04. 10. 2018. 11:50

Gábor Schein: The Book of Mordechai (An excerpt)

At this the old woman, like a piano teacher who taps out the beat with a conductor’s baton on her pupil’s head, began to read the first paragraph in his stead, coming down on every other syllable: ‘And- it happ-ened in-the days-of A-ha suer-us . . .’An excerpt of Adam Z. Levy's new translation.

The green measuring tape hung down from the old woman’s neck onto the table. She always fastened the bound bouclé and the woolen sections with the pins stuck in her wrap so that she got the back of the sweater, its sleeve or its front, by drawing around the well-worn outline with sharp pieces of soap, and by cutting off the unneeded parts along the lines so the sections would stay together. The difficult part— finishing the necklines and making the buttonholes— only began after this. Now, however, there wasn’t a word about it. Her thick, short pointer finger waited under the first letter, unwilling to bargain, while P. looked searchingly at his grandmother to see whether it was really from this book that he needed to read. But his grandmother was unwilling to notice the hesitation. She had been given the task of teaching the child to read that summer. So P. dropped his head towards the old woman’s hands; for a moment he was amazed by the softness of her wrinkles, and then, on that page, where the writing was in Hungarian, he tried to read out the first words. But right away he ran into the sort of words which, even on a third attempt, he did not succeed in deciphering. At this the old woman, like a piano teacher who taps out the beat with a conductor’s baton on her pupil’s head, began to read the first paragraph in his stead, coming down on every other syllable: ‘And- it happ-ened in-the days-of A-ha suer-us . . .’

And it happened in the days of Ahasuerus—the Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty- seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. In those days, when King Ahasuerus occupied the royal throne in the fortress Shushan, in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all officials and courtiers, the administra- tion of Persia and Media, the nobles and governors of the provinces in his service, to display the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty. The royal festivities lasted half a year: hundreds of cows and bulls were slaughtered, fat sizzled and crackled, round bread baked all day on the hot stone slabs and sweet royal wine was consumed by the barrel. The king hosted every man and his son in Shushan, regardless of age. Barefoot or in sandals, in white linen robes, as was customary for celebrations, young and old flocked to the gardens of the king’s palace; they were all fed well and many became drunk. The king was also in good spirits from the wine. And on the morning of the seventh day, he ordered his servants to bring out Queen Vashti in her royal crown to display her beauty to the peoples and officials.

Reading time came in the afternoon, when the day’s sweaters were ready and the last customer, whose waist, hips and arms needed measuring with the green tape, had gone. In the mornings, when the day had just begun, before a large mirror standing in the corner, the old woman combed the few long, silver strands of hair that remained on her head after the devastation of an illness twenty years before. Later, still in a nightgown, she adjusted the inside of her wig so it would not chafe, and closing her eyes, pressing her lips together, she placed it on her head, her eyes remaining narrowed, so that she could put it in place, from either above the ears or in front of them, and tucked the remaining strands of her own hair into the thick brown wig. P.’s grandfather meanwhile brought in coffee and hot pastries, put them on the table covered with the floral-patterned oilcloth and said, Fresh from the baker’s, which meant he had just taken them out from the oven—when you bit into one, the warm cakes melted right there on your tongue.

The servants returned to the gardens of the royal palace with their tasks unaccomplished. The king was greatly incensed, and anger burnt within him. He asked the sages and the astrologers close to him, Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven ministers of Persia and Media, what should be done to Queen Vashti according to law for failing to obey the command of the king. And Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: Queen Vashti has committed an offence not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.

The small porcelain plate in which his grandfather brought in the pastries each morning was covered in grey, thread-thin scratches. The centre of the originally white plate had turned completely grey, though the flowers on its rim remained a bright pink, their leaves a poison green. P. spent a large part of the day with his grandfather. Together they went to the store for yarn and thread; they used a large suitcase for carrying home the thread, which had already been treated somewhat with paraffin, but before the sewing could begin, especially if the thread had sat for a while in the closet, one needed to run it through again on a piece of paraffin with the help of the little spindle machine they had at home.

The day’s spinning was like the repetition of stories. ‘Listen, my son, do not betray the wisdom of your father or the teachings of your mother.’ We do not know whether Leopold Blumenfeld still believed in the unity of the mothers and their sons, for at that hour, when the Torah had been given to Israel, the mothers and their sons were still together. We who live among the boards of Rabbi Nachman’s charred house do not know whether Leopold Blumenfeld had already recognized the silence that encircles us. He surely must have suspected something. For the stories and objects did not all go quiet at once but, rather, in their subtle turn, one after the other, and who knows when the fire went out, the one which began to burn out the words within them. And since then what we hear as silence is really just a frenzy of voices. The speech of the dead is a flickering flame, and it all began with that fire. Leopold Blumenfeld could hardly have heard this speech as we do. Otherwise, perhaps he wouldn’t have told the following story to his congregation in one of his new year’s predictions: ‘Once a Persian paid a visit to Rabbi Hillel and asked of him, “Teach me the Torah.” So the rabbi showed him an aleph and said, “Say that, aleph.” But the Persian asked, “Who can guarantee that this is really an aleph? Maybe someone would say that this isn’t an aleph.” The rabbi then showed him a bet but the Persian answered as before. The rabbi shouted at him and angrily dismissed him. The Persian, however, did not let the matter drop and went to see Rabbi Samuel and asked of him, “Teach me the Torah.” So the rabbi showed him an aleph and said, “Repeat after me, aleph.” But the Persian asked, “How can I be sure that it’s really an aleph?” At that moment the rabbi grabbed hold of the Persian’s ear. And in pain, the Persian shouted, “Ow, my ear! Ow, my ear!” And Samuel asked, “How can I be sure that this is really your ear?” The Persian, still in pain, answered, “Everyone can see that this is my ear.” The rabbi then let go of the Persian’s ear and said, “Just as everyone knows what’s an aleph and what’s a bet!” The Persian’s mind was put at ease and the rabbi taught him the Torah.’

So that P. would learn not only to read but also to write, since one amounted to little without the other, the old woman found it best to dictate the hard-to-read passages for P. to write out in a blue, spiral-bound notebook, carefully articulating each syllable, just as a teacher takes dictation at school. At first all this accom- panied a smaller sort of suffering, the most painful part of which, out of sheer exhaustion, P. hardly even felt, as the old woman underlined every mistake twice with a red pen and made him write down the correct sen- tences on the other side. His head was buzzing but he believed that this was really the only way to learn to read well.

P.’s mother remembered nothing of her bat mitzvah. Probably several of them all at once were led in white dresses before the covenant; with a great theatrical movement, the rabbi extended his arm above the girls and blessed them, then they said a prayer, which in all likelihood they had practised for days. Only weeks later did the old woman reveal to her daughter in passing which book she had begun to teach P. from. Until that point, if her daughter asked whether they were reading, she said, Calm down, as though the questioning were already a bother; by the end of the summer, her son wouldn’t just be reading the book, he’d be singing it. For the moment, however, P. read in stops and starts. Though the old woman became more patient from day to day, allowing P. to stumble on the longer words for a third time and keeping her piano-teacher hand still, P. nevertheless felt it there on his head and saw in the letters the tapping of the old, thick pointer finger.




Join us at Brody Studios at 8pm on Tuesday 17 April to see Gábor Schein in conversation with Owen Good in English, with live readings in English too! Find the details here. Or look out for the podcast afterwards.



The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus are the first and the second novels by Hungarian writer Gábor Schein. Published together in one volume, they comprise the first in Seagull Books’s new Hungarian List series. The two novels are available to purchase from Chicago University Press.

Both novels trace the legacy of the Holocaust in Hungary. The Book of Mordechai tells the story of three generations in a Hungarian Jewish family, interwoven with the biblical narrative of Esther. Lazarus relates the relationship between a son, growing up in the in the final decades of late-communist Hungary, and his father, who survived the depredations of Hungarian fascists during World War II. Mordechai is an act of recovery—an attempt to seize a coherent story from a historical maelstrom. By contrast, Lazarus, like Kafka’s unsent letter to his own father, is an act of defiance. Against his father’s wish to never be the subject of his son’s writing, the narrator places his father at the center of his story. Together, both novels speak to a contemporary Hungarian society that remains all too silent towards the crimes of the past.




Adam Z. Levy is a translator from Hungarian and the publisher of Transit Books.

Translated by: Adam Z. Levy