01. 15. 2010. 08:53

King M. (excerpt from a novel)

Endre Kukorelly

Serious face, he rarely smiles. Supposedly too little, but rarity of smiling as compared with what? He picks up from the table a bilious-green goblet and crushes it. The blood flows onto the tablecloth. He squeezes it with an even force until the glass smashes. As in a stagey film, though in those they would use paint, whereas this is real blood, though one would have to admit this too is a fairly stagey scene.

King Matthias—er, yes. Lived five hundred and some years ago, one is led to believe. If he really did live at all etc. So he lived, or else he was made up something wicked. Died in Vienna. Buried in Székesfehérvár, in Hungary as still is. Born in Kolozsvár, in Hungary as was. Had a handsome, lame-footed son, by the name of John, born to Barbara Edelpöck, a commoner from the town of Breslau. John Corvinus. We used to live on a corner of King Matthias Road.
 
A plot of land with a holiday cottage, a weekend house, at the corner of Széchenyi with King Matthias Road—that was where I spent my summers in Szentistván Settlement with my younger sister and Grandma. Every blessed summer throughout my boyhood. Each week my father would arrive early on Saturday afternoon, after he had finished work. I would stroll down to the train stop to wait for the local service. The bench was red, the sand yellow; the air over the railway lines would tremble. My father would get out, briefcase under his arm, and in it some book and a choc bar. The briefcase had a smell of Budapest about it; as he opened it the city might have been in my face. The book too had a city smell. Mother would get there towards the evening; she would suddenly appear, I’ve no idea when as I would not be at home then, because I’d be playing footie. Every afternoon there was a footie game with the local lads. The local station’s freshly red-painted benches gradually lose their gloss; by the autumn they would unmistakably be losing their colour. Everything blossomed in quickstep; opening and closing speedily, clenching like a fist. The way women splay their thighs, let’s say. Allegedly.
 
I suppose. In the best case. There are some who are able to bend their fingers right back, the wrong way, like an, I don’t which flower its petals, then if she suddenly grabs it with the other fist and pushes it back, the bones give a sharp click. Cracks them good and loud one by one. Nothing else clicks like that.
 
Nothing cracks like a bone. A knee, the vertebrae. The way a humerus breaks, and splinters—you don’t hear them, and it’s OK as long as you don’t see it, lying hidden among muscle fibres it penetrates the skin from inside. A tiny pop, the sucked-out wishbone that one pulls in fun towards the end of Sunday lunch. One wonders what sort of crack that might have been when the condemned were bound to the wheel of a stage coach and beaten with a crowbar between the spokes. Maybe there was a special execution wheel and execution crowbars, bludgeons, bludgeon-like clubs.
 
Obviously, they would then have had to tap the human remains out from between the spokes. The executioner or whoever steps over to the malefactor on the right, or maybe he did it first with the malefactor on the left, one ought to check that, breaks the leg with a single blow so it will not support the body. Cannot hold himself up on the cross.
 
Also shatters the bones of the arms. A miniature of Christ on the cross in a codex, the most widely used, overused and used-up topos in European art. Plaster Christ in the church at Szentistván Settlement, in a Corvinian codex, or in Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar in Colmar. It’s Saturday, barely gone noon, and I’m sitting at the station, waiting for the local train from Budapest. Next to me is that kid Tomasevich’s older sister, Bea I think it is. I’m sitting, it’s deadly boring and, well alright, not deadly, just boring; there was a train just now but Father was not on it, it’s too early as yet, maybe the next one. At least I hope so. Twenty minutes.
 
Hot as hell.
 
Boring as hell. And suddenly Jani Tomasevich’s older sister comes up the slope. Pushing her bicycle. No one else, no one else around, just me and Johnny Tomasevich’s I don’t know, I think it was his older sister. Though maybe younger, only she’s taller than Johnny. Johnny doesn’t play footie because he hates it, I hate it, he says, on top of which he drags his left foot rather badly. Almost certainly his older sister. But just possibly younger, anyway it doesn’t matter, Bea, young Beatie, and what’s more she’s coming right this way, towards me, that is. Towards the bench.
 
And she sits down here.
 
She sat down beside me. The bike—that she leans on the wire fencing, thuds down beside me.
 
Yup. And without a word she’s pawing in my trousers. She leaned quite close, pushing her nose to my face, and reached into my satin shorts. These are people who every Sunday morning stroll over to the Serbian church in Budakalász, the next village, that is to say the Tomasevich’s do, Jani and his older or younger sister or whatever. In their Sunday best. Bea’s a pretty chick; she knows I look. More like goggle. Now she’s sitting here beside me on the bench, pushing her ear against my temple, or what’s this one here?, my cheekbone, and with her left mitt she is grabbing my—well, you know what. My trou, the thing that’s in it.
 
Then she leaves off. She let it go. She jumps up, twirls in front of me, puts the palms of her hands together as if she were praying, her fingers, the first one, then another, bends them right back so far that the nails touch the upper arm.
 
First one, then the other. Like a flower head. Covering the sun. Her golden blonde hair glistens. Bea’s head was just covering the sun. She bends back her fingers, praying or whatever she’s doing, but staying like that for a long time. Stays, stands, as if painted there.
 
From 1485 on Matthias Corvinus was continually ordering codices from the workshops of Florentine codex-copyists. The copyists almost immediately ceased working when he died, in 1490, obviously not trusting that his successor would pay them off. Piero Medici wrote two epistles on the matter to his father, Lorenzo il Magnifico. Taddeo Ugoletti, the Hungarian royal librarian, negotiates with Naldo Naldi, who directed the Florentine copyists, still having no clue if that assignment is still valid. King M. died on April 4th. Around then the settlement’s cherry trees come into blossom.
 
To bud at least. Or at least I’ve decided that April 4th is when it starts, nor earlier and not later. Spring, there’s no disputing, it’s spring by then, a real spring-y-ness in the air. Even if the wind blows. April the Fourth the song should be about, we belted out in choir practice, Liberated, the people trumpet, and I don’t know how it goes on. Not that I’ve forgotten, it’s just that I never knew. Maybe I should have asked, but somehow I was reluctant, I don’t know why I didn't if others knew it from the get-go. Liber-ated, the stress came out something like that, this is how we sang it because is there any other way if that’s how it was written: liber-
 
short pause
 
and -hated. Liber-, pause, -hated, yet somehow not laughable, or I didn’t find anything laughable about it. Names of dauntless liberators, that bit’s just come to me, the end of the verse. The whole of April, cherry-blossom time would last roughly until my birthday. Széchenyi Street and King Matthias Road. It’s certain that King Matthias lived.
 
He lived, you can’t make that sort of thing up, or even if one could, what’s the point, things like the Black Army and Pál Kinizsi and so on. The Albanian Scanderbeg and Prince Stephen III of Moldavia, Stephen the Great, Stefan cel Mare, who both fought against the Turks, Isabel of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, who fought against the Moors, King Casimir IV Jagiello of Poland, who fought against the Teutonic Knights, Richard III of York and the sole surviving Lancastrian claimant to the English throne, Henry, son of Edmund Tudor of Wales, who fought against each other, or Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who fought against hell knows who.
 
Túpac Inca Yupanqui, Incas, Cuzco, that sort of thing?
 
Frederick III, Holy Roman emperor in Vienna, King Alfonzo V of Aragon, in Naples, and Pope Sixtus IV in Rome. After the annihilation of the Turks at the  battle of Kenyérmezo in 1478, Pál Kinizsi resettled sixty thousand Serbs from areas that were continually being ravaged by the Turks, for the most part to Hungary in the north. In 1476 Matthias Corvinus wed Beatrice of Aragon, daughter of Don Ferrante (Ferdinand I) of Naples. An attractive woman. Matthias Corvinus suffered from gout. His first spouse, Catherine, daughter of George of Podebrad, king of Bohemia, died in 1464. I wonder what these women would have said to KayDeeW’s perfume counter? What faces would they pull if they could somehow be resurrected, like novelist Kálmán Mikszáth did with Bán Miklós Zrínyi in his 1898 New Zrínyiad? Who by the way was all but seventy years younger than Matthias, sixty-eight to be exact, I’d never have believed that he was born 18 years after the king died, and he may not even have spoken any Hungarian.
 
Matthias spoke Hungarian, and in his Latin-language letters to the middle nobility he writes of the glories of the Hungarian language and Mihály Szilágyi, an uncle and by then his viceroy, had an unfeignable Hungarian nature, or so says historian Gyula Szekfu. And what does that do, one asks? but Szekfu writes nothing about that. The organisation of the Ottoman Turkish empire in the modern era was the work of Sultan Mehmed II; it was he who founded the Turkish artillery, with the assistance of a turncoat by the name of Urban. There were also people like that. What sort of nature did that Urban have, though? And Mehmed? And poet Janus Pannonius? And the Bohemian Jiskra? Frantisek Hag, founder of the Black Army, who fell besieging Sabac Castle in Serbia in 1475, was also Bohemian. And Hag, Menyhért Loebl and Tettauer, leaders of the mercenary forces which annihilated the troops of Casimir of Poland and Vladislas of Bohemia at Breslau? Jan Haugwitz, who was sole commander of the army at the time of Matthias’s death? At any event according to poet János Arany, Erzsébet Szilágyi wrote her letter, shedding copious tears of love, well anyway they were Hungarian, no doubt of that. Balázs Magyar, born in Kosice and Captain of Upper Hungary, for instance. But did they speak proper Hungarian?
 
That King M. lived, that’s for sure. Tales about doings in County Gömör are nonsense, of course. Matthias and anything to do with justness, together with his proclamation as king by the middle nobles assembled on the iced-over Danube at Buda on 24 January 1458. What would he say to a laptop, one asks oneself?
 
To a Danube with bridges? A tram ticket? The June 1962 issue of Playboy? Wouldn’t he swap every Corvinian codex in existence for the June 1962 issue of Playboy? Matthias and I could stroll the length of the Settlement. A car’s coming. I wonder what sort of face he would pull if it were a Moskvich. There are cherry trees on both sides of the road, and at times like now, in mid-April, everything is blooming away like mad. Defying as it did the legitimate claims of the infant Ladislas Habsburg to succeed, it was with this election and coronation that the nation’s right to elect its king was asserted for the first time in its totality, writes historian Bálint Hóman. The original possessor and ancestral source of the state’s power was the nation itself, the commonality of the country’s inhabitants, which is to say its fully-empowered freemen and nobles, and the king, whom this noble commonality elevated to the throne in his own person, or that of his ancestor, was merely the possessor of the sovereign’s rights within the sphere of authority invested by the nation in King Stephen I’s crown and thereby in him. Chronicler Simon de Kéza writes about this in Matthias’s reign. Jurist Werboczy codifies the theory of the Holy Crown in his Tripartitum of 1514, the first explicit expression of which had occurred on the occasion of the coronation of Vladislas I, son of King Albert II of Hungary, in 1440: The crowning of kings always depends on the will of the country’s inhabitants, and the authority and power of the crown resides in their approbation. Bálint Hóman was nearly sixty-five and over six foot tall. Most likely he was clubbed to death. An old man. Essentially beaten to death in 1951.
 
Pummelled dead, the unlucky fellow, in one of Rákosi’s prisons, after which he was scraped off into an unmarked grave. That Rákosi lived, that's also for sure. And he was also called Matthias, by the way. Matthias R. There was a Rákosi who played left-half for the Ferencváros football club, and he got the nickname Mattie. Gyula, actually. One of the front line of Szoke, Varga, Albert, Rákosi, Fenyvesi, capped many times for Hungary, with Sándor, Göröcs, Tichy, Bene. And Johnny Farkas. I played for the Ferencváros boys’ team, we were ball boys, the best bit of which was being able to tap a ball back to them. In the 1966 World Cup in England this poor Mattie (or Gyula) skied a ball when taking a shot at goal inside the penalty area against the Russkies, so it was no use that we beat the Brazilians, we still dropped out. Rákosi, the proper Mátyás, a real one and not a Gyula, had a wife of Mongolian or whatever extraction with an incredible mug, Fenya Kornilova, who studied ceramics at the College of Applied Art, supposedly a friend of the potter Margit Kovács. Paid her visits in Szentendre, a bit further north up the Danube from Szentistván Settlement.
 
Yakut, she was, not Mongolian, and no doubt she had a pleasant face, only, well, you know. She was a modest woman, drew superbly and she learned Hungarian quite well. So, we have a Yakut woman who climbs onto the local train going out to Szentendre.
 
For in point of fact she wants to travel by the local train, so they empty the last of the five carriages just for her. I want you by the local train, she informs her husband. They spoke Hungarian, Rákosi used an expressly folksy idiom when he addressed the Hungarian people, tangy in his vernacular, a comical round head he had. He wanted to ban the ringing of church bells at midday, and he also ordered that St Anne’s Parish Church in Batthyány (once Upper Market and later Bomb) Square should be demolished, and Zoltán Kodály should write a new national anthem without the word ‘God’.
 
And with no misfortune and such stuff in it, but Kodály didn’t write one, saying that the old one was good enough. The church wasn’t demolished either. In the spring of 1456, Calixtus III, Alfonso de Borgia,  in his crusading zeal, ordered prayers be said at midday and church bells be rung to summon the faithful. Sultan Mehmed II’s grand vizier was Mahmûd Pasha, beylerbey of Rumilia, a turncoat and, on his mother's side, a Serbian-born great-grandson of Byzantine emperor Alexios IV Angelus, and thus a scion of the Thessalian branch of the Serbian despotate. He had Stepan Tomasevic, last king of Bosnia, decapitated. The leader of Turkish operations in Bosnia, Ali sanjak bey, likewise a turncoat, was possibly Mahmûd’s brother. Calixtus III’s successor, Pope Pius II, even when terminally ill, was a committed believer in the anti-Turkish war. He had himself taken from Rome to Ancona, where he died on 15 August 1464, whereupon the Venetian navy disbanded and the Crusade lost its puff. In the end Matthias was left on his own. At the end of September of that year, Imre Szapolyai, governor of Bosnia, set out from Srem (Syrmia), from Zvornik by the River Drina, in order to secure Belgrade, and he recaptured Várboszna, as Sarajevo was then known to the Hungarians. Bosnia always has belonged to Hungary, and it still does today, writes Matthias to Tomasevic. When I was a boy we spent the whole summer at Szentistván Settlement. We were there throughout the summer, that’s where we lived, in a weekend cottage. In the afternoons I played footie. Every day. Earlier in the day: nothing.
 
There was absolutely nothing. Nothing, hot, hush, monolithic, everything stops, the whole lot. I read and dreamed. For that even a wooden sword was not needed. I cut my own rapier from the hazel bush next to the gate. Black Army, fights with the Turks; I read and dreamed the whole day long. I had to cycle over to Budakalász for drinking water, to the shops in the mornings, that was it. I queued up and dreamed.
 
About having a sword, and knowing all the tricks that could be defended against. Impossible to fend off. An airless fencing  room, windows shut, the white roller blinds drawn, the sun shows through the blind. The foils have no handle, no covering. I’m in a thick, white-flax fencing jacket, no mask. Prolonged, complicated drills with both hands in front of a floor-length mirror. I don’t feel cold, or warm either. My upper body barely moves. I am just defending, no ripostes. The fencing master’s breathing. When he leaves the room I flop against the mirror, standing with eyes closed, making use of the time to take a breather. I shove myself off the mirror, ram the foil into its case. A twelve-year-old boy.
 
Young boy.
 
Serious face, he rarely smiles. Supposedly too little, but rarity of smiling as compared with what? He picks up from the table a bilious-green goblet and crushes it. The blood flows onto the tablecloth. He squeezes it with an even force until the glass smashes. As in a stagey film, though in those they would use paint, whereas this is real blood, though one would have to admit this too is a fairly stagey scene. On Saturdays Father always brought a book. From the Cheap Library paperback series, nice yellow jackets with rapidly yellowing pages. A gnat settles on a page, and if you clap it shut quick enough, you flatten it. The finest of the Corvinian codices are Bibles—a Psalter and the New Testament—with ornamentation by the brothers Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni, to be found in the Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana. Matthias ordered them personally along with Charles VIII of France and an unidentified third person, and he himself was portrayed by the master. In the Gathering of Sea Creatures in the codex of Philostratus’s Heroica. A small child playing with his teddy bear. After the king dies the codices were supervised by the famous miniaturist Attavante degli Attavanti, who was a confidant of Pope Leo X of Medici. At that time Attavanti had complete control over the book market. The other day a guy on the local train said to the woman sitting opposite that there is such a thing as a Time Gate. There is such a thing as a Time Gate, he announced in a calm voice.
 
It’s in Ózd.
 
And where is Ózd when it's at home.
 
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
 

Tags: Endre Kukorelly