When a man decides to build a house and stops in front of the empty plot for the first time, he involuntarily puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder and is lost in reveries. In the course of the next fifteen, twenty years, this gesture will become less frequent, or it will stop altogether, but that’s not what you think about at a time like this.
Our Street, Sándor Tar’s fifth book, is comprised of thirty-one stories centered on the inhabitants of Crooked Street, the tail end of a small village in southern Hungary bounded at one end by a down-and-out bar where most of the characters find their consolation in alcohol, banter, sex, yearning for love, and recounting far-flung tales. Through these and other figures, one is drawn into a world both captivating and harrowing. Yet the stories are told with such humor, understanding, and sympathy that the book reaffirms the characters’ humanity and endows them with dignity. Our Street takes us into terrain that most would not have known were it not for Sándor Tar.
When a man decides to build a house and stops in front of the empty plot for the first time, he involuntarily puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder and is lost in reveries. In the course of the next fifteen, twenty years, this gesture will become less frequent, or it will stop altogether, but that’s not what you think about at a time like this. No. You’re gripped, if only for a fleeting moment, by the fear that you won’t be able to build it after all. The dreams about the three rooms, the hall, the big tiled kitchen and just as big, sunny bathroom seem beyond your reach. Wallpaper, chandeliers, furniture. And mountains of gravel, cement, bricks. And chaos. Your wife is thinking along the same lines, but she’s also thinking about their unwashed, ill-smelling embraces. The anger. The resentment. We’ll be tired, sweaty, and evil-smelling, she’s thinking as she smiles at you; it’ll be beautiful, you’ll see, she says, and you nod, what? Then they look in on the neighbors. They’ve launched into it already, and already they’ve got problems, and there’s a child too, now, and anger, and debris everywhere. They sit down someplace and drink the beer their hosts shove in front of them and try to talk first to the one, then to the other, two people who haven’t spoken to each other in months. But they’re proud, there’s nothing they can do, they’re into it, it’s out of their hands.
Jenő Nagy and Sárika are not facing the same problems that plague a young, nervous married couple. Jenő is fifty-eight, Sárika just over sixty, but they want to build a house next door in place of the small adobe one that’s there now. They just got married and have a little something set aside, so they’re optimistic. The sand around the small house was carried off anyway and it’s dug up all around, because Sárika needed the money. The neighbor knows, he carried away some of it himself. Sárika would let you have a carload for a bottle of wine, so why not? There’s nothing left, no garden, no yard. It’s been dug up. They all came and carried it off, Jenő says, ill at ease. A shame on them. His neighbor listens, nods. Sure. Well, you wanna know what I’ve got to say about that, he now asks. If I could start all over again I’d leave good enough be and not build a new one. Tell him, his wife cuts in, he can still do that. Jenő says nothing to either of them. Nor does Sárika. And also, the husband goes on, raising his voice, anybody that gets married and knocks a woman up is a moron. What problems would I have in that small house you own? Well? In which case, the wife continues as she turns to Sárika, let me ask. Who kneeled in front of me and kissed my feet when I said no, no, no! And who wound the electric cord around his neck? Tell her, the husband cuts in, that I was naïve and had no idea that a piece of trash like… Are you off already? We’re off, says Jenő gingerly. We have so much to attend to. But we’ll be seeing each other again I’m sure. We had such a lovely chat. Goodbye. Would you like to go anywhere else, Sárika asks outside, panting heavily. No dear, let’s not, Jenő says, it costs such a lot. The one we’ve got is good enough for us, says Sárika as she helps Jenő up on the bicycle. These people are all unhappy. We don’t need that.
Jenő Nagy walked as if he were perpetually driving a ball against two teams, because he was recruited into the state security forces in ’56 and was wounded.[i] In some big building where everybody was running helter-skelter – the building may have even been on fire, and the Russians were shooting – in the chaos he rolled down a bunch of stairs and a brief round of fire from his own gun landed in his own body. There was nothing terribly wrong and he wasn’t worried until about ten hours later, when there was nobody left in the building. He managed to crawl out onto the street, where two reliable witnesses found him, who later swore that wounded as he was, he was the last to leave the building, along with them. He said then, and he never tired of saying that that’s not how it was, but they just patted him on the back and smiled, don’t be so modest, we know what we know. When he could stand again he was decorated, he even got a small apartment, not just a hospital bed, and a colonel shook his hand and said, you’re the kind of soldier we need. Then he got discharged and a couple of years later was forced into retirement. It was a good shot in the stomach that doesn’t kill a soldier, just renders him unfit for battle, though truth to tell, it landed in his spine, which ruined his walk, but nothing else.
He and Sárika met in the hospital. Jenő was undergoing some sort of rehab and Sárika was sleeping and smiling nonstop in a bed with bars around it. She wasn’t locked up. I’m here by mistake, she told Jenő, and Jenő said he, too, because nobody shot him, except they won’t believe him. He’s written everybody, even János Kádár, but his name is all over the place, they make him sit at those long red tables during celebrations, pioneers and young Communist Leaguers badger him, wanting to take him under their wing. It’s enough to drive a man crazy. Sárika just laughed. At the time she was given medication that makes you laugh at everything, even the fact that her husband, whom she loved, had just died, because she loves everybody, just ask the people in the street. They consoled her and brought her wine and pálinka, chopped up the kindling, some even stayed the night so she shouldn’t be afraid, because it’s one of those streets. They were both well into their therapy when Jenő said he’s got his own apartment, but it’s on the eighth floor, and he’s renting it out because he’s afraid to get in the elevator. Also, it’s too high up. They’re going to give him another one on the ground floor, but till then he sleeps in the frisking room at the gate house of the factory, and during the day he sits around in the lobby of the office building, except he’s been warned that when the big boss comes he better hide and then he hides inside the switch box, it’s closest.
Modern medicine is highly advanced; there are drugs that make you relax, render you nearly irresponsible, your thoughts wander, your face is smoothed out. All in all, life is beautiful. By the time the patient realizes, he’s asked a woman’s hand in marriage, he’s making plans, he’s practically happy. Out in the park between Psychiatry and the Isolation Unit, Jenő Nagy showed Sárika that except for his walk he’s hale and hearty and there’s no impediment to him making her his wife. For her part, Sárika saw no impediment to it either, they’re both retired; their life is ahead of them. They left the hospital together, in broad daylight, so everyone should see, then they went to Misi’s at the top of the street, where more people could have a good look at them, and it’s there that Dorogi said to Jancsi Hesz that this man walks as if he were driving a ball against two teams. Sárika ordered pálinka all around and Jenő paid, then they ordered a bottle of wine to go, and Jenő slammed a thousand forint bill down on the counter, and everybody gaped. My bridegroom, Sárika said to Mrs. Sarkadi when they went to her place for a glass of wine. We’re getting married. Fine, fine, said Mrs. Sarkadi, Aunt Piroska, quite as it should be. But you still owe me three hundred seventy forints, Sárika. From last month. Sárika nodded, and Jenő took out the money and said, from now on it’s going to be different, isn’t that right, dear!
In our street there’s dust and poverty and a bunch of unrealized dreams and broken lives, and there’s no knowing, even, when people are helping each other. When it got around that the big mouthed, drunkard Sárika hooked herself a man from town with a funny walk who practically feeds her with a silver spoon, that they hardly ever leave the house, and sometimes people see a bicycle with Jenő sitting on the frame and Sárika pushing it, that they go to Misi’s place or Mrs. Sarkadi’s for wine, at first everybody just laughed. But then it also got around that Jenő’s the kind of guy that sold his house in Debrecen and bought Sárika a white wedding gown to be married in. Also, that the gown cost fifty thousand forints all told, and in today’s world! Jancsi Hesz said that a funeral costs less and is just as beautiful, but Terka Papp, his mother-in-law, ran along the length of the street, it’s the hand of God, and there’s such a thing as true love! Not like her son-in-law and her daughter! It piqued her that she couldn’t see into Sárika’s yard properly, when little Sanyi Harap’s boys come in and out as they please. All six of them. And they’re always chewing something. And even the reverend cried at the wedding, there was organ music, the little Zeke boy brought a tape recorder, and from that, because the ceremony was held in the house. There was a cauldron of goulash soup, sausage, ham, drinks. And the whole street ate, whereas nobody brought anything, they just had a laugh at the sixty-year-old bride in the white gown and a myrtle wreath on her head. Yes.
Days later a long awaited downpour came and people took shelter in Misi’s place, where they listened agog to Dorogi, who told them that everybody better cart back the sand they carried off from Sárika’s house. The rain’s stopped, so get moving! They couldn’t believe their ears. Jancsi Hesz, who hadn’t carried off anything, seconded Dorogi, it’s a disgrace, yes, and the law’s the law and he’s gonna be the first to go to Town Hall, if that’s what it takes. Another downpour like this, Béres yelled, and it’s gonna wash away that house. He didn’t cart anything away either, but he’s gonna cart something back! Don’t make me laugh, Misi, the proprietor, said, she practically gave it away. For wine! Then they changed the subject and went on drinking, and then Misi said to Dorogi, the old graveyard in the village, it’s being liquidated. Cart it from there. And rubble from the railroad bed. Bring along some beer, Dorogi said, then they went to Sárika’s house to settle the matter. It was getting dark, but not that dark, you could still see the small house with what was left of the tiny yard perched in the middle of a pool of rain water, and in the yard a walnut tree and under it a table, and there they were, Jenő Nagy in shirtsleeves and pants, his feet resting on a low stool, smoking, and across from him Sárika in her white wedding gown, and she was smoking, too, the two of them sitting there as serene and quiet as if they were listening to the sound of music.
[i] He was recruited into the state security forces in ’56: In 1956, the Communist government set up a special military task force independent of the army with the express purpose of helping the Soviet forces put down the revolution by force of arms.
Sándor Tar: Our Street
Contra Mundum, 2015
See publisher's page
Translated by: Judith Sollosy
Tags: Sándor Tar