That night, when the aged dream-sentinel rouses the emperor, a predatory dragon fills the sky and thieves the light from the stars. The monarch blinks sleepily into the dream-sentinel's eyesockets for a few moments, then he shouts for the guard. The emperor has the blind old man killed, for he would have liked to have reached the end of his dream even if it was exceptionally dangerous. The emperor hears something rolling slowly to a standstill along the flagstones of the Palace courtyard. He knows the sound well. The decapitated heads of men roll like this, lurching and subdued with a horrendous knocking.
The dream has escaped the emperor now, he walks down to the monkey cemetery and tries to remember its details while strangling a small lemur. He dreamed he was building the most extraordinary building in the world. Larger than the colossi which surge above the ocean's froth and send signals out to ships with eternally blazing torches. More enthralling than the graves constructed of thousands of gigantic rocks for a man of divine origin compelled to live among scorpions, jackals and monkeys on earth. More beautiful than the hanging gardens adorned with flowers of fatal perfume. More fearful and unreal than the famed labyrinths within whose deeps dwell sad monsters.
In the morning the emperor sits next to his tea and chews on cooked monkeymeat. He is still haunted by scenes from his dream. What kind of person could fulfil his dream? Would he be brave? Cunning? Resolute? Fibreless? Sensitive? Austere? The emperor gives a sudden bark of laughter spilling the monkeymeat from his mouth. He already knows. Before all else he must find an engineer, for the hieroglyphs of plans must glimmer first on the fingernails of builders. He sends spies and trackers, headhunters and chroniclers throughout the empire to select the right person. Within a bare year the emperor orders the most beautiful girls and intelligent youths of the empire to himself. Through divination he chooses a pair from among them, sacrificing the rest on the following night, giving their souls up to the orgiastic stars in the heavens, whose shine has been dull ever since the theft of the dragon. The chosen youths will be the parents of the architect to be. The girl shortly gives birth to a healthy boychild, who appears from the first moment to be beautiful, clever and understanding. The emperor keeps guard over the little boy with the power of his esteem. Dreams and clouds, birds and reptiles are not allowed near him. His only playmate is an idiotic clown, who must be faithful to a single, albeit two-edged, task throughout all the childish play. He may tell neither truths nor falsehoods. A few drops of viper poison are sprinkled on his life's light when the child asks what gives meaning to human life. After some reflection the clown answers with a great sigh that the wisest say death and the most foolish also say death. By order of the emperor the child is not to meet sin. If by chance, or as may happen deliberately, he squashes an insect, he is not told that it is wrong. If he strikes his playmate he is not informed that it causes pain. When he injures a dog with his dart and it dies they stroke its head indulgently and act as though nothing has happened. If he draws blood to his hand with some accidental or thoughtless movement they don't comfort him. They neither love him nor hate him. They never tell him what's right and what's wrong. He once pushed the cleverest teacher in the empire, his own tutor, from the castle wall into the deep. For a few moments the wise man vacillates above the void, then he conquers his fear and horror and bids farewell to his pupil with a friendly glance. The child gets a new tutor the following day, nicer and more obsequious if less wise than his predecessor.
Slowly he grows into a serious young man. Eventually the emperor has him brought to him. He tells him that he has been chosen, and that since he has never met sin consequently he cannot know what is beautiful or good, what is true and what false, therefore he is perfectly qualified to design the most extraordinary building of all time. Palely, the youth listens.
If he accepts the task, he will gain knowledge of only one of the immeasurable riches of earthly excellence which have so far been carefully concealed from him. His knowledge of this single thing will be exhaustive and fundamental. If he refuses the engineering work he may go with God's blessing, no woe will befall him and he can live as other people do, learning each thing to the extent that he desires, although his knowledge, his information will be superficial and perplexing.
And what would that one thing be? the youth asks quietly.
The emperor closes his eyes and strokes the monkey corpse recumbent in his lap.
Unhappiness, my child.
And the youth nods and the next day he gets down to work. He works day and night. He doesn't know the Moon's position, day-break, or the noon glare or the steady rattle of the afternoon rain, he only counts, reads, works. For a number of years he prepares. During this time the emperor takes count of the empire's builders. And the work starts under the instruction of the young engineer. Workers in their thousands travel to the four cardinal points of the world, they drill and they chisel, they raise walls and towers, they bore tunnels into the abdomen of the earth, they draw bridges over enormous rivers and the engineer, who doesn't know sin, and doesn't know what is beautiful or good, what is true and what false, where East is and what direction is West, gives ever more direction and counsel to the workers. The construction is swift but somehow it is not swift. The unhappiness of the youth spills everywhere in the world, it settles in the walls and in the fissures, in the flagstones on the streets, in the bells of the towers and in the walkways bored into the depths of the earth. Meanwhile the great and terrible emperor dies happy, knowing nothing else in the world but happiness. His was the most extraordinary building in the world. Only the secret of this building is that they will always be building it but they shall never finish it.
(An excerpt from Az elso építkezés, in A lojangi kutyavadászok - Kínai novellák, Magveto, 2002)
Translated by Stephen Humphreys
Tags: László Darvasi