05. 09. 2007. 08:13

Football and literature 1.

 Péter Zilahy: How I won the cold war

"...for this is how we play football: without hope or glory, but at least we don’t pretend not to know what is happening here, that behind each pioneer there is an empire, tanks, Gulag, Afghanistan, and many, many unuttered compound sentences."

They were bony, quiet, and unflappable. It was self-evident that the world was theirs, and though they would magnanimously share, they simply couldn’t – this was the burden that had fallen on them. They shot the goal and ran back to centerfield. The flush of victory was as distant from them as Vladivostok from Miami Beach on a late November afternoon.

From an ideological point of view it was obvious that, if this was the country that could send cosmonauts into space, then clearly this was what the suitable people would look like. The screening begins in childhood and by the sixth grade you already know either that space opens up before you or that you will be cannon fodder in the wars against the neighboring tribes. From the point of view of survival, every moment is merely preparation for the next, just as there is no point to a single pioneer. The pioneer strives for immortality out of self-defense. The Soviet pioneer is the child-faced herald of victory cemented into silent film, the lowest human form in the evolution of sacrifice spanning from the loyal watchdog to the Red Army soldier. Their movements are disciplined, precise, even their stare is calibrated, as if they were standing at attention even when they were doing little more than sitting or lying down – or not doing anything at all, even then they always give their best, like cosmonauts waving silent from space. And then came the next goal. The only reason it was not the decisive point was because the decision had already been reached long ago. The Russians had just scored the fourth goal without a swear or a smirk. Something had to be done.

It was beyond doubt that if these skinny, freckled boys were to be dropped anywhere in the world with little more than a bowie knife they would easily survive at the expense of the local habitat. It was beyond doubt that not only could they dribble, but they would not hesitate to mine the field, take hostage the family members of the linesmen, blow up the goal, or silence our defense with a violin string, or if need be, with their bare hands. But they didn’t even try anything like this, and we respected this human side in them. 

We couldn’t win. If I scored a goal, they replied with two. If I dribbled the ball past a defender, three others jumped out at me. I fought like a lion, but they surrounded me and took the ball. The Russians were coming along the sideline and there was no stopping them. They were moving ahead as if on a predetermined path, like the planets in orbit. Something had to be done.

 We spoke Russian, in simple sentences. Not that compound sentences would have been a problem (we’d crammed in Russian at the pioneer camp back home in Csillebérc), but this was the language of the oppressor, so we were not going to make it easier for them. When Ivan got to centerfield, I delicately tripped him. I had never tripped anyone on purpose before. Izvini, I said, and looked him innocently in the eye. Sorry! Ivan nodded and we continued the game. Two minutes later it was Vanya’s turn, he fell in silence. I helped him up with genuine repentance: Izvini! Suddenly everything seemed so simple. After Vanya, it was Sasha’s turn. He rolled along beside the ball and took Sergei down with him. Both were amazed when I hopped over to them and offered them my right arm. You can see it on playback. I arrive, my face rosy, with great enthusiasm, as if the bearer of important news. Straightforward, but not overly familiar. Firm, but ready for anything. By no means intrusive. Almost running in place. I helped them up, like I helped the others. Izvinite, I said with feeling. Language is power. Izvini, izvini, it echoed on the field, for my team adopted the new tactic. A guerilla war began for each clump of grass, a war with total regard for etiquette. We broke their offensive, I was the spirit of ’56, Molotov cocktails on the tanks, I was the sword of Attila, the Scourge of God, Middle European mujahadeen.

The Russians were standing speechless at the center line, waiting for the whistle. They were unattainably solitary, each and every one, which somehow in the end still gave the impression of a team. My fullbacks were tripping each other by then, out of solidarity, and helping each other up with cries of izvini. The game did not cease, it only changed into something that you can live with – a Central European enclave in the international pioneer camp – for this is how we play football: without hope or glory, but at least we don’t pretend not to know what is happening here, that behind each pioneer there is an empire, tanks, Gulag, Afghanistan, and many, many unuttered compound sentences. Vanya stepped forward with his hand clenched and two of them stood behind to shield him. We were prepared to die. They were leading with ten goals, it could not get any worse, I mumbled, but no one was paying attention to me. New horizons were opening up on the grassy wasteland transforming into a steppe. Growing up in a Russian pioneer camp, getting up and getting dressed to the sound of trumpets, taking cold showers, searching for toilet paper in vain, bearing the subtle tortures, the ruthless freezes, the sickening stench. Lugging spacecrafts in squelching mud to distant launch sites. Drifting offside in a state of weightlessness. Slaving away on a submarine between Vladivostok and Miami Beach. Playing and losing every game before they had actually started. We had grown old and then become children again. We heard the whistle, but no one moved. There was a fleeting smile on Ivan’s face, like a stray cloud blocking the sun, and a moment later on Sasha’s as well. Shutka, he said to Vanya, and put his arm around his shoulders. Shutka, joke, the magic word echoed on the field, curbing our tempers. The fists began to loosen, and a quiet murmur rustled among their close-cropped heads. Vanya turned to me, helped me up from the grass, and nodded. Izvini, he said almost inaudibly.
 Translated by Thomas Cooper
Previously on HLO

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