04. 24. 2015. 09:13

Sorrowful City (excerpt from Protocol)

Chronicling the everday life of a chief of protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – his relationships, pastimes and anxieties – János Térey's novel, written in verse, gives us an insight into the life of the middle class in today's Budapest.

The city slowly staggers to its feet
From the depravation of New Year’s Eve.
Great amounts of snow fall by the morning.
Men lean from mound to mound, stretch out
From one puddle to another, their bodies
Scattered all over the world, into nothingness.
Immense apathy on the roads.
The news of parties quickly go around,
Their vibrations make the masses happy,
Even mourning, or failure makes them happier.
What thirst, what urban thirst!
The constant thirst for events,
Which is completely satisfied
With any kind of negative vibe.
Leaden, leaden letters that tell about
Bad mood are nourishment in this
Rough weather. The snow is still there on
Tuesday morning.
It wasn’t cleared off
On the first day of the New Year.
– The snow came as a surprise, it hasn’t fallen
From time immemorial: a regular snow fall
In Budapest! Weathered citizens walk around
The paths carved in the snow, among the twelve inch
High snow walls. Now we have snow since
Advent. But this indeed is more than anything. –
The TV shows a cheerful New Year concert.
Tick-tock polka and Pizzicato polka,
and of course The Blue Danube waltz.
Today it doesn’t help, does not set anything into motion.

– New calendar? Good. Well, then all its
Virgin pages must be filled –
Mátrai growls to himself,
For days the new year mailing was taken care of
In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs machinery,
Pour féliciter nouvel an…” Enough of that.
The light of a green shaded lamp in the bank: that’s all
the sign of life Mátrai produces through the window
On the first evening of the New Year.
“Only the horse-race made it worthwhile
At Kincsem race track. Dorka and Donner were there
In champagne groove. Tickets in their hands
They rooted for each other, rooted strongly
At the very last race of the old year
For a horse with a pretty name:
Was it the Queen of Sheba? Fortune’s Son?
Montgomery, Ibiza Sun? Clarissa?
Searching around for well based tips
In the midst of the trapping of the hooves,
The tension was clearly sensed between them.
Splitting already…? Could be.
Well, we fumbled around the situation,
That we would be tied together with scores
Of buckles. We join tracks on and off.
My ex is on the side of my friend;
Our good spirits at the race track, our nostalgia
Is mutual. It’s impossible for us to clash. –

He’d forget that tiring diplomats’
New Year’s party on the hill.
–… In a rented hotel with a posh raffle,
Where some “celebrities” sang “evergreen”
Songs from some musicals.
Nine course festive dinner,
Then dizzy dancing after midnight.
Everyone was there from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Except Skultéti, it’s below him, different category;
But not for Kovács. We talked a bit.
He simply walked away from me. I don’t know
Or perhaps I know all too well…
Lordolatry and this catching rage of becoming
A dignitary in every word they utter,
Washed down by tasty oxtail soup.
The well-functioning family ties,
Tinkling medals of decoration.
With the exception of Binder, that gentle man. –
He conjures their magic words:
“I’d like to be the ambassador to Lisbon
Or Kuala Lumpur, God grant it to me,”
All of them say that except Binder,
And except the tired Mátrai.
A few years ago he was infected with that too,
But he’s over with it by now. That is all.
The quiet January evenings are coming.
New Year’s Eve is always quiet.

In his dream, with a careless move
He started an avalanche from the ledge,
Very close to an alpine avalanche,
It ended with a mass catastrophe.
Broken hooded cars under the snow, and…
He hurried down the staircase shivering.
The tenants had gathered around,
He had never seen them before; his mother
And his quiet little brother came too.
By the evening – “by the time of the hearing” –
He was told what to say before the court.
It’s necessary to declare himself not guilty.
Why did it happen under the window of his mother?
How did he get snow in his hands? And moreover:
What was he doing up on the roof, on Balzac Street?
Where he has no business whatsoever.
Karányi stopped next to him, slowly rolled down
The window of his Suzuki and said in a slightly
Cynical way: “So I’ve heard, I’ve heard…”
After all, nothing matters for a kibitzer.  –

He woke with a lingering headache, sharp at noon.
Bell. His mother rang the bell without  prior notice.
That’s weird. “Say, what’s up, little Vera?”
She stepped closer to her son.
“So Blanka’s your lover? Your own cousin…?
Son. That’s crushing. I can’t believe it.”
“How did you find out?”  “It was like an open
Secret. Juli’s tongue tripped. My dear son.
I’m dumbfounded. You two hooked up?
This I…” –  And she just stares. Licks her lips.
“Your cleaning lady is busy nowadays?”
She wasn’t only looking: she was checking out the flat,
As if a police patrol was scoping his surroundings.
She is going in circles, in circles. “You came to
check me out? What are you checking?” “Nothing, dear.”
(Hm. An awful woman, Mátrai thinks.
– She decided to be unscrupulous.
She chose to be pushy! Too bad,
My mother plays the part of an awful woman.
Vera is going around, touches the shelves, and,
Since she can’t find anything, she is ready to leave.
Quickly peeks into the bathroom.
“Clean laundry on New Year’s Day?!”
“Come on. Are you serious, is that a problem for you?
Hey, it’s just an old superstition.” –  Mátrai is shocked
To see that his mother is lighting a cigarette. –
“Do it in the balcony, please. Well, it’s over anyway.
We broke up last year.” His mother stares at him:
Doesn’t know whether to believe him or not,
She squints her eyes at him a bit
And leaves without saying goodbye.

“Will they all leave me like this in the end?”
Mátrai rolls his head around a few times.
Unhurriedly turns the heater up.
Lights a candle, that he rarely does. Inhales
The rich sandalwood scent of the incense.
Dusting in the meantime. Pondering…
No, it’s not Blanka. It’s Fruzsina he’s interested in.
The shorthand writer. She wasn’t looked after.
– I must admit: Fruzsina has disappeared.
But who didn’t? Everyone disappeared
By the time all the pine needles dropped
From all the green pine trees.
Thousands of dreams lie resting like oysters
On ice beds. Was everything in vain?
Iron times. The time of great remorse.
This is the elusive time of hopes for
Lentil soup. It is the time of filet of perch.
Leftover time. Heartburn time. Hydrochloric acid.
At present, Budapest is an eastern death row,
A humiliated and ragged city in crisis
At the time of the great winter.
Men on the levee at work,
On the platforms of the tube and of blue buses,
And in pizzerias without any vibe.
Fine snow dust is sifting on top of
Last year’s snow mounds. Bad mood.
New Year’s Eve is quiet and dead.

Later, at the reception on the fifth at the Swedish
Embassy with hardly any enthusiasm, the place
Is half full. Budapest is staggering around,
Gradually recovering. The roofs are burdened
With sunk-in snow. The corporation is represented
By Vendelín, the sweet Czech ambassador.
Co je nového,” he asks gently.
Nic zvlástniho,” Mátrai answers while
Scanning Vendelín’s wide face.
Unfolding foreigners – how
Arduous, how complicated.
He steps back clumsily. Yet Vendelín
Notices something in Mátrai,
The uncertainty, for sure:
It didn’t show before. This man is insecure.” –
The Circle was boring without you,”
Says Vendelín with a wide smile.
“You had other things to do?” “It was assigned to someone else this year.”
“But who?” “Well, the President’s man.”
“Last year you were there too.” “I helped them.”
“It bored me without you.” New Year! Getting up
To watch his zealous President marching
Before the line of ambassadors,
Acknowledging wishes,
And him introducing them one by one…
“A conveyor belt. That he was no longer part of this
Was an unusual relief.”

Then came the disappointing melting of the snow.
Plus Blanka wrote another letter.
– She feels sorry for what happened.
Coquettishly mentions Evelin…
“How was Hanuka?” Some mild Jew-bashing?
I could think so, with some malice.
Oh, this is only a crumb of penance
Wrapped in cellophane. I don’t know. It’s not enough.
Another film is rolling in my mind –
Mátrai thinks with resignation.
– Peak Hill, way above the snow-line!
Just as I got used to the way up to her,
the walk up there, I can forget it now.
No. It won’t get any better. A heavy no.
And Mátrai erases this driblet of confession.
– Go ahead, not backwards like a crab. –
He has lunch with his mother, just a salad.
“Tell me, little Vera, what were you looking for
At my place?” “You know, signs of Blanka.”
Mátrai looks his mother in the eye, as
His wobbling hands run through the piano
Keys. Schubert. He stops,
Watches Vera’s wide pupils.
He takes a slim (or tiny) case out of his pocket:
“God bless you, it’s your name day tomorrow.”
“Ágoston, that’s nice, so typical of you…
I figured you forgot it.” “Me?!”
Mátrai laughs wryly,
Then says goodbye, and takes a stroll in the city.
At the theatre he takes a look at the program,
And stumbles on something on the steps.
Ouch, a dead pigeon… or rather, a piece of snow. –
The tip of his shoe barely touches it.

Translated by: Michael Castro and Gábor G. Gyukics

Tags: János Térey