man’s fingers, while its mate sleeps rolled up in a little ball, perfectly calm. The old lady stares at Garšva as though he had tried to murder her grandchildren.
“They say that up on the eighteenth you slammed the door shut too quickly, shattered the cage, and almost killed the chinchillas!”
“That's right, O’Casey, I damaged the cage, because this gentleman entered the elevator and then, inexplicably, turned around and tried to exit. At that moment the door closed and the cage suffered some damage. The chinchillas, I believe, are fine, though the fellow got a little spooked. But his beloved is sleeping quite peacefully. It seems that, like most men, he’s the more anxious one.”
The starter smiled faintly. “OK, Tony. Go around the corner, and come back after these people have cleared out.”
Walking away, Garšva hears the starter’s words:
“He’ll present himself to the manager and will be punished. What a criminal! The poor little creatures!”
Garšva comes back and the starter says:
“Bloody chinchillas! They belong in hell. Be careful, Tony.”
“Thanks, O’Casey. I will.”
The express from the tenth to the eighteenth. Your floor, here we are, please, thank you, button, hand to handle, going up. I'm not angry that the old people lodged a complaint. I was inattentive. Who told me to dream about the Valley of Josaphat? Poor, sweet old people. They’re probably childless and will raise those chinchillas like their dearest darlings. Maybe I should follow their example, maybe that would save me?
Elena and I—together. Domestic bliss. A little house somewhere in Jamaica. We have a whole floor to ourselves. We hang some reproductions. We arrange our books. The art books and poets look serious. A separate little shelf for our own people. In the evenings we listen to music, read and argue mildly, savoring it. The lamp shines, and it has a green glass shade. We find Station C, it doesn't have marble columns, but its vestibule offers peace. And on the coffee table—fresh flowers. And our faces always contain the possibility of smiles. And our dreams—a sense of awakening. And our embraces—the first trip to Jones Beach. And our emblem is the dead noblemen’s heads. We play at leisure. We stack blocks, build castles, dream about life and death. And the books offer us some help. Not only Homer or Dante. Our own authors, too. We drink sparkling wine and a flamingo flares up on the expensive ebony table; we sail on Lake Lucerne, and, in that other land, a dead boy plays a tune on the guitar that has never been heard on this earth. And the rising sun once again awakens our world, and we live in the cool, endless North with field, path, meadow, cross. Palms, my beloved palms, sing slender in this windy oasis.
Zoori, zoori, magical word, magical key, magical desire, magical conventionality, magical nostalgia, nostalgia for an unbreakable cage.
And then one day, in our little cage, a child is born.
First published in 1958 as Balta drobulė. © The heirs of Antanas Škėma. Translation copyright © 2018 by Vagabond Voices. From White Shroud, forthcoming from Vagabond Voices. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
“[T]o be humanly would be to be charged with humanity comma, with humanity humans and animals, proliferating oneself while exceeding one’s limits, moving out in front and anticipating us. It would be or It will be? […] For me, to find oneself human in Humanity has been forever, before any knowledge and any reading, to find oneself a rather lame dog, mole, shrew, eagle, girl, brother, lover, simultaneously, born at the same time, born several and several times. I had already died and been born more than once when I discovered, while making my way, other strollers, naturally poetic ones who had already signed, countersigned, the books of the Humanities of Humanity.”
The voice above is of a reader honoring a debt to writers by writing across their works, volleying words toward them on a sheet of paper coincidentally placed between two cats, working toward a literature that will be comparable to a work of justice — a literature of, and for, humanimal beings. This writer/reader happens to be female; the spectral presences whom she engages in conversation in, and by, writing herself into literature and into volleys of beings, happen to be mostly men—Rimbaud, Derrida, Jaurès, Joyce, Primo Levi; no mention is made of the two cats’ gender. The arcs of Hélène Cixous’s 2009 Volleys of Humanity (trans. Peggy Kamuf) stretch not only toward the absent writers she addresses, but also toward players volleying the words of their language—always in the plural, as Cixous reminds us—towards a different set of literary predecessors and from different positions and spaces, including the ever more shadowy regions of Eastern and Central Europe. These fellow players have also found themselves brothers, girls, tramps, witnesses of disasters, laboratory or zoo animals, different figures of death before and in order to find themselves human; similarly to Cixous, they have remained faithful to this debt by remaining open to indecision and to the possibility of disagreement.
Coming in the wake of the so-called postmodern prose turn, an important slice of recent Hungarian writing is indebted, in the sense spoken of by Cixous, to the literature of the 1980s and ’90s that subverts, with jocoserious thoroughness, the ideological remainders entrenched in language (best illustrated by the opening sentence of Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis, "It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” trans. Judith Sollosy), and has the invisible, silenced, and unacknowledged part of history as its watermark. Honoring this debt, Hungarian literature has continued since the turn of the millennum to seek out the invisible and unsayable in the recent past, showing how private and public pathologies are interlocked; the history that oozes into it is singular, sensorial, unexpected, often suppressed, and derails self-knowledge almost by default. Or, to quote one of the writers selected here, Zsófia Bán, all the “nohoo” that schoolbook history, geography, and physical education impart is the endless recycling of nationalist and masculinist clichés, beneath which lurks the violence of a shared past and present.
In questioning the foundation of so-called reality, the dominant literary discourse of the recent past seems to have given up all aspiration to engage referential reality "out there,” let alone act upon it. What in the 1990s seemed a valiant and jocose reflection on the nature of language with its bricolage of received ideas and tropes, and its inbuilt biases and blindness to certain types of experience, in today’s context, when so-called "reality” is washed out and supplanted by layers of virtuality from the most banal everyday situations to media mongering "alternative facts,” the framing techniques of postmodern extraction seem a surrender, no longer suitable to contest the forms of representation assimilated by the global entertainment industry.
It is in this context that recent Hungarian literature has turned increasingly toward the previously unacknowledged, or downright uncharted territories of the domain of the sensible—first and foremost, in an attempt to address the egregious gaps, ideological silencings and amnesia in the fabric of cultural memory, that form the underpinnings of endlessly recycled historical mythologems. At least as emphatically, it is concerned with the creation of a space for the un- and underrepresented: for the vulnerable, the socially marginal, those short of world and of words for the abject, ill, or traumatized body; for a more empathetic voicing of the experience of women, of sexual minorities, and lastly, the nonhuman. Among the writers Ágnes Orzóy and I have selected here, two have created a space in their earlier writing for the voices of the ultimately unacknowledged, the animal other—laboratory animal, pet, game: Bán rewrites tongue-in-cheek, in the style of a school reader, the experiment of sending up the dog Laika into space, while Zsuzsa Selyem has some of the bleakest episodes of Communist-era history retold by a host of detached, wry animal narrators. The most pervasive questions their fiction asks are: who wields language, from what position, to what end, claiming what prerogatives, and what voices are suppressed by their voiceover. This increased concern with ethical questions in writing is inevitably accompanied by a pervasive sense of unease and of darkening, behind which it is not difficult to see a response to the country’s slide into far-right authoritarianism, the hijacking of the institutions of democracy, and the quick evaporation of whatever hopes were built up in the nearly three decades since the regime change.
The (inevitably incomplete) selection of writers presented here can be framed in many ways—the most obvious would be that in a literary field still overwhelmingly dominated by a male canon, they are routinely hedged in as women writers, at a time when such distinctions ought to have been long superseded. Three of the six started writing in the 1990s, three in the 2010s; today they rank among the most critically acclaimed of the younger and midcareer generations of Hungarian writers. Two of them (Krisztina Tóth and Kinga Tóth) are primarily poets; two (Bán and Selyem) are academics and critics by profession; two come from a background in some other field of art (visual arts in the case of Krisztina Tóth, music in that of Edina Szvoren), while two also work with other media (Bán in film, whereas Kinga Tóth is a multimedia artist); two (Selyem and Krisztina Tóth) are also distinguished literary translators. Traffic between languages is a constitutive experience for nearly all of them: Bán was brought up between Brazil and Hungary; Selyem and Mán-Várhegyi come from multiethnic Transylvania, Romania; Krisztina Tóth spent a formative period of her life in Paris; Kinga Tóth writes and performs in both Hungarian and German. To differing degrees and in divergent forms, the writing of all of them reflects an interface between fiction and literary or cultural theories, between the language of literature and that of the other arts, a critical probing into various discourses, including that of the literary tradition, as well as a self-conscious harnessing of the ethical potential of literature. Finally, the preferred prose form of all six is short fiction, a compact form that still comes second in the symbolic hierarchy of genres.
Two of the stories presented here rewrite narratives or texts of cognitive and artistic mastery over women’s bodies. Zsófia Bán’s “Frau Röntgen’s Hand” scrutinizes the first X-ray image, of the hand of Röntgen’s wife, and writes around it a ghostly domestic narrative, showing an intimate codependence of the language of science and the absence of a language that could do justice to its object. Bán’s stories, located between essay, cultural theory, and prose narrative, stray far abroad in space and time and tend to revolve around still or moving images, performing on them a veritable archeology of knowledge and amnesia, showing how their ellipses speak about the silencings at work in cultural memory. Her approach is predominantly ironic and invariably undermines the authority of learning.
Zsuzsa Selyem’s “That Little Strip of Sunshine” rewrites one of the iconic poems of the recent past, by György Petri (first published in 1990, reproduced here in Owen Good’s translation), which, with its unflinching depiction of sexual abjection and liminal poverty, flew in the face of the aestheticized rhetoric and confessional mode of the Hungarian poetic tradition, while also holding up the cracked looking glass to the alleged humanism of Communist-era culture. Selyem’s story gives voice to the poem’s object, a decrepit homeless prostitute, exposing the limits and gaps of the dissident poet’s male-gendered, de-romanticizing poetics of cruelty. One of the leading experimental writers and critics of her generation, Selyem writes a taut, dialogic short prose that moves among various voices to shed painful light on the continuity and complicity of dominant discourses, including that of literary traditions, with the ongoing violence at the basis of putatively universalist humanism and anthropocentrism, whose ethics she recently summed up in an essay as "the cold indifference toward the other and inside me, smarmy self-pity.” Importantly, the story’s topography is suggestive of some of the most traumatic sites of Hungarian history: the town of Nagykálló was among the region’s prewar centers of Hasidic culture, while Városmajor Street housed the headquarters of the Arrow Cross militia.
Krisztina Tóth ranks among the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers, who works in both prose and poetry, including children’s books. The present story is taken from Pixel, a collection of loosely interconnected short stories corresponding to various bodily parts, which together amount to a necessarily incomplete, pixelated tableau, as well as a diagnosis of mentalities prevalent in Hungarian society. “The Tongue’s Story,” having at its core the organ of speech and of taste, recounts a failed encounter between people from different cultures—a group of refugees from the Greek civil war around 1950, and the inhabitants of a rural Hungarian area where these are taken for shelter. Tóth’s sparse, economic prose presents small vignettes of banality, beneath which lurks the symptomatology of a history never fully confronted, a choice bound to reproduce old biases at every step. Her mapping of contemporary Hungarian paralysis shows the inevitable interconnectedness of private and public self-delusions.
Edina Szvoren burst onto the Hungarian literary scene with a volume of short stories in which everyday banality, presented in a detached, bare prose, reveals an uncanny underside, the absurd and monstrous growing into banality itself: In one of her stories, living next door to the country’s best executioner is narrated with a Kafkaesque matter-of-factness. The texts reveal only gradually and at the cost of the reader’s painstaking detective work the past events and traumas that have produced the present situation’s derailment. The laconic story presented here, balancing uneasily between fiction and reality, shows a warped family encounter with a well-rehearsed set of silencings.
The last two authors of this selection are millenials whose writing practice reflects different sensibilities. Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s buoyant new realism tends to take up stereotypes that might have been cut out from lifestyle magazines and psychological counseling books, giving them an unexpected twist, as happens in the short story reproduced here, in which a grotesque dream becomes the basis of a married woman’s metamorphosis into the world’s greatest football player. Written with a wry gaze, these stories encapsulate whole life histories of an indomitable, clichéd search for happiness.
To complete the selection is a sample of Kinga Tóth’s short prose. A crossover artist and performer working in the medium of sound and visual poetry, illustration, and music, Tóth writes in both Hungarian and German. The texts from her first prose volume, Moonlight Faces (2017), accompanied by the artist’s illustrations, write the imprints of illness on bodies: the premise of these brief descriptions of the intimate experience of illness is that the human body is a machine, so that the incurable illnesses that populate these texts become part of the bodies’ clockwork routine.
These dissimilar, divergent texts can perhaps give a sense to an international audience of ongoing explorings, side alleys, tentative re-beginnings: of writing on the lookout for a literature that is wry, irreverent; vulnerable like the hedgehog crossing a highway in Derrida’s metaphor, and yet capable of withstanding the subjection of language; undisciplined, curious, multiple, playful, thorough; You before it is I.
© 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa. All rights reserved.
In this tale of fortune and fame by Réka Mán-Várhegyi, we learn it's never too late to upset the world of competitive sports. But at what personal cost?
One sweltering summer morning I wake up to find I’m Lionel Messi, the FC Barcelona player. The sun’s coming up, everything in the room is orange. My husband and I lie beside one another naked. I climb out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I’m not shocked, even though his face is staring back at me. My sweaty brown hair is stuck to my forehead, I’ve got a receding chin and a pug-nose. For a minute, I look at myself with my little beady eyes, suspicious, but then, what can I do, I lie back down. I hope my husband will accept me like this, my last thought as I drift off.
The clock says eight when I come around again. My husband groans, he can’t take the heat. Me neither. We go naked to the kitchen and lie down on the cool kitchen tiles. That’s when I remember my experience at dawn. I turn to my husband, the first sentence I utter today is that I dreamed I was that soccer player, Messi, that he was staring back at me and smiling. This makes my husband happy. He feels like I’d dreamed something about him.
Later that day, in the early evening, we stroll to the city park. He’s playing soccer with his pals, I plan to sit on the edge of the pitch reading a book, glancing up every now and again and watching as he dashes about, as he winks at me when he scores a goal. That’s the usual routine. But now when I see the ball, it’s as though I’ve been bewitched, I can’t take my eyes off it. There’s no trying to get into my book, it doesn’t work, all I can think about is the ball. When one of the guys kicks the ball out, I spring up and run after it. In those seconds I imagine picking it up in my hands, I’m even a little worried whether or not I can throw it that far.
But when I catch it up, my feet do the work for me. With a foreign mastery my right foot controls it and my left boots it back. The ball soars in a perfect arc and there’s something elegant about it—I can’t believe it was me who did it. I look on, shocked, at which point my husband and his pals laugh. I’d put it back on the pitch from at least a hundred and fifty feet.
When I sit down beside my book, someone asks why I don’t come play. I shrug my shoulders, I’ve never played soccer, I’m scared I’ll get hurt. My husband gives a wave of his hand not to worry, they’ll go easy, it’s pretty relaxed, nobody here’s as sprightly as they used to be fifteen years ago, don’t worry.
“I promise I’ll pass,” sniggers one of his pals.
“Come on, a bit of running around will do you good,” says my husband.
So I put down my book and step onto the pitch.
From the very first minute the ball sticks to me. Soon I’m running rings around my own teammates on my way to the goal. The city park crowd has seldom seen goals like these. I’m honestly dancing with the ball, I tap it this way, I tap it that way, and it’s like I have complete peripheral vision, I’m passing backward. Nine out of ten shots go in. It’s unbelievable.
An hour later we pack it in. I feel like I could easily play on, but the boys are already dying for a beer. We laugh our heads off about the stuff I pulled off on the pitch.
“If you’d started ten years ago, you know where you’d be now?” sighs my husband. Soon he starts feeling sorry that I’m a woman. “If you’d been born a boy, you would’ve known at six years old what an incredible gift you have."
I’m scared that he’s wrong. Up until now, I’d never shown any sign of feeling for any sort of ball. I’ve always been clumsy and timid. Back in the day, school gym classes positively wore me out if we had to play basketball or volleyball. I found team games too fast and nerve-racking. I was kicked out of ballet class at sixteen, and from then on I was suspicious toward all forms of exercise. Ballet was the one thing I had any ability for, and even then it wasn’t enough.
Thank god that’s all in the past, I dealt with failure, I enjoyed university, and settled into public administration. I got married during university and I’ve been doing yoga for years to ready my body for pregnancy. I keep my body in perfect shape, time doesn’t bother me, or only a bit. I long for an air-conditioned, three-bedroom flat with a rooftop terrace, a spacious fitted wardrobe in the hallway, and a dishwasher in the kitchen, and I want a spine-friendly coir mattress.
“This whole soccer thing is obviously something you wanted on some level. Ask yourself why you didn’t dream you had a three-bedroom flat,” my best friend says and shrugs as we sit on a café terrace. We leave it at that.
The next day my husband persuades me to go out and have a kick around. When I get home from work I’m already tired as usual, but him I’ve never seen so enthusiastic. He wants to teach me tricks, but it turns out I already know them all. At home he shows me videos of the best goals in football history, and most of them I feel like I could do myself anytime. We soon get used to my newfound skills. We join others’ games too, and I realize that sometimes it’s better to hold back. Some people take it badly when I crush them. They get aggressive, they boot the ball at me or tell me to get back in the kitchen where I belong.
In the park it’s mostly boys playing on the pitches, there aren’t many girls. When I do meet those few, they tell me they’ve been coming for years and they practice a lot to teach themselves the moves that come so naturally for the boys. Boys have been doing it since they were kids, it’s no wonder the moves have soaked in. I only meet one girl who’s as good as the boys.
We’ve been kicking it about for an hour when she arrives. She’s short, wiry, bull-necked, her hair’s cut short and gelled back. She’s wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, and black trainers. She expertly spits pumpkin seed shells as she sizes up the game. I’m standing goal, mostly out of sight. After a couple of minutes, she asks with a grin if she can join, after taking a few steps to warm up, she jogs onto the pitch. She’s not just talented, she’s smart, she looks around her while she’s dribbling for someone to pass to, she uses the wall to pass back to herself. She shoots a goal practically from the halfway line. Afterward she cracks her neck and punches the air. She looks like a boxer, too. It’s as though that’s the price for playing well. I feel bad for her, for her illusions, for her sad toughness, so I tie my laces, come out of goal, and show her what I can do. I avoid her gaze at the end of the game, but she comes over and introduces herself. She says I’m pretty good and invites me to come to the club where she plays, maybe they’ll let me in.
It never even crossed my mind to join a club, what a ridiculous idea! My husband persuades me, it seems he has a dream that I’ll be a professional soccer player. You’re crazy, I tell him, no way! The last thing I need after work is to go to practice! Before falling asleep that night, I think about fate, when I close my eyes, all I see is the ball.
After this things happen rapidly. I get accepted into the club, I go to practices and matches, I score a huge number of goals, and a few months later I realize I’m playing for the Hungarian women’s national team. After the Swedish Euros—where we get silver—well-known clubs want to buy me. That’s when I hand in my notice at work. The international press writes about me more and more, I’m considered a genius of my time, my technique is compared to Messi’s.
I’m signed by the Danish team Fortuna Hjørring. My husband and I move into a sunny house where the most amazing spine-friendly mattress is waiting for us. The following year my team wins the Champions League and the experts unanimously attribute the victory to me. They say I play twice as well as the best. That I play like a man. It might be because of this, but I start being attacked more and more, people try to expose me, like I was some sort of fraud. A student in Copenhagen writes a thesis about me. Soon the FIFA leadership is wondering what to make of my situation. In the end, they make a revolutionary decision: the division between men and women’s football disappears. An hour later I get a call from Real Madrid, and they imply they’d be willing to pay a large sum for me.
We’re in Spain by August. Woman plays Cristiano Ronaldo’s position, write the papers. I’m a bit nervous. I honestly don’t want to disappoint the Madrid fans. In my first match, which we play against a Valencia in very good shape, I turn two stunning setups into goals, but they’re playing at their best as well, by the end of the second half it’s two-two. Then in the ninety-third minute I score a beautiful free kick, the crowd goes wild, they cheer me like a hero. Even though the majority of my teammates are a few years younger than me, because of my short height and my youngish looks they treat me like everyone’s little sister. When someone scores a goal, I’m the one they put on their shoulders, whom they run around the pitch with, whom they toss in the air. The following February I dress up as a koala bear for a costume party, it turns out so well they immediately pick a koala to be the team mascot.
Regardless of every goal and win, it bothers a lot of people that despite being a woman I play for Real and earn almost as much as Cristiano did before me. FIFA receives a huge number of complaints, many would like experts to examine what sort of effect my presence at Real Madrid has on football. But thanks to some influential names, nothing comes of this. Adidas approaches me, then Gucci, to promote their shoes. That’s when the fashion industry discovers me. I work for the biggest brands. The only things I’m not willing to advertise are Louis Vuitton bags, I state this several times. When a reporter asks why, all I say is: they’re rank. It’s as though the fashion magazines are released from a decades-long burden, they’re so keen on those two words: they are rank, they write in massive letters about the mopey-brown Louis Vuitton bags. Elle names me Woman of the Decade.
Many are amazed, but my husband feels great in our new life. My parents and gossip magazines both predict that our relationship won’t be able to take the burden, all the attention I’m getting, but luckily they’re wrong. The truth is without him I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, never mind go onto the pitch. He’s not just my partner, he’s my manager, too. He sets up a charity in my name for children in the developing world, and after a while he’s making frequent visits to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador.
We play El Clásico against Barcelona and I meet Lionel Messi for the first time. I could have forgotten that dream ages ago, but it’s still clear in my memory. Now, looking at his nose or his chin, his neck or his hands, I feel as though they’re part of my body, they belong to me, I’m controlling them. The match kicks off, the two teams tear into one another and he scores a goal, then I score a goal. It’s impossible to say which of us is better, more unpredictable.
A couple of days later, we meet at a gala where I arrive dressed head to toe in Dior. We present awards and receive awards, we laugh in front of the cameras, but when they disappear, he doesn’t laugh, he just stares at me like a dog. I don’t get what he wants. Maybe he’s in love with me. I swear, I’ll crush him next time.
My husband comes home from one of his UNICEF tours, and I feel horrible seeing the photos with scrawny African children hugging his legs.
“I want to have children,” I burst out crying. “I always did!”
“We will,” my husband consoles me. “It’s just not time yet.”
“But I’m thirty-five!” I howl.
I have to go to practice, I’ve no time to take a break, but I’m not well. I cry, I scream, I swear to my husband, I’ll leave Madrid, I’ll leave everything and I’ll become a professional mom. Of course I can’t do that—after all, my contract in which I promised not to get pregnant doesn’t expire for a while.
We’ve no other choice than adoption. A few months pass and children arrive to our sunny home one after the other. I don’t want a rainbow family like Angelina Jolie, my kids are pale, sour-faced Eastern Europeans. Regardless, people compare our big brood to hers.
For a long time the Hungarian political elite don’t know what to make of me. An album about Hungarian football legends is published with government funding, but I don’t even get a mention. I’m not invited onto the Hungarian national team either, even though on several occasions I state that I’d be happy to join. A few journalists compare my situation to the legendary Ferenc Puskás’s.
I spend another three fantastic years at Real. During the last winter my game gets sloppy, the club hesitates to extend my contract and little birds are chirping about my retirement. They’re sorry I only got a few years. But what years they were! I reckon I’ve still got a bit of spark in me, but I admit that I really wasn’t convincing during the recent stretch. That’s when Manchester United approaches me and I tell them I’m tired but they insist, they say I just need a new challenge. They show me footage that they believe proves I’m in better shape than ever. That’s how I join United.
I play so well, the world has never seen such a second wind. It’s largely thanks to me that we win the Premier League and the Champions League, where in the semifinal we beat Real, but I don’t celebrate my goals against my former team.
I like living in England, initially I enjoy the cooler weather. We have a traditional house and a well-kept garden. By this point I have to commute in a bulletproof car, as do my family. I’m on the cover of the Sun at least once a week, millions follow my posts on the Internet. I’m forty years old, but I don’t even look twenty-eight. I’m asked to advertise anti-wrinkle creams, but I turn down the offers. I plan to write a book on natural beauty care. I’m a legend.
Everything has to come to an end sometime. It doesn’t show on the outside, but I can feel it. I say good-bye to MU and announce my retirement, but I get an irresistible offer from Saudi Arabia and I decide to play one last round. My husband and I joke that with the money I’m earning here I could pay off Hungary’s national debt. My children are school-aged and they study at home with a private tutor. I don’t want to send them to a local school, these Arabs are weird. I’m homesick for Europe, the game’s not enough anymore, I can’t take it for long. After two years I hang up my spikes.
Finished, done, it’s over.
It’s hard to be home. My mind is blank, I just lie about on the couch. There are countless things ahead of me, says my husband, I could be a coach, I could write an autobiography, I could design clothes. I could go back to public administration, I say, and at least that one makes us laugh.
We need to settle down somewhere, but it’s not easy with the fame. What sort of life are we going to live?
“I don’t want my kids to be little Paris Hiltons,” I say.
My husband sits down beside me, he takes my hand. He has to tell me something, he says. It strikes me that I’ve been waiting for this conversation for a long time. He had an affair with the nanny, he says, and tears come into his eyes. It’s OK, I say, I slept with the club manager, but it means nothing, it really means nothing.
“Let’s move home and live like we used to,” he says.
“I never got the Ballon d’Or,” I say.
“You can’t have everything, love,” he answers, “You can’t have everything.”
We look at one another.
"A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes" © Réka Mán-Várhegyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
In these short texts, Hungarian writer and visual artist Kinga Tóth writes about the distress wrought by the effects of illness on the body and the uncertainty of a cure.
Listen to Kinga Tóth read "Moonlight Faces" in the original Hungarian:
it’s always now, sitting in that room with the window. we have two types, they know what one of them will be, but they won’t say, the other is a secret, we will find out. (my pulse is ticking, i’m here, we’re here. the moonlight doesn’t show on my face, but don’t come any closer.) there are different diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood, like places of residence, two or more registered addresses, residing either there (at home) or somewhere between (unknown to the authorities). we think we are in control of the situation. things only rarely slip from our grasp, we learn to examine and to assess. to pay attention to medication, there are papers, when we believe them, we are ill, we are tired and do not want to work, we are ill, when we are angry, we are ill.
mariann has to, she’s told, she pulls it on over her pajamas, and asks in the snack bar if they’re showing, because then she’s not ladylike. wear it as long as possible, as long as your feet are all right, no stitches. i buy a velvet-buttoned miniskirt in the summer, when i'm fine, and some high-heeled sandals, i'm not even sick. but tights are a must, otherwise i catch a chill, wherever i sit, and that’s it. i buy paper toilet seats, there’s a ten-pack in my handbag, and hand sanitizer, paper tissues, so everything is safe, proper ladies are prepared, they hope for the best and are ready for the worst.
icicles pierced my eyes, icicles, police come and take blood. they cut your hair, constantly checking everything for you, this one wasn’t noticed. we broke one from the windowsill, it's like a vagina welder, cold, but it disappears.
the children in the movie say be brave like a lion. be strong, in the drawing the lion is the biggest, it overcomes all obstacles, its hair is huge too, that's its crown, my hair's big too. there are a lot in africa, my name means brave. there's a lion there too, a white one. but it's called kimba. anyway, you're brave too, you're the white lion.
TO THE END
it can end whenever, wherever. the course of the illness and the cure is unknown. there are various diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood. when feeling down, no improvement, healthy in the summer, warm and dry. after rain, the humidity, ill again. i am ill. the illness is me. the illness is writing this. i have a lot of time. i have little time. i am impatient. tricks, vitamins, tonics, products, cures, treatments, magicians.
writing reminders for myself, one on each tissue. drawing frowny faces above the messages, the rest of the paper i leave for beards. no gluten, no flour, no milk, a little cheese, bread none. no sugar, no cake, no pears and grapes, fruit juice only mornings. no preservatives, no conserves. no cans. no gas, no animal, no fat. so i’ll always see them and it’ll never cross my mind to break, because then there are consequences, then i have to face them again. for each rule a frowny face, the bathroom is full of nos, these are the new principles, this is the new life, where every rule is just a good intention.
© Kinga Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán rewrites the history of the X-ray in this short story that zeroes in on the domestic cost of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s journey toward discovery.
Listen to Zsófia Bán read "Frau Röntgen's Hand" in the original Hungarian:
Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Oh God. The woman has vaporized. So thought Wilhelm bitterly. She does not obey the laws of physics. And the laws of physics, c’est moi. Ich.
The laws of physics obey me.
But Anna Bertha refuses to obey. When I look at her, her image slowly fades, then disappears. If I take hold of her, the flesh, the bone, all slip from my hands and evaporate. Whoosh. Anna Bertha—now you see her, now you don’t.
That would be my wife, my better half—fifty percent of me, in other words. I have no idea what fifty percent of me does for most of the day, or even where to find it. Is this not negligence? Am I not irresponsible? It eludes my attention like a slippery-scaled fish. Anna Bertha’s body is not slippery. Anna Bertha’s body is . . . well, let’s see. What, exactly? Anna Bertha’s body exists independently of me, lives its own life, observes, touches, holds, reads, eats, and licks the corner of its mouth, though the tongue darts out for a mere instant, like a lizard sucking in a bug, then vanishes back into that soft, moist, dark mouth that manages so to stick to a non-negligible area of my body (let’s say 98.9%) that it refutes all the laws of physics, and then my body knows no gravity, and in fact ceases to be altogether. Then I find myself floating in the universe without any boundaries at all, as if suspended in some thin liquid, all of me suddenly fluid, mingling without regard to contours or borders. Then this unified cosmic suspension suddenly yields to some primal seismic undulation, a slow, building, approaching swell, hurling down a vast mass whose substance, scope, and size I cannot fathom. Once its Herculean mass towers over me like a monstrous flood and shakes my every fiber, a big bang splitting me into my constituent elements and—still defying the laws of physics—I split apart and off into space, yet all the while, there is someone nearby, still in one piece, witness to it all. It is akin to experiencing my own death, a thing otherwise granted to no one, the sole experience that is ours alone, yet not part of our lives, ours though we cannot possess it, ours though always the property of someone else, the one who observes it, knows it, tells it, writes it down, who registers it, files it away.
Despite the sense of annihilation that Anna Bertha imparts with her soft, slick mouth and sticky, burning fingers something that is mine, so deeply mine, indeed mine beyond all measure, I must be on guard lest she suck me in and digest me into nothingness, which would be the end of any thinking on my part—now my every sinew is focused on when this something will all happen again, and again, and again, until the end of time, because next to this all else is nothing but a cooled, petrified, sooty lava flow that kills and buries all living things—and that is the end of science, nay, the end of all worldly knowledge, and Wilhelm, I said one morning to myself, since after, oh, I don’t know, hours of contemplation, I managed to somehow gather up and reconstitute all of my parts, now scattered all over the room, Wilhelm, you can’t afford to do that because you have taken an oath to science that no oath to any woman can annul.
It was on that cool October morning that I decided—without retracting the oath I had made to my woman—to do everything in my power to keep that feeling at bay in the future, but at that same moment I also realized that this would mean keeping Anna Bertha away, that we would be living together, yes, yet still somehow apart, in separate worlds, and if this meant that I would never have an heir, then so be it, because if I allowed this overwhelming radiation emanating from her to sweep me off, then I would be the master neither of myself nor of my wife, and would be expelled by the scientific community, left to scratch at the gate then slammed shut with a thud, like some dog tossed out on the street, forever bearing the stigma of the disparaging gaze of Professor Zehnder and his posse, meaning I would have no way to support my family, my wife, and myself, and must die sick and alone, nameless, penniless, without ever discovering the secret of this mysterious emission that moves from one body to the next before any touch, the secret nature of this penetrating, permeating force, or gaze rather, before which I stand like one whose flesh has been flayed from his body, my skeleton laid bare, shifting from one leg to another in the chill. This is it, this not-knowing is what truly rends me asunder, humiliating and destroying me, because wherever this radiation shows its power there must be some physical explanation for it that I have, alas, been thus far unable to divine, though we have been married twenty-two years and I have kept my distance (in the hope of an uncluttered perspective) for at least fifteen of those, but all the same it saddens me to say that any explanation of this radiation, or of its nature, has remained an X to me, that is, an unknown.
Now I must speak to her at once, conjure her up, even from below ground if necessary because—and I say this with great hesitation—our shared project of separation may finally have borne fruit: I have lately become aware of something in the laboratory, a sort of fluorescent presence appearing at the emission of cathode rays, leaving its image on a piece of cardboard, and then once, when I tried to capture it with any number of materials, to cage the rays as it were—O here do not forsake me, sweet Lord!—I think I recognized my own glowing skeleton in the projected image, though for the time being I shall keep mum about it, since if it proves to be nothing but my imagination playing tricks on me, my scientific reputation will surely be destroyed, together with the general assumption that I am sound of mind. Given that the origin or nature of this ray, or radiation, is yet unknown to me, I have simply marked it in my notebook with an X. The instant I jotted down this X, my legs gave out under me, the blood drained from my head, and I daresay I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I had discovered something that I can never describe in any scientific journal, indeed never so much as put on paper or discuss, without losing whatever remaining professional status I yet enjoy, given that the source of this X, this unknown radiation, is likely Anna Bertha herself, who over the years and by dint of assiduous effort has worked her way through the walls of the countless rooms of which our residence, hardly to be considered modest, consists, from the bedroom to the bath, from there to the salon, the guest rooms, the library, the music room, the kitchen, the laundry, the servants’ quarters, and then to the pantry, finally penetrating the furthest corner of the building, where I had set up my home laboratory and where, when I first became aware of this unknown ray in the earliest days of November of this year 1895, I shut myself up for weeks, and where Anna Bertha, as expected, eventually found me.
She must have sniffed out my trail, if she had had any use for her nose, since it seems that she used this radiation (X), from which I had spent the earliest years of our marriage seeking refuge, and the thought of which gave me not a single day or night of peace, left with no choice but to wonder when it would happen again, when the event I simultaneously desired and feared because it was not of this world, or at least of the world marked out for me, where it makes my flesh decay and drop from my body leaving nothing but a clanking tumulus of bones, so it was this fatal radiation, beyond the merest doubt, that found me in the laboratory, which if I had wished to be faithful to reality I would have named the Anna Bertha Ray, but for this, anyone even tangentially part of the scientific community would have expected a great belly-laugh at me, and my name to be permanently expunged from the Great Ledger of Science. And so it continued to bear the name of X in my notebooks (since at least the capital letter would make it resemble a name), but I still knew that I must get to the bottom of this matter, at least for my own sake, and there was no other way to do this than to investigate the supposed source, and by this I mean Anna Bertha, and for this I really must be quick, as Christmas is here in two days, and I am not allowed to work over the holidays, so let us make haste, the holidays are upon us like a real, final death.
By now Wilhelm knew what he must do. He knew that if he were to irradiate some part of Anna Bertha’s body, getting a look into his wife, such crafty subterfuge might allow him to seize that unknown something that had held him captive for five years, incapacitating him from all work, the something that now, suddenly, seemed on the verge of crowning his scientific career, assuming he would ever dare to publish his findings. Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Willi isn’t here. This was Anna Bertha’s thought upon waking on the unusually cold morning of December 22, 1895. This was not so much a thought as a feeling she got from the cool vapor leaving her skin, the barren patch of empty space at her side, and the stark bewilderment that had slipped through the sheets’ pores. It was this same feeling that had repeated itself practically every morning for the past fifteen years. And each morning, to somehow rouse her cool body to life, to gather, from somewhere, the strength to rise from her bed and begin another seemingly endless day among countless others like it, overfull with errands to be done in the real world, yet still ultimately empty beyond measure, and now, summoning all of her imaginative power to focus on the moment when Willi’s body last intertwined with hers, when they last awoke like a fresh-baked loaf of braided bread, like two snails stuck together or fatefully fused twins, when they had taken possession of each other’s body like one walking the grounds of his leafy woodland estate, where every last bud and blade comes to life under the other’s gaze, at the other’s touch the juices begin to flow, where the other’s breath conjures up oxygen and warmth, the steam of morning and the afternoon’s buzz, and where all this was once conjured up by the sheer force of her imagination, now her hand that had always worn—even at night—her engagement ring from Willi and her wedding ring, reached for her lap, and then, with a slow, circling motion on that spot, that world of the past that had perhaps never been, but which must have existed because otherwise she would have been long dead, as this contained the invisible seed of her reality, kept her alive, indeed you could say this was her life itself, and when the first waves of her solitary pleasure came as she recalled their shared delight, she cried out his name, first quietly, then ever louder, that he should return, for her life was nothing but a fluorescing presence that quickly flickered out, and then she felt a kind of force, magnetic you could say, radiating from within herself, which she was certain would sooner or later find its mark. And for precisely this reason, as well as to get herself out of bed, she repeated this every morning, and every morning absolutely nothing happened, and by the time Anna Bertha had made her way to the kitchen, the servants were scurrying about with eyes lowered, having heard Anna Bertha’s cries, and the only one not to hear them was Willi, for whom they were intended.
But then one day, as time passed, on the morning of December 22, 1895, two days before Christmas, as Anna Bertha’s final scream still resonated in the air, her attention was caught by a voice, first far off, then closer, louder, and once it was only a few rooms off, she seemed to recognize the voice as Willi’s, calling out Anna Bertha’s name, and then the very figure of Willi himself burst into the room and breathlessly requested Anna Bertha to dress and come with him to the laboratory, the place that had always been off limits to Anna Bertha, and then Anna Bertha realized that this radiation had indeed found its mark, had brought her what she wanted: drawn Willi to her, and now it was Willi who was about to lead her into a secret corner of his life never seen by her, and while Anna Bertha, her heart pounding, scurried into her clothes, she knew now that this Christmas would be very different from the others, and somehow even felt, though at a loss to explain it, this Christmas would be memorable, not just for her and Willi, but for the entire world, and so as they reached the laboratory, where Willi hurriedly directed her in and shut the door behind him, with a solemn expression, Anna Bertha was as animated as if Jesus himself were preparing to be reborn that Christmas, right there in their house in Würzburg, and certainly there was something of the incomparable sense of rebirth when Willy took Anna Bertha’s ringed hand saying, in a quavering voice, May I have your hand, which Anna Bertha took to mean in marriage and thus explained why he was squeezing it, adorned with the rings she had received from him, and then Willi placed her hand on some kind of plate, then messed about with his instruments, and then, pale as death itself, informed her that it was done. The picture was done.
What kind of picture, asked Anna Bertha, at which Willi showed Anna Bertha the first image created with X-Rays (actually Anna Bertha Rays), showing the skeletal outline of Anna Bertha’s hand, stripped of its flesh, but all the more highlighting the engagement and wedding rings that tied them, Willi and Anna Bertha, together.
Seeing the picture Anna Bertha cried out, I have seen my own death!, but even this did not concern her at the moment since Willy, his joy infinite, threw his arms about her, and his hot tobacco breath filled Anna Bertha with such happiness that she wouldn’t have minded if she had truly collapsed dead on the cold floor of the laboratory. Then Willi, sensing the familiar, suffocating effects of the Anna Bertha Ray, but before it had weakened him beyond all help, quickly grabbed a pen and in his flowing, spiral cursive, wrote across the top margin of the picture: Hand mit Ringen, 1895.
The rest is X.
"Frau Röntgen keze" © Zsófia Bán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
An arduous journey of Greek migrants leads to an absurd culinary miscommunication in this story by Hungarian author Krisztina Tóth.
Listen to Krisztina Tóth read "The Tongue's Story" in the original Hungarian:
Dimitrios hadn’t said a single word for the entire journey. He held the enormous pack between his legs and slept with his eyes open. His wife and two children had remained at home with family, but Dimitrios had been promised that they’d be brought later within a month. Nakis, who was dozing beside him, had no family of his own yet, though he’d gone twenty-five. He’d left his three sisters and his old parents in Kastoria. All together, there were eight of them sitting on the back of the truck, they’d crossed the border in four black trucks, then the trucks lost one another again. There were no children on any of them, they’d said farewell to the little ones two weeks earlier, back at Lake Prespa.
They were dirty, lice-ridden, sweaty, their packs filthy from the long journey. Their food had run out, they had to ration their tobacco. By night they tried to sleep, by day they watched the fields. The land wasn’t bad, the corn grew tall and there was good yield on the grapes.
During the last couple of days the rain had started up, it pattered endlessly on the canvas. The canvas protected them to some extent, but their clothes were soaked through. Nakis turned his coat inside out and picked the lice out of the creases in the fabric. Old Mihalis watched and shook his head as though he were absorbing the rhythm of the Tatra pickup.
After the rain came a fierce stifling heat, the drying clothes and steaming bodies began to reek on the truck bed. They were approaching their unknown destination. The sly sun caught them from one side, they jerked wildly at each bend. Everyone’s head had grown drowsy with hunger, lack of sleep, and exhaust fumes.
It was around midday when they pulled into the main square of a small town. They passed by strange signs in an unfamiliar language. The Greek men looked at the butcher’s, they saw the tall, baroque church and the completely identical-seeming, impassive women. The locals crossing the square stopped in their tracks, sizing up the Czechoslovak truck with suspicion: it was the third that day. Exhausted men blinked from behind the canvas, nobody had given them any sign they ought to get off.
Eventually a man in a green jacket appeared and loudly conferred for some time with the driver. Neither of them spoke Russian well, so the conversation was supplemented with gestures and volume. They came round the side of the steaming truck and waved, Come on, let’s go, everybody off.
The passengers clambered down, stood with their packs, then set off uncertainly after the man in the green coat. They crossed the square, passed the women watching from the shop window, and were herded into a gravel courtyard. A dog at the back barked wildly at the newcomers, until a gangly teenager coming out of the stairwell shouted it down. From then on it just whined in defeat. It was a mystery as to what the mongrel was doing in a schoolyard and where the actual schoolchildren were. And anyone for that matter, the whole town seemed dead, while the dawdling residents seemed so confused it was as though they weren’t even from there.
“What day’s it today?” Joannis asked suddenly.
“Wednesday. Wednesday noon,” answered Marku, who hadn’t opened his mouth for days but had kept watch with knitted brow, ready to leap. He counted the days, counted the border-crossings, then moving his lips he counted the cornfields and the remaining tobacco. In his head he counted how many cousins he had, including those who’d died as children.
“It’s Wednesday noon,” he repeated somberly.
Nakis ran back to the gate, he wanted to see whether the truck had left or not, but the man in the puffer jacket shouted, ordering him to go back to the rest. They left their packs in the yard and filed into a gym hall. There were Greeks lying everywhere on the floor, mostly strangers. Mihalis recognized a man with a gray beard who was from their area and was even older than he was. He was called Zeys, he’d arrived that morning. He said they hadn’t been able to wash yet, but they’d been given water, and he wasn’t sure whether they could stay or if they’d have to keep traveling. Most of them tried to get settled so that they’d be comfortable for the night, but soon a narrow-eyed man came in and started speaking to them in Hungarian. The parka had disappeared.
Nobody could understand what he wanted, they listened to the forty-something, broad-faced fellow completely at a loss. His voice was a shade firm, but the starved travelers couldn’t hear the veiled confusion, all they could hear was the irritation. He spoke at them for a long time in a clipped tone, then pointed for them to stand in a line. They got to their feet from their various spots, thinking to themselves, Good, now the newcomers will get their water, the whole group was standing.
The man led them through to a long concrete hall whose wall was painted with schoolgirls dancing in skirts and happy peasants at work in the fields. In the middle stood long wooden tables pushed together into one long row but with nothing on them.
They sat on the benches and took off their caps.
Then nothing happened. They sat, holding their caps, glancing now and again toward the kitchen. At times an alarmed woman in a white apron peeked out from behind the frosted glass but never came out. When they’d been sitting like that for maybe thirty minutes and there still wasn’t any water, Marku stood up and made for the door. His manner wasn’t threatening, but Dimitrios grabbed his arm and looked him in the eyes. Marku took his seat in silence, everyone gazed at the door.
Soon a short, freckled woman appeared and set out plastic pitchers of some red liquid all along the table. She didn’t return with any glasses. Mihalis dipped the tip of his tongue into it and said something. The murmur ran quietly along the two rows of men:
Then the glasses arrived and they awkwardly sipped on the sugary fruit juice.
It was weak and tasted odd, but it did provide some relief for their thirst. Many added water from the sink on the wall. Another painful fifteen minutes went by, then a woman in a headscarf appeared and slammed down plastic plates and forks along the table. She didn’t look up, she didn’t speak to anyone, if there was no space she set the cutlery in the middle with the napkin. Soon after, the freckled lady appeared again with a kitchen hand, a stout older woman; they shuffled out with an enormous aluminium pot between them. And then another. The two pots were set at opposite ends of the table.
The men began to stir, waiting for their portion. But the two women didn’t serve them, they went back behind the white door and waited to see what the guests would do from there. The guests waited a while, then Nakis got up and looked into the pots.
Two men dished it out at either end. First to the older men, then to the rest, one by one.
They were about to dig in when once again the bony woman in a headscarf who’d brought the plates appeared. In each hand she held a heaped bowl, she banged them down at opposite ends of the table and then clomped out again. She wore clogs and white socks like a nurse. In the bowls were mounds of gray dust, there was no way of telling what for.
A few started eating the pasta, others were waiting for the meat. Nakis examined the bowl. He sprinkled a little dust between his fingers.
“Must have to wash up with that after,” said Marku.
At the other end Dimitrios leaned over the bowl and gave it a whiff.
“Dirt,” he assured them sternly.
Joannis had almost wolfed down all his pasta when the freckled woman and the one in the headscarf came out. The freckled one marked time with a red face, while the taller one raised her voice and started giving orders in a foreign, rapid tongue as though she were cross. She pointed at the bowls and repeated a single incomprehensible word, then made broad gestures with one arm, as though she meant to clear the guests out. The men listened confused, looking to one another, at a loss. The woman shook her head, then moved suddenly and before they could cover their plates with their hands, she began soiling their pasta with the dust. On the other side the freckled one did the same, soon they had done it to them all. They glanced back as though they’d completed their order, then withdrew again. For a few seconds there was silence, then Dimitrios spoke:
“They’ve covered it in dirt!”
“They’ve covered it in dirt, so we can’t eat it,” the word spread along the table.
Marku slammed down his fork, staring ahead furiously, while the others gaped at their food disappointedly.
“They don’t want us here,” declared Joannis. “It’s because we don’t speak their language. That’s why they’re defiling our food.”
Dimitrios was so hungry he would have eaten the pasta, dirt and all, but he restrained himself and waited to see what the others would decide upon.
“We should stand up and leave!” Nakis slapped his cap on the table.
Support for the idea wasn’t unanimous, they hadn’t seen hot food for days.
Eventually the old man Zeys stood up, took his plate, and in a dignified manner, with his head held high, started over to the wall. Everyone thought he was going to pour it all out or simply bring it back to the women.
But no. He stopped at the enamel sink on the wall, and covering the plate with his big, wrinkled hands, he started washing the pasta. The black dirt was rinsed away and soon only the wet pasta was left. With that, the rest of the Greek men stood up and made their way single-file toward the faucet to wash their food. The dinner ladies whispered as they watched, nobody dared step forward.
The Greek men ate, then discussed. As their hunger abated, their bitterness grew. They stood up and filed through to the gym hall in solemn silence. By the time the lad in the green parka had arrived, they were already lined up in the yard, threatening, kitted up. One of the fat dinner ladies dashed out, dragged the lad in the jacket inside, and showed him in alarm the sink in the dining hall.
The sink was full of stray pasta pieces, while the drain, as though it were full of greasy ash, was completely clogged with sweet, ground poppy seed.
"Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története" © 2016 by Krisztina Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.
Listen to Zsuzsa Selyem read "That Little Strip of Sunshine" in the original Hungarian
Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Selyem’s short story rewrites an iconic poem by György Petri in this tale of sexual abjection and poverty.
I ordered a rum and beer. When he walked in, I felt I would melt into the sky. Good God, what I must look like. I’d long given up the thought of ever seeing him again. He left me ages ago. Impossible to count the years. For me there are no years, months, days anymore, I’ve given up on myself. Seasons I still keep track of, or maybe just guess at. In the summer I’m hot in all these rags, in winter I’m cold, spring and fall are the same. He was a nice boy, loved me like no one ever did. They’re all dead now, Mother, Father, everyone. All my relatives. My little brother and I were taken off to Auntie Mari’s. There it turned out that we were Jews and if anyone found out they’d kill us.
I was thirteen when I found out. I wanted to kill myself, but who’d have taken care of my brother? He wasn’t even seven. Auntie Mari died too, her heart gave out. We were put in state care, Áronka screamed and kicked like hell, but we got separated all the same. Haven’t seen him since. In the institute they beat me for everything, fight or obey, it made no difference. Take that, you stupid Jewish bitch, and with that they got down to business. Somehow I got hold of a razorblade and slashed my veins, but there was nowhere to hide with informers all over the place. They dragged me off before I was completely out. At the hospital they never stopped screaming at me, Don’t cut across, stupid, the nurse hissed, Cut lengthwise, so next time I cut lengthwise and she was right, I almost did it, they pumped an IV into me for days while I was far away, out beyond the dim, scattered lights, beyond the thundering voices, beyond the strip of sunshine beating down on the bathroom floor mired in my blood. I heard Áronka pleading, but something drew me on toward our house in Nagykálló, Buksi wagging his tail, Cili looking at me through the slits in her green eyes, the hens toddling in the yard and me in the middle, Mother is laughing and I don’t know why the fuck they took me back to the hospital bed. I looked around, the informers were all asleep. Outside only darkness. Run, I thought, which was easier said than done, as I could barely lift myself off the bed and the moment I got on my feet I felt dizzy. No, Teri, no falling back, I reminded myself of the instructor who would cover my mouth with his palm and schlep me out of bed by my hair every other week when he was on the night shift. This gave me the strength to bumble out of the ward, carefully down the corridor, down the stairs, out onto Városmajor Street. There was a park across the way. I plopped down on the first bench I saw and looked up through the branches at the dark sky. My entire body was trembling. This is what my life had become.
He smiled and raised a thick eyebrow and his thin shoulders in disbelief then turned to the barman. A rum and beer for the lady, and a vodka over here.
Was I confusing him for someone else? I didn’t dare ask him, You’re János Hell aren’t you? My heart was thumping like crazy, I could hardly breathe. I wasn’t really afraid to ask, but for some reason I didn’t want to do it right away. Besides, what would be the point of talking? I’d sooner have just hugged him on the spot, burying my head in his neck. Then he would have recognized me for sure.
I gulped down the sticky drink, which hit me immediately. He tossed back his vodka. We sat side by side, he facing slightly outward. Just like in the old days. My goodness, I wouldn’t have guessed he’d still be alive, or that I would for that matter. But back then I didn’t shake when I drank, this I learned quickly enough. Also that you have to pay for it. At first, of course, I would be bought rounds just like that, by the others. I used to be their little Teri, up until Kacor tried to mount me and I started screaming. With this I’d broken something, I now realize. Stupid cow, do you want to bring on the cops, this was the mildest I got, so I cleared out. Hit the road if you’re so squeamish, they’d shouted after me and laughed, Prince Charming is waiting!
At night I’d sit in a pub as long as I could. Sometimes they paid me in advance, sometimes afterward, it no longer hurt, I wasn’t afraid, I felt nothing, only the comforting warmth of alcohol. I slept through the day most of the time on some bench until I was chased off. This is how Hell found me. I can’t remember it all exactly, but I woke up feeling my head was in someone’s lap. I looked up, squinting at the sun in my eyes, and just above me a dark pair of eyes glistened at me from a much greater height than I expected, like the eyes of someone who understands everything. Hello, I said, but he didn’t answer. What’s the matter, you deaf, I growled and wanted to jump up, for who knows what crank I’d come across this time, but he elbowed me back down and asked my name. And how I got there. What had happened with my parents. With my little brother. The instructor.
By the time I’d answered all his questions I recognized him: János Hell. His parents were alive, pushing on, groveling their way up, harassing one another, and Jancsi until he fled from home. They’d never tell the truth, not even by accident. He has a few buddies who can take him in, and if not it’s no tragedy, he’ll take on some temporary job and get a bunk at the workers’ dorm, he’s planning to get his certificate from night school and apply to study philosophy, because he wants to understand what he’s landed in, so he said, and all the while he was stroking my hair, my face, darkness fell and he invited me to his place because he happened to have a place to stay, I went. He made tea with rum. We sat smoking, ringed by the walls covered with books. At a certain point I thought I heard Mother laughing, but it was only me.
“You getting me something?” I asked once I gathered the strength to use my voice. A hoarse one at that, it’d been a long time since I last spoke to anyone. He didn’t recognize me. But then I didn’t recognize anything either anymore. When we were together my body had been supple, I was nimble, and he said I was hot, not that I cared much, but the way he said it, with a wink, made me feel immortal, or how to put it. So there came a moment when I didn’t want to die.
Jancsi Hell or not, he wasn’t very talkative either. “I’ll go with you for a twenty,” I heard myself say. Nothing extraordinary, after all, I long ago learned not to be picky. When there’s no money, you must make some somehow. But right there I was more inclined to think, what you cannot speak about you must pass over in silence. Or, if all there is is nothing, you must drink. Whatever. The rum and beer threw open the gates: Come on, I want to, I’d really love to, the words poured out of me once I saw it was not him but a stranger. In a second he’ll stand up and leave without paying, or hit me. But if he ends up coming with me he’ll recognize me for sure.
As soon as we got out into Frankel Leó Street I snuggled up to him and he put his arm around me. I had waited in the park for days, weeks, months on end for him to return, I scribbled notes for him in the dust, on the leaves. Only in my head, of course. If I needed a drink, and I did because I was all shaky and afraid, I took a turn on Rákóczi Square, but had to drink even more afterward, and of course I ended up with the girls Sunka was running. He needed the money for poker. He’d beat me up, though he used to be a ward of the state too. When the drinking got him in a sentimental mood he’d tearfully recount how he was beaten and raped by the instructor. A different one, but the system was the same. Then, after a couple more of rums, he’d start yelling and slapping me around, saying that I was lying to him and hiding the money, though he was the one who scraped me up out of the dirt. I was covered in bruises, my face swollen, and one time he even knocked out two of my teeth. One drink and I felt nothing. I wonder what happened to you in the meantime, did they lock you up, did they put you in a lunatic asylum or did they just beat you up? But then you would surely have come back, I’d been waiting for you on that bench. Perhaps you had someone who was not such a repulsive wreck as me and you returned to her, but why did you wake me up then, why don’t you speak to me, and why did you tell me I was hot, why are you hugging me so unwillingly, why did you make me believe for a moment that I. Never mind, it’s almost morning, my den’s in this basement.
Sometimes he wouldn’t say a word to me for days on end, I didn’t undress, dark objects floated about in the early morning semi-dimness. Who do you think you are, I shouted at him, I pushed my trousers down, the felt of matted wadding rustled. He said nothing, which made me even more furious, this is how I do it when I screw in a park, the strip of sunshine beating down on the blood kept haunting me, chopping my heart into pebbles. At least the others didn’t deceive me. They might have hated me or tried to put me down, but they never told me I love you, Teri, I screeched, and he calmly took off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. You’re filthier than the floor, screamed the objects around me. Well now, lyric self, do you look down on me like I couldn’t hold my own at this, or at anything ever anywhere? Kiss me, I asked him, hoping that with this I could shut up the yawning dark objects for good. In the old days, though, and now the flood of boneworn words burst from my mouth, his saliva soothed my bruised tastebuds, knives, chainsaws, gadgets with razorblades started toward me to cut me to bits. You’ve never loved me, I muttered, gathering my strength for the next assault, and he laughed. Grinning, the blades drew closer. There’s no love, János, you only invented it to feel superior, I snarled at him, he was laughing and his tears poured onto my face. I tried to concentrate on how hard I wanted him, but the dark objects were sucking me up, in all directions, to bits. He jerked as if gutpunched, margarine helps on such occasions, I thought mercilessly, I scrunched up into my cunt and sucked the boy in, and the objects went on whining but didn’t get me. He gave me the same look he had on that bench, his bony hip ramming against my thigh, and a darkness so thick descended on us that the object-demons couldn’t find me. At that same moment I understood he was about to leave. I cringed for him to stay, but I couldn’t find words anymore, can I wash myself off somewhere, he asked, and the searchlights scanned the basement. I didn’t say forgive me, the water spurt out and soaked his trousers through, the sharp lights cut me to bits.
He wanted to leave me the fifty. You’re an idiot, I tried to clamber back into the reasonable world. If I could give change for a fifty I wouldn’t need your twenty, I said, but the spirit was already pouring out of me.
He went up the broken steps like a self-possessed god. He didn’t look back. It was dawn, summer. Before the universe took me in, before I got mixed into all the raw, useless, rotting matter, I caught a dim glimpse of him stepping across that little strip of sunshine.
"Az a napverte sáv" © Zsuzsa Selyem. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa and Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming
By György Petri (1943–2000)
Translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good
It started as a routine summer night.
I wandered from pub to pub.
Perhaps I was drinking at The Polythene,
a booth beside the station at Margit Bridge
(or had it been demolished already?). I don't know,
maybe I was on Boráros Square.
This wandering would always
last until the morning or go on another day,
and led me anywhere.
In any case, I was sitting somewhere, drinking.
(Back then I drank anything—the sampling of youth.)
I didn't read in pubs yet,
no no, I didn't bury myself
in books and papers or gawk at the tabletop.
I wasn’t irritated when someone spoke to me.
"You getting me something?" asked the smoke-etched
voice of a woman behind me. A young voice.
"Go on then." I said turning. Fifty
she was perhaps, standing behind me. Matted,
crusty, once light-brown hair;
gums collapsing in, chapped lips, bloodshot
whites, aquamarine eyes,1
a yellowed, white synthetic sweater,
brown trousers, white sandals lifted from a bin.
She ordered a cheap rum and a small beer. I did not dispute her taste.
"I'll go with you for a twenty," she said. This surprised me.
The price—as prices go—was absurdly low (even then).
I knew the rate of the District. Twenty forints was no price.
Besides the woman would not have held her own
on Rákóczi Square, or any square for that matter.
If she was keen, the sensible thing would have been for her to pay.
But much more. And she was keen. "Come on,
I want to," she said "I'd really love to."
I never could hurt a woman in her womanhood
(unless it was my express intention).
But this . . . ! I went; I felt I had no choice.
Why, I was restless and muddled
like stirred-up sludge back then, and
only in these Espresso bars and Bistros
could I feel the slightest false superiority
among the true, miserable victims of hardship and homelessness.
She pulled me along a lengthy street, snuggling up.
Awkward, but a true part of contrition. I put my arm around her,
and we landed in a basement, countless steps
led downward, lit by some unexplained half-light.
The bed. A clawed-up felt strip of matted wadding.
She didn't undress, just undid herself and pushed her trousers down.
"This is how I do it when I screw in the park."
she said quite casually. I did not object,
I, too, only undid what was necessary,
and dropped my jacket—I'd rather it dirty than crumpled.
"Kiss me." Well. I guess that's unavoidable.
Her mouth smelled stale, her lips were scaly, her tongue,
the roof of her mouth dry, like an empty sardine tin,
my tongue prodding around inside—the sharp edge drawing blood any second.
I was terrified I'd presently throw up in her mouth,
yet at the thought I felt the urge to laugh,
my tears poured on to her rough skin, while
I got the better of my esophagus. Between her legs
it was tight and dry. It hardly relaxed or grew moist.
"Hang on," she said, and gouged her fingers
into some half-eaten margarine, massaging it into herself,
then took some more.
Is she going to EAT from that?
"Can I wash myself off somewhere?" I asked later.
She pointed to a pipe-end. The water spurt out and pure
soaked my trousers through, as though I had pissed myself.
"I suppose that's part of it too," I muttered. A fifty
was all I had. She shook her head, "I said a
twenty, but it's not a price. It was me who wanted to. The twenty,
I just need one is all." "So give me change," I said,
"you see, I don't have a twenty." "You're an idiot,"
she said, "If I could give change for a fifty
I wouldn't need the twenty." A reasonable point.
And the next second she’s asleep mouth =agape.
I shrugged (well if you're so proud),
I stuffed the fifty in my pocket, found my jacket,
then groped my way up the steps.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming,
to emerge, clothes of beige and shirt all-white shining,
on up these broken steps toward some purity,
to where wind blows and white foam spatters,
grimly absolving, coldly threatening,
stairs of nausea, unremitting downward ascent,
a summer dawn, nineteen sixty-one.
1. Rubbish. You have aquamarine eyes.
The woman? What do I know.
Like copper sulphate in a trough of water?
I just want to offer that poor creature something,
perhaps, your eye color and a rare word,
so she wouldn’t be such a repulsive wreck,
and myself somewhat more understandable
In this short story by Hungarian author Edina Szvoren, a young writer’s troubled relationship with her parents is told through the everyday objects their struggles imbue with weight and new meaning.
My face today is Gothic. I twirl a turquoise bracelet around my fingers. My Brigitte Bardot glasses, their lenses translucent, create the effect of swollen cheekbones. The grease spots on them are weeks old, months. When I wipe them off, my head aches from their absence. My gray incisors are a pile of roof tiles. I turn from the café mirror and, scissoring my legs, lift the empty chair opposite me, again and again, until I wear out. I put up my feet. A waiter sizes me up from behind a raised shoulder. There are amorphous white spots on my nails. You could, or should, tell the future from them. Take the ring finger, for example: my son’s life. (He won a recitation contest with an Ágnes Nemes Nagy poem.) The index finger is my literary career, and the middle one is the school principal who is sweet on me. I look up. Here comes Mother and her burning bones, like someone battered daily. But, in fact, she’s only proud.
A tall woman, exuding the smell of pomade, she sits down. Like one with sea legs, she can only lean, not bend over. Her hair quivers in strong but flexible curlicues as she shakes her head in disapproval. She props her bag against the chair leg; its long shoulder straps remain upright, stiff in the air, imperiously, for several minutes. Her shoes, as is her way, form part of the Mercedes logo under the table. The shoes are a gift from Papa. The Indian bag: a gift from Papa. Her gold-plated eyeglass chain: a gift from Papa. My mother and I have met in cafés ever since Papa disowned me for one of my writings.
A hard-breasted case officer for the National Health, she carried me in her womb for nine months. Now she pulls out her yellow plastic case, sixteen years old, a cloverleaf pattern embossed on its lower left corner. She offers me her open palm with a selection of pens. Her skin glows hot, but her promo pens are cold. (Back in the day, thermometers would freeze in her armpits.) She’s got a political pen, one with cholesterol, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses. I pick one out and tighten my upper lip over my teeth. My mother slides the lottery ticket over to me and taps on Papa’s numbers with a bent index finger. Her bones are like the steel inserts in work boots. Seventeen and eleven. I’ve been taking part in this nonsense for sixteen years now. I only get paid if it’s a winner. So I take Mother’s pen (cholesterol) and mark my X’s in the second square, far from Papa’s. Twenty-six and twenty-eight. Me, I have no regular numbers. Papa always goes first, then me, and my mother last, since she’s happy with one sole X. I look at the lotto ticket, and swing my legs. The plastic tips on my laces clack together. Papa’s scratchy two X’s protrude from the box; my mother’s looks like a twirled mustache. Your grandson, I say. Just to get us talking. (My parents know more about the Qahatika Indians than about my son.) He’s won a recitation contest; it’s on YouTube. My mother holds her waist erect like a first violinist in the orchestra. Her response: Like you at that age. Well, of course, at that age I was building trains on the bed out of father’s size 10 shoes, stuffing them full of plush rabbits and dogs, the passengers. If I can’t remember the trains, I can’t be the same person (working name).
Mother, whose regular number is eighty, signals for the check and leaves. She pays even if we win. It would never occur to me to push the matter. I’m perfectly satisfied that we’ve managed, over sixteen years, two three-number winners and six pairs, perhaps seven. My mother, out of the blue, slides an official bank envelope over to my cup, her stare a windowsill, polished to a mirror finish. Last week we hit a Pick Three. You can finally have your teeth done, she remarks, every inch a moral creature. (I like to avoid mentioning the fact that light-year is her favorite word.) She swings her Indian bag up over her shoulder and goes, always moving toward something better, more expansive, like undersea methane bubbles breaking out of ice-prison.
Today my face is Gothic, my calves Romanesque. I push my sunglasses up onto my brow and take a look in the envelope. I riffle through the banknotes. Must be more than nine hundred thousand forints. I pull my lips taut over my teeth, and make a little pucker. The waiters whisper behind a shield of nickel trays. My purse sits in the middle of the round marble table, its zipper teeth broken off in spots. Its mouth has a twisted—human—smile. The drinks menu has a crumple in it, the trace of my mother’s hand. Her will presses the shapes of ancient ferns into stone.
"Munkanéven ember" © Edina Szvoren. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.
The Emissary, a slim and bitingly smart dystopia from Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, takes its readers in a distressing incursion into the future, but begins by pointing back to a book published more than half a century ago: Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter. Ōe’s story of a young man abandoning his severely disabled newborn child is a classic of modern Japanese literature and helped earn Ōe the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. In Tawada’s novel, the unfortunate infant of Ōe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins. He has a large head on a tiny neck, like a baby bird, and his legs turn inward below the knees. He can digest only a few foods and frequently falls into faints and dissociative trances. When overexcited, he will throw his hands up in the air and shout, “Paradise!”
Mumei lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who is condemned to grow stronger day by day while his great-grandson grows weaker. Yoshiro takes care of Mumei, wheeling him around in a cart like a spaceship with padded sides, feeding him delicate mush, and telling him stories about the old Japan, when people still wrote out all the characters, and read the news, and planned trips abroad, and so on. Alternating between these two halves of the pair throughout the book, Tawada builds a play of contrasts between their perspectives, bringing out generational and stylistic differences in their voices.
The Emissary takes place in a Japan that has once again closed its borders to the outside world. No specific disaster or timeline is mentioned, but a nuclear fallout seems likely. The outskirts of Japan—Hokkaido, Kyuushuu, and Osaka—have become the most desirable places to live, while Tokyo is increasingly abandoned due to its radioactive soil and unattractive architecture.
As is often the case with dystopias, Tawada’s grim rendering of the future reads as a satire of current tendencies of the society it depicts. For example, nearly all the important positions in Tawada’s Japan are staffed by the elderly, who become all the more spry and capable as they age past ninety, and then 100, and then 110, reflecting the trend in contemporary Japan to an older and older working population. (According to a recent estimate by the Japanese government, people over the age of sixty-five will account for sixty percent of Japan’s population by 2060.) A town in Okinawa prohibits people younger than fifty-five from moving there in order to prevent population growth, so young men and women dye their hair and wrinkle their skin in an effort to look older, only to betray their youth by failing to identify trends we would associate with the youth of modern Japan—knowing English, for example, or understanding technology. A certain amount of political doublespeak is also mocked, with “Labor Day”, for instance, becoming “Being Alive is Enough Day.”
But there is a darker side still to Tawada’s fictional portrait of Japan. Unfortunately, the idea that Japan may once again close its borders is no less reflective of contemporary attitudes than the idea of an octogenarian working class. Although Tawada finished the novel in 2014, before surges of populism were to spread through the United States, France, Britain, and elsewhere, by that time Japan was already experiencing its own quiet form of renewed nationalism in the policies of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. While not exactly isolationist, many items on Abe’s agenda emphasize a more patriotic view of Japan’s role in World War II. When coupled with heightened militarization, as well as a more aggressive approach to disputes in the East China Sea, these had the effect of producing strong objections in favor of a return to pre-war policies of noninvolvement. As Yoshiro explains to Mumei in the novel: “Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.”
Contrasted against the indicting societal critique in The Emissary is the warm relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei, as well as the elegant and often poetic language used to describe Japan’s future. Like the fish-creatures of Vonnegut’s Galápagos, the citizens of Tawada’s Japan are described obliquely, their faintly suggested features blooming wildly in the reader’s mind. Children with “eyes like grapes moist with dew” sit eagerly on a classroom floor, waiting for words from their teacher about the outside world. Yoshiro sees Mumei’s teeth “drop out one after another like pomegranate pulp, leaving his mouth smeared with blood.” Of everything, the character that prompts the most speculation is Mumei: given only hints about his physical appearance, we construct a vision of him according to whatever fragments we may have in our mind of nuclear fallout, apocalyptic disfigurement, or human disabilities. (While the Japanese edition features a lovely watercolor of a birdlike creature on its cover, the New Directions design is slightly more abstract: a child teetering on the edge of a fruit.)
The emphasis on language in this work is not a coincidence. As an expatriate writer living in Berlin, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese, often in ways that reflect a deep awareness of the differing constraints of each language and alphabet. The Japanese title of The Emissary refers to the traditional name used for Japanese emissaries to China, and accordingly the idea that young Mumei may someday become an emissary to the world outside Japan. (If you are a highly optimistic reader, then this is exactly what happens to Mumei; otherwise you may find yourself reflecting on more abstract applications of the term.) However, Tawada uses different characters to spell this word kentoushi, adding the additional meaning of “bearer of light” in a subtle change that mirrors the shared linguistic history between China and Japan.
Characteristics of the Japanese language are toyed with throughout The Emissary, something translator Margaret Mitsutani does an admirable job of uncovering to an English audience. This is important, as many of Tawada’s tricks go deeper than mere linguistic play. For instance, when the young people of Tawada’s Japan, now wholly ignorant of the English language, interpret labels that say “made in Japan” phonetically, transforming “made” into the Japanese word “ma-de” or “to/until,” they are reflecting the much larger theme that all things in a country with closed borders must direct back into that country—even remnants of foreign words left behind.
Japan’s literature has changed quite a bit since A Personal Matter was published in 1964. A postwar era characterized by the themes of intense alienation and psychological strangeness in writers like Mishima, Kawabata, and Ōe has become increasingly identified with the light surrealism of Haruki Murakami, as well as numerous popular manga in translation. Tawada is a superb writer, to be sure, and with more interesting vision than Murakami, but it is clear that The Emissary describes a future with a similarly light tone. While the young father of A Personal Matter agonizes over his decision to keep his child alive, scraping at the heels of a once-strong Japanese moral sensibility to find anything that may have endured, the love between Yoshiro and Mumei is almost taken for granted. Mumei’s classmates are ecstatic, joyfully wriggling over one another’s disfigured bodies, and their happiness is wise, as if they know something that Yoshiro and the reader cannot. And yet to take heart in this seems strange; perhaps it is something that cannot be translated or carried away.
“If only he could put into words what he feels it would be almost like thinking clearly, but he cannot think clearly.”
This is the distress signal sent up at a crucial juncture by the protagonist of “Marathon,” the third of the four novellas in Andrés Barba’s The Right Intention, a collection originally published in the author’s native Spain as La recta intención in 2002. With its intimations of an inability to communicate, paranoia, and worse (note that “almost”), it’s a moment of realization that could define any of the main characters in these stories—all of them well-off urbanites who succumb to a single, overwhelming obsession. The destructive consequences of those obsessions, traced with an almost clinical precision, are the substance of Barba’s absorbing, unnerving stories.
In “Nocturne,” a single, comfortably settled gay man in late middle age finds his life of routine upended by an infatuation with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The lover has no illusions about the life of quiet desperation he’s been leading, the disappointment he’s kept at bay: “It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years.” The same objectivity manifests itself later, once the affair reaches the abrupt end he has done so much to bring about, when he declares to the younger man, all too plausibly, “now it’s going to take me five years to get over you.”
Barba raises the stakes, and heightens the emotional pitch, with “Debilitation,” an account of a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia. Her dysfunction starts with an unwelcome poolside kiss—“Luis’s ridiculous, almost unpleasant tongue like a soggy worm wriggling against hers”—and proceeds into a gruesome body horror of cutting and self-starvation before she winds up in an expensive private clinic. Inside, her steely will has to contend with not only a strict, eat-your-peas kind of authority but a witchy fellow patient and an unlikely love interest. Closure, recovery are still somewhere over the horizon when “Debilitation” reaches its close, but at its moving climax her pain unspools in a three-page sentence that is a tour de force for the translator, Lisa Dillman, as well as the author. (Here as in the other stories, Dillman’s skillfull rendering of Barba’s free indirect style, along with a number of casually deployed colloquialisms —“frumpier,” “meds,” terse teen-speak like “Are you into me?” and “It’s pretty messed up”— results in a text that stands on its own in English as a stylistic feat.)
From this ordeal it is a relative step down in intensity to “Marathon,” which might be described as a study in the obnoxiousness of the long-distance runner. Training for an upcoming road race with increasing single-mindedness, Barba’s marathon man is willing to jeopardize both his marriage and a nascent friendship with a fellow runner, conceivably the one person in his life who might be able to understand his fixation. As maddening as the athlete’s behavior is, Barba makes sure we tunnel into his perspective: “If anyone had asked if he was happy he wouldn’t have known how to respond. Perhaps by saying that he felt empty, and that emptiness was, if not happiness, then the closest thing to a state of calm he’d ever known, a calm that didn’t need to be spoken or shared.”
In the final story, “Descent,” a grown, married woman with children has to contend with a sudden injury to, and the subsequent decline of, her elderly mother. The ordeal is made even more trying by the fact that the dying woman is a horror, a tyrant whose neediness and emotional manipulations have turned her three grown children into basket cases. You might think this means the most extreme story has been saved for last, but there’s a subtle change-up in Barba’s approach here, a pulling-back from his previously tight focus, that makes “Descent” the most human and accessible of the four novellas. The material has room to breathe; not just because this family’s backstory is effectively sketched in over a few pages (and because the main character is given a supportive husband, free of her family’s pathologies) but because there’s a sense of contingency, an arbitrariness in the way events unfold around us, that eludes any fine-meshed authorial net. In the climactic deathbed scene, especially, absurdity tugs at mortality’s hem in a way that resonates with one’s own experience of this terminal moment. The young priest who arrives to administer the last rites is both awkward and incongruously handsome—and then: “Life, made more ridiculous by the presence of the hospital window, is the sound of a bus horn.” More than any of the other novellas in The Right Intention, this story made me curious to see what Barba can do in a novel.
As it happens, last year Transit Books brought out a 2008 Barba novel, the well-received Such Small Hands, also in a translation by Lisa Dillman, and he has written twelve books of fiction and nonfiction overall. He has also translated a pair of stylistically extravagant nineteenth-century literary renegades, Herman Melville and Thomas De Quincey, into Spanish. All of which furthers the impression one gets from The Right Intention that an American readership for this talented writer is overdue.
But if one can lament how long it took for The Right Intention to receive its passport into English, there’s a certain piquancy in the way these stories, encountered in 2018, evoke an irrecoverable moment that isn’t even twenty years in the past. Meaning, the short span of our millennium just prior to the arrival of cell phones, texting, social media, and all their attendant compulsions. (In a sequence that seems like a kind of historical fiction, the lover in “Nocturne” races from newsstand to newsstand to track down a copy of the magazine with the right personal ad in it.) Which isn’t to suggest that this quartet of novellas allows the reader to indulge in any easy nostalgia. Sentient people—the kind of people who read fiction in translation, for instance—like to chide themselves for the way the devices in their hands are rewiring their circuitry, messing with their heads. Barba’s stories are a bracing reminder that we were finding plenty of ways to torment ourselves long before the latest technologies made it so much easier for us.
Latvia is a small country of two million inhabitants in northeastern Europe, a relatively inconspicuous place on the map. The country is celebrating its centenary this year, with a host of events, including Latvia’s participation as one of the Market Focus countries at the London Book Fair, putting its culture in the spotlight.
The history of Latvian literature spans several hundred years; its most recent chapter, however, began when Latvia declared the restoration of its independence in 1990 after decades of Soviet rule. Censorship was lifted, and this new freedom was seized upon by both well-established and emerging writers. For example, novelist Alberts Bels discussed the inner workings of the former Soviet regime in his book The Black Stain, while the young writer Gundega Repše’s Mark of Fire dealt with the suppression of the Latvian intelligentsia in the 1960s.
The resulting freedom also brought about new styles that would have been hard to imagine just a few years before. Jānis Einfelds’s short-story collection Moon Child and his surrealist novel The Book of Pigs stretched the imagination of Latvian literature.
The end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s saw several writers begin to blossom. Nora Ikstena’s earlier short-story collections set the stage for her first novel, The Celebration of Life, which established her as one of a new wave of women writers who still dominate the Latvian literary scene. That group includes Inga Abele, whose short stories and plays like Dark Deer catapulted her into the literary heights of the country.
The middle of the 2000s saw several writers hit their stride, including the aforementioned Inga Ābele with her novel High Tide, as well as writer and publicist Pauls Bankovskis with his book Euroremodeling, which details the days of Wild West capitalism and the resulting social chaos. The current decade has seen a wave of new talent, including EU Prize Winners like Inga Žolude and Jānis Joņevs, whose novels have been bestsellers in Latvia and well-received abroad.
The last few years have seen several trends, including a burst of historical fiction, led by a series of novels under the title We. Latvia. The 20th Century. Writer Gundega Repše and publisher Dienas Grāmata spearheaded this initiative to explore the often dark and complex history of the last century. Although there have been writers known for their historical fiction in past decades (Aleksandrs Grīns perhaps being the most brilliant of these), this series examined several events that up until that point had scarcely been broached. Māris Bērziņš’s book The Taste of Lead looked at the Holocaust, while Kristīne Ulberga’s novel There explored the hippie movement in Latvia in the 1970s.
Another change in the literary landscape is the growth of genres like fantasy and sci-fi. After decades of underrepresentation in the 1990s and 2000s, the last several years have seen a steady diet of books by authors like Ieva Melgalve, whose novel Moon Theater set off a wave of interest in homegrown sci-fi and fantasy novels. Newer writers like Linda Nemiera and Laura Dreiže have begun to dive deeper into areas that Melgalve has opened up.
A third noteworthy trend is the return of the short story. It is hard to say whether more writers are turning to the short story as a mode of expression; it can be said, however, that the recent Annual Latvian Literature Awards (LALIGABA, in the Latvian acronym) have given ample attention to the short story the last several years. Jana Egle’s short-story collection Light garnered the 2017 Best Book Award, while Sven Kuzmins’s collection, Urban Shamans, was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Debut Award. Other short-story writers of note include Daina Tabūna and Dace Vīgante, whose collections were also nominated for LALIGABA awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively, along with young writer Alise Redviņa.
Three representatives of this vibrant form appear in this feature. Poet and prose writer Jana Egle’s short stories are hard-hitting gems that talk of loneliness, broken families, and violence, often taking place in the provinces. Her story "The Quarry," which comes from her Light and is translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, tells of a boy who one day unexpectedly takes one of his playmates to a large quarry in the area, and decides to leave her there.
Sven Kuzmins’s texts often veer off into almost magic-realism-inspired twists and turns. The stories of his Urban Shamans are mostly set outside Latvia, imposing a foreignness unusual for the Latvian short story. His “Three Weddings and a Funeral,” translated by Uldis Balodis, is a realistic portrayal of a wedding musician who, due to an absurd contract clause, is forced to appear at two separate weddings, but not allowed to play.
Alise Redviņa writes often uncomfortable stories that confront the reader's innermost thoughts and desires. Her story "Lynn," translated by Laura Adlers, tells of a man who develops a relationship with a blow-up doll, only to fall for a coworker.
Latvian poetry also deserves a brief mention. Unlike poets in countries such as the US, who can spend years establishing themselves through journal publications before their long-awaited first book, Latvian poets often begin publishing their work in book form in their early twenties, and might even have several books before thirty. Some very active young Latvian poets publish their first books and are never seen in print again. Others continue to build on their prior work and take a long and steady climb upward. The latter group includes poets like Inga Gaile, Artis Ostups, and Arvis Viguls, whose two poems “Forgetting” and “Home,” translated by Jayde Will, are also featured here.
This very short introduction cannot do justice to all the authors out there. There is good news, however, for those seeking Latvian authors in English translation. Due to recent efforts to promote Latvian literature abroad, over thirty new translations of Latvian authors will be published by the end of 2018, allowing English-language readers a chance to see for themselves what that inconspicuous northeastern European country has to offer. In the meantime, we offer you the selection here.
© 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.
Welcome to our twelfth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. Though much of the art here may be in black and white, the topics addressed are anything but. In settings ranging from the bowels of a 1960s German lab to an antiseptic future Sweden, and with characters as diverse as rural bigots and urbane aesthetes, the pieces here explore the challenges of life in a variety of locations and eras. Some revisit the past, both personal and political, and one constructs a chilling future; yet as they look to other times, these pieces also comment on issues facing our world today to striking effect.
In Scandorama, the Finnish novelist Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, who writes in Swedish, and the Kenyan-Swedish artist Catherine Anyango construct a “perfect Scandinavian city.” This utopia, though, is achieved through dystopian means. The ideal population of Stohome (“The clean city. The beautiful people”) has been engineered by scientists at the evil Gentech corporation, with the undesirables—“the rubble of humanity”—banished to the dark side, the grimy, decaying city of Helsingy. With their portrayal of technology in the service of prejudice, Taivassalo and Anyango also represent the social manipulation that needs no scientific intervention to ghettoize “others.”
Davide Reviati’s Spit Three Times illustrates that impulse, here represented by Italian anti-immigrant sentiment and generalized hostility toward the other in rural Italy. European animosity toward Middle Eastern and African refugees has been well documented; the “outsiders” in this case, however, are not refugees fleeing Syria or other contemporary war zones, but Roma who settled in this small town over thirty years ago. Their long tenure in town does nothing to change the locals’ sneering intolerance: “They’re only gypsies.”
Yet another sort of bias informs “The I-Formula,” by the German team of Barbara Yelin and Thomas Steinaecker. Their graphic novel, Der Sommer ihres Lebens, depicts an elderly physicist recalling key moments of her life. The chapter here takes place in the mid-1960s, when Gerda Wendt, fresh out of graduate school, secures a post in a physics research lab. Her boss refers to her as "little lady"; her (male) fellow student assistant addresses her as "little Wendt." The episode chimes with the current #MeToo movement: Gerda’s confrontations with the sexism of superiors and peers, and her success despite that opposition, remind us of the obstacles others have faced—and of the incalculable potential contributions lost to those impediments. Yelin and Steinaecker’s work was originally serialized on Hundertvierzehn, the online literary magazine of the German publisher S. Fischer, and their playful manipulation of form—see the winding extended page where Gerda literally starts “at the bottom”—demonstrates the marriage of text and image facilitated by the web.
Another brilliant pairing here brings us political, rather than personal, history. The great French graphic novelist David B. appeared in our February 2007 issue. Since then, among his many projects, he has collaborated with the Arabist and historian Jean-Pierre Filiu on the sprawling, multivolume Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations. In this extract from the third volume, which covers the years from 1990 to 2013, the pair interrogate the official version of the US involvement in Iraq under George H. W. Bush. David B.’s surreal illustrations—a ghoulish army of uniformed skeletons marches down “the road of death,” giant politicians each grasp one leg of a tiny soldier as if they’re breaking a wishbone—both represent and comment on Filiu’s sober chronological narrative to produce a nuanced chronicle of a fraught time.
And in our first Czech graphic novel, Lucie Lomová’s Knock ‘em Dead! stages a murder mystery within a theater company. When the leading man calls in sick at the last minute, his alternate takes on the role. But someone’s interfered with the props, and instead of the expected “star is born” narrative, the melodrama turns tragic. Lomová’s work has appeared in French and Hungarian translation, but never in English. We’re delighted to present her debut.
Whether revisiting past conflicts or projecting an ominous future, these pieces comment directly and otherwise on the events of the day. They are prime examples of the continuing power of lines on the page.
© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Latvian author Sven Kuzmins describes the absurd toils of a depressive wedding musician.
“Why are you tying that weird rag around your neck?” Bush asked as he spit the toothpaste into the sink, leaving numerous white flecks on the sleeve of Ziedonis’s suit jacket. Ziedonis looked into the mirror, rinsed them off with water, and, without hiding his offense, said to Bush, who was standing behind him:
“It’s not a rag, it’s a genuine nineteenth-century jabot.”
“It would’ve been better if you’d just put on a tie like a normal person.”
“Oh look, suddenly we’ve got a fashion critic here, somebody who bleaches his hair like it was still 1992,” Ziedonis replied as he watched Bush’s heavyset, half-naked figure in the mirror and thought to himself: Goddammit, what am I even doing here?
“Well, OK, don’t get offended,” Bush came closer and put a hand on Ziedonis’s shoulder. Ziedonis turned his head and carefully freed himself from Bush.
“I have to run,” he said, shoving the synthesizer under his arm as he walked out into the hallway.
“Did you take your pills?” Bush called after him, but Ziedonis was already in the stairwell.
Ziedonis arrived at work before ten. The white hall of the registry office had been cleaned, aired out, and prepared for the wedding ceremony. Sharlotte was putting on her lipstick in the side room and was reading something intently.
“Good morning. What are you doing?” Ziedonis asked.
“I’m studying my speech.”
“You’re studying your speech? I thought it hadn’t changed in twenty years.”
“Yes, that’s exactly why I decided to introduce a few small corrections. To keep with the times, so to speak.”
“That’s a good idea. The most important thing is to throw out all those ‘in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Latvia . . .’”
“Ziedonis, sweetie, you know very well I can’t and don’t want to throw those out.”
“Why not? They sound so dry. You get the impression that marriage is nothing more than a responsibility. And anyway, if I had any say in it, I’d take the coat of arms off the wall, too. Why does a wedding hall need to look like the state revenue service or an enlistment office? Why can’t a wedding be a light and pleasant event?”
“But Ziedonis, honey, a wedding is a pleasant event. That’s why we have you,” Sharlotte said smiling as she straightened Ziedonis’s jacket, which was at least two sizes too big for his lean frame. “Just learn once and for all that the bottom button on a jacket has to stay undone! And take off that crochet work. Put on a normal tie.”
“That crochet work is a genuine nineteenth-century jabot! You said yourself that a musician has to pay attention to his appearance.”
Sharlotte opened the wardrobe and tossed Ziedonis a wide, slightly crumpled tie. He noticed that Sharlotte herself was wearing a brightly colored, unusually tight dress completely out of place in the registry office’s sterile interior. He carefully studied the director’s sturdy frame and concluded that her total body mass might be greater than Bush’s. However, while the extra pounds made Bush look flabby, Sharlotte’s Willendorfian complexion created an impression of health and strength.
She returned to the mirror and repeated her new speech:
“The union of two individuals is not just the joy they share during the most beautiful moments of their marriage and also not just the difficulties they overcome on life’s winding path. It’s also an example for friends, other people close to them in their lives, and fellow human beings. An example and a reminder that marriage stands at the foundation of every healthy society. How do you like it?” she asked.
Ziedonis felt an irresistible urge to go back home, crawl underneath his blanket with his clothes still on, and never come out again; he remembered that he hadn’t taken his Zoloft for three days in a row.
“It’s really good,” he said, lying. “Inspiring. And what are we playing?”
“What do you mean, what are we playing? Mendelssohn. What else?”
“Fine, Mendelssohn at the start. But how about something new toward the end?”
“Oh, look at that! We’ve got ourselves a visionary. No! We’re doing everything by the book.”
“Please! Something from Kalniņš at least. 'Little Blue Bird,' for example.”
“Not on my watch. Let’s go,” Sharlotte said as she gave him a hard slap on the shoulder. He studied his reflection with loathing and, using all his strength, pulled his tie into place. Sticking the synthesizer under his arm, he proceeded out to the hall.
None of the wedding guests looked especially happy and both rings ultimately turned out to be too small, though that didn’t significantly impact the pace of the ceremony. As he played the usual Mendelssohn, Ziedonis understood he needed to hurry home and take his pills, because his depression was becoming increasingly unbearable. After the ceremony he lifted the synthesizer off the stand and proceeded to the side room to say good-bye to Sharlotte, but she grabbed Ziedonis by the sleeve and said:
“Wait, wait. Where are you off to? We still have two trips today. The car is outside; go load up your piano.”
Ziedonis looked at the calendar on the wall. Two wedding trips were, in fact, scheduled, but there was a small note next to both of them: “No music.”
“But I don’t have to go. It says: ‘No music.’” he said.
Sharlotte looked at the schedule, looked into one of her folders, and said:
“Yes, but they’ve signed a standard contract, my friend. So you’re coming along.”
“Good God. Again? Why do I always have to go even when nobody ordered music?”
“Because, Ziedonis, sweetie, it says so in the contract. If it’s written on paper that there’s going to be a fully equipped pianist, then we have to bring along both the pianist and the equipment.”
“Is there no way of finally getting those standard contracts in order? Because this is totally absurd. More and more often I come along with all of you for nothing. Lately I’ve been driving around more than playing.”
“Come on, don’t exaggerate. Some people would love to have your job—a party outside of town, new people, free food, nothing to do.”
“But I don’t want to do nothing! If they’d ordered a ball, I’d happily come along to play for that ball. But they’ve clearly stated they don’t want it.”
“I’ll say it one last time, both contracts say we are providing a pianist. So we are providing a pianist.”
“Sharlotte, please understand me,” Ziedonis was grasping at his final straw, “I’m a professional composer and I want to use my time productively.”
Sharlotte twisted her face into her “boss” grimace, flipped a page in her folder, and said:
“Really? That’s funny. It says here that you’re a wedding musician. So load up your piano into the car, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
Ziedonis was about to answer: “Yeah, a wedding musician who goes to weddings to play no music,” but he knew it wasn’t worth arguing any further.
On the way Ziedonis pressed his head against the window and, catching sight of his reflection, shuddered at his unattractive exterior. During his student years he’d also recognized that he wasn’t especially attractive, if attractiveness is defined as the classical Greek ideal. His long nose in combination with his diminutive chin made him look like a half-melted wax doll. In his youth he could still joke about it. Now, on the verge of forty, his half-long hair had hopelessly receded from his forehead, and what are often referred to as bags under the eyes, in his case looked more like overcooked dumplings.
The wedding took place on an empty beach. The groom had long dreadlocks and an upturned mustache. The bride distinguished herself with brightly colored yet very tasteful makeup, a baroque dress, and a diadem tattooed onto her forehead. The guests also looked sufficiently colorful for Ziedonis to understand why nobody required his services here. Lately, Sharlotte had increasingly wed people like this and her attitude toward them was simple, she’d say: “It’s nice for anyone in this world to find someone like themselves.” However, during the speech she’d usually diverge from her script and go off into detailed instructions regarding the sacrament of marriage and an adult’s moral responsibilities.
Ziedonis stood off to the side hugging his synthesizer and watching the bridal party as he wondered what would end up being this event’s musical direction. Maybe it was worth it to go up to the groom’s relatives and ask? Maybe he should introduce himself and familiarize them with his high school experiments in progressive rock? However, this group looked even more advanced. People like this might even be interested in his more recent work—his jazz compositions from his time at the conservatory as well as the piano concertos he’d composed according to the modes of limited transposition, which incidentally was also his diploma piece.
After the rings were exchanged the wedding guests invited Sharlotte and the driver for a picnic in the dunes where two girls were playing an Indian tabla with remarkable dexterity, while a young guy was tapping an instrument with his fingertips that looked like a flying saucer and produced a harplike sound. Making sure his boss didn’t see him, Ziedonis exchanged his tie for the jabot and tried to stay close to the percussionists. After a while he succeeded in striking up a conversation with one of the wedding guests—not exactly one of the musicians, but without a doubt one of their friends. It was a young man named Mark Vorman. He carefully quizzed Ziedonis about the life of a wedding musician, but most of all, for some reason, he was interested not in Ziedonis’s musical experience, but instead in his mental state.
“How long have you been struggling with depression?” he asked.
“Shit. Thank God it only took me four years to get over it and without pills.”
“Lucky you,” Ziedonis said as he traced rings in the sand with his finger.
“It’s good at least that you’re able to live with it.”
“With varying results,” he sighed. “For a moment it even seemed like it was all over. But then I skipped a few days on my Zoloft like an idiot and now I feel the floor crumbling under my feet. Trust me, it’s not pleasant.”
“You bet,” Mark said as he motioned to a young man sitting nearby. “Hey, Harry, do you happen to have anything for depression?”
“I do,” the guy named Harry replied, “we were just thinking it was a good time. Let’s move to the woods, though.”
They sat down inside of an out-of-the-way ring of pines behind a dune—Vorman, Ziedonis, and a crowd of followers. Harry lit something that resembled a cigarette and passed it around.
“I don’t really smoke,” Ziedonis said when his turn in line came.
“Suit yourself, but this is a good anti-depressant. Worked wonders for me.”
Ziedonis shrugged and indifferently took a drag. At first it sent him into an unpleasant coughing fit, but soon he was overcome by a strange tranquility—similar to what he’d felt as a child, running across the meadow and on hot summer nights when he’d slept in the loft at his father’s house. A peace that he’d been seeking for so long that he couldn’t even understand at first whether he was worthy of it. He lay down on the warm seaside earth and for a long time watched tranquilly as clouds crowded together, touched, formed shapes, separated, and in all of that there was a wonderful harmony—musical as well as geometric. “If I died right now,” he thought, “at least it would be with the awareness that once in my life I’d heard the music of the spheres.” And his thoughts, too, were deeper, more expansive than usual. It was pleasant to linger in them.
“Doesn’t it seem to you like at every moment up there in the air a new, completely unique composition is being written?” he asked slowly.
“That’s a lovely idea,” Mark agreed.
“I could try to play it.”
“Go ahead and try.”
“I’ve got a combo amp in the car,” he said.
“Go get it. I’d love to hear it,” Mark said and the rest agreed.
Ziedonis was overcome by a long-forgotten feeling of happiness and motivation. This kind of effect wasn’t something that even Zoloft offered (it just made his mood somewhat bearable). He got up, laughed about the situation he’d unexpectedly found himself in, and went to the spot where the driver had left the van. Time went by slowly and Ziedonis didn’t want to rush it.
But when he reached the parking spot at the forest’s edge, the van was no longer there. The rest of the cars were all in their spots, but their gray Volkswagen was gone. Ziedonis patted down his pockets looking for his phone, but it too had gotten lost somewhere. He ran back to the beach where the wedding guests were congregating in small groups and soon found his phone half buried in the sand. Sharlotte had called him exactly eight times. Ziedonis dialed her number.
“Hello? Ziedonis? Where are you? We’re going to miss the wedding because of you,” she yelled anxiously into the phone.
“I’m sorry. I lost my phone.”
“Unbelievable! Everything always goes off the rails for you, even if you don’t have to do anything. Walk out to the highway right away, we’ll come get you. Don’t waste any time!”
It occurred to him that he could just as well hang up and stay in the dunes with his new friends, but remembered that all of his equipment was in the van. “That’s right,” he thought as he walked back toward the highway, “it was all too good to be true.”
Apparently, the van had already gotten pretty far. The empty road seemed endlessly long, the synthesizer was awkward to carry, but that wasn’t enough—clouds had gathered in front of the sun and it began to drizzle. At first the rain was very light, but soon it turned into a heavy downpour.
“No, no, no! Not the keyboard, please, not the keyboard,” he muttered as he cursed himself, Latvia’s climate, and the registry office. He took off his jacket and tried to wrap it around the synthesizer, but it didn’t help. The rain was crashing down onto the highway and roadside ditches like an avalanche. Pressing the drenched synthesizer up to his chest, Ziedonis kept moving forward. A few minutes later a car’s headlights pierced the impenetrable downpour. But as soon as Ziedonis got into the van, the rain, as if by cynical comedy script, stopped.
“You’ve put on that stupid crochet work again,” was the first thing Sharlotte said when she saw him.
The next wedding took place in a large hall; a bit further on there were not just one but two saunas heating up by the pond, and all in all everything looked very traditional. The exchange of rings was followed by the traditional crowning, during which, for some reason, a couple of burly twins carried the bride around on their shoulders. Women gossiped at the tables, men wasted no time getting drinks and every few minutes yelled at their children who were racing across the space reserved for dancing—just in case. The wedding party gave their toasts, the bride’s grandfather watched the guests with suspicion from his wheelchair, while two short-haired young guys in white shirts played exactly the same kind of repertoire on their synthesizers that Ziedonis would’ve played in their place.
But Ziedonis’s perception had changed. He almost couldn’t hear the people bellowing out their toasts. On the other hand, he could hear even the softest whispered conversation underway at the tables. When people came closer to him, he could see each clogged pore on their skin, every unshaved piece of stubble. But the most terrible thing was that Ziedonis had the power to predict their thoughts and movements.
Having discovered this kind of power, he was dumbfounded. “How strange,” he thought, “in a moment 'The Blue Carbuncle' will end, one of the musicians (the one on the left with the Yamaha) will play a bar from 'Raise Your Glasses,' the hosts will set up a game involving guessing answers to riddles so guests can get to know each other while delegating two of the groom’s relatives to protect the bride, but this guy in the pink shirt who’s sitting next to me will go for a smoke on the balcony and will think about how to strike up a conversation with the groom’s redheaded sister without alerting his wife who, incidentally, will be the next one to give a toast. They’re all programmed like electronic watches. Goddammit, what am I even doing here?”
Ziedonis understood that he needed to get out of there fast. He quietly asked Sharlotte when she was planning on going home. But it seemed that his boss was already a bit tipsy and she gestured indifferently:
“Are you in a hurry? Let’s sit for a while,” and nudged the gentleman next to her to fill up her champagne glass.
Ziedonis fell back into his chair and remembered how good he’d felt reclining by the forest under that cloudscape. It turned out that right next door there was a world in which he’d gladly live out his life, but it wasn’t meant for the likes of him.
“Not meant for the likes of me,” he repeated under his breath.
“What?” the man in the pink shirt asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Ziedonis answered and the man got up and went for a smoke, glancing at the groom’s redheaded sister.
The entire evening Ziedonis privately predicted the wedding guests’ actions and his predictions came true without fail—even his premonition that the twins, who’d spent the entire time obsessively carrying around heavy objects, would convince him to go to the sauna. After dusk the men had grown rowdy. They packed into one of the saunas, didn’t waste time on speeches and most of the time made do with primitive sentences. Some of them were standing naked on the deck drinking vodka, trying to outgrowl each other, though most of them crowded together in the narrow rooms inside. The twins brought in a special wooden chair where the grandfather had been sitting and placed him in the center of the sauna. The group sitting on the upper bench was constantly throwing water on the hot stones, yelling, “Saunas are tops when your heart stops!” The thermometer’s indicator had climbed up to the 120-degree mark and the steam chamber resembled a shared taxi at rush hour. When it’d get too hot for the grandfather, he’d motion and the twins would carry him out on his chair. He’d sit like that in the moonlight as steam rose off his bony flesh. When the grandfather felt sufficiently cooled down, he’d motion again and the twins would carry him right back inside. One of the musicians had dozed off on the steaming bench, hit his forehead on the hot stones, and was now resting by the edge of the pond. The other one was rolling around like in a trance in the corner of the sauna and kept repeating, "Sometimes I wish I were an angel . . . " But Ziedonis, trapped between men drenched in alcohol sweat, was sitting on the lower bench and kept trying to think of clouds and the music of the spheres.
The one who’d been next to him and had spent the evening glancing at the groom’s sister sat down next to Ziedonis and introduced himself as Egon. The whites of his eyes were as red as his face.
“Hey, you some kind of a musician?” he asked.
“Hey, uh, can you play for us? The singers, uh, went off.”
“My synthesizer got soaked on the way,” Ziedonis said. “I don’t know if it’ll work.”
Egon considered what Ziedonis said as if it had been something complicated and called out:
“Hey, guys, we need to bring over the piano from the guest house!”
“It’s not necessary,” Ziedonis tried to object, but the carrier twins had tied towels around their waists, carried out the grandfather who had overheated again, and ran over to the guesthouse. Realizing that these guys were beginning to exhibit too much interest in him, Ziedonis decided to sneak out and disappear. But, while he was looking for his clothes in the overfilled front room, the twins had already taken the “Riga” brand piano and pushed it along the wooded path placing it on the deck. The women, who were using the other sauna, had gathered on the edge of the pond and were watching the chaotic scene.
“You’re crazy! Why do you have the piano?” the bride yelled.
“We’re having a concert! Come on over here,” Egon yelled back.
Ziedonis had found his socks and was hurrying to put them on, but the twins/porters had lifted the taboret on which he was sitting and carried Ziedonis over to the piano.
“Play something fun,” yelled the ladies.
“Yeah, something to dance to,” yelled the men.
There were calls coming from every side: “Yellow Leaves!” “Genovefa!” “Legionnaire songs!” But Ziedonis, who was sitting at the piano in nothing but his socks, hands shaking, quietly said:
“Piss off with your Genovefas,” and forcefully slammed out a heavy minor chord on the keys. Then another one, and another, and soon he was running up and down the octaves with so much force that for a few euphoric minutes he’d forgotten where he was, and on that dark night the comets and meteorites streaked across the sky and the trees looked alive as they shivered in the wind. His euphoria transformed into anger. At Bush, at Sharlotte, at the registry office, at the wedding guests, at the crowd of intellectuals he was destined never to join, at all the world known to him.
Then he stopped, took a break, walked into the front room of the sauna, and returned with the jabot around his neck. Making eye contact with the steaming grandfather, he continued to clatter the keys until he started getting cramps in his frozen legs.
The audience applauded. Without looking back, Ziedonis walked into the front room of the sauna. He wrapped himself in a white bathrobe, grimaced as he took a big gulp of vodka, waited until the audience started to disperse, and then went off to find Sharlotte. “That’s it,” he thought, “now I get to decide who goes where and when.”
“Hey, buddy, you’re fucking psycho,” Egon tried to pat Ziedonis’s back approvingly, but he pushed away Egon’s hand with a strong and precise motion and went off in the direction of the other sauna.
“Sharlotte,” he yelled, looking into every room. “Sharlotte, where are you?”
“Ziedonis, honey, is that you? Come up,” a voice echoed from the second floor.
Ziedonis walked up the stairs. There was a light on in one of the bedrooms. He opened the door. Sharlotte was standing in front of him with wet hair, noticeably drunk. She looked Ziedonis in the eyes, made a crooked grimace, which was surely meant to be seductive, and let the bathrobe slide off her shoulders.
“Tell the driver to start the car. We’re leaving,” Ziedonis said categorically.
“No, Ziedonis, sweetie, we’re staying for the night,” she replied and put her chubby arms around Ziedonis’s waist.
“Stop this behavior right this second! Get yourself together and go find the driver.”
“No, no, you’re not getting away from me that easily,” Sharlotte said with a smile, pulled Ziedonis by his jabot, pushed him into bed, and rolled on top of him with all her weight. Ziedonis clenched his teeth and tried to avoid Sharlotte’s kisses, he attempted to fight back with both hands.
“Pull yourself together, music man,” she ordered. “Don’t be such a wimp!”
“Yeah, pull yourself together! Be a man!” a voice echoed from the hallway. Ziedonis and Sharlotte looked up. Both musicians were standing by the door—one was supporting himself against the door frame, the other had a small trickle of blood flowing from his cracked forehead.
Shading her eyes with her palm, Sharlotte looked out at the chill autumn sunset, while Igor, the pianist who was now working at the registry office in Ziedonis’s place, played the most popular melodies of the composer Raimonds Pauls. Eight people out of the ten invited had come to Ziedonis’s funeral—Bush, who’d found Ziedonis hanging from his bathroom ceiling, still couldn’t pull himself together and was drinking for the third week straight, whereas Ziedonis’s father upon receiving the invitation had replied: “He had it coming, almost drove me there himself.” On the other hand, Mark Vorman had somehow found out about the funeral. He arrived late and stood off to the side the entire time, but when the proceedings were over and the gravediggers pushed the cross into the sand with the handles of their shovels, he walked up to Sharlotte.
“So strange to get to know a person in their final months,” he said.
“I feel like we never got to know each other at all,” Sharlotte sighed and blew her nose into a napkin.
“Seemed like everything was going to be fine, right? He said he had finally recovered and felt relieved.”
“Yes, that’s what he said, but I suspected that it wasn’t entirely true.”
“Apparently,” said Mark. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and looked at the piano player, Igor. “Who the hell is that?” he asked.
“That’s our Igor.”
“Igor the pianist. He’s taken Ziedonis’s place.”
“I see,” Mark nodded expressively, bit his lip, and hung his head.
“What? Something wrong?”
“No, no. Everything’s OK,” Mark said as he rustled the leaves with the tip of his shoe.
Coolness arrived with twilight. Igor finished the melody and shot Sharlotte an inquisitive glance. She dragged her index finger across her throat indicating that it was time to go. Igor turned off the synthesizer and began unplugging the cords while Sharlotte produced a tiny bottle of Condy’s Crystals from her pocket and went to spray the flower bouquets and wreaths. So they wouldn’t get stolen.
© Sven Kuzmins. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Uldis Balodis. All rights reserved.
A young boy adapts to living with his grandmother and learns the ripple effect of his actions in Latvian author Jana Egle's tale on youth, loss, and shame.
Listen to Jana Egle read "The Quarry" in the original Latvian
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a painter just like my dad,” the boy said, his knees pulled up under his chin as he outlined designs, decipherable to him alone, with a stick.
“Do you think you’re good enough at drawing?” the girl asked, glancing incredulously from the boy to the lines he had etched on the ground.
“Yes, of course. Dad taught me.” The boy looked across the pit to the white gravel road. A black car crawled along like a lazy fly, the hum of its engine just about audible as it weaved elegantly along. The cloud of dust at its rear suspended in time immobile in the air . . .
“Where is your dad?”
“My uncle is far away, too. He is in Denmark but has come home twice already. When are your mom and dad coming back?” Anete was persistent in her line of questioning.
“Soon,” the boy snapped, pressing his cheek against his dirty knee.
“And when will soon be, exactly?” The little girl wouldn’t let up.
The boy stared at the cloud of dust frozen mid-air.
“Soon means soon. And quit asking so many questions, will you? Curiosity killed the cat!”
“Like the one your granny used to have? No one’s coming to see you, just you wait and see. So nyah!” The little girl stuck her tongue out before disappearing behind the bushes.
The boy heard well enough but didn’t move a muscle. His bottom seemed to have taken root in the earth, his hands and legs molded from soft, damp clay. Closing his eyes, he lay back and gazed through his eyelashes at the sunset. If you screw your eyes into narrow slits, the whole world glitters in clear, pure tones like a watercolor painting scattered with gold dust. The underbellies of seagulls floating above him were as pink as flamingos in the rays of the setting sun as the distant forest, trembling through the boy’s eyelashes, lifted its gray-blue branch arms eerily skyward. Markus turned his head and pressed his cheek to the sand. It was warm.
“Markus! Why aren’t you answering me? It’s dinnertime. And then it will be time for bed.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I see.” Grandma sighed heavily. “There are a lot of things I don’t want to do, but I do them anyway.”
“We could do with some rain,” Grandma mumbled as she turned her attention to slicing bread. The boy knew no reply was needed. After living alone for many years, Grandma was used to talking to herself. “There are no cucumbers and we won’t be getting any either, and there’s no knowing if those potatoes will swell before the autumn, they are that tiny.”
“We are going to the cemetery festival tomorrow. I need to see if you have anything half-decent to wear,” she continued, glancing sideways at Markus.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Is anyone asking what you do or do not want?” Grandma didn’t sound cross, merely exhausted. “I went today; tidied the grave, raked it over, watered it. We will lay some flowers down tomorrow before the festival starts.”
“Have you finished your soup?” By the sound of her voice, she was clearly speaking to the boy again. “At least you have a decent appetite, thank goodness for small mercies.”
Markus thanked her and somehow, seemingly unintentionally, managed to avoid his grandmother’s rough hand as it reached to caress his fragile, slightly hunched shoulders.
“My sweet little hedgehog,” Grandma sighed quietly when the boy had set off for his room.
Markus undressed slowly. It was still light, so he didn’t turn his bedside lamp on. The moon was not yet an entire orb, one side blurred as if smudged by a careless paintbrush.
Sometimes, the nights here were pitch-black in a way they never were in the city. As he burrowed into his bed, the only light was the thin line outlining the closed door, behind which Grandma was doing the dishes, discussing the events of the day with herself. When Grandma went to bed, the light disappeared altogether. On such nights, the boy felt frightened. On nights when he hadn’t yet fallen asleep by this time, he would lie there awake—his eyes open but unseeing, he too scared even to close them.
Nights had been so different at home. Light from the streetlamps shone into the room. Even in the dark, the tram rails beneath the window creaked and every so often Markus’s bed trembled slightly as a tram rambled past. Dad always left the door ajar, even when his buddies came round and sat smoking their roll-ups right there in the next room. That was the fun part; everyone sitting round listening to some kind of prehistoric music—Joplin, The Doors, Bob Marley—all of them laughing nonstop. And all the while Markus lay in his bed, joyfully inhaling the weird-smelling smoke drifting in from the room next door and wanting to join in the laughter. Other evenings, when there were no visitors, his dad would stay up late on his own, standing at his easel for the longest time, the sound of his brush quietly stroking the canvas lulling the boy to sleep. He missed the city lights, the sounds and smells, and his dad.
Markus shoved his hand sleepily under his pillow. There it was. His penknife with its sharp, paper-thin blade. It was the only thing he had been able to grab from his dad’s room when Grandma, the policeman, and the woman he didn’t know had come for him. As the boy’s fingers touched the knife’s smooth, plastic cover, he calmed down and, closing his eyes, yawned drowsily.
In the morning, Markus woke without being called. Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, chortling softly to herself. A deliciously tempting smell was wafting through the cracks around the door. The boy quickly pulled his clothes on and opened the door.
“Good morning! Do you want some pancakes? Strawberry jam, or cream and sugar?”
Pancakes sat steaming in a ceramic bowl on the table—thick, fluffy, and golden brown with crispy edges.
“Jam.” Grinning, he dove straight into his breakfast without so much as washing his face.
Grandma carried on cooking, glancing over her shoulder with satisfaction at the boy as he wolfed down pancake after pancake, dipping them into the puddle of jam on his plate as he went.
After breakfast, the boy went out into the garden. The feel of the cool grass tickling his bare feet was lovely; Markus stood a while trying to snap a long blade of grass between his toes.
“Hey, Markus! What are you up to?”
“Nothing.” After a moment’s silence, Markus added, “If you want, I can show you my secret?”
“What secret?” Anete widened her eyes.
“Well, a secret.” Markus dragged out the answer elusively. “Let’s go!”
Markus set off at a run. Bare feet flashing, they both made toward the dip. At its edge, the boy stopped dead in his tracks. When Anete reached his side, Markus said, gravely, “Do you really want to know?”
Looking excitedly into his face, the girl answered impatiently, “Yes, of course!”
“OK, we need to run, stay close by and don’t leave the track!”
The boy ran along the side of the dip without looking backward, at times running bent over, at others leaping. Pigtails waving, the little girl dashed after him, furtively straining to look ahead and discover what the secret might be. Suddenly, the ground beneath her feet gave way, something in her tummy tickled, flipped, her legs still running despite being momentarily up in the air before her frail body landed with an almighty thud and rolled to the bottom of a deep, narrow pit.
There was a desperate wail. The boy’s head appeared over the edge of the pit against a background of clear blue sky. “So, how do you like my secret! Didn’t I tell you to stay on the track?”
The girl stopped howling and pouted.
“Give me your hand!”
“No way, it’s not going to be that easy. I’m going to play ip-dip. If I lose, I’ll help you. If you lose, you’ll have to do it on your own.”
“But how can I do that?”
But the boy wasn’t listening. Pointing at his own tummy then at the girl at the bottom of the pit, he recited the counting-out rhyme in a monotonous tone. “Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU!” he finished, his outstretched finger aimed at the little girl’s heart.
“OK, I’m off then!”
“Wait! Marku-us!” The girl called but the boy’s head had already disappeared from the little spot of the sky, now glittering bluer and clearer than before.
She tried to clamber up the wall of the pit. The dry, silky sand slithered beneath each step she took—it was hopeless, she would never get out on her own. Anete sat down in the pit. What a terrible mess. Every so often she called out Markus’s name, each time louder than the time before. She had no idea if he was coming to help her out of this secret. She tried desperately, over and over again, to climb out, but the cool sand just kept slipping smoothly down the wall of the pit and covering her bare feet. The whole time, she felt a rhythmic thud in her ears . . . Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU . . .
Markus was on his way home. Grandma had probably been expecting him for some time. The boy felt dizzy with elation, a lightness spreading through his limbs. Now the secret was truly real, alive. He straightened his back, relaxed his shoulders, and galloped off home with a light, dancing step. His hair shone like polished copper in the morning sunshine, flopping up and down at his every leap.
“Markus! Where have you been?”
“Nowhere much! Right here!” The boy marched calmly into the yard.
“Come and clean up and we’ll get ourselves ready. We don’t have long. Give me that T-shirt you’re wearing. There we go, now I’ll give you a clean one.”
Flooded with the sudden desire to throw a tantrum, the boy pushed away his grandmother’s hands as they reached to peel off his dirty T-shirt.
“Don’t touch me,” he hissed. “I’ll do it myself.”
“OK, OK, there you go. Just get a move on. I’ve put some water in the bowl in the hallway. Go and have a good splash. You’re always so on edge, I really don’t know how to handle you.” The last utterance, accompanied by a heavy sigh, was to herself.
Standing with his feet in the enormous bowl, the boy scooped up water and poured it over himself several times; the tiny, refreshing rivulets splitting then reuniting as they ran down his itchy skin. The wounds had almost healed but they still hurt. Markus took one damaged palm in the other and pressed. He moaned quietly yet continued applying pressure. Then he scooped up water in the palm of his hand and let it caress the inflamed, slowly healing skin.
Half an hour later and the pair of them set off, all dressed up and flowers in hand. It was a fifteen-minute walk, going at a decent pace, to the cemetery. As they passed by their neighbors’ fence, his grandma stopped in her tracks. The woman was quite worked up about something, waving her arms about as she spoke. Her husband just shrugged.
“Ilzy, aren’t you coming to the cemetery festival?”
“We are, Aunt Velta, yes. Only we can’t find our daughter.” The woman turned her eyes on Markus. “Have you seen Anete?”
Markus shrugged his shoulders in silence and shook his head.
“She never goes off far but we haven’t seen her for almost an hour and I’m starting to get worried.”
“She must be somewhere nearby,” Anete’s dad remarked, seemingly unconcerned. “We will have to give her a good talking to when she comes back.”
Konrāds Kaparkalējs (1946–1999) and Velta Kaparkalēja (1948– . . .) A black butterfly had alighted on the oak leaves and inscription chiseled into the polished stone. Spreading its wings, the butterfly proudly displayed its bright orange spots and impressive wingspan. The boy placed his hand on the warm stone and slowly let it creep toward the butterfly. But the creature fluttered off playfully.
The white shirt Grandma had made him put on was a bit too tight; the seams cut in under his armpits and around his neck.
Standing in the chapel beneath an enormous cross, the pastor preached at great length and extremely tediously. The women’s choir wailed at great length and extremely piteously. Parish members sat down, stood up, and joined in the wailing as necessity required.
Markus looked around at the congregation, bored stiff. Thinning white hair, faded, wrinkled, paperlike faces and knotted hands. He listened to the quivering voices. It was dreary but peaceful. Behind his grandfather’s headstone were two graves overtaken by weeds. Markus went over and sat down beside them. This was the final resting place of Grandma’s grandparents. Further off were some smaller graves with tiny crosses, encrusted with yellowish-gray lichen. His grandma had told him on a previous visit to the cemetery that they were her mother’s brothers and sisters who had died in their first few years of life.
“Why did they die?” Markus had asked at the time. “I don’t know,” Grandma replied, raking the sand next to Grandfather’s headstone into a pine-cone-like pattern. “A lot of children died back then. It was after the war, times were tough.”
The boy stared, immobile, at the dark crosses for quite some time. Then he looked up; he seemed to see identical crosses in glittering white paint against the bright blue sky. Markus became pensive, what if Anete dies? Then she would be buried and have a tiny cross just like the ones he’d seen on her grave. Or maybe a headstone like Granddad’s. The boy pictured a small, neat wooden coffin with Anete laid out within, her hair neatly braided in pigtails. Last spring, Grandma had taken him to the funeral of a distant relative. He had seen her laid out; yellowy pale in white lace, her eyes sunken and blackened, as were her cheeks. She had definitely died because she was so old. Anete’s suntanned face is so pretty. If she actually died, Markus would probably feel very sorry.
The wind rustled through the trees in the cemetery, tugging rain clouds like a dark gray blanket across the sky in the blink of an eye. Moments later and the occasional heavy raindrop began to fall. In no time at all, the crosses, headstones, and trees were blotted out by a thick, white sheet of rain, and blundering figures stumbled about in search of shelter.
Markus pressed himself up against the warm, rough wall of the chapel and watched his grandma in the rain, turning this way and that as she scoured the surroundings for her grandson. When her eyes alighted on the chapel, Markus waved. Grandma scurried over to him and wriggled under the narrow space next to the boy.
Slightly out of breath, Grandma asked, “Didn’t you get caught in the rain?” as she brushed the rain from her clothes and ran her fingers through her hair to tidy it. Markus just shook his head without taking his eyes off the congregation who, now crouching over and soaked to the skin, were still trying to escape the rain while holding song sheets and bags over their heads.
“Velta, I can give you a lift home, it’s on our way!” a lady running past them called out. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.”
The car was parked right behind the chapel but Markus’s white shirt still got soaked by the rain. His skin glowed through the wet patches and, as he climbed into the back, Markus carefully inspected his left palm. There was nothing to be seen. Grandma got into the front seat and, her feet still outside, banged the soles of her shoes together to get rid of the thick layer of sandy earth that clung to them.
As they drove along, the windshield misted up. They were dropped off right on the doorstep. Once indoors, they changed into dry clothes and Grandma put some tea on. The rain pelted down all around.
Then something happened. There was a knock at the door and, without being invited in, someone stormed straight into the house. It was Anete’s mother . . .
Markus shrank deeper into the room and, barely breathing, pressed himself up against the unlit wood burner.
“Where is that bastard grandson of yours, the degenerate!”
Grandma instinctively stepped in front of the door, barring the way.
“What is it? What’s happened?” she stuttered.
“It’s insane! How could you, you little creep? How could you do something like that?” Ilze tried to push Grandma away so she could get at the boy. Markus shrunk closer to the wall.
“Will you tell me what’s going on? What has happened?” Grandma asked, rock-like as she held her ground.
“The dog found Anete. At first I couldn’t understand why he was yelping and trying to get me to follow him. As far as that old quarry pit—there are still some pole shafts that haven’t been filled in.” Ilze had begun speaking in calmer tones before suddenly remembering herself and starting to shout again, even more furiously than before. She knew Markus was in the next room. “And don’t you dare try and say you weren’t there!” Tears caught in Ilze’s throat.
At a loss for words, Grandma put her hand on Ilze’s shoulder. “But is she all right?”
“Well, she’s alive.”
“Then everything is going to be fine . . .” Grandma murmured and, taking Ilze by the elbow, made her sit at the kitchen table. Not knowing what else to say, she reached for a tea towel and wiped the sweat from her neck. “Shall I pour you some tea?”
“Her dad has taken her to the doctor’s. The child was stiff with fright.”
At this, Markus finally let his breath out and felt his entire body, which seemed chiseled into the wall, finally relax. Hearing him sigh, Ilze leapt up and flung herself toward the door again. Grandma was quicker; she got there first and barred it. “Why on earth are you defending that bastard! Just you let me get at him!”
Grandma clung to Ilze like grim death, her heels digging into the floor. Then she raised her voice, too, telling Ilze to sit down. She should be ashamed of herself, attacking an old lady like that. Ilze calmed down and sank back into the chair. Grandma reached for a cup and was about to pour her neighbor some tea when Ilze spoke up again. “How can the earth bear such vile creatures?” Raising her eyes to meet Velta’s again she continued, her voice lowered yet still audible to the boy in the next room, “Why did you have to bring him back here from that junkies’ den? If you only had left him where he was, everyone would have been better off. We would have been, definitely.”
Replacing the teapot firmly but quietly, Grandma said, “I think it’s time you went home, your daughter is probably back from the doctor’s by now.”
Ilze grew even more agitated and started shouting again. “Oh, do you think so? You know what, your daughter-in-law did well to dump the lot of you. None of you are right in the head. None of you!”
Markus was sitting right there on the floor. Tonight, the moon was perfectly round. He hadn’t uttered a word the whole time. Grandma asked him repeatedly how he could have forgotten about the girl. What on earth had he been thinking? He should never have run away and left Anete in the pit, not even for a moment.
But Markus hadn’t forgotten about the girl, not for a moment. It was just how things had turned out, it had all been quite fair. Ip, dip, sky blue, who’s it, not YOU! He had played the counting-out game and it had landed on her; it was what they had agreed. And it wasn’t as if she had died—she had only fallen into a pit. Markus thought he heard Grandma crying when she went back to her room.
Markus crawled silently out of the window. The earth was soft and smelled of rain. The rain had stopped, only the odd cloud drifted overhead without ever completely blocking out the moonlight. A sharp, honeyed scent rose from the flowerbed. A light was on in Grandma’s window. The boy snuck quietly across the wet grass to it, standing in the flowerbed so he could peep inside. Grandma sat slumped in the chair, her back to the window, staring at the painting on the wall. Markus had always known there was a painting on the wall but tonight, for the first time, he took a good look at it. A tranquil landscape drowned in golden sunlight and green life. Markus knew it well; it was the scene from the edge of the forest beyond the pit. Only that in the painting, in the place of the enormous gravel pit hole, was a meadow full of dandelions.
One corner of the painting carried the year it was made—1998. The other, the initials MKK. Modris KaparKalējs always signed his work like that. In awe, the boy realized that his dad had done the painting, although it was far removed from the ornate, impetuous pictures he used to paint at night in the spare room of their city apartment . . . Markus’s eyes started itching; he glanced at Anete’s house. The only lit window there was in the kitchen, yet it somehow appeared just like the glittering, sunny landscape in Grandma’s room—now lost to them forever. His feet were freezing cold and he felt incredibly lonely.
Markus crawled back to his room. Having rubbed the soles of his dirty feet against his shins, he took off his shirt and slipped into bed. He thrust his hands under the pillow and felt for the knife. Then he let his fingers run over the back of his left hand and the already healed cut—MKK. Markus Kaparkalējs. The boy pulled the knife out from under the pillow, flicked it open, and took it in his left hand. Cutting clumsily, he slashed crosses, one after another, from his right shoulder down to his hand—one, two, three, four. The blood ran in warm black streaks down the length of his arm in the moonlight.
Originally published as "Bedre" in the short-story collection Gaismā. © 2016 Jana Egle. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini. All rights reserved.
Latvian author Alise Redviņa portrays a socially awkward office worker searching for true love.
Before Lynn came into my life, I only knew how to love people from a distance, only in my mind, and it was torture to bring myself to demonstrate verbal or physical affection.
My mother was convinced that I did not love her. Even the time when I gave her a bouquet of white lilies and an amber necklace I’d bought by saving my lunch money for a whole year and told her that she was the best mom in the world, she just thanked me dryly and didn’t speak with me the rest of the night. That was all because I once again withdrew when she tried to kiss me on the cheek and made a face when she stroked my head. Something about my mother’s caresses felt unbearable to me, too intimate. I wanted to like them and wished that I could respond sincerely, but I could not even muster a convincing act. I wanted to learn how to touch, but I didn’t know how to do it in a way that did not seem painful and unnatural.
It was the same with all of the women I liked, even with the one before Lynn—Greta. Back then when I was all alone, I would think about her a lot. It was so easy for me to imagine our relationship: my life would not change much, except I would have someone with whom to make dinner, my favorite macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, and discuss the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones.” And at night, I would kiss not the pillow but Greta. Of course, when I met with Greta in real life, these simple fantasies became impossible. Everything I said I had to consider five times over, as I was afraid of saying something inappropriate, not to mention touching her—I never knew what was allowed, what was not, what she would like, what not. The last time we met, we sat at a brightly lit table in the middle of a crowded cafe, and, unintentionally, I asked her too loudly in front of the waiter if I could hold her hand, after which she got scared and immediately asked the waiter for the bill.
After that, I gave up and decided that my only experience of love would be lonely dreams. I started to look in the other direction as soon as I saw a pretty girl, and had decided that I would spend the rest of my life dining alone. But then—then I noticed and found Lynn.
She arrived in a long cardboard box, lying down. She looked just like the kind of girl that I like best: long, dark red hair, green eyes, a bit chubbier than the models in magazines. Lynn also had an ideal personality: calm and reserved.
On the first day, I just sat her on the sofa and observed with insecurity her curvy limbs and face full of superhuman love. The next day, I started to talk to her. I shared my opinion about the last episode of “Game of Thrones.” On the third day, I touched her hair, and after a few days also her skin. It was soft and smooth, almost too much, but not one hair out of place. With each day my courage grew and I started to kiss her belly, caress her feet, touch Lynn in all of the ways that I had dreamed of touching a woman. Her body, despite being cool and hard, always responded to my touches with complete surrender. If I held Lynn’s hand for a long time, it would warm up a bit. At first this scared me and left me uncomfortable, but soon I started to like it.
I couldn’t take her outside, so my home became our mutual world. Together we prepared macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, curled up on the sofa, and watched “Game of Thrones” or listened to Tchaikovsky, who was our favorite composer.
When I wanted Lynn to touch me or cuddle up in my lap or kiss me, I always had to fold and arrange her arms and legs myself, since, although she cooperated, she did not show initiative. She used only words to express what she wanted, but Lynn’s wishes were always the same as mine, and her voice was so quiet that I heard it only in my mind.
I am not crazy. I knew that I was the one giving Lynn her words and opinions, I knew that she gave in to my touches because she could not protest. But I liked to fantasize about what Lynn could think and feel, pretending that she wanted to touch me as much as I wanted to touch her. I held Lynn in my grasp, she was real and touchable, yet half-imagined, but all the same it felt like the truest love that I had ever experienced.
Until the moment I met Mary. A real woman in flesh, blood, and mind, who started working at our company as the office assistant, and who eventually I would see every workday. Her hair was not red, nor were her eyes green, but the fact that she tended to smile shyly and clumsily walked into the corners of furniture moved me. From time to time she would come up to my computer monitor, where I was tapping out new programs, and give me some client update or ask what kind of tea I wanted to order for the office. It was difficult for me to answer Mary without hesitating and, after returning home from work, I still could not stop thinking about her beautiful voice, her eyes, which looked straight at me, rather than empty space. Once I lay down in bed, arranged Lynn’s arms on my naked chest and imagined how soft and warm Mary’s hands would be. Lynn could only get such warm hands in a microwave oven. I held Lynn close to my chest and tried to imagine that it was Mary, but Lynn was offended and stiffened even more, and became even colder, and I had to get up and seat her in a chair on the other side of the room.
But the next day I saw Mary again. She smiled and again banged her hip on the corner of my desk. This made me thirst for her touch, to have her next to me, more than ever before, and after work I returned to Lynn. I was angry with Lynn, because I could not imagine Mary in her place, because she lacked warmth, because she was so annoyingly quiet and still and agreed with everything I said and wanted with indifference. Even so, I continued to touch her, I used her with malicious pleasure, knowing full well that she could not resist. Once I thought I detected some expression in Lynn’s eyes—disapproval, perhaps, that someone else now lived in my thoughts.
This is how I suffered, my imagination leaping from one woman to the other. Being at work and speaking with Mary, I sometimes longed to be with Lynn, because with her it was easy after all. I didn’t blush, get tongue-tied, or work myself into a frenzy about what she would think or do. As I increasingly felt Mary leaning out from behind her desk and staring at me, I missed Lynn’s empty, indifferent, uninquisitive eyes. Once, on a Friday, Mary invited me to have lunch with her, when she asked hopefully about my plans for the weekend, and from fear I blurted out that I would be relaxing at home with my girlfriend. Mary lowered her eyes, so did I, and we no longer spoke that day.
When I returned home again to mute, cold Lynn, I of course bitterly regretted what I had said. Lynn just sat there quietly grinning, and I squeezed my hands into fists to avoid grabbing her and throwing her against the wall. But I was incapable of harming a woman, even a plastic woman. That weekend I didn’t even touch Lynn.
Mary no longer invited me to lunch, and she bumped into my desk less often. When she distanced herself, my obsession with her only grew. Once I found the courage to invite her to have lunch with me, but she just smiled shyly and declined, saying that she had quite a bit for breakfast that morning. On other days, when I showed great interest and asked Mary about office paper and coffee supplies, Mary answered politely, but was always very businesslike.
Everything ended—or one could say, finally began—that night when we were celebrating our boss’s birthday at the office. The boss bought a few drinks for everyone and later several colleagues went to a bar, including me and Mary. I was generously soaking my stressed brain in beer and noticed that Mary was drinking more than I imagined her capable of. While others were heading home, I convinced Mary to stay for one more drink. She hesitated, so I immediately ordered two rum and cokes, so that it would be rude for her to leave. And then when we sat down at a corner table, just the two of us, my protective walls came down. I told Mary that actually my so-called girlfriend was not alive and partly imaginary and that I really liked Mary, but was frightened by how alive and real she was. Mary did not understand what I was talking about, but I was afraid to tell her the whole story. I ordered two more drinks and told her about how hard it was for me to hug my mother when I was a child, and about how I didn’t know what to say and where to put my hands when I was together with Greta and all the other women that I have ever liked. Mary nodded her head in understanding. We each had another drink, and with the last sip I found the courage to ask Mary, a little too loudly, if I could show her something at my place. I said it and hoped that Mary would understand completely once she saw it with her own eyes. My enthusiasm, the alcohol, Mary’s realization that she did not live far from me—something convinced her.
When we came into my apartment, Lynn was sitting in the bedroom—in the recliner, thank god, not on the bed. I imagined how embarrassing it would have been if she had been rolling around naked in my unmade bed, and I laughed nervously. But my laughter fizzled when I saw Mary’s serious face, which was looking first at the passionless Lynn and then at me. I waited for her to call me a pathetic lecherous man or something like that and rush out the door, but then Mary started to laugh. Loudly, uproariously, really laughing. And this laughter, although the most wonderful sound I have ever heard, scared me a bit, just like Mary’s experienced, caressing hands when she approached me, having lost her inhibition in her drunken state. But then I glanced one more time at Lynn and remembered that when I was with her, I tried to imagine I was with Mary. I was not successful, and yet I had touched Lynn in all the ways I wanted to touch a real woman. And now I was acting the opposite: I remembered all of my time spent with Lynn and touched Mary in the same ways that I had done with Lynn. I put my palms in all the same places, starting with her hair, moving to her upper arms, her belly, her legs. And Mary let me, she responded to my caresses similarly to how I imagined Lynn would respond: she ran her fingers through my hair, kissed my neck, brushed against my chest. At one point, I noticed that Lynn’s face was turned toward us. I wanted to throw a piece of clothing on her, but then I remembered that she is only a doll, of course, she couldn’t see a thing.
Still, when Lynn’s place in my life was replaced by Mary and we decided to live together, we did not get rid of the doll. Mary learned to live with her. Sometimes we prepare macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans together and afterward watch “Game of Thrones.” Sometimes Mary argues with me and says that she would rather order a pizza and watch “Sex and the City,” and at these moments, I tend to think about the time I spent with Lynn, secretly putting her hand in mine and smiling about how compliant she was, even if artificial, cold, and helpless.
But when we have guests, we hide Lynn in the closet. They would not understand.
"Linna" © Alise Redviņa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Adlers. All rights reserved.
Listen to Arvis Viguls read his poem "Forgetting" in the original Latvian
The pawn shop, where we sold your rings,
The silver spoons that you got for your baptism
Oblivion smells like ammonia.
We scattered salt on the floor
and our memories
and poured chlorine—on our history.
We buried you so deep,
still come to us in our dreams
and don’t say a word.
The key jiggles in the door.
The dinner table is splitting in half
like a sinking ship out of a film.
With Mom on one side, the other—Dad.
Each one holds on for dear life
to the plate in front of them.
No, that’s not a life preserver.
The chandelier glows in all its brilliance
between the room’s Scylla and Charybdis.
They have put on their best clothes,
leaving their life vests in the closet.
No one gets up from the table
until their plate is empty.
The telephone rings.
The Christmas tree decorations
have scattered on the floor.
they talk about everything else but that at the table
but then the glass balls break beneath their steps
and cut their feet
as they go toward one another—
right through the pain.
It’s the shortest path.
"Aizmiršana" and "Mājas" © Arvis Viguls. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.