11. 27. 2011. 18:31

The hangman's house (excerpt from the novel)

No one had officially told the schoolchildren in Cluj what they were going to portray. All they knew was that they were preparing for a celebration. Then it suddenly dawned on her: the mass of schoolkids were going to portray the Great Leader, Ceaușescu himself, and she is going to be his mouth.

The Mouth

What part of him are you? Asked Csabi Ürögdi, blue with cold outside the children's clinic at the 25 trolley-bus stop, because they would go the same way to the Györgyfalvi district, but no trolley had come in half an hour and the tall girl in her worn sheepskin coat, turned inside-out, would have got on the number 4 to go and see her aunt and warm up, but there hadn't been a 4 either, her toes were numb, all morning they'd been standing in the stadium in the icy January wind because at the start of the month the announcement had suddenly been made that the school holidays had been extended and the blessed condition was to last not three weeks but five, because of the extraordinarily cold weather the schools couldn't be heated, but in the second week of January everybody had suddenly had to report at the school, 'in warm clothing and with food' the summons added, the guess at home was that there was to be a public project, picking over frozen potatoes or carrots, but in the morning they were lined up in a square in the school yard and after a brief instruction set off for the stadium, where they had now been going to practise for a week, I don't know, the girl answered uncertainly,  watching for the buses on Monostori út, but there was nothing coming, then glancing doubtfully at little Csabi, Aren't we letters?, and she looked at the swarthy, stocky, black-browed boy, who was always cheerful for no reason, with whom she shared a desk, she'd been made to sit with him as a punishment in year six because Csabi was the worst pupil in the class, and then she'd got 'satisfactory' results and could choose but stayed with him because they'd become friendly, What colour were you wearing? asked Csabi, because in the stadium they'd not been together, he'd been taken off somewhere else as he was short and they hadn't seen each other all day since the time they were lined up in order of size on the football pitch, which was still covered with last year's dirty ice and patchy snow, and the biology teacher and the PE teachers – all three of the school's PE teachers smelled of pálinka and vile cigarettes in the mornings (the senior pupils also were said to bring in pálinka and tea with rum in it) – led them up into the stand on the south side, where they had to turn on the shout of La dreapta! (Right turn!); they stood on the seats, the shell-shaped plastic seats, where they were not allowed to take anything with them, their bags were piled by classes in the mud-blackened snow on the pitch, but the clothes were only given out a week later, and by then they had learned to turn backwards, to turn their heads, the slogans and the songs: the pig-eyed history teacher Ghita stood down below on the edge of the pitch on the top level of a podium which had been fished out of the store, marked with a 1 and intended for winners, and howled into a aluminium megaphone, trying as he did so to turn over folded diagrams in the icy wind that blew from the side, and the teachers in charge of the classes and groups at the ends repeated the words of command: this was the sign that they had to turn all together in four stages, but those in charge clapped their hands eight times: left foot outwards turn, right foot beside it (so far a half-turn), left foot outwards turn, again right foot beside it, and by now they were facing the other way), only all this had to be done on a fixed, plastic seat on which there was hardly room for their boots, it was next to impossible to turn, so somebody was always falling off or late because the seats were wet and slippery, those that were badly secured wobbled, somebody must have taken the screws out – One side's blue, the other side's red, she replied, and thought that it might be as well to start walking home, there must be a power cut because nothing was coming up the hill, although several people were waiting, but perhaps they were queueing for the shop behind the bus-stop? – Red? There's no red, said Csabi firmly, and added I've got black and white: white is the letter on one side, black is his hair on the other, and he began to blow on his red hands, Aren't we letters on both sides? That's what Year Ten told me, asked the girl, because no one had officially told them what they were portraying, all that they knew was that they were preparing for a celebration, and it was a great honour and distinction for the whole school that precisely they had been chosen, and so the girl hadn't thought about what the colours meant, she'd just been waiting every day to be able to go home – Shall we go? she suggested, because she and Csabi often walked home. – Yes, let's, there's nothing coming. At one time we're white letters on blue, then the other side's the picture. Which side are you on most? he asked – You mean, facing the stadium? The blue. Where are you going? She asked, because in the meantime she'd decided to go to Grandmother's instead, where there was always some lunch left over, and now she might get a hot milky coffee as well, but Mother wouldn't be home until evening, she'd said she was working out of town – I don't know, don't mind, I'm not going home – replied Csabi, I'm with the white more, I'm the hat on the letter a, you know, right at the very top, because the side of the stand's been extended to make room for the whole thing, the words and the picture, they say the other stadium was higher than the Kolozsvár one, they've welded bars onto the top railings – we'd just hung about for two days while that was done, couldn't even go into the dressing rooms – then the bars have been supported from underneath, little planks put over them, and we stand on those, there's only a rope behind us, and the shortest and lightest in the whole school have been chosen, there are some fourth formers as well, they haven't put anybody smaller up there because a stupid third former fell off, and the whole thing wobbles like this when we get up and turn – Csabi demonstrated with his red hands – everybody shakes, and they've put the smallest up there in case the whole thing collapsed under the big ones, you see, we're very high up, makes you shit yourself, you can see the cross in Főtér, the whole of Fellegvár, the Kerekdomb and the station, the Szamos bridge as well, Donát út, the Kányafő, the Monostor, the cemetery, the covered-up lions on the Roman theatre, I'd never seen the town from so high up, and you can't hear what Ghita's shouting down there either – because it was he, the history teacher, who was directing the proceedings down there – we've got Kriszti on the end of the row, she's really shit scared, feels sick all the time, so I'm the very highest of the letters, on the first a in 'Traiasca' (Long live), and when we turn I'm her hair, see! when I've got my back turned and I look down I shit myself! and when we turn round there's the picture, then your back's black or white, you're hair, face, eye, but there's no other colour, I've not heard of any red, d'you want one? And he took out a pack of Albanian Apollonias and offered it, and now they were passing the Ethnographic Museum in Unió utca, and Csabi's mother knew that he smoked and only laughed – Are you daft? Here in the street? Here and now? because before the holiday there were more police about, but you had to look out for adults as well, they might note your identity number, and they turned into narrow Ion Ratiu utca – There were others wearing red – said the girl, because at the end of the practice they'd had to stand in line and hand in their things by colour, crumpled overalls, front and back different in colour, with  press-studs and elastic loops on the legs and arms, two-coloured hoods, all pulled on over their coats, only they had to take their boots off before putting the overalls on so as not to dirty them (that morning everybody had been hopping about in the mud, pulling their overalls on), and the first day they'd taken off long coats and furs, because the new uniforms wouldn't go over them, and Marinka and Monduk had had the good luck to develop pneumonia, they were able to bring sick notes – only notes from the school doctor, Polónyi, were accepted, and anybody that was absent for a single day without a note would be expelled, roared Ghita – and next day everybody came in short coats, and at the end of the practice they gave the things in by colours, they weren't allowed to take them home during the two weeks of practices, only on the last day, Tuesday 25 January, they had to take them home before the celebration and iron them, and Mother hadn't stopped criticising the paltry material and the sloppy way the ridiculous gear was tacked together, This get-up! You'll look just like a clown in it! What a crackpot piece of work! Never seen such rubbish in my life! – she turned it inside-out – and after use the overalls were stored in cardboard boxes, on which was written in felt-tip: Cluj 26 ianuarie (Kolozsvár, 26 January) and underneath, crossed out or pasted over: Miercurea Ciuc 23 august (Csíkszereda, 23 August), Tîrgu Mures 26 ianuarie (Marosvásárhely 26 January), the three had been made into a six, only the names of the months crossed out, it seemed that only the towns and months had changed, not the years, they were either still in place or ringed, it made no difference whether it was '79, '83, '84 or '86, and the clothes were all one size, like a uniform, and little Ogrucán, in an enormous white overall, looked like a circus polar bear that had lost its fur, How many reds do you think there were? How many piles when you gave them in? Csabi asked suddenly, as if he'd just remembered that at the end of the practice the overalls were piled in tens, and he stubbed out the cigarette on the wall of a house because his hand was frozen by then, and put the long butt back in the box. Look, I'm going to have to go to my mother's office, see you, said the girl, and turned abruptly on her heel, but she didn't make for her mother's office but, although it was out of the way, for her grandparents', because it has suddenly dawned on her that she could only be his mouth: the fleshy lips, drawn into a smile on the front pages of textbooks, the blood-red cherry lips on the classroom wall above the double poster, the smiling lips on the holiday front page of the newspapers – his teeth never showed in the smile – the mouth that ranted long speeches on the  television, she was the mouth in the gigantic picture made up of another school's worth of children, which in birthday greeting would turn into a sudden smiling portrait on the south side of the stadium, the mouth which would churn out catch-phrases and cheer itself when the tiny original of the picture descended from the helicopter at the birthday celebrations in the middle of the gravel-strewn,  red-carpeted stadium, and a chosen boy and girl would run forward and happily greet him – the best class in the school – and school governors had come in Pioneer uniform on the first days and practised in the dressing room – with flowers, salt and a huge, gleaming plaited sweetbread that no mouth would touch, step onto the edge of the rolled-out carpet, like the little ones, the Falcons of the Fatherland, in just blouses and skirts, and a bigger pupil would declaim enthusiastically into the microphone the poem entitled Ce-ti doresc eu tie, dulce Românie (What do I wish you, sweet Romania), the rest would sing and, standing on the plastic seats of the stadium, would suddenly turn round on the word of command, and then the picture would appear, because this portrait which hitherto had existed only in textbooks, classrooms, newspapers, every kind of special editions of books and on television for anniversaries now became reality: the sixty-fifth birthday of the original of the picture would be celebrated in other towns too, he would arrive by plane and helicopter, finally go home in the evening to deliver his celebratory speech before crowds of thousands in the floodlit main square of the capital in his winter coat and astrakhan hat – Perhaps he won't turn up – Csabi Ürögdi called after her as she was just going under the house on piles (where wishes come true, the children's game came into her head, but perhaps Csabi didn't know it), He won't come because he doesn't exist, she thought, or perhaps his double will come because he's got several doubles who visit towns at the same time, and who would know except the pilot, because he himself would become immortal by means of others, and anyway he was only known from photographs and the TV, and it wasn't impossible that only the photographs existed, and the doubles, not he himself, so then he wouldn't be able to die either as he'd never existed, somebody'd invented him and everybody else had believed in him, They've invented him, like the Kolozsvár people have the Hangman's House in Petofi utca, and nobody knows who thought it up or when so as to keep the town in a state of terror, and by this time we accept without doubt or hesitation that it's there and that there should be something for us to tremble at, said the girl to herself – she always walked on the other side in Petofi utca for fear of that house – Now I'm his disgusting mouth, came suddenly into her head, and she felt sick as she thought of herself and the overalls that she'd not long taken off, she felt as if cold, drooling lips were kissing her defenceless body, as if this huge frothing mouth were vomiting white, foaming letters over her, and she was becoming a bit of living, loathsome, pink flesh, torn off and displayed to public view, because I am him, or vice versa, he is me: I am his flesh, inseparably conjoined, he's taking root in me so that I shan't be able to wash him off, and his likeness has been burned into me like a brand, I am him, or more precisely we are all him, because we're all stood in nice, tidy order and we turn on the word of command and we're him: but he himself doesn't exist anywhere, nobody's ever seen him, never: Tátá's seen him and my uncle Pista as well, they've sat with him at meetings, but now he's just pictures, pictures, pictures, not a person, just pictures, something that we jointly have made up and unknowingly form from our bodies like people that have no idea what they're involved in or how long it'll last, because from close to we really can't see the trees for the wood just as that Year Eight schoolgirl can't see herself at that moment, only the crumpled clown-suits in which they turn in four movements on the word of command in an empty, echoing stadium where nobody's going to arrive, because even on his birthday he won't land in the middle of the stadium, but even if he does they won't see him because they'll have to turn their heads to the left so that first the blue, then the red side of the hoods is seen instead of their faces, because they no longer have their own faces, only his gigantic face is to be seen in the funnel-shaped stadium, but perhaps from above, from the Fellegvár with its patchy snow or the muddy Törökvágás, it will still be filmed as eternal evidence that he came among them, and they'd waste their time standing for hours on end in silence, motionless, waiting, they themselves would celebrate what they had unknowingly and helplessly invented, he didn't exist anywhere because he was just a dream, an icy January nightmare from which they must eventually wake or go to sleep on their feet and end up freezing to death, I'm his mouth, I've got to stand still, like a statue, the lips will move with me, open and swallow me, or open to speak and speak through me, his words will start to pour forth because there are no others, only his screeching voice, because it is I, I, I in my blood-red overalls that keep him alive, and he's Csabi Ürögdi, and apart from Monduk and Marinka the whole of VIIIC, the whole school, which is élite and still pure Hungarian but in the near future is going to start Romanian classes, because that's how the Romanianisation of a school begins, and the wood industry school, the music academy, the technical school and all the rest, the chosen few, all of them, because it's they that give the blood for it – this blood transfusion, this children's blood which the demon receives every week to keep him alive – when they hear from the end of the row the military word of command “la stîîîînga!”, the middle syllable falling menacingly away, long drawn out, and the third suddenly back up to pitch, “left turn!”, and they've become a picture, mouth, hair, skin, eyes, floppy bow-tie and ears, but they can't see it, can't hear anything, aren't looking at anything, saying nothing, nothing, nothing, If you turn to the left you become him at once, and now “left turn!”, and they feel no pain in the January frost.

Translated by: Bernard Adams

Tags: Andrea Tompa