10. 25. 2009. 11:27
As I write, there is a photograph in front of me. It is a picture of Péter and M. At the time, M. was thirty-three years old – the age I am now. The picture was taken in the courtyard of his parents’ home; visible in the background is a section of dilapidated unplastered wall behind a row of bushes; beyond the fence in the distance one senses obscurely, or rather suspects, that part of the city quarter, carved up by dirt paths – poor and at one time inhabited by Bulgarians – where M.’s story began. This house always made Péter afraid. Within the confines of its chill mildewed walls, in the narrow room with a door opening onto the veranda, lay his grandmother, whose face he was, later in life, unable to remember. The interior was perhaps not dissimilar to others of its kind as often described in memoirs: an abundance of rugs laid out on parquet floors, tables, divans, and sometimes even carpets covering the walls. In this house as well, it could not have been any different, for Péter’s grandmother in her old age, when proper hand-woven carpets were no longer attainable, unceasingly produced embroideries, wall-coverings, pillow-cases, one after the other, and gave them away. Péter, though, could not remember any of this – not the carpets, not the wall-hangings, not the furniture, not the scenes depicted in the white lace curtains; he was even less capable of imagining how all of the carpets would be wrapped up in mothball-scented paper when the rooms were being cleaned before the autumn High Holidays. If he tried to recall his grandmother, he could only see in his mind’s eye a shapeless, exhaling body, lying on an improbably high bed – or rather, he only sensed it, and he felt the body of his grandmother to be a perpetual threat; that, like an over-filled balloon, it would burst, and inundate the room with a viscous brown liquid, with the dense and ill-smelling moisture of her distended organs.
In the foreground of the photograph can be seen a father and a son, posed for the shot, although comfortably so: M. is squatting down, his head turned slightly to one side; he smiles proudly into the camera, all the while embracing Péter’s stomach with his wide palm; Péter, his elbows positioned on his father’s arms, is resting within the proffered sanctuary of the adult frame, leaning with his entire body into his father’s thighs, so that his shoulder is directly underneath his father’s chin, thus concealing exactly half of his father’s body. As this pose is repeated in other photographs taken at about the same time, always with the front door of the house or a tree-stump forming the backdrop, not only the person behind the lens but M. himself must have been pleased at being photographed with his two-year-old son. He, however, never – in any of these pictures – looks at the third person aiming the lens, but only at his father. He watches from below and from the side, in wonderment, as someone for whom this closeness is welcome but rare. He completely ignores the camera; or rather, he himself behaves like a camera, wishing to gaze directly into his father’s eyes, to see his face in all of its detail; but however much he strains to turn around, drawing back his left shoulder in the attempt, the chin and one side of his father’s mouth are all that the parent reveals of himself.
In M.’s left hand – the one not clasped around Péter’s belly but resting freely on his left knee – there is something loosely grasped between the fingers; in this picture as in all the others. Most of the time, it is a half-smoked cigarette, but in the photograph I have in front of me at this moment, instead of the usual cigarette there are a few stalks of a lily-of-the-valley. The lilies always grew in the garden a few steps from the silently opening gate. Their scent was the single gift of this house. The innermost parts of the garden showed the work of someone who knew that they had neither strength nor inclination for its upkeep; every plant that might have demanded attention, devotion or exertion had been eradicated, with the exception of the lilies-of-the-valley; so that in the garden behind the house, there were already many arid patches overgrown with thicket, resembling an abandoned graveyard. From time to time, Péter sought out these places, using a tall tree-branch for his walking stick. Later on, in his memory, the entire house and garden likewise became overgrown with the thick shrubbery: the walls of the house and the creeping ivy entirely interwoven with the dry branches, at summer’s end mottled with spots of colour like congealed blood, down the length of the stone pillars to the black-and-white flagstones, not a single one of which remained intact.
No doubt the lilies had been picked by Péter for his father. Or perhaps for his mother, who with her usual anxiety that something was not taking place between father and son that should have been, might have said to Péter, “Give them to Daddy”. M. is holding the stems of the flowers between his index and middle fingers in front of his son’s belly, as if it were a cigarette clasped in his hand, as if he were about to flick off the long grey stem of ash that had grown there.
I try to find within myself the feelings that might have arisen within Péter during this nesting pose, in which from the nape of his neck to his heels, with nearly every limb he could sense his father’s body, and the two bodies were so close to each other, much closer than they were ever to be later on. It was as if something had shifted, shifted from this feeling of childhood security and peace, but not in me: in that child whose entire upper body fit into his father’s palm and who is no more, just as you are no more: as I gaze at the picture, I can feel that touch only dimly, but not touching him and not touching me, only floating somewhere between the two of us in the voided air; and when I turn my head away to begin to write, even this dim apprehension quickly passes away. For now, your death has extinguished in me all that remained distant from you. It was probably around the time of this photograph that a sense of bodily aversion was first awakened in Péter, an aversion that only became more painful as the years wore on; and in fact only in those last two months before his death did everything that had repulsed him in his father began to fade. That realization, with its consciousness of failure, came late, much too late, and not to him but to me: in the midst of their perpetual battles, the stakes of which were nothing less than hope, freedom, and above all, the human ability to love, not only did there form in Péter a kind of acceptance of his father’s bottomless despair and spleen – traits covered over in this picture by his smile – yet over time he came to feel a secretive concord; even if incapable of sounding his father’s despair to the very depths; and even if his rebellion never ceased, he came to feel a certain agreement with the inevitable, final conclusions. For they differed from each other so drastically, differences that were so perilous to each other, that if I were able to examine how they were to behave to each other in the years to come, we would have to propose that M. simply crushed Péter; for his bitterness and silence, poised so evidently within his manhood, gave him a force that his son was never able to match. Because of that, when his father’s strength began to wane and his health, his appetite, his harshness were not what they used to be – for although M. never spoke of memories, nor for that matter of anything connected to the past, when arguing – for M., there was no discussion, only argument –, he became even more shrill, even rude; so that when his self-satisfaction and tenacity lost their aura of absolute certainty and his ire less frequently burst into flame, the realization of how fundamentally little they truly differed from each other struck them both with even more unexpected force.
The house that can be seen in the background of the photograph – in which M. is exactly the same age as I am now – no longer stands. When M.’s mother died, it was sold – Péter did not attend the funeral, yet could nonetheless recall the sale of the house – and the new owner demolished the building to make way for a new one. I would therefore like to locate his father in this house – non-existent and, in Péter’s memories, barely perceptible in its invisibility; not so much to look for reasons, the reason why, for example, he became convinced that his feelings, as soon as he would show them, would be used against him, but because I would prefer to dislodge the history of those silences and oblivions, for that is all I can do now. I cannot put that narrative back in place – which we both, you with your silences, I with my compulsive need for speech, dissected equally; creatures hermetically sealed off from the possibility of understanding – any more than the new house, itself soon demolished as well, could reveal a trace of the former floor plan: Péter’s visit there, years later and of course not in the company of his father, was entirely in vain.
Not long after the death of two of their children and one grandchild, M.’s grandparents themselves passed away. They lived in a side-street near Szazádos út, in what was known as the “Artists’ Colony”. M.’s grandfather was a house-painter who, in the course of years, was taken into the guild leadership. He must have worked skillfully and reliably with his assistants, because István Bárczy himself, then the mayor of Budapest, entrusted him with the refurbishing of his villa. When the painting was complete, István Bárczy surveyed the results, and was satisfied. He paid for the work, and then asked M.’s grandfather if there was anything in which he could be of assistance. He, with the impudence of a father of four, yet doubtless with a befitting modesty as well, burst out: indeed there was – a bigger home. And, as just at that very time the Artists’ Colony was under construction, Bárczy legitimately regarding it as one of his principle achievements, in this moment two masters of their respective trades stood face to face. Not long afterwards, M.’s grandfather and his family were able to move into a flat in Szörény utca.
In the garden of the house stood a pear tree, which grew along with the children of the family. In the springtime, it was like a sprig of myrtle. From the neighbors’ courtyard to the left a peach tree, and from the courtyard to the right an apple tree, stood facing the pear tree, whose shadow marked the dividing line in the family chronicles: everything that came before the pear tree was legend; everything that followed it grew with the pear tree into the world, perhaps even came into being from it. M.’s grandmother set up as a seamstress in the flat. She sewed undergarments and shirts for the artists; Stróbl and Czigány came to her to have their measurements taken. Due to their age and state of health, M.’s grandparents were at first granted an exception from the consequences of their status as Polish citizens. However, the grandmother – at approximately the same time as a train made up of cattle-cars rolled out from a non-existent train station in a non-existent country, with her children and grandchild on board – came down with influenza, the fever so over-taxing her heart that within three days she was dead. The grandfather then sold the residence in the Artists’ Colony, relinquishing with it the pear tree, and moved in with his sole remaining daughter. He lived with her for three years. One day, after the Germans had occupied Hungary, he went out to buy a newspaper and never came back. He somehow had found himself in the middle of a raid – the gendarmes were hunting down Jews – and as it emerged weeks later, he and the others were taken to Rökk Szilárd utca, and from there to a furriers’ workshop on the island of Csepel. His son-in-law, who was also a forced laborer and also disappeared, once caught a glimpse of him at the Király Baths, where the forced laborers were taken once a week to wash. M’s grandfather’s emaciated, arched nose stood out sharply from his dessicated bony face; his sparse gray beard had grown, his hair had turned completely white. He did not look like a patriarch. His gaze hung, void of expression, in the air. And thus, with his ravaged face, he withdrew from the family history, not even leaving his name to M., who never even knew the circumstances of his own birth. There remained, in place of him, an obstinately repeated misunderstanding, although it perhaps was merely an attempt to tell a story to the end, its hair-thin strands interwoven with the pear-tree standing in the courtyard of the house in Szörény utca, which was like a sprig of myrtle in the springtime, and interwoven with the dense forests of Gorgana and the gorge-like channels of the Prut River, above which in close proximity the Kolomea bridge suddenly appears, standing on three high supporting pillars.
If someone today travels to that region by train, and leaves Kolomea going in the same direction as did that transport laden with naked prisoners sixty years ago, there is nothing to remind one of what happened; and yet the landscape somehow makes everything imaginable. Proceeding beneath the dense masses of the Gorgana, where there is no trace of human labor, steeply rising on the edge of the forest, ones’ gaze is drawn to a particular cemetery with its nearly unmarked graves, more resembling mole-hills. This is the graveyard of a nearby nursing home for women. And after a moment, in the depths of the chasm, tiny human figures really do appear, strolling among the buildings of the nursing home, all of them clearly delineated against the landscape, all of them alone. M.’s grandfather wanted to make the roots of the pear tree given to him by István Bárczy extend all the way to here, to the Prut valley, to the precipices of the Gorgana forest, of which he had perhaps childhood memories, never knowing that soon there would only be ditches here, unmarked graves.
And before that gaze devoid of expression, hanging in the air, images and scenes drift away. Of the family’s four siblings, two were to survive the war. And with that begins the era in which M. too is visible, increasingly only him. After the Germans occupied Hungary, a neighbour hid the child, along with his mother, in their cellar. Everyone who lived in their street was no doubt aware of this, including old Bozai – later the district council leader for the fascist Arrow Cross – who in happier times had driven the Rákospalota tram and whose wife, perhaps from a sense of shared effort, used to dangle a small bottle of milk towards M. over the fence every day. M.’s father returned home from the labour camp in the middle of 1945. So the three of them were there, to be sure, but the son born from the first marriage – whom M. looked up to, as a little boy looks up to his almost grown elder brother – wasn’t there, the grandparents weren’t there and all of those who had been murdered due to an error in a story and the silence of M.’s father, weren’t there either. The family moved back into the house, in the courtyard of which, twenty-five years later, Péter would be photographed next to M., his body touching his father’s in as many places as possible. A few battered steps led up to the glassed-in veranda, itself leading to a narrow hallway opening into two narrow rooms; the movement of stepping from the veranda into the house would even later call forth, in Péter at least, a sense of confinement, of bodily fear, of captivity. On the veranda was a large table, where after lunch Péter often liked to sit. One day, a dove happened to stray into the enclosed porch. Its body and the flapping of its wings were too large for this space. Everyone inside knew that, with their flustered gesticulations, they were more likely to frighten the bird half to death, depriving it of its sense of orientation. Its beak and its head beat repeatedly against the glass panes. Instead of trying adroitly to propel the bird towards the door, or leaving it to discover the way out by itself, they chased it from corner to corner, brandishing a broom and striking it, screaming at it to get out already. The dove flew about in confusion, until it finally managed to emerge into the open and, straight as an arrow, shot across the air in the direction of the nearby streams. Behind the glass door, all of the objects were suffused with the heavy, musty smell of decrepitude: the apple-green chiffonier, the wrought-iron floor lamp with its broad lampshade, the smudged walls, the dark-brown waxed parquet floors that creaked loudly with every step. When M.’s mother died, the younger generation took practically nothing with them from this house. Although M. never collected mementos of any kind – he had no sense for such things – Péter nonetheless marveled in later years at how little desire he had to take with him any object from the house that bore his parents’ touch. So that when the house was emptied, only the practical interests of Péter’s mother prevailed: the sole objects to be taken away were that floor lamp with its broad lampshade, a small wooden chest with a lock and key, a coffee service, and a book bound in faded blue linen.
Still, it emerged slowly over the years, that while M. hardly ever spoke about his parents – and what he did know about them grew ever more hazy – he still measured his own life against what theirs had been. One or two years before his death, he began to repeat – and this at a time when his frequent trump card in arguments was the reminder to calm down, you won’t have to put up with me for much longer – that he really had little reason for dissatisfaction: he had already outlived his father, and wouldn’t last longer than his mother had anyway. It was as if he had placed himself in a common grave with them, and not with Péter’s mother, even though he had never bothered much with the actual graves of his parents. His own mother had been cremated and her ashes placed, in a public cemetery, inside a two-meter-high columbarium that resembled an efficiently reduced concrete housing estate, and he visited his father’s grave once every ten years at the very most. He used to say he could not pay visits to ashes.
Will I visit your grave? Is there anything there? If there is, it must be, I believe, something utterly different from what is engraved upon the headstone: may the deceased be tied to the bonds of eternal life. Rather this: totus homo fit excrementum. As all else in self-loathing, you hurried this up, making it happen while you were still alive.
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Tags: Gábor Schein