07. 19. 2004. 10:55

My Hero's Square (Excerpts)

Lajos Parti Nagy

"'Homeless,' she reported, 'three homeless individuals of unknown provenance.' 'So what, sweetheart,' a vexed yet liquid voice replied. 'So what?' 'But, I wish to report... the point is, they're more or less the size of the Embassy, or the whatchamacallit next door.'"

Lajos Parti Nagy (1953) is one of the most interesting and influential innovators of Hungarian poetic language, a virtuoso language artist, poet, writer and playwright considered both by professionals and readers to be one of the most important Hungarian writers alive. He is perhaps the most popular Hungarian writer - recently his drama entitled Mausoleum was performed in London with great success. His novel entitled Hosöm tere (My Hero's Square), the most complete literary account of Hungarian society after 1989, was published by Magveto in 2001.

Three homeless citizens were sitting on Budapest's Liberty Square, watching television.
        As always, policemen with automatics were on duty by the corner of the American Embassy, blowing on the plastic coffee cups they were holding up to their lips. They were trembling with cold, and looking at the sky, the Lord's very own coarse-grained and joyless TV monitor. The phenomenon was first noticed at precisely 9:30 a.m. by Corporal Henrietta Kis who (this time for private reasons) had just taken a look into the bomb-surveillance mirror, and was pleased to ascertain that her eye was healing beautifully, the one she'd bumped into the sleeping quarters' lamp just two days before. Why not the lamp? It was as good an excuse as any. At least, that's what she told her partner on duty, that she'd knocked her head into the lamp at the workers' hostel on her way to the lavatory. Little wonder, her business was urgent. Her duty partner wouldn't have believed the truth anyway.
One eyelid nipped up, she studied the minuscule, medium-red jelly, and noted with satisfaction that the unsightliness had been absorbed, while the little that remained was like something she could have painted there herself before going to the late night disco, though as we know, half a made-up eye is always suspicious. In short, Corporal Henrietta Kis was satisfied with what she saw, and would have continued looking, had not her self-examination been literally dwarfed by what else she saw. 

        Without screaming, shrill and loud, thus informing her comrades-in-arm of what she'd seen, the lady, lovely, medium of height and short of thigh, literally swung around on her heels, and took out a cigarette. Thanks to her cut lip, it was only the fourth that day. She put out the match, then unobtrusively pinched her arm, but without producing the hoped for result. Next she drew a couple of deep, silent breaths, then proceeded to ask her two colleagues in a low whisper whether the Comrades didn't happen to see something out of the ordinary over yonder? They were pale, and much absorbed by the act of gulping down their cold coffee. But their dropped jaws were a dead give-away. Yes, shit, to be perfectly frank and above board, et cetera, et cetera, they'd seen it too, except they figured... in short, that they're not seeing what they're seeing, and their eyes are dazed by the snow. However, as things stood, it was no daze they were seeing, but a Predicament.
        They dropped to one knee and cocked their automatics, just like they'd been taught in training school.
        "Maybe they're one of 'em advertising gismos," one of the officers said hopefully. "Like a hot-air balloon. They get it inflated out of all proportion, then it sips Nescafé, or whatever. Powdered soup."
        "Except they'd've needed permission, because that counts as aerial activity," the other officer countered. Their knees had turned cold by then. Besides, they were making laughing stocks of themselves in that tranquil morning and gentle snow fall, all the more so because the three above-mentioned homeless individuals were calmly sitting on a bench in front of the Soviet war memorial. - We are, of course, ignoring the true nature of the phenomenon for the moment, but not for long.
        The time passed with linguistic problems, like what is it they're seeing, and how could they describe it officially? Then Corporal Henrietta Kis, the first to discover the phenomenon, was told to call headquarters over the radio.
        "Homeless," she reported, "three homeless individuals of unknown provenance."
        "So what, sweetheart," a vexed yet liquid voice replied. "So what?"
        "But, I wish to report... the point is, they're more or less the size of the Embassy, or the whatchamacallit next door. The National Bank. And they're sitting down... Yes, you heard me, sitting down! You won't believe this, but there's this incredibly big bench. It grew there out of nowhere, and it's like... how should I put it... totally proportionate to their size."
        Corporal Henrietta Kiss would've gone on with her report, but she was cut short by headquarters. The officer on duty on the other end of the line wanted to speak to a certain Louie.
        "You let her hit the bottle again," a voice screamed into the ear of that certain Louie.
        "No, sir, we did nothing of the sort, sir, I beg to report. Besides, them whatever they are are really here, no joking," that certain Louie went on. "We request our orders. Or why don't you do something! Send a commando car."
        At this point a stream of expletives issued over the radio, and headquarters slammed down the phone. One wonders why. "Commando car", it's so impressive. It's got a certain je ne sais quois to it, like "roasted chestnut". Or "hornets' nest."
        "Headquarters said we're drunk," certain Louie told the others, matter of fact and resigned, then got to his feet. "Shit. They didn't say what we should do. Like ask for their papers, or something. Or whose jurisdiction this thing falls under, or whatnot."
         The Embassy windows were dotted by clean shaven men with intelligent eyes and honest faces. Flashbulbs were flashing, palm-size cameras were clicking. Golden-haired women perched brown, red and yellow children on the windowsills. Then, as if on command, they disappeared, and the blinds were let down.
         Later, when the sirens could be heard already blaring in the side streets, the three of them jerked up their heads. Still, they didn't seem particularly surprised. They just pulled the can closer to their feet and one of them, the younger of the two men, started pointing, possibly at nearby Parliament, possibly at the flashing police cars. But all three remained seated, and they lit up despite the snow. They seemed to be consulting about something, but even though Liberty Square was wrapped in silence as deep as the snow, it was impossible to make out what it was. Nothing but silence, and the smoke of cheap cigarettes.
       By the early afternoon, the entire civilized world had its eyes trailed on Budapest. The television companies took over the roof tops, and with a large entourage in tow, the Minister of Domestic Affairs appeared on the scene. He was briefed that apart from the curious circumstance in question, no curious circumstance had occurred. The damage, too, was light. When asked to prove his identity, one of the suspects dropped his ID and, unfortunately - because of its great weight, which was in proportion to the suspect's size - it scraped the side of a Mitsubishi Pajero. Luckily, it wasn't an Embassy car.
      The Hungarian Prime Minister and President Clinton issued a joint directive about the advisability of negotiations and the removal of the citizens in question from the square, but without creating a stir. The former had received the news at Hajdúhadháza while he was boarding his train, the latter in Washington, and their surprise was eclipsed only by their quick and sagacious assessment of the situation, plus their sang froid.
     As the crane's basket was raised, the silence was so expectant, you could hear the snow falling flake by freezing flake.
     "What the fuck did you fucking people eat that got you grow so fucking big?" the psychologist who was also a police lieutenant asked for the sake of alliteration.
     "Biscuits and Malta rolls."
     "What else?"
     "Also, the wine. It was a present," the three added apprehensively.
     "What do you mean a present? A present from whom to whom?" the psychologist who was also a police lieutenant asked.
     Well, now, they couldn't rightly say exactly, the homeless citizens said. Basically, it was brought by four little guys in the wee hours of the morning. Pigeons. At first glance, anyway. They were wearing eagle anoraks, well-cut aviator jackets, white shoe laces. But they didn't start a fight or anything by way of aggression, or anything. They just shoved the wine at them, real neighborly like. As a free present, no less. In a big can, and pink, almost to the bottom. And irreproachably semi-sweet.
      "And then the genes just kicked into gear, is that it?" the psychologist who was also a police lieutenant asked with a smirk on his lips. "They started sprouting. Those chubby genes. Is that what you're implying?"
      "So it would seem," the homeless citizens said, but they're no experts on genes. They were just tasting the rosé, enjoying the bouquet with their noses, until what transpired transpired, and they started growing. Or the country shrinking. Not that it makes any difference. It's just a shared delirium. It'll pass.
      "Well, it sure as fuck better," the psychologist who was also a police lieutenant said. "Can you people stand up?"
      "Hilda can," they said, and one of them, the woman in the skiing outfit, got to her feet, if with difficulty. It was a tense moment. Behind the cover of the rooftops, the skin grew taut on the cheeks of the sharpshooters - grew taut, then relaxed. The middle-aged woman gave a drunken hiccough. She was more or less the size of the nearby National Bank, possibly even a hair's breadth taller. She clutched the can to her bosom with both arms, leaned her cheek against it, and sang, "Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars, let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars..." There were also dance steps to accompany the tune. Then with a thud, she fell back on the bench, which made the three of them guffaw for some time, their drunken mouse voices squeaking and waving in and out among the boughs of the rustling trees shaking off their white flakes. Her comrades slapped her on the back and pressed awkward kisses on her ski cap. In exchange, the woman passed the can around. She drank from it too, smacking her lips, then she set it down in her lap and threw her protective arms around it once again. The can, it's got to stay, otherwise the police can forget the negotiations and the clearing out of the square.
      Around three p.m. one of the two men announced that he's got to answer the call of nature, and either they call the famous geneticist Endre Czeizel on the scene to reverse his genes, or they'd better let him go to the back of the TV to water the lawn.
     "That'll be the day," somebody roared from a distance. They'd been keeping on top of events over the police radio.
     "Why not Kossuth Square while he's at it? Why not Parliament," the man at the other end growled, the sweat tricking down his forehead at the thought.
      Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's helicopter had landed. But after a brief but productive exchange of views, he thought better of his plan to ignore the danger, and with the help of a crane and safety helmet, he decided to shake hands with the gigantic homeless citizens.
      Just before sunset, the homeless citizen who went by the name of Hilda informed the Under-Secretary of State, who was in charge of the negotiations, that if Berci can't answer the Call, she's going to rip the Soviet war memorial out by the roots, and god forbid, she should forget herself and fling it at somebody. Or drop it on top of the television building. God forbid! It's their choice.
      The three homeless citizens were drinking steadily, if with some bitterness, as a consequence of which, the contents of the can were being rapidly depleted. Despite the risk, action had to be taken before the suspects got as drunk as a skunk. Luckily, by the time night fell, the crisis staff, who'd called in American experts to assist them, had worked out a concrete plan of action.
      "Is it really that urgent for Berci?" the psychologist who was also a police lieutenant shouted into the loudspeaker.
       "Yes, it's that urgent," a subdued, wind-beaten voice answered from above.
       "Oh, dear, oh, my," the expert said by way of encouragement.
       "In that case, we will now take hold of him and take a collective walk to a place by the wayside," he said. Then he patiently explained, first in Hungarian, then in English, what was to be done, and after some hesitation, and subsequent to having given expression to their lack of confidence, the citizens in question appeared willing to walk to the People's Stadium, which had been designated for this purpose. But only with adequate police protection, they said, carefully, taking their time, watching where they were stepping.
        "Just hold your horses until we get there."
        On the six o'clock news the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior explained that during the plenary action committee meeting that followed the ascertainment of the facts, and after taking all possible locations into account, they'd decided on the People's Stadium and its auxiliary institutions because it proved to be the only venue where the minimum conditions that the citizens under arrest as well as the accompanying police needed could be guaranteed - to wit, adequate lighting, hot tea, and water canons. The spokeswoman is pleased to report, for the sake of the public, that everything went well, without a hitch or unforeseen complications. When they reached the Eastern Railway Station, the female detainee said she wanted to take the train to Hajdúszoboszló, but after someone had a short exchange of words with her, she changed her mind.
         Hasty and inadequately lit as it was, the TV footage made it clear that the three celebrities had been frightened and disconcerted by all the to do. They trundled on in silence through the heavy snowfall, along deserted streets that had been barred to traffic. Their opal-colored plastic bags and the can were being carried behind them by four fire engines with blaring sirens.
         The night was calm and uneventful. But towards dawn - the precise time could not be established - as they slept, they knuckled under like a wet rag. The hugeness went as quickly as it had come. Or maybe the country got bigger. Be that as it may, the three citizens in question woke up groggy, trying their morning-after tongues, and they were puzzled by the police alert, the silent police cars with frost on their windshields. And they've been sitting there ever since, huddled together inside the start circle, the same size as you or me.
 
Translated by Judith Sollosy

Tags: Lajos Parti Nagy