08. 13. 2014. 19:25

Péter Gerőcs: The House of Ill Health (excerpt)

He gave his counter-argument, but it was sketchy and sweaty and desperate and above all: angry. The hush that followed testified that I had won the audience over, and put me at ease. We fell silent. No applause, not a single sound came. Then somebody in the first row said quite audibly, "What a pair of narcistic dumbfucks!"

The first novel of Péter Gerőcs (1985) is narrated by Barnabás, a cynic and a misanthropist. We see events through his eyes as he analyses and tears everything to bits and pieces, from friendship to love and sex. He continually reflects on himself and his environment, interpreting rather than living his life. As he finds himself increasingly isolated, he leaves the city to lock himself up first in a cottage by Lake Balaton, then finally into himself. His tragic fate, leading from hatred and anger to utter madness, unfolds from his memories and notes. (Bence Svébis, nol.hu)

One morning the newsroom bustle was slightly louder than usual. The same pre-work coffee and daily news survey, entirely informal conversation, sitting on the desk, yelling over to the next room, but today's banter seemed to lack the usual cheer. I asked someone if today's papers had anything substantial. Could be, I was told. "It's that Szerb again. Go ahead, read it." Without even getting to my spot in the back room, I stood there by the internal affairs column desk and read it.

This time, Szerb had a whole battalion of apparatus mobilized to joust old Lohász, for his having written up a formidable wide-angle piece of meticulous pedantry to map the so-called Philosophers’ Scandal – Government versus Institute of Philosophy –, all the while steering impeccably, almost inconveniently clear of implication, though the issue was obviously beyond the scope of journalistic courtesy and neutrality.

This time Szerb even went as far as to argue ad hominem in a longish harangue about the article's style: so dated and priggishly roundabout, no more to him than fraudulence, the deceitfulness of a hack. Based on their personal discussions, he claimed to know what Lohász truly thinks of the matter, despite camouflaging his stance in superficial and impotent (sic!) impartiality, which in such a magnanimous publication amounts to supreme irresponsibility, and well... to put it briefly, Lohász will live to regret this.

My face burned, needles pricking my earlobes. My confusion even blended with a little hurt pride, when Szerb took a wild sideswipe at how Lohász to this day keeps novice journalists under his wing, which will – in light of the pensmanship Lohász represents – certainly lead to a long-term decay of the whole métier, and so forth.

I could highlight many more details of that despicable article, but let this suffice for now. Perhaps the most curious and at once enigmatic circumstance of the whole affair is one I haven't even mentioned: this article of Szerb's was printed in no other paper but ours.

I went over to the head editor's office, which of course was empty. Nobody knew the whereabouts of the top brass, or who actually inserted this piece of vituperation into the paper.

Some of the staff really did resent Lohász and his omnipresece, the surprise each morning of his continued existence, that he wouldn't just quit and leave, and that nobody's telling him to the face that his presence is increasingly a nuisance. Lohász of course ignored scorn just as he did praise and flattery. His eyes could spot the slightest trace of implication, innuendo and the merest human gesture: strictly in writing. He could take the most fragmented and battered description or report to pieces and establish all the motives, the complete background story, uncover every human intention; only once all this took form in the sensual world of everydays it simply eluded him. Or perhaps it failed to interest him.

I still stood in my overcoat on the threshold of our own back office. "What do you make of this stab in the back?"

The room was dark, the only lamplight lit a large sheet of bond paper on his desk that he was holding a ruler to. "You're referring to the Szerb article?" "Of course I am!" "Well for that matter, there's not much" – finely pencil-lining the paper – "there to be made of. Back in ninety-two he lambasted my attempts at untangling a web of corruption which – viewed from a moral high ground – was seen as a disservice to the good cause. György of course conceded that such issues do need untangling, only that the timing, in his words, its timing was perditious." "But then he's just wrong! And to top that, he besmirched your reputation. This must be put right!" "He did nothing of the sort, not the least. I suggest we return to our daily business." "Excuse me, but several points need to be clarified here. I'd like to know who was responsible for publishing the article, for one." "It is completely inconsequential who. Let it suffice to say there are personal motives involved. Goes without saying. What does deserve attention is that article of yours from yesterday. Three clangers were left in the print." Then only did he look up to deliver the punchline: "Try not to lean too heavily on the copy editor."

Once I finally got my coat off, did I realize that writing an apologetic debate article in this matter was up to me to do. Donning my most refined suit of armor for the duel, I swung my halberd like a toy toothpick, and went to work on my piece.

To start off, I dug in all my defenses, then barraged the self-contradictions in Szerb's article with javelins of mocking laughter. I laid foundations for a punitive fortress around his failed life's work, ridiculing all his ill-masked pettiness.

I made sure the essaylike article had proper background acoustics so the thunderous guffaws of the audience would rattle the very spirit of Szerb's writing in its ramshackle cage. I filled up the first lines of my attack with punctiliously equipped footsoldiers rallying to crush the stripped and vulnerable victim.

The two final paragraphs I finished off in an effortless flourish. Having laid out the filleted, stuffed cadaver on a rough bier, I niftily maneuvred a second bier alongside it for the multitude, unreferred to yet enlivened in the text, to honor the latter one preserving the memory, and not the actual mortal remains of Szerb (whom earlier on I compare to a brand of suspenders sounding uncannily similar to his name).

The final paragraph is a complex moral roundoff along the lines that culture, tradition and public discourse require the sort of indispensable (and thereby highly estimable) intellectual manure, with its fecal emissions of infernal stench, that eventually give bloom to our flowers.

In the terminal sentence, I simply and curtly lay to rest not the journalist's mortal coil, but his hollow memory.

This is a rough summary of what I brought about from early morning till late evening; being a winter day with darkness already falling at four thirty. I worked on my piece till nearly midnight. The office was deserted, only Lohász stayed on, sitting right across from my desk where he spent hours mulling over something, completely oblivious to my presence.

Yet looking up he never needed to shift his gaze to see me through the darkness, and this proved slightly unnerving when drained exhaustion had taken me over after completing my article, and my eyes found rest on the view of his bald pate. "You're really taking your time with that horse race, I see. If you need assistance, just give the word, no need to hold back. After all, we have spent five years mumbling back here." With a little cough, he pushed his chair back gently over the worn parquetry in near silence, exiting toward the kitchen.

That five years' mumbling was the single best thing I could have gotten – not just from Lohász but practically anybody. It was a few days until Christmas, and indeed Lohász made me a present of his words. Then again my joy over writing, and completing my writing, was somewhat dispelled as I hunkered back down to the reality illuminated in the desklight. There I saw not Szerb's glorious execution but a scandal, my master's fall and with him my own.

In this rapturous rush even the imagined fall was beatified. An idyllic vision of beauty came through clear and strong as those from childhood: requiring no artifice, no dangling in front of myself like some hypnotic object, but emanating from within and overpowering me immediately. This may seem trivial written down or told, but it's important that I picture it before me once more: a largish wood cabin in the woods, inside are Lohász and me, the laid off master and the apprentice following him into exile, two desks face to face in the center, us sitting there morning to night, night to morning again in the circles of our desk lights and each other's writing whatever it is we do. I even envisioned our everyday rituals together: carrying water from the well, cleaning the eaves gutter; him standing atop a ladder, me holding a sack, or me falling ill and he, Lohász carrying the odor of the woods in his lumberjack shirt, bringing me hot tea and going back to work without a word.

"Here again, aren't you?" I leapt up from my seat.

It was my friend, my friend of long standing.

He stood on the threshold of our backroom office (I don't know how he got in), his long black flannel coat front open, his ushanka cap's earflaps tied on top of his head, brushing snow off his shoulder, spreading his arms to give me a hug. The situation was shameful, and on top of that fatigue and the thrill of winning a fight had made me strong, or more like desensitized enough to reject his disconnected gesture by holding my arm out to him. He held me in a tight embrace and gave my back a paternal patting. "Just what are you scribbling at in the cold of a winter night?" He sat down to my desk and read out a few lines of my article. "This intellectual kiteflying engaged in by the author's pastiche double indeed rhymes true with the Polish import suspenders we all know and cherish, snapping to the brand name of Szwerd with exquisite flexibility and keeping even our most mistailored and malodorous trousers up our waist and close enough to rakish appeal, to an almost winsome first impression."

They looked up at me in unison. "We'll have a beer at yours, and you fill me in on this holy baloney." I was reaching for my coat, and a beer seemed a fine opportunity to get out of Lohász's sight. As the saying well describes the physical sensation: I was ready to sink through the floor in shame.

Before I made it through the door Lohász called after me, "In case we don't meet till then, enjoy the holidays... and one more thing, do brush up that transitional phrase, will you."

By the time we reached the bottom of that cold and mildewed stairwell, I had collapsed. I told my friend I did not wish to spend the evening in his company. This time there was no need to put up a fight. Perhaps my voice betrayed that I'm not in a friendly mood. To make the point, I told him I despised him. This made him laugh, fold down his ushanka flaps and wish me pleasant holidays. Turning on my heels I walked away.

I decided to walk home so that by the time I reached the door I could make my mind up whether or not to publish my article. I spent the hour-long walk mulling over many other things, all except that one. I had a loud argument with the chief editor, then with my friend, and pleaded with Lohász, debated with Szerb before a large assembly where we then shook hands and made up; all the while I had to downplay my gestures whenever people passed me in the street or I noticed a solitary smoker out on a balcony.

I recall it was two o'clock exactly when I reached the front gate that the question hit me once more. This is when I noticed my open coat and teeth chattering. I made up my mind on the spot before ascending the stairs.

Entering the flat I realized... disaster! I've left my article on the office desk. I cursed at the reel flashing before me: Lohász reads it and starts pitying me, or destroys it... no, that wouldn't be like Lohász, he's certainly never read it...

I finally got to sleep at nine AM after getting drunk, sobering up and getting drunk again.

I woke up in darkness, head throbbing, breath vile. Taking the tram I hurried back to the office for my manuscript.

Instead of mailing it I delivered it to the weekly paper myself, arriving there just past the print deadline. I stormed the chief editor's office and slammed the manuscript on top of his desk.

"Good evening. What is this? A Christmas parable?"

"Please read this now, and put it into this week's."

"My dear sir, nothing is going in there now."

"Oh yes it is. This is going in there. You may guess I didn't come running all the way on mere holiday cheer. You absolutely must have it out in this week's."

Picking it off the desk, he held it up to read.

His reading technique was unusual: his eyes darted all over the page, and he finished each page in a matter of seconds. And finished the whole thing off so quick he never had time to settle in his chair.

Tossing it back on the desk, he reclined and hummed to himself. I won't go into any detail, but I convinced him. Three days later I rushed to get a copy at the newsagent's. Wouldn't take a look before I got back to my flat. I paid and hurried home.

At first glance all seemed well. A single typo made its way into the print: this would have unnerved me some years before, but I've learned since that no printed text is faultless. I was also reassured by its positioning. Right after the leading article. The ideal spot. Layout, typesetting... all good.

I sat in my armchair warming myself at the floor lamp's glow and waiting for the effect. It was somewhat delayed from my expectations. As I entered the office ten days later a secretary promptly ambushed me and tucked a note in my hand: "Call without delay!", and there was a number.

The number was Szerb's. All he told me was that a public debate was due in three days' time, and would I join.

It was already past New Year and the first day of work. The din, that din of familiar people imparted even the slightest changes. Listening could plug into entire strains of news at one point, while focusing one's attention elsewhere yielded live gossip; but an overall impression gave away the pervading atmosphere, in all its complexity. I guess this would be how regents found their bearings. But I digress. The point is there was no change whatsoever in general sentiment. Nobody looked at me differently. Colleagues were going around greeting one another with jovial cries of "Happy New Year!", myself included.

The back office however was empty. Lohász's desk in perfect order, in fact more empty than ordered. I ran over to the secretary. "Where's Lohász?" "Stop shouting! You miss him that bad? He's on sick leave." "What's he sick with?" "They never said. Zoli figured it's something serious though. Says something's been wrong with Lohász for ages. And that going completely mute would mean he's probably in serious pain. But that's just something Zoli said, so in all probability completely not true."

I went to look for Zoli. He was one of my best workmates. Small, chubby, badly balding into his thirties, he had a stutter or stammer or sometimes both, complete with facial tic, and was phenomenally fast; capable of brewing up four articles simultaneously while present at a press conference and a meeting at the same time. He knew everything about news: what makes a good summary, the essence of scandal, gutter journalism, and the full scale of appropriate subjectivity anywhere from statement to critique.

He was boyish, a ladies' plaything; on the other hand also a highly professional man of fair play. He had a knack for conjuring cheer into the office, or when all else failed he read out the typos from his own stuff: his spelling was useless. "What's with Lohász?" "Let's go out for a smoke."

We stood out in the courtyard in snowfall. "Who told you something's up with Lohász?" "Kati just did." "Well, won't I be whacking that slut. Two days ago Lohász came to me personally. Told me he was sick and won't be up to coming to work much longer. He asked to be allowed to work as long as he's still able. This was such a shit break, I nearly broke down crying. You see I know a lot of people hate him and are after his position, but I kinda like the old cunt and felt real sorry for him."

"What's he sick with? And what did you tell him?" "I told him to come and go as he pleased, obviously, I was close to tears. He thanked me and left."

"So you don't know what's wrong with him?"

"No. But my guess would be cancer of some sort."

I stubbed the cigarette out and went home. I told them I'll be working from home for a few days. In hindsight it's ridiculous how on the whole it wasn't only Lohász dying that pained me as much as the fact that he told Zoli and not me.

I slid off the armchair and cried. It wasn't Lohász and his bald pate that appeared before me, in fact I couldn't summon up the memory of his countenance if I wanted to, no matter how well each wrinkle of his face was known to me, his nose, the flat-combed gray locks, every detail that I knew but couldn't splice into the big picture. My insides clenched when Zoli's face came to my mind, quoting to me what Lohász had told him: to let him work while he still could.

The carpet warm and soft. Coffee smell.

I had no time to get frightened of Szerb. We were seated on either side of a little table, with more or less of an audience before us in some cultural center or other.

He started our talk on a jocular note: they gave us one microphone to avoid conflict at all cost.

We tested each other's weaknesses. Sometimes I went too far, but I was beyond the point of caring, not for the debate or Szerb's villainy. All the less because as he sat there next to me he didn't seem the least bit villainous, in fact he was charming and friendly. Establishing the debate had now become a task I no longer felt like performing, yet shied from backing out.

For a while he bombarded me with theoretic questions on journalism and a journalistic responsibility. I answered every one of his questions. One after the other. The monotony of this debate was getting to me, the tiresome ritual of passing the mike back and forth, his questions, my replies.

It took me a long while, as I was working out a craftily worded question that took us very wide of the mark, to realize that Szerb had moved on to discussing my article. By the time he finished his question, he'd practically disarmed me. A hush fell on the debate room. For a while then I had been looking out to catch Lohász among the crowd, but as I expected he wasn't here. Instead, to my utter disappointment, in the gloom I saw grinning the face of my friend.

That shock drove everything out of my mind.

Silence was drawing out long, and I had to find a way back to the elusive subject matter. What Szerb was getting at was beyond me, the starting point of the epic question fell into oblivion, so fighting it out seemed the simplest option. For a while I refused to take the microphone and let him hold it out in the air before me, then charitably reached out my hand and said "excuse me, what was the question?"

Laughter filled the room. Szerb rallied and picked up where he left off, this time in open hostility. He stabbed a blunt question straight at me.

Perhaps my being distracted helped, sitting on the edge of that circle of light and assuming a position of detachment. I was insensitive to everything so it wouldn't go beyond imagining that I may have made mistakes and skimmed over some points, but in the final outcome this proved to my advantage.

It was easy to counter his first attack. I brought forth the final surefire factor in my strategy: a concise summary of my opponent's speculations. This is like exposing a card shark by holding up a bogus card into the air and showing first its face, then its back.

This gesture is something of a conjurer's act, because I would achieve my goal and expose my enemy whether the card is a trick or not, once the debate has been diverted to a different track and a new scene of my designation, thereby demonstrating my mastery of the situation as well as granting me the advantages of playing on my home turf.

Of course, disarming Szerb was a far more arduous task than that. He argued very deftly and cunningly. There was nothing for it, I had to sustain minor and major injuries while looking out for his weak spot (something I normally would have been doing during the buildup).

He completely surprised me by challenging my presumable unfamiliarity with the classics. This backfired on him because I was well trained, savvy enough in this particular field to launch a counter attack bringing light to his own shortcomings, leaving him on the floor as I stepped back theatrically waiting for him to get up again so we could continue our showdown face to face.

At one point he made a tremendous mistake: bringing personal points into the debate. Using personal attacks is an amateurish, in fact childish technique. Even novice debators know that personal points are irrelevant and anyone straying from the realm of discourse into that mire is doomed. It figured that if Szerb is so off guard he really must be on his last legs.

I took the mike and held on tight so that for a while there he couldn't have taken it from me if he wanted to, then took a deep breath to hone my terminal delivery sharp as a scalpel. Once my train of thought hit home, he reached over for the microphone perhaps a tad ahead of time, another technical blunder. He gave his counter-argument, but it was sketchy and sweaty and desperate and above all: angry. The hush that followed testified that I had won the audience over, and put me at ease.

We fell silent. No applause, not a single sound came. Then somebody in the first row said quite audibly, "What a pair of narcistic dumbfucks!"

The house lights came on and there was scattered clapping, Szerb and I shook hands gentlemanlike, then I made my way out with the crowd.

For a long time I stood by the gate waiting to catch sight of Lohász leaving the scene with his bald head lowered humbly as he would. I had wanted to stand up for my teacher, who not only declined my help but also ignored my effort. As the cigarette burned down I felt overcome by terrible shame.

It was my friend who dragged me back from shamefulness. He grabbed me suddenly from behind and told me, "We're going to a brothel, if I may be so bold." He said the best one's just over by the foot of Margit bridge, a few minutes on foot. "We'll be loving up some beautiful whores" he jeered, and slapped my shoulder again in sheer embarrassment.

I played along. We went to a bar on the embankment. I was tired and beat. Having lost all taste for conviviality, I decided to get drunk instead. My friend was in the middle of a story when I grabbed his coat lapels and dragged him right out into the street.

I'll never forget his boyish abashment picking out his whore. I never flinched. Lax and vacant. Unreceptive to all human interaction, and sensitive to all bodily functions. One of the blondes had an excitingly sinuous neck so I went with her. She showed me to our room like a bellhop. Even opened the door like one. My friend and his whore took the room two doors down the hall. Before we parted my friend made a silly gesture, but I can't remember what exactly.

I won't go into further details, not out of prudery but mere indifference. We fucked. It was quite good, or felt good anyway. Then I paid and left quickly. A quick shot at the bar, then out the door half-sober.

I walked home. This was the single thing I felt like doing at the time. Standing out on the balcony and watching the snowfall, the trams passing by. I smoked a whole pack of cigarettes.

For a week after that I didn't show up for work. I wasn't fired, they accepted it.

Then after a week they told me Lohász had been in and very sick, and that everyone saw him.

Not me, never again.

*

Walking back down the street. Reached the end, there's a great big church.

I'm standing in a street. Green shrubs down the right side, bright little houses and their front yards down the left. There are one- two- and even three-story houses. Some yellow, some green. Flat tops, pointed roofs. Some of the garden greens wedged with bits of blue of pool. One house facade is mostly glass. This is a peasant house with a porch, not old but everything all new. Dogs barking. Wagging tails, loving me.

Walking down the street. When I meet someone I'll ask which way to go. Ask them to sketch it for me here, then I'll just follow that map. Sometimes I have to cough. It's funny.

To the left, one house has a hanging sign, rusty wrought iron: a locksmith's. Behind a wattle fence a large guard dog, a komondor stretched out in the dust. From the dim window, an old gentleman peeks out from behind the curtain. Further down there’s a sign on a new facade that reads Urologist. Won't be going in there just now. No need. A car cruises down the roadway. I guess there's appreciably little traffic on this street. There’s a great many colors in the street, and plenty of light. Birds twitter. Hammering somewhere. Not far ahead a postman leans on a fence: talking to a middle aged woman. They stare at me long when they notice me. A family on cycles pedals along one side of the street. There's an intersection. I can go left, right or straight. I'm going straight on, nobody minds if I don't make a turn. In a house window I see myself. I look funny. I hold the notebook in my hand folded open, look at myself and take notes. It's funny. Nice image too. Contemplating how I look. See myself, but that's different from knowing my own appearance. The nature of my appearance. Does nature have a nature. I'll have to ponder that.

PONDER THE NATURE OF THINGS.

I remember first hearing the word "ponder". I was still very small when my father asked me, "What are you pondering, my dear boy?" It wasn't enquiry but scorn, and also a demand. Appreciably, I say I'm in an appreciably good mood. Appreciable. A cat runs by. Could have written it took flight. But those are words only poets can write down in verse. "The cat takes flight." Could it be I'm a poet, too? Not that I could write poems, but I'm very happy with this street that I'm walking down along. I guess that's enough for a start in poetry. I'll try luring that stray cat here, to play with it. I've half a mind to play (or should I say I'm in a playful mindset?).

The cat runs off, I ran after, but it was quicker. This sentence is nearly a poem. To the left there's a house being built. Workers – wearing workwear. It's a large house, but they're going slow. Not wall by wall, but brick by brick. If it means staying unharmed a long time, then going this slow is worthwhile. Of course they might simply be prudent. Or prudish. I hope I'm not prudish. The street has come to an end.

There's a busy road before me. I can go left or right. Left is a slight incline and anyway I feel I should just go right. I feel that right is the way for going, and left is the way for coming. But I'm not coming, I'm going, so to the right I go. One feels these things.

A sort of levee, an embankment of some kind of rock stretching beside me. White limestone, propped with wooden scaffolding. The footpath runs underneath. Doesn't run, just goes. Nice and slow. Slight bend in the road. Cars come and go. The far side of the road lined with shops and boutiques, a park with a playground, a big mound behind them. Or is that a hill? I'm not sure what the exact difference would be. When that man there is gone, I'll gambol. I don't want him to see me. There, I gamboled.

When I write down "alackaday", it lifts my mood. Might as well remember that.

ALACKADAY THE BLUES AWAY!

Translated by: Dániel Dányi

Tags: Péter Gerőcs