The sweet dismay of the linguistic chaos of Babel
In which he chats in Bulgarian with the Bulgarian train guard, and experiences
the sweet dismay of the linguistic chaos of Babel.
“There’s something I must tell you all,” said Kornél Esti. “A little while ago someone said at a party that he would never travel to a country where he couldn’t speak the language. I saw his point. The main thing that interests me when I travel is people. Much more so than objects in museums. If I can only hear what they say but not understand it, I feel as if I’m deaf, or watching a silent film without music or subtitles. It’s irritating and boring.
After I’d said all that it occurred to me that the opposite was just as valid, as is so often the case. It’s marvellous fun going around in a foreign country if voices are merely sounds which leave us cold and we stare blankly at everyone that speaks to us. What splendid isolation, my friends, what independence, what lack of responsibility. All of a sudden we feel like infants that need to be looked after. We start to display an inexplicable trust in adults wiser than ourselves. We let them speak and act on our behalf. Then we accept everything, unseen and unheard.
I’ve seldom had such an experience – as you know, I speak ten languages – in fact, it’s only come my way just once, when I was en route for Turkey. I was passing through Bulgaria. I spent a total of twenty-four hours in the country, and that was all on the train. Something happened to me there that it would be a shame to keep quiet about. After all, I can die at any time, as I shall one day – a tiny vein in my heart or my brain will burst – and no one else, I’m sure, will ever have a similar experience.
So, it was at night. After midnight. The train was racing along through hills and villages that I didn’t know. It must have been going on half past one. I couldn’t sleep. I went out into the corridor for a breath of air. I was soon bored. All that could be seen of the beauties of the countryside was black shapes. It was quite an event if a point of light appeared. All the passengers around me were sleeping the sleep of the just. Not a soul was stirring in the carriages.
I was on the point of going back to my compartment when the guard appeared, lamp in hand. He was a Bulgarian, a stocky man with a black moustache, and he’d evidently finished his rounds. He’d seen my ticket some time previously, so he didn’t want anything from me. But by way of greeting, in friendly fashion, he shone his lamp and his eyes on me. Then he stopped beside me. Clearly, he was bored too.
I’ve no idea why or how, but I decided there and then, come what may, to have a conversation with him, and at length, meaningfully. I asked him in Bulgarian whether he smoked. That was all the Bulgarian I knew – and that I’d picked up on the train, from a sign. Apart from that I knew five or six words, the sort that stick to you when you’re traveling whether you like it or not, such as yes, no, and the like. But I swear to you, I didn’t know any more.
The guard raised his hand to the peak of his hat. I flicked open my cigarette case and offered it to him. He took a gold-tipped cigarette with profound respect. He produced matches, lit one, and mumbled something to the effect of ‘here you are’ in his totally unfamiliar language. At that I held out to him the blue flame of my lighter and mouthed in imitation that word which I had heard for the first time in my life.
The two of us smoked, letting out the smoke through our nostrils. It was a definitely reassuring start. Even today I swell with pride to think of it, because it still flatters my self-esteem that I set that scene up with such understanding of people, that I showed such psychological insight in planting that tiny seed – which, as it transpired, branched out into a tree so great that beneath it I threw off the fatigue of my travels and at dawn was able to retire all the richer for some rare experiences.
You must recognize that from the very first moment my performance was confident and faultless. I had to convince the guard that I was a native Bulgarian, and that I knew Bulgarian at least as well as a lecturer in literature at Sofia University. Therefore I behaved a little stiffly and pompously. Principally, I didn’t chatter. Actually, that wasn’t entirely my fault, but that makes no difference. It’s characteristic of foreigners always to try and speak the language of the country in which they’re traveling, they’re too enthusiastic about it, and in no time at all it emerges that they’re foreigners. Natives, on the other hand, those born there, will just nod and make themselves understood by signs. Words have to be dragged out of them. Even then they toss out lethargically from the treasures of their mother tongue that lie dormant within them weary words, words that have lost their shine with use. Generally they fight shy of elegant turns of phrase and succinct literary constructions. As far as possible they don’t speak, which is wise, because if they had to give several hour-long lectures from a rostrum, or write a hefty tome, both their students and their critics would be quick to point out – and not entirely without foundation – that they hadn’t even the first idea of their own native language.
And so the guard and I smoked on in that intimate silence from which great friendships, true understandings and lifelong matings of souls can arise. I was grave and courteous. From time to time I would crease my forehead, then – for variety – adopt a lighter appearance and glance at him quite attentively. Conversation, however, the entrancing possibility of which was now wafting in the air just above our heads, required me to start it somehow. I yawned and sighed, and then I put a hand on his shoulder and raised my eyebrows so that they each formed huge question marks, tilted my head back and murmured ‘Well?’. The guard smiled; he must have discovered in this amicable form of interest some memory of childhood, or the behavior of a friend that enquired of him in this way ‘How are things?’. He began to speak. He uttered four or five sentences. Then he fell silent and waited.
I too waited. I had good reason to. I was wondering what answer I should make. After a brief uncertainty I decided. I said ‘Yes’.
Experience has taught me to do that. Whenever I’m not paying attention to the conversation, or don’t understood something, I always say ‘Yes’. This has never yet brought me any trouble. Not even when I’ve appeared to be approving something that I should have deplored. On occasion I can make people think that I’m speaking ironically. A Yes is very frequently a No.
That my reasoning was not unfounded was demonstrated brilliantly by the consequences. The guard became much more communicative. Unfortunately, he then fell silent once more and waited. This time I showed interest with a ‘Yes?’ in an interrogative tone, somewhat redolent of incomprehension and uncertainty. That – if I may so express myself – opened the floodgates. The guard opened up and spoke, spoke for about a quarter of an hour, pleasantly, and clearly on a variety of topics, during which time I didn’t have to consider what reply to make.
This was when I scored my first decisive success. From the way that the words poured from his mouth, the way he chattered and jabbered on, it became clear that even in his dreams he would never imagine that I was a foreigner. This belief, firm though it seemed, I had to support. If, for the time being, I evaded the obligation to respond, extremely painful for me as it was, and if I could constantly stuff gold-tipped cigarettes between my lips as if to indicate that my mouth was ‘occupied’ and not really capable of speaking, I could nevertheless not neglect my self-sacrificing entertainer and from time to time had to give thought to fueling the conversation.
How did I manage that? Not with words. I put on an act, like an actor – a first-class actor – with all my might. My face, my hands, my ears, even my toes moved as required. But I had to beware of exaggeration. I mimed attentiveness, but not, on the other hand, that forced attentiveness which is suspect in advance, but that which is now lax and abstracted, now catches fire and flares up. I thought of something else as well. Sometimes I indicated by a gesture that I hadn’t understood what he’d said. You will naturally think that that was the easiest of things. Well, you’re wrong. That, my friends, was the hardest part. Just as I had not understood a single word of his ceaseless flow, I had to take care not to let my admission be too sincere and convincing. Nor did I miss my mark. The guard simply repeated his last sentence, and I nodded as if to say ‘Ah yes, that’s quite different’.
After that there was no need for me to feed the blazing fire of the conversation with such kindling-wood of suggestion. Even without that it flared up like a bonfire. The guard talked and talked. What about? I would have liked to know myself. Perhaps about transport regulations, perhaps about his family and children, perhaps about growing beetroot. God alone knows what he was talking about. From the rhythm of his sentences I became aware that, in any case, he was telling a good-humored, cheerful, long-winded and coherent tale which rolled slowly and with dignity on its broad, epic course down to the dénouement. He wasn’t in the slightest hurry. Nor was I. I let it deviate, wander off the point and, like a stream burble, twist and turn and divide itself into the eroded, comfortable bed of narrative. He smiled a lot. This tale must have been humorous, no doubt of it, and there were elements that were plainly risqué, perhaps even daring and spicy. He winked at me craftily, as at an accomplice, and laughed. And I laughed with him. But not every time. I was often not quite of the same opinion. I didn’t want to overindulge him. I displayed only moderate appreciation of the truly heartfelt, tasteful, delightful humor with which he embellished his performance.
It was close on three in the morning – we’d been chatting for an hour and a half – and the train began to slow down. We were approaching a station. The guard took his lamp and excused himself for having to get off, but he assured me that he’d be right back and would tell me the end, the punch line of that ridiculous piece of stupidity, because that was the best bit.
I leaned out of the window. I bathed my buzzing head in the fresh air. The peonies of daybreak were opening on the ashen sky. Before me lay a cream-scented little village. On the station a peasant and a couple of women in headscarves were waiting. The guard spoke to them in Bulgarian, as he had done to me, but with more effect, because the travelers understood him at once and made for the third class coaches at the end.
A few minutes later the guard was back at my side – the smile had not yet cooled on his lips – and was chuckling as he continued. Shortly out came the punch line that he had promised. He roared with laughter. He laughed so much that his belly shook. Goodness, what a man, he was a terrific character. He was still shaking with laughter as he reached into his coat pocket and took out a thin notebook, held by an elastic band, and from that a creased, soiled letter which probably played a vital role in the story – it might have the decisive element – and put it into my hand for me to read and comment on. Good Lord, what was I to say? I could see penciled, smudged Cyrillic letters, which – alas – I couldn’t read. I devoted myself to attentive perusal of the letter. Meanwhile he stood a little apart and watched to see the effect. “Yes”, I murmured, “yes, yes,” now statement, now denial, now question. From time to time I shook my head as if to say ‘typical’ or ‘never heard the like’ or ‘such is life’. That can be used for anything. No situation has yet occurred in life for which ‘such is life’ isn’t appropriate. If somebody dies, even then we just say ‘such is life’. I tapped the letter, I sniffed it – it had a slight odor of mold – and as there was nothing else that I could do I gave it back to him.
There were all sorts of other things in his notebook. He took out a photograph which – to my considerable surprise – was of a dog. I pursed my lips as I looked at it, like a keen dog-fancier. I noticed, however, that the guard didn’t approve of that. I got the feeling that he was simply angry with that dog, so I too became serious and tut-tutted at it. My astonishment reached its peak, however,when he took from the canvas holder of the notebook a mysterious object wrapped in tissue paper and asked me to unwrap it myself. I did so. All that there was inside were two large green buttons, two bone buttons such as would be on a man’s coat. I shook them together playfully, as if I were altogether a particular lover of buttons, but the guard then snatched them out of my hand and quickly, so that I should never again so much as see them, crammed them into his notebook. Then he took a couple of paces and leaned against the side of the carriage.
I didn’t understand what was happening. I moved quickly to his side. I saw something that made my blood run cold. His eyes were filled with tears. That big, fat man was weeping. At first he wept in manly fashion, concealing his tears, but then he wept so much that his mouth twitched and his shoulders heaved.
To be perfectly frank I was completely taken aback by the profound, insoluble chaos of life. What was all this? How were all those words connected to laughter and weeping? What had one thing to do with another – the letter with the photograph of the dog, the photograph with the two green bone buttons, and all of them with the guard? Was it madness, or precisely the opposite, the healthy, human bursting out of feeling? And had the whole business any meaning, in Bulgarian or anything else? Despair was all around me.
I took a firm grip on the guard’s shoulders to instil some spirit into him, and I shouted into his ear three times, in Bulgarian ‘No, no, no’. Choking in his tears, he stammered another monosyllable which could have meant ‘Thank you for being so kind’, but also, perhaps, ‘You revolting phony, you cheating swine’.
Slowly he recovered himself. His gasps became quieter. He wiped his wet face with his handkerchief. He spoke. Now, however, his voice was quite different. He addressed short, sharp questions to me. Such as, I imagine, ‘If you said "yes" in the first place, why did you say "no" straight afterwards? Why did you correct what you’d approved? Let’s have an end to this dubious game. Make your choice: yes or no?’ He rapped out questions like a machine-gun, faster and faster, more and more determinedly, poking me in the chest. There was no way that I could evade them.
It seemed as if I was caught and that my luck had deserted me. But my superiority came to my rescue. I stood up straight and looked the guard up and down with cutting frigidity and, like one that considered it beneath his dignity to reply, turned on my heel and strode into my compartment.
There I laid my head on my pillow. I went to sleep with the speed of a man dropping dead from a heart attack. I woke about noon to blazing sunshine. Somebody tapped at the window of my compartment. The guard came in. He advised me that I was to get off at the next station. But he didn’t move. He just stood there faithfully at my side like a dog. Once more he spoke – quietly, continuously, unstoppably. Perhaps he was offering an apology, perhaps accusing me over the painful nocturnal scene, I don’t know, but his face showed profound distress, heartbreak. I behaved coolly. I just let him pick up my bags and take them out into the corridor.
At the last moment, however, I took pity on him. When he had given my bags to the porter and I was getting down I glanced at him wordlessly as if to say ‘What you did wasn’t nice, but to err is human, and this once I forgive you’. And I said in Bulgarian only ‘Yes’.
That word had a magical effect. The guard softened, cheered up, became his old self. A smile of gratitude stole onto his face. He saluted me, standing stiffly at attention. He remained there at the window, rigid with happiness, until the train moved off and he vanished forever from my sight.
Dezső Kosztolányi: Kornél Esti
Translated by Bernard Adams
New York: New Directions, 2011
Translated by: Bernard Adams