12. 01. 2009. 07:53

And not a soul in the streets

Iván Mándy (1918–1995): Left Behind

In prose, especially fiction, Arte Povera is a tough style to sell. Iván Mándy’s late work, quintessentialized by the novella Left Behind, shares qualities with not only Arte Povera but also with the beatup Baluch nomad prayer rug you hang on your wall after giving it a good wash and overcasting its edges with brown wool. Treasures found in the dust, dusted off, begin to shine in the thoughtful beholder’s eye.

Twenty years ago László Kúnos, translator supreme in a land of great translators, and more to the point, in his capacity as director of Corvina Press, patron of translators, commissioned me to translate Iván Mándy’s stark and forbidding 13,000-word text for inclusion in the Corvina volume, A Hungarian Quartet. Four Contemporary Short Stories.
 
Did I say novella? Film scenario would be a more appropriate designation for this peculiar, extended narrative that has no obvious human protagonist – other than the invisible narrator’s at times questioning, disembodied voice. We see sequences of still images, occasionally a short film clip-like scene, accompanied by a sustained voice-over, interrupted by snippets of conversation, ghost voices echoing from former times. Strangely, many of these voices belong to objects: the abandoned paraphernalia of metropolitan life.
 
Stone shoulders supporting stone balconies.
Dark faces, faces turned black. … Hollow eye-sockets.
Fury and anguish in those faces. Profound humiliation…
How did they get here?…
Not a soul in the streets.
 
We are launched on a tour of caryatids and decorative details from the heroic age of Budapest architecture, mementoes of the historic-eclectic, grandiose, Millennial style of the late 19th-century building spree that created much of the Budapest we know today. They emanate the aura of Millennial Magyar mythologizing, full of pathos and melodrama, resembling scenes in the brushwork and dark underpainting of a Munkácsy or Benczúr, a narrative of migration, conquest, heroic figures frozen into attitudes of pathos, strife and subjection. These descriptions of stone figures frame the novella, and provide a recurring leitmotif.
 
And not a soul in the streets. 
 
Left Behind conjures up a post-human future where objects, fixtures, furnishings and settings of everyday life linger and reflect upon the inexplicably absent former masters. The elevator, its door open, stands stranded on the fourth floor, evoking distant echoes of vanished residents, hallucinated calls for the elevator, amidst a deafening silence. A drab rug, flung on a balcony railing, hangs desolate. This and other ominous details (a dropped umbrella, a still smoking cigarette butt, a balloon hovering abandoned in a park) suggest that people had still been here not long ago. Cavernous easy chairs recall entire families curled up in them. Images are followed by questions and conjectural answers: “An umbrella, lying by the window. What could this mean?” And the narrating voice visualizes a man who had been standing by a window, contemplating a menacing sky, before disappearing unaccountably.
 
The narration gives voice to abandoned objects that recall the familiar human gestures formerly associated with them. In a succession of mini-scenarios, we are guided through some of the favorite locales of Mándy’s life and fiction: the street and the square and the park, the soccer field, the café, the cinema and the theater. To underscore the impression that we are witnessing a literary leave-taking, another recurring leitmotif is the room and writing desk of János Zsámboky, Mándy’s favorite alterego throughout much of his oeuvre (reaching back as far as the more conventional stories of the late 1950’s in Fabulya’s Wives and Lecturers, Co-Authors).
 
A newspaper clipping of a book review on Zsámboky's desk:
 
János Zsámboky: A Small Hotel
János Zsámboky’s novel,
A Small Hotel, was written by one person, published by another, read by a third. Never did three people accomplish anything more pointless.
 
It is not difficult to connect this scathing critique with two early novels by Iván Mándy, both set in a small hotel. Subsequent recurrences of Zsámboky’s desk reveal further details of the writer’s life: a fan letter, quoted in its entirety, descriptions of children’s drawings apparently made by the writer’s niece, whose name appears in a childish scrawl over the snippets of paper. However, these glimpses of the author’s intimate environment receive no more emphasis than the other found objects scattered throughout Left Behind. Along with the random messages conveyed by shop signs, advertisements, architectural details and public sculptures such as the sphinxes flanking the Opera House or the stone lions on the Chain Bridge, they all serve to firmly anchor the locale as Mándy’s Budapest – his birthplace and workplace – the city he inhabits in a hauntingly pervasive manner.
 
The keymaster, seated, surrounded by his keys. To some, he hands a key; to others, he does not. It is not easy to be admitted into his presence. A virtual gang of bodyguards protects him. But maybe I could break through the defenses. Have a word or two with him. Talk him into letting me have a few keys. A few keys? No, lots of keys! I must get into all those apartments! Just about every apartment. Don’t get me wrong! I don’t mean to break in. Nothing like that. It is just those apartments. All those rooms. Wander from one room to another. What kind of wallpaper do they have? What’s the paintjob like? And the dining-table? The night-stand? I might lie down on a sofa. Catch a half-hour catnap. Then onward and upward!
 
This city, or more accurately its eastern, more “urban”, flatland rive gauche part, Pest, is Iván Mándy’s home turf, a terrain he knows intimately and surveys with all-seeing eyes. This includes flashbacks to horrid details of history, as in this passage that evokes the exhumation of a mass grave after the battles and massacres of 1944–45:
 
The whole street is torn up. And they huddle cowering in that deep ditch. No one is speaking. Not a word is uttered. They avoid each other’s eyes. They have no eyes. And no faces. They adhere, cleave to the wet clayey soil. The unbelievably tattered back of a winter coat. A long, dangling scarf. A shawl. Some kind of shopping bag. A child’s shoe, full of holes. And that foot, twitching at times. And those fingers! Those scrawny fingers! Digging into the muck. Digging a hole? A den of some kind? So that everyone could have their own little burrow. Where they can disappear forever.
 
But in the next moment the vision shifts in the narrator’s cinematic camera eye:
 
There is no one in the ditch. Only gray pipes show here and there. Looking like an elbow sticking out. Or an arm reaching up. A half-buried shoulder.
 
Thus psychic space, with its unlimited dimensions, uproots time, which ceases to be a vector in Left Behind, as elsewhere in much of Mándy’s late work after about 1980. Conventional narrative lines are pretty much abandoned in favor of an almost purely cinematic technique that transcribes images, imaginings, echoes, fragments of conversation that meld memory and invention. And Mándy’s is an experimental cinema occasionally requiring animated “special effects”:
 
The girl’s face twitches. Becomes a mass of cracks. She falls apart into small shreds like a torn garment.
 
A face rises. And pales. It is not a face any more. It is a radish. A melon. A bearded onion.
 
The blinds are drawn. …The room remains in eternal darkness.
 
Fingers grow out of the dark. Thin little baby fingers. Sprouting like plants. Growing apart. Stiffening and stretching in the air. They fly up. Waltz around each other. Glide past each other. Grope the innards of an easy chair. … Slip under pillows. Under the fraying comforter.
 
In Left Behind Iván Mándy adopts some of the techniques of the cinema, an art he had loved, and variously participated in, all his life. He presents us with a world where “Time no longer exists”. But “the rooms can still remember”.
 
John Batki

Iván Mándy in English
On the Balcony. Selected short stories. Translated by Albert Tezla. Budapest: Corvina, 1988.
"Left Behind". Translated by John Batki. In: A Hungarian Quartet.  Four Contemporary Short Stories. Budapest:Corvina, 1991, 1997.
Fabulya’s Wives and Other Stories. Translated by John Batki. Budapest: Corvina, 1999.
What Was Left. Stories and novellas selected and translated by John Batki. Budapest: Noran Books, 1999.

Tags: Iván Mándy (1918–1995): Left Behind, Iván Mándy