03. 31. 2007. 10:02

9 Kilos. A Story After Psalm 119 (excerpt)

Zsuzsa Selyem

9 kilos is Zsuzsa Selyem's first fictional work. It is an experimental novel based on the structure of Psalm 119, in various styles – from minimalistic dialogues to theoretical passages – and told by several narrators in search for connections between the episodes of a story happening in the 90s in the squares of post-communist East European cities. 

(fasting)
‘Greetings. Please take a seat.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Can you tell me, in as much detail as possible, how I can be of assistance to you?’
‘It’s about my father.’
‘Please speak up a bit, I can’t understand you.’
‘It’s about my father. He’s tearing my mother to pieces. She’s ill, she has a heart condition, but this doesn’t interest him.’
‘Does your father drink a lot?’
‘All the time. He doesn’t live with us; he just comes over from time to time, and then we always have to give him money.’
‘How long has this been going on?’
‘It’s always been like this.’
‘Since when?’
‘It’s always been like this.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty.’
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’
‘No.’
‘Sorry?’
‘I don’t have any brothers or sisters.’
‘Does anyone else live with you?’
‘Yes, my grandmother, and my mother’s older sisters and their daughters...’
‘I understand. And does your father get aggressive when he is drunk?’
‘Sometimes. He loses his self-control; he becomes completely unpredictable.’
‘And your mother?’
‘She never touches the stuff.’
‘No, I mean, what does she do on such occasions?’
‘Nothing. She loves him.’
‘I see. And your father?’
‘He doesn’t love her.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘He doesn’t love anyone. He’s incapable of it. He’s not interested in anything. Except himself.’
‘Who’s the breadwinner in the family?’
‘My mother can’t work, she’s ill. I do odd jobs abroad.'
‘How would you describe your relationship with your father?’
‘Bad.’
‘Please be a bit more specific.’
‘He never cared about me. When I was little I was scared of him. Of his voice. That he would beat me. He beat me a lot. Just because he was drunk, and said something I didn’t understand, and I didn’t know what to do, and he started to shout and hit me. Once, about three years ago, I hit him back. Since then, every time he visits, I disappear. He never stays for more than two days; in the meantime I get by here or there, with friends. But it’s not because of me that I came to ask your advice, it’s because of my mother.’
‘A difficult one. Listen to me: on thirteen consecutive Saturdays, keep to a strict fast. From sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, don’t eat anything, and don’t drink anything apart from water. And try to persuade one or two people to fast with you. But beware: no one must know about this apart from those fasting.’
‘Thank you. I will give it a try. How much do I owe you?’
‘You can go. You pay the sister outside.’
 
(for he who has none)
The next one came in at once. They come to me, the humble servant of the Lord, from further and further afield, for there is no one else to help the poor things. Oh, what miserable existences there are... and I have to see them all! Poor boy, how young he still is, how quiet-spoken. Why did I tell him thirteen Saturday fasts? This thirteenth number is a bad one, it belongs to the Devil... Well, it doesn’t matter now. It should be that boozy animal of a father of his who should be fasting, not that rosy-cheeked boy. Who sooner or later will be every bit as much a boozy animal as his father. He would do better to join us at the seminary, at least he would escape; these families are completely hopeless. Many thousands have come to me with the same question: ‘What can I do?’ Father Irimie also prescribed fasts on these occasions. When I asked him why, he responded that the Lord works in mysterious ways, people can but wait, yet these unfortunate souls need to feel that they are doing something. Even those who have nothing to eat can fast. The reason they have to pay is to feel the weight of the sacrifice. Many came to Father Irimie, but even more come to me. They sit here with their packages; while they wait for Marioara to show them in, I secretly hope that some have brought a goose.
 
(the pópa)
Ionut was a village kid; his was a large family, as they often were, and he was the youngest. In the village they already thought of his father as an old man by the time Ionut somehow managed to come into the world; his brothers and his sister were all more than fifteen years older than him, while the oldest three all had families of their own. His father drank, how could he not drink in that miserable world, with nine children weighing on his mind; he died not long after Ionut was born. The poor mother, what could she do? When the boy turned seven, she took him to the nearby monastery, to Father Irimie. Father Irimie was important to a good number of people, and he also knew how he had to behave in order for the monastery to survive in those hard times, perhaps even for it to blossom, for the glory of God. He would lay on a plentiful feast for the party officials; only he knew how he could muster what was needed for it, when the whole country was as good as starving. His conscience was clear, for the party apparatchiks, their hearts melted, could not sing the praises of the Immaculate Virgin Mary highly enough. And this is how, even though it was strictly forbidden to take children to the monastery, no one would say a bad word about Irimie. The little rascals would clean, bring water, peel potatoes; they served him so the Lord’s holy church might look after them. This was where Ionut grew up, too; his mother and his brother and sisters would come for mass at important feasts, and then they would bring him home-baked scones in a little bundle, but on the other days of the year he saw nothing of them. He did not miss them; he looked to Father Irimie as his own father – he was both frightened and respectful of him. He wanted Father Irimie to notice him, but for this he had to wait until his thirteenth birthday. He had a good brain; studying was easy for him. He wanted to be a seminarist, too. He saw that only a few children were worthy of this fate: those whom Father Irimie selected. Ionut observed Father Irimie’s every movement. Irimie knew that in these hard times not even the Lord could expect him to renounce everything: he liked young boys, and it was not hard for Ionut to court his favour. This is how Ionut became the orthodox priest, the pópa. Since then the Lord has called Irimie unto himself, who parted in peaceful old age, satisfied with his life; he had had the chance to observe how, since 1989, and thanks to the support of the Soros Foundation, his little monastery was to turn into an entire complex, equipped with all the trappings of the modern age.
[...]
 
(my mother’s jet-black eyes)
Dani knew his mother’s outbursts well, and knew how to deal with them; dealing with them was about the only thing he knew how to do. But he felt nothing. He said what had to be said. In point of fact, it hardly mattered what he said in these situations, as long as he gave her a hug. To begin with she would object a little, apologize a bit, then finally give in and sob on his shoulder; Dani would stroke her on the back and murmur something in her ear. When I first saw them like this, I thought there were no two people in the world kinder to one another. I only later learned that, no, quite the contrary, here I was witness to a hapless interdependence between a selfishness that knew no boundaries on one hand and a spirit dried up from defensiveness on the other. When I was a young boy, for a long while my parents did the same thing. They had two themes, those of women and drink; my father would give my mother a hug, stroke her, kiss her, and say that nothing mattered to him except her jet-black eyes; she would not soften, just kept on saying the same thing, then began to hit him hysterically; of course my father would soon pin her down, throw her against the table or the wall, or chuck her on the bed, then smack into her as she writhed underneath. Then there would be peace for a few days, when it would all begin again. It would have been good not to have seen them, but see them I did. Dani hated his father more and more, and he did not understand his mother, and hated her more and more, too, and he felt sorry for his father, and when he only came home rarely, and was no longer able to resolve situations in this way, because, poor thing, he was only capable of hitting her, then Dani’s mother started all this on Dani, and Dani was terrified that one day he would smack into her, too. He used all his strength to stop himself from existing, to act as if he were dead, as if he were there in body alone, with his mouth doing the talking. Then he heard about the pópa, and paid him a visit, but there was not much point, the deaf old man was not interested in anything except money, oh yes, and fasting, if he could manage any of that.
 
Translated by David Robert Evans
 
Zsuzsa Selyem, born in 1967 in Tirgu Mures, lives in Cluj, Romania. She studied mathematics, Hungarian and English literature and took her PhD in Aesthetics at the Lóránd Eötvös University, Budapest. Since 1998 she has been teaching Hungarian literature at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. Zsuzsa Selyem is the author of several short stories, essays and literary studies. Her novel 9 kiló. Történet a 119. zsoltárra (Koinónia Kiadó, 2006) was published in German with the title 9 kilo (Geschichte zu Psalm 119) by Merz & Solitude, Stuttgart, 2006, in the translation of Agnes Relle és Werner D. Stichnoth.

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