02. 13. 2006. 11:26

The Letter B inThe Last Window–Giraffe

"The riot police come by bus with packed lunches, like a bunch of tourists from the countryside. After a quick city tour, they form a cordon, march down the Road of Revolution, and barricade Republic Square. Bobby-soxers pin flowers on their shields and offer them cakes. It gets smeared all over their visors."

One discount ticket for the Balkan Express, one way. She wants my passport, I push it through the small window, under her glasses. Do you know you're not eligible for a student pass, she says. Is that a question?!  Couldn't you stamp it a bit further down, I say, just look at me, I don't look a day over fifteen. She looks. I'm impertinent, the date of my birth is right there. I'm not thirty per cent off any more, and that's that. Do I really think I can trick HSR? Hungarian State Railways are not a bunch of idiots. It never occurred to me, cross my heart, to think HSR are idiots, never, I swear. BPT, yes, the Budapest Public Transport, definitely. She throws me a reproachful glance, what do I take HSR for?  It may be filthy, but not stupid. What'd the world come to if everybody got their tickets by their looks. She's telling me off as if I were fifteen.

I am the only Hungarian on the train, the conductor warns me to lock the door. ‘Our men’ (the police!) are getting off at the border. And from there, God knows. I watch the stars through the spokes of the trees and with my back to the engine I softly hum Every time Yugo...

From my reading I seem to recall that having left Budapest by train, Leo Trotsky and Bram Stoker anticipate the approaching Balkans with a thrill. The war correspondent and the horror writer depict the countryside in a similar manner. Trotsky believes he has discovered the Noah's Ark of the Nations in the third class. This inspiring environment gave birth to each man's masterpiece: The Legend of Count Dracula, and the Red Army.

I'm bumping along, a full-price passenger of the Balkan express. If I can't sleep I have to drink, if I drink, I have to pee. The carriage is jolting, the train is slow on purpose, we've entered another time zone. A beer bottle rolls along the corridor. In search of the buffet, I go the way it points. From one of the couchettes the sounds of gusla and bagpipe, wine, women and song, I ask them if they could tell me where the buffet is. They shake their heads to the rhythm of the music, and send me to hell in virtually all Serbo-Croat languages.

In summer we sailed on the Balaton, in winter the lake froze over, so we trained in Buda Castle. We ran round and round the walls, around the phallus-shaped tomb of Abdurrahman, with a turban on top, which I mistook for the Globe. I made ambitious plans to sail round the world without puking all over it. My sports injuries seemed to corroborate the idea that the earth is round and not flat. The nearest harbour was on the map, my great discoveries began on page 16 of the World Atlas. At first I took America for India, but my persistent odyssey did not remain unrewarded. At the end of a geography game played for high stakes, I discovered that capitals beginning with B lie along a line that can be drawn with a ruler between Brugge and Basra, from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf. The Brussels–Bonn–Bécs– (the Hungarian name for Vienna) –Budapest–Bucharest–Baghdad axis speaks for itself, and since I knew that the birth of cities is influenced by rivers, seas and mountains, I didn't think it was frivolous to bring Bratislava, Belgrade and Bern into the game. Berlin's northern situation may be regarded as a tectonic linguistic fissure, but the major powers corrected that after World War II. The cities beginning with B that lie along the fault line seemed to support my discovery: Breda on the Belgian border, Basel and Bolsano in the Alps, Baden Baden in Baden, Bayreuth and Bamberg in Bavaria, the ancient Slovak Besztercebánya, the Moravian Brünn, and Badacsony on the shore of the Balaton. Banja Luka in Bosnia may be a bit further afield, but Brashov in Transylvania lies at the intersection. Having passed the Balkans, the linguistic-tectonic fault line follows the shore of the Black Sea from the Bulgarian Burgas to the Bosporus, after which comes Istanbul, or Byzantium, and Bursa, the capital of ancient Turkey. Among the large number of Turkish cities beginning with B, it's worth mentioning Batman on the shore of the Tigris, as well as the nearby Beetlis for their familiar sounding names. Allowing for a short biblical bypass as we approach Beirut, we bag the cities of Byblos, Baalbek and Bethlehem, while the ruins of Babylon are situated next to Baghdad. There was an obvious need for a morphological map that would prove that the letter B played a role at least as important in the development of civilization as the big river valleys. From Babel to Brussels, history revolves around the axis of the letter B, from the unselfconscious gurgling of a new-born babe to Banská Bystrica. A Globe beyond nations took shape before my eyes, and I had faith that the right map and the application of proper logopedics could take us back to the blissful time before Babel, when we all spoke the same language. Considering the frequency with which lines have been altered on maps in this century alone, I felt I was on firm ground.

Just before Belgrade the fog descends. If I didn't know we're in a valley, I'd take it for a bad omen. The fog is so heavy you can't see farther than a couple of inches, and that's fog too, and beyond that the rest of the fog, and Belgrade, experience tells me. The train stops, and I will get off.

Arriving in a strange city is a familiar feeling, you walk as if you knew where you were going, as if you'd been there a hundred times before, the cab drivers don't even stop you, you watch out for details, legs, watches, street lamps, butt-ends, women's hats. You buy something, anything, you don't stick out any more. Sit down on a bench and watch the movement, the colours, the proportions. Belgrade. I must have been here before.

During an evening cocktail I hear shots. Next day, two wreaths at the crossing. In the newspaper, young boys in identical coats. I saw a film once about Belgrade's underworld: The Crime that Changed Serbia. By the time it was ready, most of the actors had been killed. In the seventies, the police let the hardmen leave the country. They were given forged passports in exchange for certain trifling favours, the liquidation of political opponents made to look like an accident, and the like. The guest workers went home regularly to spend their German marks, Swiss franks, and Swedish crowns, then, in the nineties, war broke out with the new gangs. The reason there's no organized crime in Belgrade, a mafioso complains in the film, is because everybody's thinking short term. They'd rather shoot each other for peanuts than wait for a bigger deal, all you really have to do is wait. Just think of Bosnia and Arkan.

B is the third letter of the Hungarian alphabet. B is for Bilbo. My first friend in Belgrade is Filip David. He walks his dog in front of the cordon every day. His name is Bilbo, he is my second friend in Belgrade. It is a literary friendship. Bilbo Baggins is Babó, the Hobbit, translated by Árpád Göncz. (Árpád Göncz, president of Hungary between 1990-2000, was imprisoned after the revolution of 1956, and translated The Hobbit behind bars.)

I didn't want to come to Yugoslavia during the war. A friend of mine was discharged from military service with a first class marksman classification. His mother is half Croatian, half Hungarian, his father is a Bosnian Serb. I didn't know which side he was fighting on, if he had deserted or not, if he was alive. I didn't want to be within range.

At the siege of Sarajevo, Saskia, Karadzic's son, a good boy and a good soldier, found himself face to face with Jusuf, his childhood pal. Juka, the old gangster, had become one of the commanders of the Igman Mountain resistance. Juka showed Saskia his wounds, and they talked about the good old days. At night, Saskia snuck across Bosnian lines so they could live it up a little. Rumour had it that they became great big benders.

The riot police come by bus with packed lunches, like a bunch of tourists from the countryside. After a quick city tour, they form a cordon, march down the Road of Revolution, and barricade Republic Square. They have to wait hours before the demonstrators show up, they buy roasted pumpkin seeds from street vendors, they slide their rubber sticks inside the turned-up aprons of their bulletproof vests. Passers-by try to befriend them by telling political jokes and handing out leaflets. Bobby-soxers pin flowers on their shields and offer them cakes. It gets smeared all over their visors.


Translated by: Judith Sonabend

Tags: Péter Zilahy