11. 28. 2005. 08:08

Fairy Vale, or Riddles of the Heart of Man (Excerpt)

"I don’t see what strings are being twitched for her to operate so appropriately. New instrument, doesn’t yet have a place, doesn’t fit in here, maybe won’t do so for a thousand years—that’s me."

Translator’s Introductory Comments

Authors who produce major bodies of work both as prose-writers and as poets are fairly rare, even in verse-obsessed Hungary. Endre Kukorelly (b.1951) is one of the very few of the immediate post-war generation to have managed that, though it would be fair to say that until the turn of the millennium he was regarded primarily as a poet, whose art reached a magnificent peak in H*O*L*D*E*R*L*I*N (1998), a set of nine cycles of poems, each consisting of nine pieces of metrical verse or prose-poetry, that draw on the titles and fragments of text from the German poet’s works as their own jumping-off points.

A 9 x 9 ordering also underlies Kukorelly’s most substantial prose work, the novel Fairy Vale, or the Riddles of the Human Heart (2003). Each of the nine almost equally long chapters, each of nine sections, has a designated theme (crazy, garden, child, cash, soldier, Russian, German, home, and dead) and year (between 1944 and 1995), and each chapter commences with a poem that touches on its nominal subject. It is quickly clear that this is no linear narrative; indeed, the principle seems to be more a complex one of theme and variations, with every chapter seeming to touch on virtually every aspect of the narrator’s life and loves.

Thus, similar elements are ‘obsessively’ returned to, over and over again: remembered episodes from childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, whether in Budapest or during summer holidays spent at the grandmother’s home in St István Settlement, just north of Budapest, food likes and dislikes (he loathes semolina pudding), football, the patients at a local mental institution, games of football, swimming in the Danube and at nearby outdoor pools, trips to dance halls, money, cycling, encounters with the insect world, a headless body seen one afternoon at the local railway station, trips to Germany (both East and West) and the USSR, to pick out just a few topics. Above all, it is a book about relationships with other members of the family, with school friends, and with those acquaintances, renewed every summer, among the seemingly unknowable boys of St István Settlement—to say nothing of uneasy contacts with members of the opposite sex (the book’s ironic title gives a fairly strong hint that the delta of Venus is not plain sailing).

***

Chapter 2. Garden

1944 1947 1951 1956 1962 1969 1977 1986 1995 garden

Somebodies hiding behind the fence are peaking.
Someone’s peaking.
I’m now trying hard to conjure
up the exact colour of the cooking vessel
in which we gathered the fallen peaches
and damsons. I have no idea what for,
it’s not that Father did much in the cooking line.
Nothing was cooked up, I mean literally, take all this literally
                                                  [Someone is peaking from behind
the fence. It wasn’t actually collected either. What colour should
the picture be?
Blue damsons? Yellow grass?
Striped recliner, dark-green flask of soda water on the garden table? Fairly
scorching summers? Striped then? A bit like
the earth below and sky on top?

1

The Lord produced his garden from somewhere. At that time there was nothing as yet in that garden, nothing else, just little lines and dots, like so: /// ….. ////////// .. /// …… ////// ….

He brought forth this garden. He saw the garden and would have liked it to stay like that, because he envisaged everything would fit it, and indeed it did, it got along comfortably. That was neither good nor evil, it had not yet made use of evil; that was how the Lord conceived of the garden.

But it came to pass once, either in fun or by accident, that the Lord grabbed on to the garden with such force, since the Lord lost his balance, and in supporting himself with the palm of his hand, from that clutching for support, the whole lot was set in motion, the dots and little lines, wildly, wild man and wild beast, tame, angry, tame-wild vegetation, solicitude and goodwill, and then his garden no longer fitted in his eyes. It seemed to me that everything in the future had already happened.

2

I was standing alone by the fence, on the strip of grass by the mulberry-tree. Not quite in the corner of the yard, nor even scared; it was more that I did not figure out what they were up to. I see something, and it is unfathomable; I see how exciting it is, immaculate order, but I don’t understand what sort of game this marvellous thing is. They race about, they know which way to run, what direction; everyone knows, not me. One little girl was crying. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t exist for you; what is happening can only be understood. A child was crying but still carried on racing around. Falls down.

She fell down just now, the boys tripped her up, one of them flinging himself after her and kicking her legs from under her in a single movement, so they slither along the ground. With far greater force.

Larger forces kick small forces. The girl toboggans on the gravel but instantly gets to her feet and runs on as hard as she can, but now back, the other way, like the others; it’s clear she knows why. How does she know? Were the rules agreed in advance, and now they’re playing them out for one another? Are there any rules? Did they learn them, or did they always know them? Cries yet doesn’t.

Looked at from outside, from here, underneath the mulberry-trees, there’s still plenty of running and falling. Everything is an image. Nothing precedes this image. How clumsily she staggered up, clumsy, pretty, wax-white, her knee’s bleeding, but I didn’t understand where she was running like this, what the reason was, and what the direction was—precisely what everyone else understood, including the crying little girl.

She best of all. I don’t see what strings are being twitched for her to operate so appropriately. New instrument, doesn’t yet have a place, doesn’t fit in here, maybe won’t do so for a thousand years—that’s me. Yet I’d get up a lot more adroitly from there, leap up, if only I could finally make out the rules; I wouldn’t even fall down.

He wouldn’t kick out after me.

As much as it’s possible not to, I don’t understand something if I’m on the outside; I’ll have to get used to that. To start with, how one gains admittance. That’s when I found myself there, a new boy, with the old hands looking right through me; what would make that change. He runs, falls down, dashes against me because he doesn’t see me, gets to his feet, doesn’t even spot that I shoved him over; it doesn’t count, because I’m not there. As to who I am, that adds nothing to the matter. To be freed of this, this transparent position. Slowly further in, away from the grassy verge, towards the concreted playground.

3

The air of the garden is different before noon, around noon, in the early evening. In the morning it’s sharp, that’s when it is best; in the afternoon it thickens from the blazing heat. A peach takes a long time falling, I step over and catch it easily. It splats on the grass, the stone spills out, it splits open, glistens, like a girl’s mouth. Late July, a heavy summer morning, it stays like that, that’s how I see it, I saw it as a whole. An ant strives to free itself from the page of the book I left in the grass. Smoke rises straight up, the air is motionless; the room stays cool until the afternoon, only slowly warms up, the concrete walls don’t let the blazing heat through. By evening it warms up all the same, then it has a hard time cooling down; due to the heat, I kick the blanket off me as I sleep. The door is open, we put a blackboard across it on account of the frogs. A frog can leap over the blackboard, no sweat.

My sister is sitting petrified on the bed; a prime specimen has got in and Grandma is shooing it away with a broom. I am on my back, don’t stir one bit; I’m trying to sleep. Carrying over to here is the sound of the suburban railway as the train clatters out to Szentendre. They’re travelling in to Budapest; they’ve bought tickets, no problem, board the suburban train and Bob’s your uncle, they are free to do so, they travel in, what’s to stop them. From a distance, as if from on high, from the roof, would be heard the drone of a lorry engine straining uphill, it scarcely alters pitch, merging into the silence, indeed is more part of the silence. Sounds of fifteen or twenty years back, sounds and noises of forty years back, the garden extricates itself from time. Only this was like that, and it would even have been possible to get bored with it.

No doubt I got bored with it. The sky an artificial blue, the earth an artificial green—it bores me, I close my eyes out of boredom.

And I open my eyes, stare fixedly at the darkness out of boredom; I hate all this flowering. To say I’m bored is not accurate, because it can be that I’m bored, but after Saturday supper I wasn’t bored the moment that, out of the office smell and Budapest smell of my father’s attaché case, a few new books and a bar of chocolate from the Szerencs factory materialised. It ought to be rationed.

I tried to apportion the chocolate. It would be best of all if it could be spun out till next Saturday; I would put the remainder aside, only it always transpired that there was no remainder. The three volumes of Ivanhoe, in the Cheap Library edition, printed on nice rough wood-pulp, rapidly yellowing paper, sketchy line-drawings on the lemon-yellow cover of knights in armour and fine ladies in pointed hats. The city-smell leather attaché case with The Three Musketeers or Adrift in the Pacific: Two Years’ Holiday. The city smell is not boring. It wouldn’t have been boring to travel into the city sometimes, but that didn’t happen.

We didn’t go in during the summer, I didn’t spend one minute at home; it didn’t so much as come up. This is where you spend your summer holiday, isn’t it, this is the schedule, you don’t even yearn, it doesn’t enter your head to go beyond yearning, to just up and travel in, nothing like that. My parents purchased the garden in the spring of 1956 from a bloke who in anger, supposedly because his daughter hit him, sold off her portion of the plot to the very first bidder.

That was us. The old fellow was punched to the ground, and for all practical purposes sold her bit of the land to the first buyer so as to get his own back. The punching woman was our neighbour; whenever we were outside, she would demonstratively pay no attention to us. That’s why she was a neighbour. In order not to.

(…)

7

Once I saw a human body without its head. I was coming home earlier than usual from the lido, because I’d trodden on a wasp—that’s when I saw it.

At the suburban train station, alongside the rails, lay a man in a dark-blue jacket, his head missing. One leg was twisted oddly under his trunk, as if at the very last moment he had still wanted to get up from there. Thought better of it and got to his knees. Someone is kneeling, his head a few steps further on, at the foot of the wire fencing: it has rolled over there like a ball.

Grey-haired, the eyes half open, a reddish-black pulp where his neck should be. Poetry and reality from each other. Two corpse bearers, grasping shoulders and legs, squeezed the trunk into a battered wooden tray, a coffin used for this purpose, then one put in the head as well, gripping it by the hair, even spoke to it in doing so.

He lifts it off the ground, says something to it, and what did you think you were up to, you old sod, hopping on, eh, stuff this jiggling about—something like that. He presses it down so no bits should stick out, fits the lid on and smacks it down with the edge of the hand.

We used to go to the outdoor pool at Pentecost Baths, occasionally Roman Baths, or even less often Star Hill Baths, taking the suburban branch line townwards in the direction of Filatori Dam. Then in the late afternoon, when the sun had vanished between the row of poplars, behind the back of Nagy-Patina and Taván, it would be back to St. István Settlement. For lunch I would eat a salami roll: in the heat the grease would ooze out of the salami and stain the roll, the butter becoming reddish, the salami sweated. The Telekis also came, young Teleki and her older sister; they would park themselves in the shaded area by the main pool, sitting back to back in their two-piece costumes, and they would occupy themselves by patently paying heed to no one except one another. I didn’t go over.

Due to the shade. Due to the shade alone I wouldn’t pick a spot near them but in the sun. I joined in the football: we play against pick-up teams of strangers behind the rose bower. Football, sunbathing, I read, I swim breadths across the deep end—that’s what I’ve come for, not for the girls; it doesn’t even come into the equation, so much not on their account that, in point of fact, it’s no wonder I don’t exist. In point of fact, because for them I don’t exist, yet somehow do all the same.

For myself, for instance. Then when we are playing, for them too; if I’m playing footie, then for sure. I step barefooted on something, and it hurts, then too. So much for seduction. I lie on my back on my towel, set the rubber ball under my head, pay them no heed: that’s alright too, except it’s not alright; what would have been alright is if I’d got to my feet and gone over there, but I didn’t go over, I didn’t dare.

The situation is that I don’t dare, I can hear it in my head that I don’t. You don’t dare. I set off home early, because my foot is hurting and starting to swell. I tried to winkle the sting out of my sole: there’s nothing to see, so I probe around at the sole, talk to myself. Not a lot. A lot. I slick my hair back; it’s blonde, milk, carefully close-cropped at the nape of the neck by my father’s barber. Empty, no, no, slowly picking myself up. I pick myself up. Daydream. Daydreaming is good, though if one wakes up.

Yet our heart doesn’t ache after all. I’m not so immersed, cut off so totally: we have here one of the more boring kinds of parlour game, I join in, the end is more or less in sight, but sometimes one surprising thing or another will happen. If they speak to me, I am startled, lay off the daydreaming, it cools me down, as if I were stepping out of the blazing sun into a chilly room. A book forgetfully left open, right in the middle, midsummer, slivers of stinking household soap in the wooden washtub, my socks drying on a branch of the cherry-tree. I’m practising with my spare ball, match alone, on the spur of the moment kicking it left-footed against the kitchen wall, and the concrete booms. I have forgotten to buy sour cream, so I go back to the shop. Back, in the queue again: five of them in front of me. Four.

Three, 2, one. And what can I do for you, the shopkeeper looks at me and asks, and why can’t I answer him respectfully. A simple question; what’s up, you’re not answering? Why did you fall asleep for the simplest things of all? He suddenly asks what I want, and I’ve forgotten.

It’s slipped my memory that it was a quarter litre of sour cream. I’ve been preparing for this: that’ll be butter, bread, mineral water, daydreaming—it’s that simple, the simplest dopey words: a quarter litre of sour cream, so and so many Desiree potatoes, three kilos; I practise, it goes swimmingly, easily, what’s the need to practise! I’ve even brought a preserving jar for the sour cream, one with a resealable lid: at least I won’t forget. There’s someone talking with the salesman, isn’t there?

Too right there is! And that’s me. The settlement’s shopkeeper with that dead calm, apathetically idiotic mug of his, the round spectacles on that round head, the hairs sticking out of the ears, the indelible pencil poking from his ear. Spit it out now, be so good. Then I’d like half a kilo of bread, that’s it, go right through it in a normal, even voice and add, and also three kilos of fat in the same register. And no.

But no, that’s not how it goes.

Flies are hopping around on the bread, climbing over one another, the shop’s flies are buzzing furiously as they copulate like fury on the bread crust. Two green ten-forint notes, adorned with Sándor Petofi, these unfortunate Petofis have a misshapen head: broad at the top and narrow lower down, like an immature pear. The queue has suddenly dwindled; time for the ordinary register of the voice. It comes too, whereupon the miserable sod actually chops off a lump of fat, wraps it up, apathetically swats the flies off it. They’re out of beer.

Every Thursday the people’s store has delivered a trailer of Kobánya Pale Ale in the one-and-a-half litre measure; that weekend we drank a family-size bottle with lunch. A strongly Sunday-aroma bouillon; if it’s bouillon, you can bet it’s Sunday. After lunch we’d stroll down to the river or the mine lakes around the occupational therapy institution. I cycle down to the riverbank, swim a bit, then back, because I play footie. In the evening my parents go out, go back home, and we accompany them as far as the station, sad and also not sad. The sky is blazing; beside the rails, at the foot of the embankment, frogs are croaking in the boggy, reedy part that has been left since the flood. Stuff like that.

That’s how it’s ordered. On the way back I seat my sister on the crossbar and we trundle down the embankment. Gym shoes, bicycle, satin shorts; a woodpecker is hammering on the trunk of the walnut-tree. A secret police force, functioning, even if not exactly with enthusiasm, we tail a man who, according to established opinion, wants to burgle the church. We escorted him as far as the train stop, waited until he had boarded.

Look, he’s boarded. Once, Ili Kocsárdi fell flat on her face on this spot with her bicycle, and I allegedly laughed at her. She let go of the handlebar going down the slope and—wham! We graze cherries from the trees alongside the footie pitch, so only the very tips of the trees show red for a while: all that’s left is what even Lolly couldn’t reach. You can reach more or less everything. We would stuff ourselves before the game, until there was a ball, diverting ourselves with ‘Dingaling’ Laci.

This Laci would lug a sort of small cowbell around, tinkling it next to his ear; he would wait all day for the bell-ringing, he knew precisely when the bells would be rung, and when they did he would jump up and down, his head would roll around, and in addition he would grate his teeth in indescribable happiness. It so happened (this too belongs to the straightening of the record, the unmercifully accurate ordering), that they lived next door to the church, in the first house next to the church square: the kid had it easy, all he had to do was slip away from home, clamber over the fence, and in two shakes he would be at the foot of the belfry, which would do him just fine. He’d grin and, along with that, wag his head something rotten.

Apart from that, Laci knows the perpetual calendar by heart, he can tell you the day of any date off the top of his head; so to start with, it’s from this Laci that one gets to know what day one was born on. Let’s suppose I was born on a Thursday: I asked him, he told me, and I forgot it right off—Thursday, perhaps. So when was the Mohács disaster.

Friday, he says (it’s not certain he said Friday: I ought to check that). So we diverted ourselves with Laci—while we could, because he would get bored within seconds and just take off. I could see when he had had enough, was starting to get fed up with us, not just from his not saying anything; he would not even respond but pretend—he was truly ridiculous then—that he was thinking over the answer.

Although he isn’t: he’s the one who doesn’t think—he just knows. This is his way of being naughty. This is how he rebels: he rebels by thinking, he starts dingalinging with his head, the Laci kid is wobbling.

Because he knew from the outset, even before we had asked, he had got bored; he couldn’t even understand what was so interesting about it. Just as he has led others astray, so in my view he ends by going astray himself. We on the other hand weren’t bored, because etc., he’s loopy and knows that it wasn’t about this: it was usually about quite the opposite. This little boy, for ever well this side of any pride, was not diverted that he had knowledge of obscure stuff that we haven’t a clue about, as a result of which, whether we show it or not, we are dumbfounded, indeed envious.

That he’s a genius in this one thing at least, but what about me? Half as much. A fraction as much as little Laci. He left us, dashed off to his bell, whereas we waited for young Jankovits and whether or not he would bring a ball. I measure out the goals; the goalposts are bricks, we toss our tracksuit tops on the bricks. They are building on the plot next to the footie pitch, extending the church: that’s where we got the bricks from. The council set up a football goal on the pitch, a regular one with a net, but only one; it seems the budget didn’t stretch to a second one. The goalposts stood crookedly and jiggled as well, the whole piece of junk wobbled, it hadn’t been dig in properly. The net gradually got worn to tatters; it was left out during winter, got drenched in the rain, no longer caught the ball.

Though it would still catch in some places, so when there was a goal it would quiver: that made it worthwhile. We’d play one-goal, so the ball would constantly be flying over into neighbouring land—the school grounds, the churchyard, rebounding from the church wall it would vanish in the bushes: on these occasions you would avoid the goal on account of the net and let fly into the rose-bushes. Dried leaves, withered, sparse clumps of grass, the pitch was dusty; with violent storms after a long drought, rain for days on end—at such times I wouldn’t stir from the house but lie on my bed, make the wicker chair on the veranda creak. The pitch became sodden, it’s raining, it stops, the clouds scud by, water is standing in the dips in the ground, we skidded in the puddles.

A shadow on half the pitch, the shadow flitted across the turf.

Once I sat next to Zsuzsa Teleki in the confectioner’s at Budakalász, and for one thing we had ice-cream and, at the same time, we held one another’s hand while doing so. I had gone over to Kalász for an ice-cream, and she was sitting there on her own, in the corner, half hidden by the headrest. I greeted her and she turned my way with a coffee spoon in her mouth, rather as if she were surprised, but then when it was my turn and I was about to set off outside with my ice-cream, she beckoned me over. We had never spoken up till then.

Because she wouldn’t enter into conversation with me. At first I thought she wasn’t even beckoning to me but anyone, and by pure chance that happened to be me. I sat down beside her, I was scared; then she took the cone out of my hand and slipped her other hand into my trousers. She licked my ice-cream, gave it back, then pushed me away from her.

That year the Danube almost flooded the settlement. The water rose and lay on the alfalfa field between Szentendre Road and the river flats. We went out to the highway to watch the soldiers and villagers working together to erect an emergency dyke. From the river to the road was still part of the flood area, from there on, away from the river, the settlement was built on a downward-sloping section, with our house toward the bottom of the slope, so if it were to spill over the dyke, push the sandbags aside, we would have been flooded for sure. Crashing and roaring. Smashed through the dyke, like in the Petofi poem, the flood would have come.

Water certainly appeared in the hollow below the embankment at the suburban train station: one could have floated a boat on it. I took the wooden washtub down there to row in, that was the plan: to be frank, my plan was that the flood was on its way, it had been promised for almost certain, it was looking to submerge the world, so I, rowing in our washtub, was going save what was salvageable in the emergency.

Successfully fishing out people and valuables. The groundwater rose every year, so a sizeable little lake would appear beside the railway embankment; it didn’t dry out for years. Then it was also mooted that we would go in, it was better to move to Pest when there was any flooding, but we didn’t go in and there wasn’t a flood.

I watched as the sandbags heaved to the embankment beside the highway lapped up the Danube to their fill. Then the flood tide ebbed, the dyke was dismantled, the soldiers removed the sacks. If I do nothing, then that does nothing to me either, and it’s not even sure that it is so.

The water didn’t vanish for a long time from the densely reed-overgrown hollow; of an evening this would give rise to immense concerts of frogs. A few years later, from the same reeds and from behind the bushes, we watched a man whom we thought was a burglar. We believed he was intending to loot the church. Stinker had noticed him before football, and that day we didn’t play on account of the bloke, we abandoned it, preferred not to start.

He was kept under surveillance; we accompanied him as far as the station, waited until he had taken a seat on the train going into Pest. I was envious of him because he was going in, he could go in. To go in, to travel to Budapest, there was no question of that—so little so that it was good, though not coming to mind at all would have been perfect. Too simple: you board and go in. That thief travels in, buys a supplementary ticket to Margaret Bridge at the ticket office—that’s all there is to it. In that early-August excessive brilliance.

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Endre Kukorelly