10. 17. 2008. 08:52

My Crimes

Ernő Szép (1884–1953)

"I am deadly insulted. I only look like people. This chap here who breathes in and out past my lips, he is no work of mine. I have no idea what I have to do with the whole composition. Where is my own special programme, my individual taste, my fantasy and my interest? This me? Any bellboy has the right to look like me. I have been settled. I am deeply ashamed. Me, me, me."

I dare not open my mouth
I dare not speak about the war. I still hold my peace. I dare not open my mouth. I’m glad no one at all knows about me; that people don’t hold me responsible. It is quiet. My heart’s beating has stopped. So I stand here, my brow exploding, my eyes and mouth struck rigid. I marvel, I recollect and cannot believe it. I stand like a maid who has let a vase fall.
I have let the world fall.
I have become unclean
Yes, I have let money pass through my hands. This live, warm, clean skin, the sensitive, swollen, warm skin at the tips of my fingers, it has trafficked with cash. I cannot deny it to myself. Money has stuck to my hands too. That is how it will stay: I shall never be able to cleanse myself of it; I shall not be able to flee so far that I would forget, not be able to fly into a blueness so blue that I can forgive myself.
I am astonished; I feel sorry for myself. It is so quiet in the room here. My mood is as if the area outside were overcast and I were straining my ears to hear what was happening a long, long way off; as if somewhere there, far away, my innocence were breaking out into heavy sobs. My head is sunk, my elbows are on my thighs. I smooth my rumpled brow with the palm of my hand. The time when I could be anything else has passed! When I could be true—a model, a sunbeam, a new mineral lustre; so pure, so freshly discovered, so enlightening! So unscathedly foreign, so dreamy, so not of this world. That is over and done with.
I offload the money on the defenceless poor man who has no money. He blinks at me in wonder. His eyes almost pop out. He starts to become so dizzy in front of me that he almost falls over! His mind is spinning like a merry-go-round, his head is aching, his two rows of teeth gnash at each other, his gullet bulges, he has a hard job swallowing back his tears. He has a heart attack and his bowels knot; his knees give way and he collapses on the ground before me, has an epileptic fit and pukes vomit all over my hand.
To be sure, even that solitary penny with which I bought Turkish delight at the market was a crime of mine as there were children who would have relished that and whose little bellies were equipped to be the receiving station for Turkish delight, but those other children did not have a single solitary penny to their name. I am ashamed now, if only on account of the silver shilling that the musician extracted from my nose. Oh yes! And I suspect that even that was not such an innocent trick for me to clutch a golden guinea in my hand while I slept in my early boyhood. I was innocent only as long as the coins were only chickenfeed.

My crime is not myself being a murderer
Yes, not having killed a man in the war—that too is one of my crimes. There may still be someone still in the world who is just as unable to kill and yet killed: he was not able to take flight from the deed. That other man who is like me killed in my place. How much he must be suffering now! The fact that I didn’t kill is no absolution, just slackness. Selfishness. How easy for me. Did I have the right to escape? Was it permissible for me to excuse myself from an atrocity that my childhood playmates and millions upon millions of young men who are my contemporaries were obliged to commit? Count Leo Tolstoy relates that he had the good fortune to avoid committing murder because his artillery battery was kept out of the carnage during the siege of Sebastopol. However, Tolstoy does not say how he would have felt if he had been obliged to order the guns into action after all. The other who is just the same as me and got a taste of murder in my stead, if he sleeps alone at night, is now going to bed with a murderer. More than likely he cannot get to sleep without a sleeping pill. His heart is topsy-turvy in his chest, his brow is black, his gaze is lame, the whites of his eyes are ill like those of a patient with jaundice, on his palate is a deadly taste of apricots, his breath smells of chloroform, the twilight gush of blood will all cascade on his head, he must stop his ears in horror against the yammer of the autumnal wind, a death rattle erupts from a profession of love, the assembled trees of the forest conspire against him, he dare not lay a finger on a lily, does not recognise butterflies in May, he has no recollection of the songs of his childhood, and he is unable to kiss his young son. When he walks his bones carry a rotting corpse, that of the other person whom he killed. I am afraid that one day I shall meet him, and he will call me to account for why I am not the murderer, why him? He is suffering for that murder in my stead. What am I suffering in his stead? The abiding fate of five continents and the oceans. But is my suffering commensurate with his?
Terribly sorry
Furry creatures and feathered friends, scaly fish, chilly snakes, frogs, flayed earthworms, dust-coated butterflies, lacquered beetles, hairy caterpillars, snow-capped insects, nondescript bacilli!
Satin flowers, silken leaves, delicate grasses!
Sullen trees, sticky fruits, slimy panicles, jittery reeds, stark-naked mushrooms, wrestling roots and persecuted creepers, sleepy mosses, funeral elder-stem pith, honeyed laurel wreath, honey fit to kiss, chilled lymph, convict saltpetre, softened mould, the most agonised cobweb and the shiest floss, the very slightest of shadows and most miraculous darkness!
Hairy hills, bare waters, laughing hailstones, secretive snows, Brussels hoarfrost, swooned rime, flowers of frostwork dreaming of yourselves, the batik patterns of rust!
The alien smiles of calcite, apatite and apophyllite and the flabbergasted lucidity of all dug-up stones, celestial stars and starfishes, Sphaerozoum italicum, the very loveliest of the ocean’s radiolarial protozoa.
Clouds, a halo round the moon, a rainbow, fog, mist, the jewels and planetary systems of my closed eyelids in sunlight!
The colours of colours, every light, mirages, volcanoes, naphtha, vapours, gases, poisons, fragrances, rays and sounds, winds, juices, ardours and forces, all life and nature, all air and everything that can or could be, bleary-eyed marvel of the new-born world! I can’t eternally go on swimming and flying, breathing in and watching everything, studying, I can’t come to my senses, I am not filled with amazement and ceaseless meditation and my heart does not shine over the uninterrupted time between Sun and Moon.
My heart dropped down to here, among men, I was shrunk to man-size, became short-sighted and hard of hearing, grew soft in the head. My skin was daubed a skin colour and my skeleton loaded with human flesh. People took me captive and I have been sentenced until the day I die and forever. People broke me open and made a forcible entry. These elusive miniature monads that are men are constantly swarming through my mouth, my nose, my ears, my eyes and every pore of my body. Insatiable, they have also requisitioned my heart, my heart is so crowded with them, full of them fit to burst, so heavy it is all but snapping off.

The first, but not the last crime
It was a crime for me to be born. What pain I caused an unknown strange poor woman, my mother. I cannot conceive of how much pain it must have been for this woman to give birth, all my heart senses of it is what a seismograph picks up from an earthquake in Australia. I made my mother’s face more worn, I mangled her breasts, I was to the detriment of her belly and her whole Eve-like beauty. I truly do not recall that I asked to come into the world the way that I did. No, I did not choose this way and means of breaking and entering into life; that my being called to earth should happen that way was not at all to my taste. No matter, that was how it happened all the same, and no amount of air will wash off me the first of the cruel acts that I committed against a frail woman.
Me, me, me
I am deadly insulted. I only look like people. This chap here who breathes in and out past my lips, he is no work of mine. I have no idea what I have to do with the whole composition. Where is my own special programme, my individual taste, my fantasy and my interest? This me? Any bellboy has the right to look like me. I have been settled. I am deeply ashamed. Me, me, me. Terrible. If I were to open my mouth in the street or in quiet of a concert hall and were to shout out “me!” people would undoubtedly laugh in my face. Why not.
Me, me. What do I know? I might try, for example, moving another way than men or, say, geese. I don’t even know where to make a start. My two legs don’t work any differently than theirs. Left right, left right. I don’t know how I do it, I just walk. This is not me. My mouth gapes when I eat just like that of an animal or a human. And I eat like everyone else, I can’t think of anything to replace it! Phooey! And I freeze like everyone else, and then all at once I declare “Atishoo!” No this can’t be me. I object strongly.
I know you
I know you. In the innermost sleeping chamber of your body you are continually yowling Me-e! Me-e-e! You daubed your face with mud and you wear your heart on your sleeve. Meanwhile, though, you think your face is beaming like a new moon, and you devote precious minutes to admiring your photographs. You tremble that angry poor folk might snatch your heart from your sleeve—yes, because you are saving it for some dreamland girl. I know you. When they wring out a kiss in the open then you know nothing about the hard luck that your fellow men, your duplicates, common people met in life. You are as selfish as an actor, as debauched as any dog, as false as the gods. Listen! Your ideal is for the firmament to be black as printer’s ink, and for there to be just one star in it: Yourself! You are always marvelling that there were such things as chronology and clothing before you were born, and any such thing as sky and earth before you were here. I know you. You cannot imagine that, should you perchance die, everyone will not drop dead in grief, and that the sun will also dare to rise on the morrow. Oh, I know who you are! You can’t hide from me.
I have no child
I have no child. Every now and again, when I get round to suffering, I suffer for the one who is not. I kiss the children of acquaintances, play with them. I gives me much pleasure that children readily and easily talk with me. In the playground I also kiss the small children of complete strangers, if the nanny will allow it. The friends with whom I grew up and who have married now have children of their own. I even have chums and friends who have given life to illegitimate children. I was always against any woman who wanted my child. I am afraid of having a child.
I don’t know that it is permissible for me to give rise to life and death. I have a feeling that I would be unable to look a child of mine in the eyes. A child of mine might ask me questions to which I have no answer. I am astonished at the composure and assurance, the joy and pride of others who have children. This much I will concede, that were I, by any chance, to have a child, I too would make just as much of my own child.
But I also have the feeling that I dread the period of being a father because I myself still long to have back a childhood that I did not live; I dream, because people cannot check up on my dreams, and I allow my head to entertain the absurd hope that time can go back with me in much the same way as the car that brought me away from the part of the world where I was born and at some point I shall arrive at my proper childhood, one where there are no beatings, no poverty, no crying, no quarrelling and no illness. Then too I always feel that I cannot do without the early years of life, and if I had a child of my own, I could not carry on imagining myself being young. I deny to my own self feeling anything of the sort, because I am ashamed of this infanticidal selfishness, but it is no use my denying it, the feeling is there inside me: I do not know where I got it from.
This is all my business
In the rain, women and men hurrying about the street blindly under their umbrellas, the brims of the brollies are continually catching on each other. That is as much as the chance collisions of the residents’ lives amount to. Without that these broken-off coral branches, these scattered tree leaves, people, would never have sensed even so much as a flicker of awareness of each other on this earth.
In the theatre people clap together, all at once. The applause of a single furious member of the audience would look comic, but together with all the others, lo and behold how ably, how gloriously, everyone can applaud. The more widespread the clapping, the better the cymbal-sound of the two palms of one member of the audience can come across. The clappers’ eyes are drunken, his hearing hazy, his heart a May balloon: art’s successful client is an applauding member of the audience, yes, he too is a performing artist when he claps. And for this celebratory state each one can thank the rest, the mass. Yes, indeed:
All who get ready for the lido in summer, and all who go to a concert given by Erno Dohnányi and all who dash off by car to a tea dance at the Ritz, all those one hundred per cent egotistical dames and gents think and feel is how many people will be there! How agreeable the public will be, how droll! And I shall be there among them!
If that person had to listen to Beethoven on their own in that classical concert hall! If no one were splashing about, basking, giggling in the lido’s blue water, on its yellow sands, and all that were waiting there was the psalm-singing of waves, the fevered and monotonous meditation of the sand! If in the Ritz one had to tango all by oneself, to trace a blues with one’s body like the madman alone in the madhouse… what then?
If that desiccated and chilled-through misanthrope were to make his way homeward in the hushed middle of the night down narrow streets and never see anyone else go pass in the light of the lamps, never hear another pair of shoes hitting the pavement, do you not agree that he would feel distinctly uncomfortable, maybe not even dare go that way during these choice quarter-hours for murder. How glad that grumpy, man-hating old gent is that there are other living people who are out and about…
Why did I never say a word to them?
Never, oh never
I prepared myself not to look at anybody with an air of indifference, only ever smiling. I also prepared myself always to greet anyone I might see, familiar or not, and in foreign countries and on railway trains I would exchange a few words with every man, woman and child so that we might hear one another’s voices, and I would part from them for ever with a tear in my eyes, because we all die. I made up my mind that I would never complain about anything to anybody but would tell some acceptable lie if I had to talk about myself, and I also made up my mind that in company I would not express an opinion on any matters of reality, I would only unbutton my heart, so people would fall into a reverie from hearing me talk as from hearing music, and so that they would chortle in delight when I spoke and be beside themselves from surprise and enthusiastic and awaken from a hard night of life to an easy morning of dreams. And I counted on rapping on every window and wishing the hidden residents a good day. And I wanted to stuff live flowers in all my pockets, violets, lilies-of-the-valley and sweet-scented little marguerites, so as to be able to toss a flower at every stranger in the streets.
I did not do it.

Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Excerpts from Ernő Szép: Bűneim (Budapest: Athenaeum, 1924)

Tags: Ernő Szép