04. 20. 2014. 11:38

On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on Its Hooves (excerpt)

Published last year in English in Tim Wilkinson's translation, László Fábián’s experimentalist 1976 novel mirrors the pantheistic world of a highly sensitive child gradually maturing into an artist, who identifies with the great explorer, Roald Amundsen.

Chapter 12
Amundsen Sometimes Still Pops Up Among the Ice Floes

that Grandma sat in bed, and as if she were still there today and (just as of old) putting her hands together for prayer, and the mumbled Our Fathers, Apostle’s Creeds, and Hail Marys were slipping out from her toothless mouth, and during her prayer she was meanwhile continually thinking of the unfortunate, because she considered that she had to pray for everyone whom the world ever carried on its back: for the quick and the dead, especially for those who had disappeared — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen — ja, vi elsker dette landet,[1] that’s the way he wants it, and even more the laws of God’s realm: show us your burning sacrifice to the Lord in order that he may be convinced of the sincerity of your sacrifice and your respect, of the cleanliness and fragrance of your smoke — drifting towards him from the autumn smoke of the pulled-out potato stolons the incense which is sweetened by the bouquet fit for epicures of the tubers hidden in it, the tufts and branchings of dried stalks rustle, crackle, and throw up scintillating sparks, tiny pearls, into the incomparably monotonous grey of the potato fields, and the Norwegian youngsters and Norwegian dotards bow amidst the pyres in order that the odd left-over tuber should still be stuffed into the sacks, they take care of the life of the sacrificial fires — with love and with the curiosity endowed in fire since time immemorial; yet this potato patch is just a memory, an obvious background to this portrait of grandma’s praying, which as a pencil sketch is little more than a doodle which got stuck in a crumpled scrap of wrapping paper or a reworking of some influential literary work, which as far as its genre goes may equally have been a lyric poem or even a novel with long-term saying power — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen —

but now it is summer, the warmest summer, splendid weather for polar flying in a Latham sea plane (for once the purpose is not adventure but to assist: radio receivers had caught a radiogram message requesting help from airship designer, pilot and rival polar explorer Umberto Nobile, who had suffered a broken arm, broken leg, broken rib and head injury from the crashing of his dirigible Italia[2]), summer, when the bees sweat in the calyces of the flowers of the marrow but for preference hover, buzzing, over them; on the ditch-side trees the sun ripens the laxative plum (among his memories a young boy flings his back against a tree, occasionally coughing feebly, and nervously hold a handkerchief over his mouth); the figure of a young girl pops up amid the summer’s quivering air (a faultily perforated reel of film — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen), her wetted athlete’s singlet stretched over a well-developed bosom, the elastic of her black running pants digs deep into her thighs — Amundsen — water splashes, cows low, dog bark, cats whine: all blessings come from God —

(with major pain Nobile slowly turns onto his left side and would, for preference prop himself up on his elbows, if only his broken arm would permit him to do so), a thick layer of sand-like dust on the highway has heated up to the point that one can barely run barefoot nor is it possible to wear shoes, while boots are simply unbearable, so go your own way — as the wise saying has it: it is precisely the approach which is most nearly impossible on this dusty path, it breaks up into clouds of dust, an impenetrable curtain of dust envelops the countryside, and mistaking one’s direction is guaranteed, mistaken directions have been claiming their victims for millennia, you have been wandering round the enigmatic corridors, if not the casemates, of castles in Spain for millennia, but let that now be at an end: THINK ALL OF YOU;

Amundsen, Amundsen

one thing was for sure: by now it was impossible to try over again even with Uncle Gábor, or rather, to be very precise, there was just one attempt left: to accompany (go after, follow) him as he stepped out on his longest journey, and the brothers-in-law in black suits and neckties had followed him dejectedly with their eyes, scanning his mysterious journey (the last time they would look him in the eyes, was how they had related it, plus ça change!), in their hands were still bunches of flowers of some sort — quite a turn-up for the book as that kind of thing had hardly happened to them as yet — gladioli, white and brick-coloured, one of them impishly winking in Uncle Gábor’s direction, which is how his eyebrow stayed: slightly raised, he had fumbled in a pocket before triumphantly pointing out the hunter called Stüszi, and one seemed to recollect him whispering “With this omen you’ll win!”, but Uncle Gábor had shown not the least interest and had turned his head away (or he would have done if his neck were not so confoundedly rigid, almost rock-hard), and perhaps a complaint was heard from him from another novella: “Last week I, too, was so indisposed”; and an agitation could be heard just like when the doctor’s question (as to what sexually transmitted diseases one had suffered from) had infuriated him incredibly, and the damn-and-blast-hims were flying back and forth, and even so it had been no easier for him either, although the candelabras were blazing, but their burning was barely visible in that heat and the procession by foot was taking so long;

leve fedre landet,[3] shout the good Norwegians, above all the young ones, and the flames over Uncle Gábor’s candelabras, over the pyres of potato stolons, switched out of their eyes, but that enthusiasm — Wouldn’t you agree, Amundsen? — was by now incomprehensible, unstylish — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen — inquisitive telephone calls jingle in some information office, though they are unable to supply any new information as no fresh news has come in, or rather what has come in is not fit to communicate; two icebreaker gunboats set sail from a Soviet port, easily reaches the latest prospects of hope, takes these on board, and with this heavy burden plods sluggishly onwards in the Arctic Ocean

fog ice smoke Latham sea plane hatchet and ice axe — Amundsen, Amundsen — ice holes fissures running low on petrol radiogram barley water chocolate warm glovers goggles bears seals walruses we’ll-not-find-a-way-out-of-here-either smart foxes again ice and smoke (Nobile would like to get back if he hadn’t been left just now n his right ride) Latham sea plane crack wind

all the same, who’s going to say what you OUGHT to do? you just look at the flickering lamp in front of you — i dag ble det mørkt tidlig[4] — to stare in wonderment at the supper leftovers circling over its glass chimney, which can flare up in an unguarded movement, or the rocking of the lamp wick in the paraffin, but that’s not a sign of agitation, just stupor, though of course that, in itself, is one of the stages (albeit not the most advanced) of distress, and you are not allowed to distress yourselves at present, right now a very great deal is hanging in the balance, much more than you can get your minds round, so just try and find a fitting term for your agitation and mask your cynicism, which is no more than fear, and don’t let it enter your heads to play all your trump cards, as it is, besides its being a deliberate tactic, you have little chance of winning; ALL OF YOU lazybones, who have become so readily accustomed to the spice bed, yield to the temptation of fragrances which cannot be warded off: dill and nutmeg, ginger and tarragon — the flavours run together in the mouth, and not a sign of tears anywhere despite the fact that weeping is called for, like for Kayem’s distant face, quiet, shaking sobbing — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen — and from how far away comes Nobile’s message as well, hardly discernible from the crackles and pops (the radio operator presses the headphones to his ears, his rapt attention casts vertical wrinkles between his brows, his features are transformed by the effort, his fingers nervously twirl the pencil with which he is trying, endeavouring, to note down the gurgling sounds, his hair is tousled, and his eyes — the eyes are the most expressive of all! — search among the comments inscribed in a diary as if he were looking for hope, the limits of time’s power); you, on the other hand, just lie back in your spice beds, and in the best case the onions will make you cry — you meander among your uncontrollable delusions;

a nun offered her services as a tour guide among the delusions; her gentle soul drew the strength needed for that task, which was in any event beyond her powers, and she roamed with you down long, Gothic corridors among the never-perishing values which looked down from the walls with sympathy, accusation, contempt, forbearance, affection, kindliness, hatred, abhorrence and envy, captivatingly and submissively, inquisitively, impassively, melancholically, dopily or with interest (István Báthori, King of Poland,[5] was pulling his head right down into his neck as if he were hunchbacked, as if his neck were extra short, and he was following everyone with his piercing gaze, just like a disparaging smile is always playing on the lips of the Vasas of Sweden, whichever way you turned), persistently or fleetingly, and the nun paces forward, her sandals scurry silently on the waxed stone flags, her black gown fluttering after her, and that is so irritating — Amundsen — so revelatory of a secret, which maybe by now could never leak out, even though this nun herself would have been just as glad of it as any one of you: she fell headlong on the red coconut fibre matting, spinning hysterically, throwing herself left and right, spreadng her legs so that the black cloth rode up ever-higher on her thighs, ripped at the tight buttoning on her neck, wallowed half-naked because she was wearing no undergarments under the habit, not a scrap on that stark raving-mad female — and wonders will never cease: God had mercy: the vision was ended, the nun continued to push ahead at the front, the only one in that assembly who was perhaps infallible; all of you were subject to your tempers and your instincts, and why did you not believe in the power of penitence, there was no redemption either for you in general, or for you in particular, you unfortunate wretch, who since time immemorial had been running after a face even though you could not come across anything else in the faces, no you could not be rid of it, you couldn’t escape even though that meant virtually nothing;

Amundsen, Amundsen

Amundsen, you all said, in all likelihood had decided to hide away permanently from prying eyes, to cease continually supplying fodder for sensations; he stepped out of the icebox in which his dear cousine would have liked to freeze him, unbuttoned the ear flaps of the pilot’s cap, pushed his goggles up onto his brow, opened his jacket, and set off just like that, with empty hands, on the path indicated by the nun, or, to be more precise, on a path that he imagined to be that, even though he would much rather go with Old Smen to the Epson Derby, where there was a chance of winning a few tenners, but now perseverance was offering a new possibility: let’s have a go and travel the highways of the sky (Nobile’s moaning comes in from far away on the radio waves, he had deserved his fate), let’s go above the clouds, where the sky around dawn turns mauve and orange, and it breaks up into bands like in an expressionist painting, beneath them the clouds were capricious mountains of snow, and it was as if winds were tugging their forelocks and powder snow were flurrying and settling again; Amundsen availed himself of the occasion — and, in all probability, that was his last roll of the dice; shaking off from himself snow, ice and hoarfrost, he entered the café and looked around with a searching look as if it were truly conceivable that the shabby figures if Smen and Young Smen were there, although he knew full well that was absurd; no, this time he was left alone, it was not in his power to have recourse to assistance, because that assistance would never have arrived, and it somehow seemed vaguely as if it were precisely he who had arrived to give assistance (Nobile’s injuries had started to go gangrenous), though glancing around there, off the top of his head it did not come to mind who ought to be of assistance.

it was related by all of you, then, that he entered the café, a place he had never been in hitherto, he hesitated slightly (the remnants of powder snow on his shoulders melted into glittering droplets, he could feel his eyebrows dampening, which was pleasant), then he sat down in a corner by the widow, to his right, a little further off, sat a party of ageing gentlemen taking tiny sips of advocaat from shapely liqueur glasses; (for Amundsen the yellow of the egg liqueur instantly turned into the yellow of bags under the eyes, the yellow of nicotine-stained fingers, the yellowish-green of envy, and yellow trades union, and it came to mind how much one of his aunts had hated the colour yellow, the colour of buttercups, the yellowing of the whites of Uncle Gábor’s eyes and the beds of his fingernails when he had hepatitis, the spots left by his pee on the snow), and as it slowly dribbled back the liqueur coated the side of the glass with a yellow film; Amundsen did not even look up when the waitress was standing beside him and took his order for coffee, which the adventurous Norwegian (Jeg bor ikke her!)[6] knew in advance that the best he could hope for was for it to be warm, strong coffee being unknown in those parts; the waitress, on the other hand, deserved attention, having a startling hairdo, the peculiarity of which stemmed from the fact that the hairline above her temples on both sides had been shaved away and so the hair started a long way back, over her ears, and it strove to appear as spectacular as it was conspicuous in that configuration, the colour of her blue dress almost completely matched the colour of her skin in the places where a razor had freed it of hair, maybe a shade darker, and she seemed to want to present herself as being more important, significant, than was necessary; but Amundsen was not taken in by that dodge, if only because curiosity engaged or held his attention more than being bothered with such trivialities, although in this case the odd hairstyle was the one and only thing that was valid and which he followed by eye all the way from the table to the counter and back, when she brought his coffee, although by then his eyes had been caught by a more important point of interest: a young man had entered, at his side a woman of indefinable age — she was pretty, or to be very exact, she was attractive and had left her blouse unbuttoned a long way down, under it her rounded breasts wobbled freely, for the fact that she had a shapely figure was easy to determine, one only had to take one look, and the traveller had a look, that was for sure, he spotted her, devoured her, leaving his eyes on her because nothing else was worth his attention, her legs were are good as invisible, being covered by a long brown skirt (she was slender, elegant), at most he still needed to get a look at her face, only again what Amundsen gathered from the face — how dreadful! — was just the startling similarity, that referential delusion: she was one and the same woman, he knew her equally as a memory and a fantasy, and now she stood there twice over, within a hand’s length, as a mixture of bitterness and joy, all he had to do was grasp her… he did not do that, yet, so you unanimously assert, he was not able to do so for the woman was visibly looking at her partner with adoration, albeit discreet adoration, and Amundsen, perhaps with an eye to later chances, sighed out a by now sincere (and the dialect form shows how much it was so) regret: eg bur ikkje her; but the degree to which the woman and her partner counted as one was apparent also from the fact that the man’s trousers may very well have been tailored from the same brown textile as the long skirt, and from the way they were in immaculate agreement in ordering the same dish (it was a peculiar café where food was also served), namely roast duck; so the waitress with the ghastly hairdo came in again, bringing the food and drinks that had been ordered (they drank red wine), they set about it in leisurely fashion (the leisure consisted of waiting until the waitress had made space for them by moving the white porcelain ashtray, napkin holder, and vase of flowers out of the way, and of emphasising their ensemble by means of a cleverly picked grey stripe running around them), using knife and fork to take possession of the tastier morsels, their practised movements a give-away that this was not the first time; the woman’s left arm, under the blouse, sported a finely fashioned wristwatch of large dimensions, and on that account it looked as if the movements of knife and fork were brought off a touch more expansively and with more flourish than was proper, and that might also have been true of a little accident which utterly disrupted the harmony, irredeemably ruined the idyll: a glaring fatty stain left on the ochre yellow blouse after an incautious movement attested to clumsiness on the part of its bearer — that tiny accident somehow took away the woman’s inclination for the whole performance (much to Amundsen’s regret, she buttoned up and the bosom disappeared), she even sipped disconsolately at her wine, looking increasingly at the fat stain; from then on it was to be expected that they would clear off at any moment, which was indeed what soon happened; Amundsen would with the greatest pleasure have cried out plaintively after her the way he had once whimpered after Elise W. and Kayem, but he knew that no one at all would understand a word he said, he would roam unanswered all alone in this foreign flurry until he was swallowed up by the din —

that’s about all your embroidering fantasies were able to glimmer about the last moments of the disappearance of the Norwegian of restless spirit

Amundsen, Amundsen, rang out simultaneously from several quarters as a sight, as a shout, as a hope, as a resignation, as a virtue and as a sin (perhaps also as a punishment?), and as the words whizzed around in the air, powder snow blew up and whirled around — Amundsen — ice grated, wind cut through the passages of the white mountains, it was far below freezing point, high above hearts, and it was though a bird were screeching as well, just in general: a series of sensory illusions — Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen — northern lights and southern mirages, “my babe’s a lovely little Eskimo”, fossils, discarded bones in a mammoth museum, a badly worn set of dentures, a hard-frozen fisherman’s apron, purses and larger handbags, shoes — matching the handbags in colour and style, Christmas tree decorations, nude sketches and who knows what else frozen in the ice, like stag-beetles in amber — Amundsen — the sighs rise up simultaneously from several quarters: Fugløya,[7] Italia, Latham, Kings Bay[8]— enormous walruses and seals rest their flippers on the windows of Eskimo igloos and watch events impassively, listlessly, mist and fog — a machine had ploughed into an iceberg (just for the heck of it, but also for the rhyme), but release will come, and if not that then something else — Amundsen:

Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen

yet that really had been the warmest summer when it was hard for you to imagine the stark tragedy when the forests were tricked out in their full pomp, and the flowers of the field: the yellow meadow-rue and the swaying potentilla cry out the name of the vanished man, the liquorice milkvetch and yellowcress sound out, the yellow pimpernel and woodruff, the ragwort wants him, and sowthistle, cornflag, toothed orchid, and white hellebore tremble for him, goat’s rue, marsh mallow, horsemint, black nightshade, the widow flower, yet maybe for Amundsen Centauria had finally blossomed, the poppy had withered, the larkspur had faded, and anyone who would like to believe in him one more time might be able to hang on his name —

you would seek an excuse, and there is no excuse
you would seek a solution, and there is no solution
you would seek a possibility of assisting, and such a possibility does not exist
you would seek compensation, but it is not in your powers to compensate for anything
you would pay the debts off, but you can’t even try to find a lender, let alone be certain
about the debts
you would seek a prophet, and he does not exist
you look out for a windmill, and with a further go at that you might come upon it, only its sails are not turning
you would be orphans, but so many of you?
you would promise to be gentle and meek — but to whom, to whom?
you would seek a sign, but where’s the signified?

on the other hand — and let this be a shared confession— we have committed a sin: we have committed errors, we were unfaithful, we have robbed, we have cursed, we have seduced, we have misbehaved, we have been cocksure, we have resorted to force, we have trumped up untruths, have given bad advice, we have lied, we have taunted, we have offered resistance, we have bantered, we have been unruly, we have offended, we have led dissolute lives, we have been at odds, we have been stubborn, we have been disloyal, we became warped, we have erred and we have deluded ourselves, we have departed from the commandments and the salutary laws — we have no merit

so if we look for him, shall we be able to find him?



Translator's notes

[1] “Yes, we love this land” — the opening words of the Norwegian national anthem.
[2]
The story of the mission to rescue the survivors of the crash of the airship Italia was told by the film The Red Tent, a joint Soviet/Italian 1969 film adapted from Yuri Nagibin's novel of the same title, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, and featuring Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen and Peter Finch as Nobile.
[3]
Long live the fatherland!'
[4]
Roughly: ‘These days the murk sets in early.’
[5]
István (Stephen) Bathory (1533–1586), scion of a Transylvanian Hungarian noble family was elected both Prince of Transylvania (1571–86) and King of Poland (1576-86).
[6]
‘He doesn't live here anymore.’
[7]
Amundsen disappeared on 18 June 1928 while flying on a mission to rescue Nobile (see footnotes 47 and 59), In June of that year a wing-float and gasoline tank from the Latham 47 flying boat he had been in was found floating off the island of Fugløya to the far north of Norway. It was believed that the plane crashed in fog in the Barents Sea, and that Amundsen was killed in the crash, or died shortly afterwards. His body was never found.
[8]
Amundsen set out on an attempt to fly over the North Pole in 1925, financed by Lincoln Ellsworth, son of a millionaire, in one of two Dornier-Wal flying boats (known as N24 and N25). These started from Kings Bay (New Ålesund) on 21 May 1925 but made an emergency landing at 87.43 degrees north, leaving the men fighting for their lives, as they eventually did.

László Fábián: On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on Its Hooves, or a Strange Cramp in the Throat
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press, 2014

Translator's review

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: László Fábián