Tales of Budapest (Mesék Budapestrol), Aliz Mosonyi's book, illustrated by Ágnes Háy, was first published in 1982. Straightaway, it disappeared from the bookshops like a gold watch. No wonder – in this book you can read and see whatever there is to read and see for a child in Budapest. Twelve chapters plus one; a guidebook in a way, but mainly a storybook for children. The stories are about – for example – how a slim little graffiti (called Crazy Rádai) climbed off the wall. (Where did he do that?) Or about six Turks eating in the Buda Castle. (Eating what?)
Some of the tales revolve around grave crimes – the Opera House was stolen (by whom?) –, others are strange stories and mysterious cases – hot-air balloons are sold in the City Park! (who sells them?) –, absurd dramas – a shipwrecked sailor is waiting on Margaret Island (for what?) –, and tiny scenes from life – diesel trains are being insolent at the Southern Railway Station (to whom?). All the places are real – the Underground, the Zoo, the cake shop in Buda Castle and the sphinxes on guard in front of the Opera. You can go and see them if you like, now perhaps with a different eye. For who knows when the Budapest nightmares will turn up the next time? And if perhaps the slides on Gellért Hill were really and truly worn off by the bottoms of giants? And isn't it obvious anyway that no earthly mortal but a dragon should live behind the windows of the Tunnel – Pester, the dragon, looking at the cars, waiting for his favourite silver Jaguar to turn up.
The stories are also rendered in drawings. I would not call Ágnes Háy's black and white renderings illustrations. These are sophisticated pictures – at first sight, they seem to be naive children's drawings, but on closer examination they turn out to be full of witty details. Some of them are faithful copies of reality – but does anyone look at these well-known objects in such a way and so carefully, when walking around in ”reality”?
János Bátky in Magyar Narancs
"Okay," grumbled the boat. "So we're going through Budapest. So what? I know the whole thing by heart. Railroad Bridge, Petofi Bridge, Szabadság, Erzsébet, Chain Bridge, Margit, Árpád, another railroad bridge. I know it all backwards with my eyes closed. I'm fed up with it. Up and down, up and down. Best coal, second best coal – it's all the same. It's just a bore."
"But what about the view?" said the Danube. "The view here is absolutely gorgeous. It's not just any old run-of-the-mill view. Look over there to your left. That's Gellért Hill."
"The view!" said the boat. "What are you talking about the view for? My grandfather was a pirate ship. Santa Barbara di Maggiore, the most feared frigate of the seas – that was my grandad! The captain was the fastest gun on the seas and the sailors were all one-eyed. Yes, every one of them!"
"Do have a look to your right. We're almost at the parliament," said the Danube.
"Cannons!" said the boat. "Pistols! The scourge of the Mediterranean! The black flag unfurling in the wind to show the skull and cross-bones. They cut through the waves at almost seven knots. Everyone who saw them fled."
"We're going round Margit Island now. Go on, just have a look. The fountain's working. Look at the colours," pleaded the Danube.
"It's no use talking to you. You've got no idea what life really is," said the boat. "My grandad now – he saw some really rough stuff. Indian princes in chains! Once he almost captured the King of England, but then he had mercy on him. My grandad was brave, but he wasn't thoughtless. He knew what life was all about."
"We've reached the Óbuda shipyards," said the Danube. "You could at least say hello!"
"What? Have we really passed Gellért Hill? Why didn't you say so? You did it on purpose, didn't you, so that I couldn't see the slides!"
"I did tell you!" said the Danube.
"You know I always look at the slides! You know I never miss them! And you didn't say anything," grumbled the boat.
"Anyway, slides aren't that important. My grandad saw better things. Spain! Italy! Swordfish used to eat out of his hand. Have you got any idea what a swordfish looks like?"
"I have," said the Danube.
(The Giants of Gellért Hill)
Late at night, when it is absolutely dark, they roll back a rock and climb out from inside Gellért Hill. There are six of them – and they are all giants. They live inside the hill in a three-roomed flat, which does have real doors except that you cannot see out of them and anyway they would rather roll away a rock and come out like that.
During the day they play at home (the things they like doing best are drawing and painting) and the things that they draw most often are slides where children and giants are playing together.
So, when they come out at night, they look round carefully, and when they see that there is nobody there, they sigh and shake their heads.
"There's nobody here again," they say and they just stand around for a while and watch to see if anyone is going to come along.
Then they start to play on the slides and they start feeling happier, and by the time they have slid down sixty or seventy times they are all whopping excitedly although they tell each other to "SHHHHH, SHHHHH", and point at the city where everyone is sleeping.
They have races too and it is always the littlest giant that wins because he slides down the shortest slide. When it is almost morning they roll back another rock and go home.
One day they had an idea: they would write a letter and pin it on to the longest slide. They even started to write it:
"We were here. We'll come again tomorrow. The Gellért Hill Giants."
But they accidentally spit red paint all over this letter and it was so smudged that they could not stick it up and they have never got round to writing another one.
Of course there are nightmares in Budapest. There are six of them: Mari, Lajos, Béla, Lujza, Borbála and Cékla. But the names do not mean a thing if you do not know what sort of nightmares they are. We do not know what they look like. We do have some idea about the nightmares of the fields and marshes and woods, but none at all about these city ones. A city nightmare could be a sewing machine or a shoe or a bicycle pump. Mari could be that broken pipe in the seventh district and Lajos could be some horrible graffiti (ANYONE WHO READS THIS IS AN IDIOT). It is not even worth trying to guess, because nobody can know for sure. Even if Béla is a hole in a bicycle pump one day, it is quite sure that he will not be the same thing the next day.
There are only two things we know for sure. The first is that they really love ice-cream and that, if you see a sign somewhere saying that the ice-cream has run out, then it is absolutely certain that they have been there and eaten it all.
The other thing that is sure is that they live at the edge of the city. This does not really tell us much either because it could be anywhere on the edge of the city – north, south, east or west. And they do not just live at the edge of the city, but at the very end. The problem is that the end of the city is everywhere where the edge is. But then, they do not just live at the end of the city, but in the very last house, and if anyone can find this house, if anyone can find the very end of Budapest, then they will find them as well and maybe, from then on, the ice-cream will never run out in Budapest again.
Translated by April Retter
Aliz Mosonyi: Shop Tales (excerpt)
Tags: Aliz Mosonyi