07. 12. 2018. 16:59

Gábor Vida: The Story of a Stutter (An Excerpt)

Translated by Peter Sherwood

I'm sure my father hadn't read that short novel of mine, or indeed any of my books, all the way to the end, so I don't know how he came across the incriminating sentence that showed me in my true colours – We are pleased to bring you an excerpt from Gábor Vida's novel, translated by Peter Sherwood.

BUT is not a word we start sentences with, my father declared, and I snapped back: But we do. This is a regular scene, whenever he happens to glance at something I've written, he puts it down with a world-weary look, because he recalls that sometime in the fifties Dénes Ficzay, the renowned teacher and self-appointed custodian of the Hungarian language at his high school in Arad, had taught him this rule, together with a raft of other infallible rules of grammar and correct usage. We don't start sentences with conjunctions, that's the general rule, I don't know where those who parrot this got it from, or why. Perhaps what they were actually up in arms about was the use of filler words like 'well' and 'you know', that's a claim no one could challenge by saying: why can't you start a sentence with any word you like? Even in our great epic Toldi I found several sentences beginning with 'but', there are many examples in János Arany's work of usage that the guardians of the language would deem inadmissible or wrong. Even Homer nods, you might say. I wouldn't actually point out to my father that he'd just started a sentence with 'but', we're not on good enough terms for me to challenge him. He sort of acknowledges the point about Toldi, with a shrug and a hmm, but well, just saying. He doesn't claim that Ficzay was right rather than Arany, it's just something that occurred to him, à propos of something I'd published. I wasn't taught by Ficzay, though I did attend the same school thirty years later. At the time I wrote the sentence that my father picked me up on, I was a reasonably well-known writer of prose, a Transylvanian Hungarian author, a teacher of Hungarian language who'd slipped the educational noose, as it were, though I'd never had to teach composition to schoolkids.

I'm sure my father hadn't read that short novel of mine, or indeed any of my books, all the way to the end, so I don't know how he came across the incriminating sentence that showed me in my true colours, giving away how little I knew, how vain it was to expect worldwide recognition. There's no point arguing with him about matters of language or philosophy, because what he comes out with are never his own opinions but appeals to authorities, it never occurs to him that I might have any sort of expertise in such matters. Though I know that probably what he intended to convey to me, yet again, was that at the literary event of which the TV broadcast a two-minute-long clip I could at least have worn a tie, and by this he meant, more or less, that I should really shave off my beard, now that I was on TV. He didn't quite put it this way at the time, but he had often said as much before, for him the care expended on my facial appearance and general grooming was in direct correlation with my intellectual worth or, rather, with success. When I was a child my mother was particularly preoccupied with my nails and the cleanliness of my hands, I had constantly to wash my hands, whether or not there was a reason for doing so, before and after, it made virtually no difference when or why, often simply because she said it was time I did. Whenever possible she cut my nails so short that I could barely hold a pencil, don't worry, she said, they'll soon grow again, and my ears had constantly to be swabbed out with a matchstick or, later, a hairpin wrapped in cotton-wool, sometimes this tickled, at other times it hurt, once we almost perforated an eardrum because I wouldn't sit still. Later, for my father, it's my hair and beard that cause problems, it's like time has stood still, unless and until I'm prepared to make an effort to look like a human being, what is there to discuss? I can't seem to get it into his head that this was an issue only when he was young. Those were the days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Hair, too, was intended for him, way back when, but either he was unaware of this even at the time, or he no longer remembers, or rather, his preferences have changed, I should say, to be more precise.  The football players of my childhood wore their hair long, like girls, says my father, thinking of Mario Kempes and Dominique Rocheteau, who'd scored against us, but that was long ago, in 1978, when even football players didn't wear beards, perhaps Paul Breitner had one a few years later, and sometimes rock musicians with long hair and beards appear on TV, monkeys they look like, he says. But as I once vowed that if the Ceaușescu dictatorship ever fell I'd grow a beard, I can't shave it off now, I wouldn't even for a girlfriend, let alone to please my father, in the year twothousand-and-something. It's a waste of breath trying to explain this to him, who despite having spent most of his life under a dictatorship, never wanted to sport a beard, and as regards women, we never did speak about them, just as we didn't about so much else.

What I do remember, very clearly, is that one Saturday midday when I was still in high school a policeman at the railway station in Arad told me in no uncertain terms to go and get a shave, as my chin was covered in stubble, and he was able to do this with impunity, my father wouldn't have spoken up for me, even had he happened to be there. He wouldn't have stood up to the policeman, brought up human rights, privacy issues, the constitution, it was not done to refer to such matters in the Romania of the time, nor could I have expected him to do so, he never was one for the heroic gesture, at least not in matters concerning me. He wouldn't have said, Comrade Officer, this is my son, I'll take him to the barber's, or I'll shave him with my own hands. This might have implied that he was compensating for his failure to bring me up properly, that, after all, was what this was ultimately all about, the kid's uncouth, it's all over his face. We wouldn't draw attention to ourselves just because of a stubble-chinned teen, and anyway, in this case the authorities are right, having regulation hair is a top priority. This is not to suggest that I thought my father cowardly at the time, nor is he now, though when he was young he was given proper lessons in learning to be afraid. Of course, he might later have added: fucking hell! or: Jesus Christ! As a Calvinist who once studied theology he would've known the meaning of those words, he had good reason to loathe the regime, though he was never ordained, perhaps he never even believed in Christ or God. But he should've appreciated that what the policeman did was an abuse of his powers, he might at least have told me in confidence that he was aware of this, even if it had to remain strictly between us. But no, he didn't say anything, even later, not to me, not for my sake. Nor did I say at the time that the policeman made me miss my train, and that wasn't the only time either, likewise it was only later that I explained why I had a beard at the time, and also why I kept it later. It was pointless bringing up such matters, it was, after all, I who'd provoked the protector of the Romanian state and the smooth-chinned masses, back in 1984.

That was how we tended to communicate. I couldn't say we talked, he never talked to anyone, at least not that I ever saw. I've never been a great talker myself, I generally just say my piece, as I have ever since I could string words together. Not that even this was easy. I don't know what my father thought of the other sentences in my novel, I'm not really sure if I expected him to have an opinion of his own, whether literary or paternal. It would've been nice, of course, perhaps. But it may be that I was glad he didn't, or at least I accepted he didn't, because my father never seemed to have his own views about anything, just data that were more or less accurate, you get used to that. And when he did happen to have an opinion, he would never let us know what it was, only remind us, sometimes, later, that he already knew that it was so at the time, though what was so and when, he would never say, his judgements were damning, on the whole...

About my beard he had always shared the view of the policeman at the railway station, who has since been retired, but my father's views won't ever be retired or repudiated. I'm sharing a stage with Béla Markó and all my father can see on TV is the Romanian deputy prime minister's tie, remarking how appropriate it is. That's how much of me is visible to him, that's all he tells me he saw. I must have been forty at the time, if not more. He's never read a line of Markó's poetry, maybe he's heard him speak on TV, nor can he see his beard, only his tie, and that he's the modern-day Prince of Transylvania, seeing that this is where we must now live, as he's now had to move here, close to Marosvásárhely, in Transylvania, because I couldn't afford to buy my own place and make a living. Because what else ought a man to do but buy a house if he doesn't already own one, or add an extension to it if he does, and take good care of his family. As a matter of fact it was only my mother who wanted us to move to Transylvania at all costs, once we had no relatives left in Kisjenő, where they'd lived until then, and when it also dawned on them that I'd never go back, I'd begun to put some roots down where I was, right here. And my mother had decided that after all those years, it must've been getting on for thirty, she wanted her only son back at any price, even if it meant moving house and starting all over again. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that my father was seriously Hungarian, it's beyond his ken that anyone could be anything else, what would that actually mean, anyhow? Romanians, Germans, Gypsies he does understand, at least somewhat, the Székely Hungarians he dismisses with a wave of the hand, as far as he's concerned they're history, or a misunderstanding. It's with these hard to define things that he has problems, he'd prefer there to be just a single set of rules to live by, that's how we should live, every one of us.

He'd lived in Romania all his life and never thought of himself as a Transylvanian, though he'd gone to university in its capital, Kolozsvár, and can't understand why the Hungarians in Gyula, in Hungary proper, started calling him Transylvanian from the 1980s onwards, when he's actually from the village of Ágya, a native of Kisjenő, or, for the geographically challenged, he'd agree to call it Arad. He speaks the same dialect as the Hungarians over the border, though its rough edges have been smoothed by school and university, and he speaks Romanian in the same way, with the same accent, as the Romanians of Gyula, it's what he picked up as a child, when this was still the main variety of the language in the area. In other words, he can grasp the situation, knows why things are the way they are, how they've come about, but he thinks it's all a profound insult, so humiliating that it's not worth talking about. And Transylvania as such is as disappointing a world for him as it is for most tourists from Hungary, once the stardust has fallen from their sunglasses and the reality is revealed. My mother, I need hardly say, is Transylvanian, and a Székely to boot.

My father, when he cares to express a view concerning the state of the world, generally offers a sentence or two from the daily paper he happens to be reading. He's irritated if he can't find anything that reflects what's on his mind, such disarray is outrageous. My mother is always putting things away, my father never does, and when he can't find something he chides my mother: where've you put it this time? Should he wish to say something about viniculture, or how grapes should be tended or wine stored, a back copy of the horticultural and vinicultural journal Kertészet és Szőlészet, even if it's ten or twenty years old, will do at a pinch, at the end of the eighties that was one of the few periodicals from Hungary allowed in by the authorities, in the end even that wasn't, but the back issues tied up with string take up an entire chest under the bed, and he always has a bundle or two ready to hand. He spends a long time searching for the article he needs, grape varieties, grafts, equipment, chemicals, wine, all of these have a soul, whether human beings do is doubtful, on the other hand my mother says alcohol is the devil incarnate. My father is an enthusiastic winemaker, on occasion he even managed to create some very fine white wine and, once, some prizeworthy vinegar. We would also drink the other stuff he made, but it was unmemorable. Our garden in Kisjenő readily met all our kitchen needs, carrots, onions, celery, parsley, tomatoes and paprika, as well as raspberries, redcurrants, apples and peaches, plums, apricots, jostaberries, there's even a lone Székely pine reaching for the sky of the Great Hungarian Plain, but the soil here is hardly suitable for vines, and our garden's black earth certainly isn't. Not that my father's bothered by any of this, the soil and the climate are outside his control, and anyway it was my mother who did the househunting back in the day, and she it was who wanted to have a house, as she did so many other things, though she was all her life a town person, wanting to be up several storeys high, so she wouldn't have so much housework to do, as she puts it, because in a town after work you just go home and turn on the TV. My father prefers reading to gardening or winemaking or any kind of farm work, he drinks little and rarely, certainly not enough to believe in his dreams, or to dream of things beyond belief, in this respect, too, we are chalk and cheese. He can calculate the cost of a glass of wine down to the last penny, and of course it comes out far cheaper than in the shops, as a matter of fact for many years it was almost impossible to buy decent wine in Romania, we have our standards after all, and, not least, he likes white and I prefer red, obviously. Drinking our own wine saves us money, that was his theory. I can't now recall whether he said this as a boast, or as an excuse for the plonk, which after all was what it was, but there you are. If we neither cultivate grapes nor drank wine, we'd save just as much money, if not more, I said, as I was feeling contrarian. In my mother's eyes, wine isn't worth a single scoop of the shovel, in this respect she was a fundamentalist, in her corner of Székelyland people's knowledge of wine comes from books, though this is malicious exaggeration, on the other hand she's teetotal, and constantly worries for me because of the demon drink, and not, as it later turned out, without good reason, but she started off on this jag too soon, for a long time I didn't get what all the fuss was about.

Whether doing our own housework is a profitable enterprise, or just one we don't actually make a loss on, was for years a regular source of blazing rows. I maintain that if it's only profit we're after, we should put the flagstones down for our neighbours' paths and get them to pay for it, or sell our wine, for example, though that's something only my mother would have us do, but at the very least we shouldn't monetise any surplus. But it's no use. My father calls me a Marxist, coming from him that's a swear-word, though what I'm advocating is not that he pay me for my labour, just that he should admit we'd get the paths made and not the stonemason's wage, we'd have our wine and not what it sells for. He thinks a son is obliged to work for his father, and this is the source of the surplus, because for ourselves we work gratis. I do, after all, have everything I need, but can't understand why we should have to work for free, particularly when we do have all we need. Maybe I'm in debt in some way? Or this is the custom? And come to think of it, who are we, anyway? The work bit I get, you have to do whatever needs to be done, though unlike my mother I don't enjoy working, I don't find it necessary to constantly busy myself doing something, I'd rather get it over and done with, like my father, but this free-and-for-nothing business, how does that figure here? My father knows but isn't prepared to explain, because that would mean an argument, having to make his case. I must be a Marxist, as I loathe being made to work, especially when this free-and-for-nothing line is rubbed under my nose. These exchanges drive my mother up the wall, peace and quiet is what's most important to her, and she always shies away from any confrontation, that's her attitude, but if there's an argument and she's unable to calm us down, she walks away in an offended huff, she has things to do.

In my father's spare time he and I often enjoy a bit of do-it-yourself, and our first attempt, whatever it might be, generally comes crashing down, or we make a botch of it, the 'it' generally being something instigated by my mother, my father would make a start, and then give up, it would be up to me to finish it off, or we wrestled with the wretched thing together. Woodshed, chicken coop, flagstones, fence, storage shed, whatever might be needed for the house, essential for day-to-day survival. I like playing around with wood, taking measurements, designing things, and I'm quite good with my hands, I went to technical college, did stints at factories of all sorts, but even my understanding of things has its limits, and I don't like being bossed about. My father can't even hammer a nail into a wall straight, for a real man that, and putting in a screw askew, is as humiliating as an apron for a goalie. He's had a desk job all his life, born left-handed but forced to use his right, that messed up his coordination, yet he is incredibly demanding, nothing's ever good enough. I'm slapdash by comparison, nothing I do will ever be up to scratch, even if I bust a gut trying. He's thrifty to the point of stinginess, the materials we use are money down the drain, iron, wood, nails, screws, cement, all cost money, are expensive or hard to get, the tools and equipment we own are basic, everything bought at rock-bottom prices, though should we have two of anything, you can bet we have to use the one that's shoddier. In reality my father is neither a cheapskate nor does he have two left hands, he's just insecure, everything he's ever done always turned out to be wrong or flawed, or could've gone pear-shaped at any time. Our entire life is one long act of doing-it-yourself, a string of moments consisting of realisations that I'd sawed the plank in the wrong place, but it's too late, we'll have to manage, and adjust everything else to this whatsit whose measurements we've messed up. We always realise what's happened just too late, there's no remedying the situation, now that we've sawed it off we mustn't throw it away, we'll patch things up, make it good, tie it together as best we can, wire, foil, superglue, we'll make do and mend. Do it yourself, sir, if you have no servant to do it for you! Everything is always unfinished, imperfect, improvised. There stands my father, with his folding rule, or saw, or spirit level, adjusting his glasses and thinking. He's in general like some intellectual finally liberated from a boot camp, always needing time to weigh his current options, what can be done, what must be done, and what's not allowed. What he spends most time doing is reflecting on the whys and wherefores, why he must, his beret in place, make something he doesn't know how to, that's doomed to be a fiasco, to make him agitated, something that will break, split, bend, rip, fall apart. Time to do it there is in spades, of course, weekends, holidays, red letter days, at worst we'll get fed up that time's passing so slowly, they'll soon be kicking off at some football match, or maybe handball, or ice hockey, athletics, ski jumping, so we must, after all, hurry up and get on with it. It'll be time for lunch any minute, that's the most important thing, in fact that's what it's all about, having lunch, in my mother's book the only labour worthy of the name is the work she does, everything else is a hobby, a pastime, but provided we don't get in her way it's fine, though if we helped out that would be even better. Measure twice before cutting once, the saying goes, but in our household we measure three times, once before cutting and twice after, just to make sure we really have screwed up again. It's just as well we have no machinery, though my father keeps dreaming and scheming that he'll get a circular saw sometime, but that scares me shitless, truly a danger to life and limb.

No wonder my mother was pleased whenever she could call on a competent colleague from the workshop, or a neighbour, cost no object, and we don't do-it-ourselves, don't risk body and soul, materials don't go to waste, there are no rows about how and why, and the cherry on the cake is that it all looks as though it was my mother who'd sorted things out, as if she'd done it all herself. The expert was generally free only when my father was not home, he worked quickly and smoothly, whether expensively or not, it makes no difference now. My father should've been pleased that a job of work had been done properly for once, but he wasn't pleased, he immediately found something to carp about, the fence, or the paving, or the colour was no good, in fact nothing was any good, he could come out with a litany of flaws, even years later. As for the views of the women in the neighbourhood, we never thought they mattered. We knew the truth. Later it turned out that it made no difference that we knew the truth, that everybody knew that moonlighters are prepared to do pretty much any odd job during their working hours, nor did the fact that we were convinced that gossip was just gossip, easy for those not working 9 to 5. But gossip is king. A workman turns up at our house and, once again, it's in the morning.

My mother considered herself head of the family, though she never quite put it like that, everything had to be just the way she wanted it, that's what came to her naturally, and as a matter a fact everything did indeed revolve around her, though the way she saw it she did it all for us, she was sacrificing herself for our sake. If what happened was not what she wanted to happen, and how she wanted it to happen, she would first say so forcefully, then she would say it again, and if we still didn't do as we were told, she would start pushing, pulling, lashing out, it could happen any day, my mother with spade, shovel, pliers, socket wrench, fence post, flagstone, tree stump, gas cylinder, my mother is indestructible. And she was always going to be ill any minute, it would always be her gall-bladder in the end, her gall-bladder can't take it, sometimes she'd spend weeks working up to this point, because she couldn't get her way every time, even if we sacrificed ourselves body and soul it would be impossible. But it's worst of all when she's against something, in such cases she is even able to overcome illness and depression, between two bouts of vomiting she'll look up, rise to her feet, and take action, anything she opposes will certainly not happen. She never feigns anything, she lives and breathes everything she says.

My mother has a schedule for her life, work around the house that she must do. Ultimately this is something that has been allocated to her by God, just as He has allocated their work to everyone, life consists in carrying this out, even if it should cost us our lives, sacrifices have to be made. The trouble is that my mother's basic mission happens to be me, I am the obligation she must fulfil, as a rule even against my will. What a cross to bear you both are, she often sighs, the other mission obviously being my father. She's not above a physical tussle if all else fails. She'd even pour the wine herself, but that would lead to verbal wrangling, my mother holds that alcohol is poison, according to my father wine is healthful. At this point he would start enumerating its positive biological effects, vitamins, aminoacids, antioxidants, several hundred specific compounds, all identified by name, I accept all this, my father is an authority in this field, alcohol is simply a universal solvent, in which the heavenly chemist dissolves all useful matter. At this point we might take a break, my father would ideally consult a textbook or some specialist journal, after which we'd have a glass of wine to verify the information we'd acquired. My mother regards only one activity as healthful and that is unremitting labour, because the cost of living keeps going up, money's worth less and less, seeing as there's no gold standard behind it, so you have constantly to be active and save, save for a rainy day all you possibly can. First you must use up all the leftovers, finish off the dry crusts, use up the jam bottled the year before last, a bit of today's lunch must always be kept back for tomorrow and, if possible, for the day after, there should always be something at home to eat, she says, no matter what, or what it's like, sometimes she even retrieves something I've thrown in the rubbish bin, or at least checks it out. She is focused, indiscreet, wilful. I'm a born drover, she says of herself, and no one knows that this droverhood refers not to the activity of driving cattle or camels or mules, but that drover was a term applied to the comrades who carried out collectivization in fifties Transylvania. By the time I'm ready to start the task I've been allocated, she's already done it, and shoots me a reproachful look, ideally she'd want us to do it together, under her guidance, with her dictating the pace, and thanking me in the end for my help, even if I'd done everything by myself. In our household everything happens on, and thanks to, her say-so, she doesn't approve of anyone showing signs of independence, she must put her oar in even in matters she knows nothing about. She'll second-guess my father, outdoing him if at all possible, whether it's digging, chopping wood, making the fire, shopping, or even getting hold of firewood or building materials, her organisational skills are unsurpassed. She is invariably up earlier, dressed sooner, twigs more quickly what must be done, and my father lets her, if it matters to her, let her do it. My mother likes men's work, she'd prefer to haul sacks morning till night, she says, because she doesn't like to cook, nothing remains to show for that. Even eating she's not keen on, she suffers constantly from digestive complaints, eating is yet another duty, as is feeding others, what she likes doing is the washing up, the weekly wash, ironing, cleaning the house, because there's something to show for that, even if not for very long. I was a poor eater as a child, another burden, and then after a bout of flu she would lose her sense of taste and smell, that is, the ability to appreciate rosemary, thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, though not soap, petrol, or varnish.

My father would try from time to time to break out of these confines. My mother is aware that my father ought to be the head of the family, but he just can't manage it, the winemaking is a breaking-out effort of this kind, as is, often, the DIY, trying to handle the pursestrings, but above all the illness he withdraws into. Actually there would be no problem with my mother being in charge, because she is on the ball, determined, energetic, only she constantly complains that she has so much to do and to organise, and how difficult, dreadful, hopeless everything is, she's always on her own, when things don't work out it's all down to her. Because we always work for ourselves, free, gratis and for nothing, and also against ourselves, I add under my breath, uncharitably. My father points out: that's your mother all  over. He says this only to me, never to my mother, and whispers it rather than says it, under his breath and with a dismissive gesture. As far as he is concerned I, too, am something my mother has administered, he was already sure at the time that nothing would come of it, but he didn't want to interfere. What would have been the point? For her part my mother also complains to me, about how hard life is, how unhappy she is, her relatives are far away, these here are strangers. When I don't behave the way she thinks I should, I'm one of these too: Vida. Though she's glad she saw to it that I had everything and made every sacrifice to ensure I turned out well.

In return for the sacrifices made for me I owe her obedience, I'm up to my ears in debt to her, as she puts it, I should do as I'm told, this is for ever and amen and applies to everything. It's not just she has a say in my life, since, of course, she wants only what's best for me, after all, and knows exactly what that is, but some kind of unspoken contract was entered into when I was born, whereby I'd live my life the way I should, the way I was brought up to. I, too, have a God-given duty, mediated by my mother, she keeps an eye on me and calls me to account. But I am obstinate, headstrong, that's my nature, she says. I sit tieless and bearded next to Béla Markó at some literary event, he's a great man, I'm a little man, he's rich, I'm poor, he's the Prince, and I'm just a writer, that's the TV's message for my parents about Hungarian literature in Transylvania. Still, it's nice for them to see me in the company of the great and the good, and my father even inquires if that Péter Esterházy would happen to be related to the ex-footballer with the same surname.


Translated by Peter Sherwood

(In Hungarian: Vida Gábor: Egy dadogás története, Magvető, 2017)


Previously on HLO:
History of a Stutter – A Review of Gábor Vida's novel by Sára Zorándy