08. 21. 2007. 09:03
Sometimes you forget your fate, that such and such happened to you, or the fates of those whose lives influenced yours. You don't stop to think that this person does such and such because such and such happened to them, like perhaps the fact that they attended a Catholic school, and that the whole thing has nothing to do with their personality, that it is something unrelated to them, yet it is their life that it screws up, and that this girl's life was also ruined by lives like these, which were in turn ruined by someone else. For example someone who entered into the priesthood or who chose the priesthood of their own accord. Someone who was always tortured by their parents into thinking that they are good for nothing, and then, out of revenge, wanting to break the family bloodline, decides to become a priest. Or if it is a family where the mother, whom the kid is a little in love with, tells the boy that he can only be betrothed to God, or to the Virgin Mary, say, not to anyone else, because that is sin. And this kid, replete with love for his mother, agrees to this betrothal. Of course, his mother only says all this because the man who was the boy's father left them very early, before he was born. Previous to this, of course, the father had filled the mother's head with all kinds of stories: their future, their family, their wonderful house, their happiness, and so on, when in fact he only wanted to conquer her physically, and ever since then the woman has known that it is this physicality that is the blight, and that what she received from this man she is now passing on to her son. The same man, of course, who did this... But we do not even know, and can only guess, how he can have been humiliated by a woman at the age of eighteen, when he almost died, because he loved her so much. But she chose a different guy, who not only had money, but also influence: he had something to do with the process by which apartments were allocated, and before they knew it they had a flat on Budapest's Attila József estate.
All these forgotten destinies had an effect on the kid. In point of fact, the whole world is a conspiracy like this one, as hatched upon us by others. These people exist in order to take the grievances they have accumulated in their lives out on us in the most devious way possible, and by the time you notice, you are already standing there with a knife in your hand ready to kill someone. One foot in prison, like the kid, because of this stupid girl. It was still in his hand when their third flatmate came home. It was he who took the knife out of it and said they should have a drink instead. And there, in the company of a glass of wine, he thought he should not have got rid of the expert, of the psychologist, who they had wanted to recommend to him, because they knew him personally, he would sometimes come down the pub where they would go, and talk about Jewish festivals, he liked Yom Kippur very much, because then you could write sins down onto a slip of paper and throw them into the Tisza river: it was not Freud who was the forefather of psychoanalysis, he explained, but Yom Kippur, and he talked about the fascists, of course, about the Nazi Hungarian rabble, because it was hardly possible to talk about the Jews without mentioning them. These experts must be right, he thought, taking the knife out of the kid's hand when he returned home, that you must not give in to these quack remedies, like love, etc., because the soul is a much more complicated apparatus than that. You think you have sliced the centre of the ulcer or the puss-ridden lump off it, but you haven't. Instead it has remained there unnoticed, and when the bandage, the dressing – let's refer to love in this way, as the man himself did – is removed, it will become visible again: it was just hidden. And an example of this – though he was by then in no state to mention it – would be the fate of the psychologist himself, who was hardly forty when he courted a woman he had fallen in love with. That is to say: let us start at the beginning.
So there was this woman, and they had been together for a while when the man was struck down with influenza, and this was when he said to the woman that this was further proof that anti-Semitism is fundamentally mistaken. "You what?" she asked, so taken aback was she that he had not talked about the tissues running out again, but rather about these Jewish things, that he had said that they would only be correct if for example he as a Jew would not catch influenza. Her heart missed a beat: there was something very wrong here, for while she had never studied psychology, she had heard much from him about various psychological defects, about personality disorders and multiple personalities, and so she decided to end the relationship. And that is what she did. Later, in America, which is where she ended up, she met the girl the kid had tried to woo but failed, and who was later treated by the psychologist, because the kid was on her tail from morning until night, causing her to slip completely into paranoia. They looked at one another, and felt as if there had long been some mysterious connection between them, as if they had known each other before. Sadly they did not have the time to work out that this feeling of familiarity was not due to their both being Hungarian, but because of the psychologist. The remains of his personality that had been preserved in both of them. And no one else knew this, either, as there was no one there who might have known the story of their lives and the points of connection between them. To return to the man: it was then that he set off down the path of securing his life an ideological foundation, to think up some kind of ideological monolith which could, so to speak, compensate for an ever-so-slowly vanishing energy to live.
Similarly to other men around the age of forty, who live under the spell of money or the national spirit or some other cause, like a profession, he tried to comprehend his existence as a question of Jewish destiny. We might think that any ideology chosen to substitute for the weakening sexual organs might excommunicate a man from the male kingdom once and for all, because it is to these men that a woman says she doesn't give a shit. No. Quite the opposite, and this surprised even the psychologist. Rather than losing his connection to the opposite sex, it instead revived his web of relationships. When he said things like how at the Wailing Wall he had had a meta-experience as if God had appeared to him, as He had done to Moses on Mount Sinai, while the other Jews, finally liberated from their arrogant leader, worshipped an idol in their camp in the desert, while down below there was all the merriment that idol-worship brings with it: singing, drinking, and ravaging those classically old ladies in the middle of the night. The Lord gave him, his only believer, the commandments, and sent him to his people, saying he should take the tablets with him, because they are waiting for him to beat them around the head with them. True, he didn't get any stone tablets, the psychologist, I mean, but the presence of God was proved by the photographs he had developed later, once back at home, for they had those strange lights on them, flashes, that he can only have seen with his soul. When he said this, and held the photographs up in the air, incredibly, the woman, who happened to be right next to him, was already fumbling inside his trousers.
From this period on, there were increasingly many women around him, but they were not simply lovers, they were believers. They believed in this man's special powers, they gave up their lives for this special power to be kept in good shape, they did everything they could, but in vain, because the man was incapable of believing in these special powers himself. On one occasion, he was sitting at home alone, and all of sudden – he had no idea where he got the idea, and did not even think he should know – he thought that the fact that he was Jewish was an insignificant matter compared to the fact that he was a man, and the fact that he was a man was insignificant compared to God. He went on to think this through in the precise manner he had been taught at university, and his life thus far appeared to him as one great sin, and he saw himself as a cursed villain, an envoy of Satan, who, with false thoughts, and as what we might even call a false prophet, a role that was not worthy of a Jew, was able to outsmart everyone. In this moment of clarity – everyone experiences such moments at some time, when not just their brain works, but all of their senses, like their heart – he decided he could go on no longer. He had the poison prepared, and then it also became clear to him how prophetic he had been, that a part of his personality had known in time that he was going down the wrong path, but he had not previously noticed that a part of his personality was getting ready to make a correction.
A position became vacant at the clinic. Someone took it up. In point of fact, the kid could have gone there, if he had still been around in town, but he wasn't.
Once he and the girl, who had been raised at a Catholic school, went their different ways, the kid's life became similar to that of any other college student. Perhaps it had always been like that, and only appeared different if seen from too close-up. The teachers, for example, who had been teaching at this college for decades, did not consider this kid to be any different from the others in his group, or in fact from the kids in any other group they had taught during their time there. They are all the same: "Students!" they would say, as they all drank themselves stupid together at faculty level. The only thing that might change is the way they dress, but they were used to this, too: whether they wore flares or a mini-skirt, it made no difference to them. All right, the mini-skirt, sometimes, if the girls were taking exams. That did interest them, it is true: teachers had been known to risk putting their palms on a protruding thigh in tights as an accompaniment to the question "Tell me about the Battle of Mohács, sweetheart". The hand would even start to rub along the thigh. The wrinkles of ageing skin would get stuck in the tights now and then, and the girl would only warn the teacher against tearing a hole in it, as opposed to telling him to take the fucking Battle of Mohács and shove it up his arse, with this a reference not to the massive sixteenth-century military defeat that was so tragic for the Hungarian nation, but rather to his wife, who was a librarian at the faculty there, and whom the students really did refer to as the Battle of Mohács, on account of her appearance and her unbearably screeching voice. So this teacher saw nothing more special in the kid than what he knew of his academic dissertation, for he was brighter than average, and this ability could be wrung out of him, perhaps bringing with it a little trip to a conference in some other provincial town, where he could finally drink as much as he wanted, without that stupid bitch giving him grief about him not doing anything for days on end except downing his wine and not giving a damn about the kids. I work my arse off for those kids, the teacher would yell. You work your arse off for your wine, the Battle would reply, and for years the teacher insisted that he brought home all of the money, that he was doing the whole thing for the children and for her. Then once, as it was in the fairy-tale with the king and with the child, he saw the woman naked, because she had forgotten to take her pyjamas into the bathroom, an accident, her only fault is that she sometimes forgets about this or that, on this occasion her pyjamas, and that is how it came to pass that she emerged stark naked. This was when the teacher said to himself that she could fuck off with her disgusting mounds of flab, with that wrinkly skin, that she no longer had anything about her to make it worth enduring this horror, and by horror he meant the time he spent together with her. And he really didn't have to endure it for long, because she kicked him out. That's not what the teacher meant, of course: what he meant was that he would leave her for a young and talented student of his. But no. It was this time-worn woman, whose disgusting mounds of flab the teacher had spotted, who was the one to find herself a young man to be her partner, who had some kind of sexual hang-up, that his member was too small or whatever, constriction of the foreskin, because his stupid parents hadn't given a damn and hadn't been arsed to take him to a doctor to give him a little helpful incision, and so he did not dare hit on women his age, only older ones. He was so afraid of failure, of a girl looking at him and asking "Where is it?" and for him to respond "Where is what?", and for the girl to point at his groin and snigger. He thought that with an old, experienced woman none of this would occur, as they don't function that well themselves, and they can't be so choosy, and if there is some problem, it can be put down to her age, that this is why this young man isn't up to it. But there was no need to blame anything on anyone, because the old woman was very much at home in this particular universe, surprising even herself as to how much passion she had left in her, what with all the desire she'd had to bottle up because of her stupid husband, while the young man, his inhibitions out of the window, was able to perform as any of his peers might, which would not of course have been the case with women his age, where the stress would have smothered the desire within him.
If we look at the year and a half prior to the moment when, after receiving his degree, he finally had to leave the provincial town, potentially to return from non-existence to existence, at least to what, in relative terms, by Hungarian standards, we might call existence, nothing in that year and a half, and perhaps nothing in the preceding years, either, would have warranted his going to a doctor in order for something inside him to be altered by any outside intervention. It seemed that this could all take place of its own accord. There was no way of knowing, of course, whether it was really a sign of him getting better that one didn't hear anything of him, that there was no news of brawls in pubs, of heads being banged on tables, as there had been before, or whether it was simply that the world around him, which might have been able to sense something of the kid's life, was so tied up with its own problems that it had forgotten to pay attention. Everyone was busying themselves with preparing for the exams and dissertations needed to graduate. To take the steps seen as necessary for their future. Marriages abounded. Now, in the final furlong, women would squeeze this step out of their partners, lest they might end up like the kid's former history teacher, who had no choice but to marry a tractor-driver from a village: in this way they paved the way for the divorces-to-be, for the cursed relationships in which two people tear each other to pieces, and, almost without noticing, use this joint strength to destroy their children, who quite soon, at the age of fourteen, decide that they will never live this life that their parents lived, only to go on to repeat everything in exactly the same way. The kids of the divorced repeat the divorce, the kids of the quarrelsome repeat the quarrels, so that everything can go on in the same unbearable fashion that people have become accustomed to for thousands of years...
Perhaps it was this, this planning for the future and setting it in motion, when everyone takes all the steps necessary for tragedy to ensue, perhaps this was the reason they never noticed the kid, and certainly never spotted the problems the kid went through, if any such problems appeared. The kid appeared to be problem-free, or it was precisely that he did not appear problem-free, and was thus assumed to be problem-free. Because of this, everyone looks back to those years as ones in which the kid realized that his capacities both physical and intellectual were limited, not that everyone's aren't. One of the boys at the Alsóvárosi school said even Einstein wasn't exactly perfect up top, either, and the most famous actors have all kinds of pangs and pains with their bodies, and failures in their private lives, so no one's life is a piece of cake, and neither is his, the boy said, before elaborating at length on the troubles bearing down on his existence. This voice, which everyone found to be honest, very much impressed the girl, who happened to be sitting with the group because the boys had run into her on the street and invited her along. This girl had the same problem that most other girls in their last year had: she knew that she had to find a husband in this last half year or she could say goodbye to the whole works and her life would have to trace quite a terrible scenario, just because of the little trifle of her not finding love in these four years, for example because she was a late developer, or because she wasn't so strikingly pretty, or that she was pretty, but her behaviour was such that no boy would think her capable of loving anyone. But the girl was aware of this problem by now, and this is precisely why she had joined the group, and when she later went back home with this boy to the room he rented, she must have thought that her problems would all now be disentangled. They weren't. The only things that had been disentangled had been her clothes, and by morning she was back to square one. When the boy noticed that a little red stain had been left on the sheet, he told her that if he had known, he would never have done it, that she should know he was not a cunt, just he would never have guessed. He remembered that she had been together with..., here inserting a name, and that the boy in question had said that everything was OK between them on this front. So that boy was in point of fact the reason that this girl had just given her maidenhood to a different, drunken one, in the hope that once this one had sobered up he would love her even more than when drunk, for if his subdued senses could be so enthusiastic for her, she thought, then just how enthusiastic would his senses be once they were revigorated and completely returned to consciousness.
But quite the opposite was the case. With sobriety the boy lost his devotion, and just took pity on the girl, but otherwise felt at best nothing for her at all. The girl left his rented room and went back to her own one, where she cried a little, and something bad began to grow in her heart with regard to men, something that was to be passed on precisely to the man who was to marry her, a building contractor, a pretty decent guy, with whom she moved to Szolnok, exactly the man who didn't deserve it at all, because he gave her everything she could want. In vain did his business prosper, all he got from the woman was cold-heartedness, humiliation, never-ending criticism of his work, of his body, and of his habits, which slowly but surely ground his self-esteem to dust. This in turn brought the first failure in his professional life, only to be followed by many more.
To begin with, the woman sympathized with him and pitied him, but as we know, sympathy and pity are not the basis for a long-term bond in a relationship. When this man, who had innocently become mixed up in the woman's grievances she had suffered because of the drunken boy, finally fell to pieces, she kicked him out. It was fortunate that the apartment was not their joint property, that it was separate from his business enterprise, for otherwise that would have slipped away, too. But like this the woman could stay with the kids, while the contractor went to Budapest, to join other men who had fallen on hard times, to spend the winter in homeless asylums and the good weather in the Buda hills. His manner of speech changed, his articulation broke down, as did his clothes and his body, and from the outside he looked just like an unfortunate, unhappy human being; he then managed to live off others' compassion by begging at the corner of Márvány and Alkotás streets in central Buda. But it was exactly this exterior that proved he was suitable for this role, for with a better appearance he would have made considerably less; his run-down body, which in Buda evoked sympathy amongst his fellow men, was the tool of his trade, while in fact, in this short period of his life, for sadly under such circumstances one quickly grows old and dies, this man was actually quite happy. He felt liberated, free of his various family and official responsibilities. Occasionally, of course, when the alcohol really pulped his heart into snot, he would cry for his children, but in fact even this was more like happiness, the delight of self-pity rather than the real pain which would have forced him to change his ways and perhaps to get the lost woman back.
The boy, whom the girl had ended up spending the night with, had said that everyone has their failings, and that everyone can get hurt. And it is possible that during this year and a half the kid had to face up to these inadequacies, that is to reality, when he did not subject those around him to visions and suicide and other nerve-racking things. It was less a question of this than of simple neglect. They did not notice anything unusual, or perhaps had become too accustomed to the kid's whims, that when he said he was about to slit his wrists it was like when someone else said they were going to get rat-arsed that night. In any case, they failed to notice that anything might be wrong, and when some years later they heard that his life seemed to be returning to normal, for at the school in the village in which he was born he became deputy head, or perhaps he didn't even have to become deputy head, but, like a universal chess-piece such as the knight, skipping the peasant's opening, was immediately made head, just as his mother had almost predicted to his father, whom there would have been little use telling, as he didn't live to see it, so when they heard this news, they were not surprised in the least.
When the girl had given up on getting married, and the kid had given up on being head, of course only in principle, the kid's former friends gave up on the kid. They said it was clear that this was the end, of course it didn't have to be, that depended on the kid, but he didn't want to choose a different life for himself, it was not good enough for him that his was ultimately one of the best positions in the village, being head of the school, which brought with it endless opportunities, he could fuck – so one of them laughed – the young unqualified female teachers, and it would not require much effort on his part, and he could lay his hands on vineyards, and other land, and he could have a bit more money, and there was the girl, they couldn't understand how he could have got his hands on her, but she still looked fucking good, even after having a child. You're right, agreed the other two, and then they proceeded to discuss the details of the girl's appearance. But for this kid – the description of her appearance was interrupted by the one who had previously laughed at the thought of him fucking the young teachers – for this kid even this wasn't enough, and the fact he was borne a son was also not enough, for him nothing was ever enough, because he was raised never to think it was ever enough. No one helped us out except ourselves, and no one could help him, unless he wanted them to, and he didn't.
These old friends of his loved to talk about the kid's hopeless fate, for in this way they could mute the sense of hopelessness in their own hearts. We will go visit him and take a look at him, said the one who had his own PR company, whose loved one had left him not so long ago, a few years back, out of some biologically-induced panic, rather than because their love had disintegrated. She wanted a child, her time had come, she had said, but the man didn't want one, appealing to some feeble excuse like that he was in no position at all money-wise, which sorted itself out quite soon anyway, as his business brought amazing returns in little over a year, but by then it was too late. He lived well, in comfort, which meant he could spend his every moment concentrating on the pain he felt from losing his loved one. Of course the girl didn't do too well out of it, either, as an examination later revealed that she had biological obstacles to motherhood, that it had been a shame to swap one feeling for another that was much worse, and she cursed herself for her decision for the rest of her days, a decision that had seemed like the right one at the time, and no one was to blame for the fact that nature later decided differently. We'll go and visit him, said the man, twice a year, that much we own him, if you see what I mean, and they set about planning the next trip. This journey was less about the kid, of course, than about their own lives, which were put into quite a special light by the kid's ruination, or more correctly what in his destiny they considered to be ruination, for they were able to read into the kid's life the most everyday recipe for ruination that they knew: alcohol, losing his mind, collapsed marriage, going broke, and so on. In point of fact, this was what other people generally agreed to refer to as ruination – and who were they to be different from other people? This was in contrast with other life arrangements, like when someone is said to be well-off, and organizes his lovers such that they do not lead to the collapse of his family, and sees that his wife has enough money to stop her from saying that she wants a divorce, because he doesn't give a shit about her, and who manages his relationship with alcohol such that hardly anyone can tell that he has been dependent on it for years, for if he doesn't knock back his daily two bottles of wine in an evening, then he is unable either to sleep or to abide those around him, his family, even though they already have a huge house out in Budajenö, so everyone has enough space, so they don't have to see each other for days or weeks on end, and other people will say how well things are going for the ... family, and say their name, asking whether you know them, only to list the assets they have come by, how successful their life is, when in fact it is just the hatred they feel for one another that has forced them into these investments, into buying a house, which they were then hardly able to part with once the children grew up, and it became entirely pointless to prolong the cursed relationship between those who remained, the husband and wife, indeed it was pointless to commute out to somewhere so far away, when one had little or no enthusiasm for doing so, knowing what was waiting for them at home. The journey home from the city centre seemed unbearable, when both the man and the woman had a car, the woman a smaller one, but she had one, so she still had the space to think about how she hated going all the way out to that big barn out there, and how a little pied-à-terre, for example somewhere in the city, would be quite enough for her, and for the man, too. Then they came upon the solution of having a common larger flat in central Buda, on Böszörményi street or Királyhágó square, not quite the green suburbs, but almost, with views onto Sas hill, and from that they each bought a little pied-à-terre, and that was where the two of them really lived, the man with his secretary, who lost her father when young, and so was always attracted to more mature men, and this man really was mature, and had every characteristic she needed to fall in love with him, and when she fell out of love with him after all, because he rejected the idea of getting married, for example, or of starting a new family, or the secretary found a better-paid job, which she applied for thanks to the training the man had paid for, like her intermediate English exam, then came another woman with similar attributes, and this carried on like this for many years. The woman would have her girlfriends round, with whom she set up a meditation group, for life is not just about money and raising children, because there is a much greater and more enduring truth, with which they must become acquainted: there was a man in the group who had once studied yoga in Szeged (from a woman called Etka), who had read Buddha's speeches from beginning to end, not to mention all of Béla Hamvas' works, and so knew a thing or two about the truth. They met twice a week, and every week the woman would have an extra meeting with the man, when, let us say, they went further down the road to truth. The man needed money, because in the course of a divorce he had lost his apartment and now rented a room, and the woman was around fifty, but kept herself well, and so the man was presented with no problems in penetrating quite deeply in their journey along this road to truth. The only thing that presented a problem in this deeper penetration was that the man had a younger girlfriend, with whom he had become close after she had been disappointed in love, and he turned out to be a good collaborator in the slagging-off of her ex-lover and of men in general: how disgusting it was that this type would strive for power with no respect for man or God, happy to devour anyone in his path, and how the girl should be happy that she managed to escape the clutches of such a bastard, because it could have ended even more badly had it ended later. For example if he had made her pregnant. The girl was not made happy by this escape, though, as she would gladly have become pregnant by the other man, for there are times when one has a sense of who would be suitable for impregnating one, so we cannot really speak of her delight, but after one or two meditation exercises, when, sitting in the lotus position, via the hand resting on her knee, she felt the spirit of the world entering her and her heart missing a beat, and was not able to retain the holy word within herself, going on to open her mouth, just slightly open at first, then forming the shape of a letter o, and said "om", and, in response to this "om", the man penetrated the o shape with his tongue. His tongue was the spirit of the world.
From this point on the girl no longer suffered because of the lost lover, while the man never stopped talking about Prince Krishna, Jesus's journey to Tibet, Atlantis and tantric sexual meditation, and of how yin and yang were united in the two of them. So there was this girl, with whom the man spent a lot of time, and this fact, as he was no longer so young himself, made the situation at home with the older woman a little more difficult. But over the age of fifty women will believe anything, for example that this was a form of abstinence in which we do not set off down this particular road to the truth on this particular week. There are times for harvest, and times for renunciation, said the man, who sometimes convinced himself that the Western and Eastern traditions enjoyed a special synthesis within him, and considered this to be the intellectual path of the future, for the West was still so strong in its ideas, yet there were also more Chinamen then you could ever count. The woman, for her part, stuck to the programme of abstinence, and did not want to show how much this pained her, for this would have shown how her soul was not developed enough to face this challenge. And the quality of life spent down here on Earth is a function of how developed the soul is, said the man at the group meditation session, and developing the soul is our most important task in this world, because if we ignore this task, we will be born again as low-lifes, as ants, wasps, or horse lice. This last suggestion had a particularly powerful effect on the women, for while their bodies had been used up, there was no way they wanted to stick around as horse lice.
The woman spent years under the spell of the yoga instructor, and believed none of the people who told her how they had seen the man with a girl quite certainly younger than her and also younger than him. Her feelings were not extinguished even when the man left the meditation group, saying that he needed to reach a higher level, which cannot be reached in this community, that he needed solitude, retreat, and he really did retire, of course not alone, but with the girl and the child who had just been born, to some place in the countryside where the money he had acquired from the woman proved adequate to purchase a house.
The woman was always thinking about this man, and continued to do so for years, until the moment when one of her children, perhaps her daughter, called her up to say "Mum, we need someone to look after the kids!' "What kids?' she asked, and then, around the time of this question, was suddenly enlightened as to her task in the world, and from than point on she regularly visited her children, looked after her grandchildren, and tried her best to disband their marriages in turn with her good advice, trying to influence the future with her bad example, and asking why this future should be better and better for each new generation anyway. This is no different from dormitories and the army: the older generations pass on the punishment they themselves received, are incapable of ordering a halt to brutality, beat and slap the new recruits, so that this newer generation can in turn bid farewell to this period of their lives with lasting physical and especially emotional scars, conditioned for revenge.
There is no one who would not describe such a life as that led by this married couple as successful, in contrast with the life of the kid, which was the very embodiment of failure, if failure can have a body at all, for surely it is exactly the essence of failure that those who fail lose their bodies, which is of course accompanied by the destruction of their souls, at least that is what everyone thought, that the decay of the body essentially starts out from the soul, and by the time the body starts to turn to dust, the soul has long turned rotten.
The Hungarian version of this text was first published in Magyar Lettre Internationale 64 (2007), the English translation first published in Eurozine.
© János Háy/Palatinus Kiadó
Translated by: David Robert Evans
Tags: János Háy