Zsolt Láng (born 1958, based in Tg. Mures, Romania) is one of the most original and critically acclaimed writers of the mid-generation of Hungarian prose, whose eleven volumes of short fiction, criticism and the tetralogy entitled Bestiarium Transylvaniae (Vol I, 1997; Vols. II-III, 2003; Vol. IV, 2012) have long propelled him among the most original hues of Hungarian postmodern writing. Both his short fiction and novels are suffused with literary, cultural references (sometimes faked arcania, as in the (post-)magic realist carnival of 16th-17th century histories, annals, verse lays and legends from Transylvania, Moldova and the Balkans), rich wordplay and language effects, as well as being characterized by a relentless exploration of the poetics and politics of language. His experimental fiction turns topoi of domestic and world literature inside out and creatively explores the contextual, political and biographical undersides of the genesis of artworks, all these with an all-pervasive humour that is as subtle as it is warped.One of the volumes of Bestiarium Transylvaniae have been translated by Tim Wilkinson (award-winning translator of the novels of Imre Kertész, Miklós Mészöly and Miklós Szentkuthy among others), but not yet published in English. A review (in English) of Vol. IV of Bestiarium Transylvaniae, centred on Ceausescu’s Romania and the events of 1989, can be read here. Still, Láng is probably best known as a short story writer. His last collection of short prose (Szerelemváros – Love City, Bratislava/Budapest: Kalligram, 2013) was reviewed by Hungarian Literature Online. Several of Láng’s short stories can be read online in World Literature Today (January 2015), World Literature Today (September 2015), The Missing Slate, B O D Y magazine, VLAKmagazine and Hungarian Literature Online.
IF THE MAN LEANING out of the third-floor window did not know the woman in the green dressing gown and wanted to find out her name, he could go out on the street and pick up the envelope dropped from the litter bin, but now he can spare the bowing down. Instead, he can get engrossed, for instance, in contemplating the soft naps of the green terry cloth, or can jot down the figment of song drolling from the fourth floor window, or he might just as well continue gazing motionlessly, so that the unopened letter may rest unread forever, because the sad-faced scavenger who is to pick it up the next day would shove it on his screeching handcart to take it to the paper recycling point at the farther end of town, from where it is to be shovelled onto a dump truck’s tipper and in less than two hours emptied into the chloride bath of the Réce papermill, where the whirlpools of destruction decompose it in a matter of seconds; in other words, the scavenger known as Gyuszi is illiterate, although he had been through mandatory 8-year primary education at district school nr. 10.
It must have been because of her intensifying migraine that Ildikó Halász did not notice the envelope slip over the litter bin’s edge. But for that headache, she would unquestionably have picked it up; not for reading it, but merely because she has always been a tidy person. Something that seems undercut by the fact that the envelope is unopened but, let us not forget, this is the fifth letter received within one month from the sender written in bold lettering on the bright red postmark, a craftsmen’s cooperative that has lately branched out and started a credit bank. Perhaps Ildikó is a stickler for orderliness. This is probably the reason why she has headaches so often. The windows do not close properly, there is permanent draught, and even though she spends the day cleaning up, whenever she goes to the toilet at night, her bare soles get grey with dust. Besides, it is no ordinary dust she inhales: if you turn towards the west end of the town, you can see it from afar in the shape of a threatening black cloud – the Girodan Holding Group Ltd. that produces the cheapest tyres in Europe precisely because it doesn’t invest a penny in air filters. Black rubber dust is more harmful than cement dust even. The only more harmful substance is ammonia, so one could call it a piece of luck indeed that back then they had built the artificial fertilizer plant in Lápos and not here, although a certain comrade Dulea had left no stone unturned in his efforts to secure it for the town, he being the first man in the county party committee, and incidentally also the farseeing father of two students of chemical engineering.
A further contribution to her nagging headache is the fact that Ervin Zakk has just left who, although quite fifteen years younger, nevertheless keeps calling on her and on not one occasion would stay into the small hours, until morning even, especially over the past few days, although nothing passed between them, however often Ildikó daydreams about ”taking him in” one day – and here as a rule a variation would follow on the same simile in the shape of the encounter between some straightforward article for personal use, an iron coin, a bar of soap, a sabre, or a flashlight for instance, and one of the elements, mostly earth or water.
To call Ervin a mere boy would be an exaggeration, he is 35 and works at the newspaper where a new editor-in-chief was recently appointed. The new editor-in-chief does not loathe Ervin quite as much as the former one used to, so Ervin sees the time ripe to be promoted to the position of columnist. It is for this reason he unleashed himself on Pista Tavi. Why on him of all people? Primarily because the new editor-in-chief from whom Ervin expects his promotion is known to hate Pista Tavi ”like the plague”.
When he was at school Ervin, just like his mates, used to have a theatre subscription. In those days the more well-meaning of their teachers used to collect money for theatre subscriptions, wishing to sponsor the theatre, ”the Hungarian word” (”ward”, as Ervin’s Hungarian teacher once said in an excess of zeal), which happened to be subsidized by the authorities too, in order that the more well-meaning of teachers lack not something to sponsor and would not end up sponsoring other things they had better keep off. Ildikó Halász was playing Eve in Madách’s The Tragedy of Man and one Sunday at the morning performance for pupils with Kölcsey subscription, in the eighth scene, the one about Kepler, she revealed, that is, completely bared, her right breast. The next Sunday Ervin went to see the performance again with his grandparents who had a pensioners’ Petőfi subscription, because against the unanimous view of his classmates he adamantly upheld that it must have been an accident, the slip’s shoulder strap having unintentionally slid down, but he had to revise his view upon watching the performance again. He was furious at Ildikó, at the whole theatre, at his grandparents and classmates, although this time, quite uncharacteristically for him, he paid for the factory-made ice cream, their wager with Feri Madaras, unprotesting. Now, 22 years later Ervin would have had ample occasion to take a closer look at that right breast. And he certainly did harbour some curiosity, but was uncertain as yet, because it seemed somewhat unsuited to the thing he kept badgering Ildikó with, and which sensibly touched upon that right breast, even on its twin sister on the left side in fact, since the aspiring columnist was trying to ascertain whether Pista Tavi had indeed organized that infamous orgy on May 1st in the Forget-me-not restaurant that had stood on a secluded spot in the middle of the vast orchards in the hills at the town’s edge. Not that the tiniest details of the orgy had not been long known to the whole town, including the crucial moment when the blue lace knickers of comrade Marika Bodoki, the secretary, believed by many to have been import goods from France, although in fact merely the Kászon lace manufacture’s produce, destined for export, to be sure, ended up proudly flaunted, wrapped around comrade Dulea’s unmentionables. But of course it was one thing to know this, and a horse of quite another colour to read the same thing inside out in the paper.
And indeed, the next instant Ildikó nearly spat out the whole thing or, more precisely, reached the point where, had Ervin’s hand touched her right breast, or the left one for that matter, ever so slightly, she would have told him everything about that breast and about its companion into the bargain – that is, nothing, nothing would she have withheld.
Standing on the curb side, litter bin in hand, she is waiting for the not overtly hectic, but not leisurely traffic to subside for a while, to cross to the other side to the unsavoury constellation of a dozen or so garbage dumpsters behind the block of flats opposite.
The sun is setting and Ildikó knows no more dreadful place on earth than the communal dumpsters, domed and made of aluminum, about a man’s height and looking rather like field-kitchen stew cauldrons. When it is dark she at least doesn’t see the shadows drifting by, and she doesn’t feel any pangs of conscience when emptying her litter bin right in front of her toes behind the corner. What stops her now from crossing over, however, is not her dread of the shadow: a numbness coming from a much more remote place, or time rather, penetrates her feet or, to be scrupulously specific, not her feet but the synapses commanding her muscles, but it is not numbness that she feels, it being at best a second-rate symptom of the disorder that makes the synapses melt like overcharged wires, incapable of transmitting further information. Yes, in Ildikó’s brain a certain instant of the past explodes, causing a neuronal block. The cause of the explosion is presumably Ervin who, although not having placed the bomb there himself, certainly brought the flame to the fuse. Even admitting that the explosion is not a genuine one, or if so, it is one turned inside out. Something that Ildikó associates with stumbling upon the keyword in a crossword puzzle, whose letters trigger off the chain reaction of the right answers, or much rather, with the next state that hits her on the head when, after having completed all the answers, above the paper pushed triumphantly aside all of a sudden the listless and lonely evening’s emptiness engulfs her and she can conjure up nobody on whom she could blame the mood devouring her. Now, on the other hand, she knows it is Ervin she should hold responsible, but the moment she thinks of Ervin, aiming several times in succession like a poor marksman, instead of Ervin’s face it is the face of Pista Tavi that emerges in front of her mind’s eyes, and a certain evening in a certain restaurant that people have insisted on calling Forget-me-not ever since, half jokingly of course, for who would not much rather forget. Forget-me-not is also a poor joke, for its official registered name is Număuita, since our story is set in Romania, but everybody in town, all the story’s characters, even comrade Dulea himself speak Hungarian, which is however of no significance worth mentioning whatsoever. It was a famed night, for she had hoped she would finally go through something that she need not dread thereafter, and in those days it was dread she wanted most to be rid of, at least as much as of the thick hairs growing on her legs, or of a wrinkle in the corner of her mouth, even if she instinctively intuited that the end to dread would not bring a much better state, for it would mean the loss of the one living in dread, of her surviving childhood self, but she would recoup her loss by playing the roles that Böby Derzsi was then getting, the most abysmally untalented actress that ever walked the face of the earth. Back then they did obviously not call such nights orgies, but ”meatballing”, which sounds as if it meant that they ate mincemeat balls, but of course did not mean that, the waiters, the drivers, the actors and actresses, even the comrades themselves described everything down to the smallest detail during coffee breaks, so that the secretaries could pass it on to the hairdressers, who then disseminated it with the distortions due to the buzz of beauty parlour hair dryers, like some contagious disease, mumps for instance that is particularly dangerous for grown-up men who had not contracted it in childhood, so that whenever there’s an epidemic of mumps in the kindergarten, the mothers of boys dutifully take their offspring to the sickbed to kiss the ailing child, all the while relating further savoury details of the meatballing feat. And the meatballing always started with a couple of glasses of cognac and ended with Pista Tavi ordering all knickers off the comrades, that is, those that still needed ordering, and then breaking Laji Rupi’s current violin on Jani Derzsy’s reputedly thick head, so that nobody could play on it again the beauteous folksong of his heart’s desire, ”The thrush builds its nest…” Ildikó gulped down a waterglassful of cognac that knocked her out almost immediately; she became like a sack of potatoes while, strangely, her consciousness cleared up, she was peeping out lucidly from her own inert body, albeit Pista Tavi was hardly bothered by this inertia, he shoved her into a half-lit pantry, made her squat in the corner, held her head with one hand and with the other unbuttoned his fly, as in those days zips were still relatively rare, started swearing out loud, perhaps partly because all he managed to produce was a child’s pecker, but soon became violent and poor Ildikó was thinking with all the lucid part of her consciousness she could muster how there was no-one in this world to protect her. But only the next day at noon, after having returned to the drama students’ dorm where she was still living at the time, not to mention the fact that in those days on the site of her present lodgings the peach orchards of the district called the Manor were still blooming for many years to come, and after having planted herself beneath the shower and from underneath her breast, the left one, a whiff of that horrendous smell of Pista Tavi slapped her, it was only then that she started throwing up convulsively. After that day she would be sick frequently. The last time a few days ago she woke up feeling sick, tore the window open hoping to get better, because those fits of vomiting could be dreadful, coming up directly from her womb, and she didn’t want to wake up the whole block of flats again, the wind was blowing from the direction of the sleeping town, she leaned out and felt instantly better, but as she turned round the room’s concentrated reek of Pista Tavi hit her again, making her throw up the first portion of her supper on the spot.
She should have taken revenge. There had been an occasion once, on that certain Christmas when the glorious regime’s men bled to death, that is, they appeared to be bleeding but recovered quickly enough. Now the most she can do is to satisfy the curiosity of a journalist sniffing for scandal, and she would gladly do it, were it not for the fact that as soon as she starts relating of Pista Tavi to Ervin, in place of Ervin’s face the face of Pista Tavi pops up, and it is Ervin’s face she wants to see, for she loves that face, so young and carefree, a face whose outlines would romp with the shadows of fatigue, quite unhampered even in the small hours, then start splashing about at the break of day and in a few seconds be smoothed out. She is in love with this boy, keeps thinking of him night and day, she is worried about him and keeps her fingers crossed that everybody would love him. And she tells everybody because it feels good to be talking of Ervin, how smart and well-read, how sensible and clean, what a beautiful, innocent child he is.
How finely one can play with him! She says to him things like, well slim jim, you’ve swallowed this whole, or that, now this is something to make your balls itch, with such sense of liberation as only children teasing each other can feel, and with what enthusiasm they go into planning their theatre: Ervin would write plays with a sharp political edge, the likes of which have never been seen on this stage…
Now all of a sudden she sees herself from the outside, as if she were perching on the willow on the corner or looking out from a window, as if she had exchanged places with that Peeping Tom, even if only for minutes. It would surely serve him right, to be able to feel the headache of Ildikó Halász for five minutes, to be standing on the street corner in a green terry cloth dressing gown and litter bin in hand, with nobody as much as looking at her. But the Peeping Tom is already looking elsewhere: a moment ago he was still counting the lights going up across the street, now he is staring at the bird’s carcass pressed onto the grey tarmac, how the wind flutters its ragged feathers, but there is hardly any breeze, at least nothing stirs the leaves. Later he gets engrossed in matters celestial, gazing out at the moon and the stars, so that he notices precious little of the swarming Pista Tavi-faced monsters, sensing nothing of the lonesome woman’s fears, although according to the rules of chivalry a man should on such occasions warn the freak-faces, at the very least with a thumping of the feet, that he is there and, should necessity present itself, would readily jump to the defence of the weak; what is more, he can certainly not be accused of liking Pista Tavi and would be glad to read at the tail end of the report on the Forget-me-not orgies that Pista Tavi resigned his seat in Parliament – although somewhat later he would impassively take cognizance of that deputy’s office in Strasbourg, with the same impassivity his eye would, with at most a light thrill due to the impending event, be caught the next morning by the patch of green terry cloth sticking to the tarmac like the dead bird, with a dark red stain hidden deep among its naps. In the meantime Ildikó has looked down from the window and found the way back to herself again, to the one who knows precisely how far she is from a creature Ervin might fall for. Because from up there she can see all too well even in the gathering dusk, that her hair is growing thin, that her hairdresser is not particularly skillful, that the crowns on her teeth are wearing off, she should replace them but doesn’t have the money, that she isn’t getting any roles at the theatre, she survives on hackwork and even such occasions are getting few and far between, she put together a few simple little programs that she takes to school and kindergarten festivities: last time she recited Petőfi poems at the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, next she would do In young hearts I live on at the graduation ceremony, provided they invite her and not some latter-day Böby to declaim some by-our-blood-and-soil-stalwart-we-stand Albert Wass. She has her apartment, her mother’s savings deposit with the small sum she had saved up for her funeral; her clothes are shabby, so she has no idea how she could possibly change her life, although she knows that if she doesn’t change it now she is finished for good, better and proper. She clings to Ervin, but he is becoming ever more selfish and whimsical.
And even if something more intimate were to develop between them, how long could it possibly last? In front of Ildikó’s mind’s eyes her own fifteen-year-old self emerges, a thin, dark-haired girl going in white knee socks and dark blue pleated skirt to the May 1st parade, and imagines Ervin would be there too, but Ervin is only a tiny toddler, all right, let it be the party at Zsuzsi’s place when they locked themselves up in the bathroom with Bandi Szepesi and she suffered him to deflower her, she imagines Ervin in Bandi’s place, what they would have said to each other back then, what the little boy with the big blond head, barely three, would have made of the occasion, how he would have stuck his tiny fingers into her body.
She is standing on the curb side with a headache that makes her dizzy, waiting to cross to the other side. The litter bin has grown so heavy that her right shoulder falls inches below the other. As though she were dragging the carved-up corpse of Pista Tavi in that bin. Sure she would be caught, although on the ground around the stew cauldrons there are always bones scattered about, all kinds of sickening nondescript things. Yes, on that Christmas it had occurred to her to grab the bread knife and ring Pista Tavi’s doorbell, shove aside his screaming wife – hard to imagine, as she was about one handspan taller and even then quite fifty kilos heavier than Ildikó – then make straight for the armchair in front of the TV, plant the knife in Pista Tavi’s heart, which he would have received with such resignation as if a vengeful revolutionary had leaped out directly of the TV set. For 25 years she has been living with Pista Tavi’s corpse, dragging it along wherever she goes; her husband, all her lovers and aborted children, her director, her partners on stage, the bus driver, the cantankerous cab driver, all of them have been that corpse.
What sacrifice has she not made? Surely, her whole life had been a sacrifice. On that forget-me-not night, since she had to be there anyway, she had planned to turn Pista Tavi’s head but he barely noticed her and, what is more, when she coyly addressed him with, Has comrade Tavi ever noticed that the comrade’s name is Tavi and mine, Halász, the one a lake, the other a fisher, Pista Tavi cloddishly asked, what it was he should have noticed. It was then she drank up the cognac, all of it.
Dusk is gathering slowly. The headlights of lorries rushing by awaken yet more shadows, as if they were splitting off from her body standing on the curb side, taking the shape now of an ass, now of a goat, now of a mountain goat preparing to jump, legs tensely balancing on one tiny spot of a palm’s width, then scurrying off behind the blocks but peeping out from behind the concrete walls. As the odd beam of light carves their muzzle out of the darkness, Ildikó instantly recognizes them. Yes, she should have called in at Pista Tavi’s place on that clean, snowless Christmas when for three days a warm southerly wind blew over the town, carrying the black rubber dust far away from them. She should at least have spat in his face; she should at least have given him an insistent look, should have asked him casually, well comrade, how’s things these days. Then she could still have gained admittance, for on the third day bodyguards were around him again. And today, even if she could get in with a piece of luck, she would only find a decrepit sick man with a broken look in his eyes, a man in pieces and all the more wicked for that, more wicked than ever.
Ildikó is standing on the curb side, counting the lorries rushing by. Not counting the lorries really, just uttering the numbers to herself, one after the other. What for? She doesn’t want to stop time, neither does she want it to run on. Or rather, she thinks soon it would be completely dark, then she can go to the garbage dumpsters and empty the litter bin right in front of her toes. It’s long been completely dark. Perhaps the soldiers from the nearby barracks are marching out for nighttime shooting, practicing for some secret sortie. Perhaps it is not even genuine lorries rushing by. In Ildikó’s head the pain is growing unbearable. It occurs to her she should turn around, go back up to her apartment, call Ervin to tell him straightaway that there is something more she needs to tell him about Pista Tavi that bears no delay, but which she will only tell if… Then something bursts in her head. With eyes wide open she acknowledges how the pain disappears at once. So suddenly as if it were a sign. A sign urging her not to go back, to leave Ervin alone, to forget everything, start a new life, step onstage again, play all the roles she had never played, to play as she alone can play.
—Zsolt Láng, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.