"Colorful canvases stretched taut between wooden frames!... Allah, help me, I thought, these are paintings! Kasim bey had not burned them when he occupied the castle. Why not?" - Excerpts from Viktor Horváth's 2012 European Union Prize-winning novel.
How the foolish frenghi sultans came to blows
My tutor Sejfi told me the story just as the Ottoman scribes of blessed memory had recorded it. I listened to him spellbound, and he, Sejfi, continued to relate it with due seriousness, though from time to time he stopped for a smile.
I loved Sejfi very much.
This is the tale he told.
Back in those days, the sultans of the western nations, blinded by the errant faith of idolatry, paid homage to the imperial crown, and so they all coveted it, down to the last man. But this crown was in the possession of Laus (whom the base giaours called King Louis the Second), in short, this so-called crown was in the possession of this foolish Laus, who was the sultan of the lands of Alamania and Ungurus. The infidel idolaters called these vilajets Germany and Hungary.
So then, this sultan Laus, or Louis, held very great power in his unclean hands. The domain of his Sandzaks and his countless castles spread over immeasurable distances, his foot soldiers and mounted soldiers were as the stars in the sky, his estates and serfs who worked the soil like blades of grass in the meadow, like grains of sand in the desert. And as for his armies! Every one of his pig-faced soldiers was so tall and terrifying, you’d think that they’d descended from djinns, their horses snorted fire like dragons, and were as huge as the Rukh bird in the Arabian Nights. The equestrian and foot soldiers were clad in iron from head to toe and they wielded their weapons as ferociously as any devil. Their lieutenants were as expert in the arrangement and deployment of their troops as Asaph, the war lord of Solomon the Wise, while their bravery was akin to Tuse, the great Persian hero of times of yore.
But that’s not all, because Louis was not the only sultan of Frengistan. There was Louis’s basest of all relatives, Sultan Ferendus, who had himself called Emperor Ferdinand, and this Ferendus was legendary for his avarice.
And what happened? The sultan of Franche was the dim-witted and conceited Francisco, also known as Francis. This Franche is what we call France. Anyway, this Francis also coveted the crown and reasoned thus: “I shall wage war against Louis to get my hands on that crown.” But Louis was strong, because he and the German Ferdinand traveled in the same caravan. Besides, Ferdinand had a brother, Karlo, also called Charles, the sultan of Hispania. This Charles, who also bid his time sunk in the putrid marshes of the infidel, was a sultan who enjoyed great power, and when he learned that Francis had attacked Ferdinand, he boiled with rage, because Ferdinand was his brother. He promptly went to war and attacked the sultan king Francis, that French villain.
So Francis was now waging war on two fronts. He clashed swords with Ferdinand and Louis, both of whom he had attacked with Charles, who came to Ferdinand’s aid, he being his younger brother. It soon became apparent that King Francis is no match for the combined strengths of Louis, Ferdinand and the Spanish king, Charles.
When these three had seized several castles along with the surrounding villages from Francis, and when King Francis saw that he could not vanquish all three, he became sore afraid. He began ruminating about how he could maneuver the chariot of his plan, conceived by his intellect, contaminated as it was by the contagion of conceit, into the courtyard of the palace of action, when thus reflecting, a small spark of inspiration suddenly flared up in his deluded mind. He called for paper, pen and ink, sat himself down, and began to pen a letter to the Padishah (may he shine in the light of Allah!), the Mighty Suleyman, because back then he was the khalifah, the defender of the faith, the heroic successor to the Prophet Muhammad (may blessings shower down upon him and his family!). I quote the letter just as it was writ:
The letter of the pigheaded King Francis
O, Bright and Exalted Suleyman, who art the defender of the true faith against pork eaters and Christians who are themselves as pigs! I, the base and mean spirited Francisco, driven by the promptings of my witless brain feeding on the dung heap of rashness, did attack Laus, the unclean and unvirtuous sultan of Alamania and Ungurus in order to lay my hands on their worthless and vainglorious crown. But the blood brother of Ferendus, the ignoble King Karlo sultan fit for the gallows, who is the sultan of the land of Hispania, thereupon also did take up arms against me, and now the three of them are devastating my loathsome country, an abomination even to behold, from two directions at once. Their forces united, they are dealing destruction and bringing ruination on Franche, this deepest cesspool of idolatry, every impenitent inhabitant of which will burn in the fire of the lowest circle of hell after their deaths, myself included.
Grand Padishah of the bright understanding! I, Francisco, crawling on my belly, rubbing my unworthy cheeks against the leg of your tabouret, beseech you to teach the German and the Magyar giaour Jesus-followers to the east, inebriated as they are with the wine of pretension, a lesson they will not soon forget, in which case my own ignoble army can make short shrift of the wicked King Karlo to the west. If you will assist me in my great affliction, I shall be the happiest of your base vassals and shall be your humble servant until my dying day and beyond, and so shall my black-natured giaour descendants and depraved issue be likewise devoted to you to the end of times, down to the last man. I will also bring the Sun and the Moon down for you.
And the Padishah of the angelic nature was merciful unto him.
And that’s how it all began.
The weeks went by, the giaours’ Christmas, when they celebrate the prophet Jesus’ birthday (may round-eyed houris pamper Him in Allah’s orchards!) had come and gone, and I was still suffering because of Sudabé, thinking how I might catch a glimpse of her countenance at last. Meanwhile, after late night prayers, I continued peeling away at the wall by the light of a candle in that bare room. The erring bishop had left many books behind, so Dervish bey ordered Sejfi to instruct me in Latin and rhetoric, but Sejfi was too caught up to check if I’d done the lessons from the Koran he’d marked out for me. The scribe Gergely was supposed to teach me to write Latin and Hungarian, but I ran away from him and hid behind the church with the Serbs. And all the while Ferruh saw the plaster gradually peeling away on the wall behind the heap of straw. Also, my foster father never noticed that I wasn’t learning anything. He was too preoccupied running after all those many alterations waiting for him in the surrounding areas, and in town too.
The castellan was a veteran janissary. His name was Ali, and he bagged fifty silver akche a day. Anyway, on one occasion I saw this dizdar prepare to visit the town, so I went up to him and lied that the bey ordered me to go with him and chose a cat and buy it, and he’d give Ali the price afterward. Ali dizdar believed me and had one of his men accompany me round the great market while he visited the meat surveyors and the market supervisors. But there were no cats to be had at the market, so we returned empty handed. The minute we walked through the castle gate I ran off, and the castellan went to tell the bey that he could not purchase a cat, alas. That’s how ignorant and wicked I was.
The good Dervish bey had me locked up in a downstairs room of the palace. I had never been there before. The room was located in the northern wing, where it almost brushed up against the corner of the great church. It was never heated, and it had just one small window that afforded scant light under the crossbeamed ceiling. First I tried prying it open to make my escape, and then, when I couldn’t open it no matter how hard I tried, and I didn’t dare break the glass, I began scattering the rush mats heaped up along the wall so they’d serve me for a cover against the cold. But there was something behind them that they wanted to hide, framed canvases leaning against the wall, twenty of them, at least. Colorful canvases stretched taut between wooden frames! Some of the frames were simple, but others had ornate wooden carving on them the likes of which I had never seen. Allah, help me, I thought, these are paintings! Kasim bey had not burned them when he occupied the castle. Why not? He didn’t have the heart? He had them all taken down from the walls and had them brought to this remote chamber on the ground floor, so no one should see them. Also, in order to protect them, because the rooms upstairs that were not used were damp.
I flung all the rush mats from in front of the pictures and took a look at the first, but immediately started back. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! There is no strength and might besides the most majestic and august Allah! There was a hideous painting on that canvas reviling the prophet! And how beautiful it was! And how that beauty frightened me! It was just like life, and that made it distasteful. It wasn’t the prophet Mohamed, just the prophet Jesus, but he was naked, with just a piece of cloth covering his loins, and he was nailed to that wooden cross the pagans worship, and there was a wound in his chest, and the blood was flowing. A disgrace. And the distance! How can the giaour masters portray distance when the canvas is flat? And yet I felt as if I were falling into a well, as if a maelstorm were sucking me in, because there was distance on the canvas, and the prophet had a body! His thigh and arm and every part of him was round. Beauty and witchcraft! I reeled as I touched it but then, frightened, drew my hand away.
I looked at it for a long time, but then I wanted to see the others, too, because the first painting affected me the way opium affects the enervated. And when I put the Jesus painting aside, I saw the one behind it, but by then it was too late, I couldn’t cover it. It showed Mother Maryam nursing the baby Jesus. I saw the infant take the nipple between his lips, and all the time he was looking at me with such mischief, squinting, but looking at me all the same, looking out of the picture, somehow, and Mother Maryam’s other breast was uncovered, too, and her pale pink nipple stiff, and just like Jesus, she was also looking straight at me, and I stepped back, because I would have never thought such shocking impertinance possible, and meanwhile my manhood stiffened and strained against my pants because I imagined that Sudabé’s face is like that, and I had to reach inside my pants to fix it, and I grabbed it, but I pulled back the skin too far and then back again, and then the muezzin’s ezan calling the faithful to prayer came from the great tower, everything around me turned dark, my knees grew weak, the heat flooded me, the key turned in the door, and it was Ferruh aga come to let me out to the mosque because it was Friday, and I groaned, helpless, and the viscous fluid flooded by pants, and Ferruh just stood there, but then there was a strange gleam in his eye as if he’d been struck by lightning.
“Which hand did you slip inside your pants?”
“What? What did you…” I started to say, leaning against the wall, trembling.
“Which hand was in your pants?”
“This,” I said with a look at that something shimmering on my left hand.
“Come with me,” he said, then grabbed me by the neck and ran with me up the stairs, and there dragged me into the room where I practiced archery.
“Pick it up,” he said, pointing. “Grab that bow! No. Not with that! With the other hand! Your right hand! And place the arrow against the string with the other!”
“But it’s… it’s… you know.”
“You’ll wash it off later. Here, take it, draw it back. And now, shoot!”
I pulled taut the bowstring. I didn’t have much strength, just a new sense of balance I hadn’t felt before. I took a deep breath and released the string. The arrow pierced that darned bale right in the middle and landed in the half of an apple I’d stuck there for a bull’s eye. I looked incredulous at Ferruh aga, and he grinned like one demented. He had tears in his eyes, and he kept slapping his thigh. I placed another arrow along the bowstring and sent it in wake of the one before it, and then again and again, so the arrows split each other apart in what remained of the apple.
“In the name of Allah, boy, you’re left-handed! You’re left-handed, boy, understand?”
Moral: God is the best teacher.
Previously on HLO:
Translated by: Judy Sollosy
Tags: Viktor Horváth