Esti Kornél; kilencedik fejezet

The other day at a party - said Cornelius Esti - someone told me that one should never go to a country without knowing its language. I thoroughly agreed with him. As I am not an Englishman, I take more interest in people than in their surroundings. If I hear strangers speak without understanding what they say, I feel that I am either spiritually deaf, or that I am watching a silent film without music or titles. This sort of thing gets on my nerves and bores me beyond measure.
     Though I then agreed with our friend it came to my mind later on that perhaps the English are right. It must be 'great fun' to travel in a foreign country when one is left cold by the sounds coming from moving lips, and respond with that curious dumb stare when one is addressed. Now, at least, I began to understand the meaning of the words 'splendid isolation'. What a wonderful feeling of independence and irresponsibility it gives us! Suddenly we feel like a baby under guardianship. There awakens in us a sort of inexplicable faith towards grown-ups, who must be wiser than us. We let them talk and act while we remain passive. Then we accept everything blindly.
     The adventure I am going to tell you was unique to me, for, as you know, I speak nine languages. It happened when I was on my way to Turkey, and was obliged to travel through Bulgaria. I spent only twenty-four hours in the latter. There, this curious adventure, which I feel I must tell you, happened. I should hate you to miss it and, after all, you know how easy it is for one to die... something wrong with an artery of the heart or brain, and it's all over. And I am certain that no one else has ever had an adventure like this.
     Well, it was the middle of the night, and the Balkan Express was speeding us through mountains and valleys. At about half-past one in the morning I could not sleep, so I went into the corridor to get a breath of fresh air. This, however, soon proved to be boring, as all I could see of the country was black dots. Even a spark of light flashing by seemed an event. Everybody was fast asleep around me. There was not a soul in the corridor.

       I had just decided to return to the compartment when the conductor appeared with a lamp in his hand. He was a stubby Bulgarian with a black moustache, and had apparently completed his tour of the train. He had already seen my ticket some time before, but as a sort of greeting he flashed his lamp and came up to me. Obviously, he was as bored as I.
     Now, I could not give you a reason why, but a sudden impulse prompted me to enter into a conversation with him - just to have a heart-to-heart talk, you know what I mean. I asked him in Bulgarian if he smoked. That was my entire knowledge of the language. I had learned it on the train from advertisements. Except for a half a dozen words, such as ' yes' and ' no', I give you my word of honour that I knew no more. The conductor lifted his hand to his cap in answer. I opened my cigarette case and offered him a smoke. He took out a gold-tipped cigarette with great reverence. I took another with less reverence. He fumbled in his pocket, produced a match, lighted it, and, in a totally strange language he muttered something like 'please'. Then I offered him my lighter and gave a parrot-like imitation of the word I had just heard from him. Both of us were smoking now, exhaling the fumes through our nostrils. It was quite a promising beginning.
     To this day I am filled with pride when I think of this scene. With what a knowledge of human nature had I built up, dramatized, directed and produced it! With what a deep knowledge of psychology had I planted that little seed which, as you will hear in a moment, developed into a large wide-spreading tree, under which I rested after the fatigue of a long journey and arose in the morning rich with unusual experiences. You think I overrate my capacities. Perhaps, but first listen to this.
     You must admit that my acting technique was sure and perfect from the very first moment. You see, I had to make him believe that I was a born Bulgarian, and that I spoke the language as well as the professor of Bulgarian literature at the University of Sofia. In order to create this impression, my behaviour became a bit blasé and careless. First of all, I did not fall into the fatal mistake of being loquacious, though it is true that this was not particularly to my credit. You see, foreigners, except the English, are characterized by the fact that they always try to speak the language of the country in which they are travelling. They are, as a rule, too enthusiastic about it and soon give themselves away. The natives, on the other hand, only nod when spoken to, and usually express themselves in monosyllables.
     Often one has almost to pull the words out of them, and when they actually speak they are rather slangy, using battered words, shiny and bent from long use. They produce them, sleepily, from the rich, hidden treasures of the language. As a rule they are fighting shy of using the correct terms, too self-conscious to care about grammar and idioms. Just imagine what would happen if they had to speak for hours on a dais or to write a book amounting to several thousand words! They would prove quickly to their audience that they had not the slightest idea of their own language.
     So, to go back to the conductor, we were puffing in one of those intimate little silences in which great friendships, real understandings, and long happy marriages are born. Had somebody been invisibly present, he might have said that my expression was both serious and kind. Occasionally I frowned. Then, for a change, I smiled and looked at him attentively. But, after all, it was my place to start the conversation which I felt already had wonderful possibilities. I yawned and sighed. Then I put my hand on his shoulder, lifted my eyebrows so that they formed an enormous question mark, and, tossing my head, I murmured something which I thought might mean the word 'well', or something to that effect, in Bulgarian. The conductor seemed to discover in this friendly form of interest a souvenir of his childhood, or the mannerisms of one of his colleagues, who would inquire in this way, 'Well, what's the news, old man?' He suddenly smiled and began to speak. He uttered four or five sentences then came to a standstill and waited.
     I was also waiting, and had very good reason to. You know it as well as I. I was meditating on what I could answer. After a short hesitation, I came to a decision. I said: 'Yes.'
     Experience has taught me that whenever I am not listening to the conversation at home, or don't understand something, I always say 'yes'. Therefore I never have any trouble. Even when I actually seemed to have agreed with something I should have condemned by this affirmative monosyllable, I simply had to make them believe that it was like 'oh yeah', irony rather than agreement. We all know how many times 'yes' means 'no'.
     The results proved that my line of thought was sound. The conductor became more informative, then, unfortunately stopped talking. Now, with an accent expressing the interrogatory form with a tone of misgivings and surprise, I said 'yes?' This, so to speak, broke the ice. The conductor melted and went on speaking for a quarter of an hour. His conversation was pleasant, and apparently varied and interesting. This time I could relax as I did not have to think of a possible answer to give him.
     That was my first decisive success. As he spoke, as the words and sentences poured out of his mouth like little rivers, as he talked, prattled, babbled, it was evident that now no one could have induced him to believe that I was a stranger. This conviction, though it seemed to be firm, necessitated support and needed to be maintained. For the time being I escaped the very grave problem of answering him, and though I occupied my mouth with a cigarette so as to give a visible sign that my lips were engaged, I could not neglect my amusing entertainer, and from time to time I had to do my best to keep the fire of conversation alive.
     How did I do that? Naturally, it was not with words that I achieved this effect. Instead I acted. Like an actor, you might say like a first-rate actor, with all parts of my body. My face, my hands, my ears, and even my feet moved as they should. I was naturally cautious. I feigned attention, but not that kind of forced, insincere attention which creates suspicion from the first, I imitated that kind which, like a fire, now languishes and disperses itself, then flares up again and breaks into flame. I was careful about other things as well. Occasionally, I made him understand with a gesture that I didn't quite see his point. You would naturally think this was the easiest of all. You are wrong. That was, my friends, the most difficult of all. Since I honestly and truly did not understand a single word of his whole conversation, I had to be very careful that my expression should not be too sincere or convincing. I was lucky and did not overlook this point. The conductor simply repeated his last sentence and I nodded as if I had said 'Oh, now I see what you mean.'
     Later on, there was no necessity to kindle the gaily crackling fire of his conversation which was flaming like a stake.
     The conductor spoke. About what? You are really none too tactful. How should I know? Naturally, I was terribly curious. Maybe he was telling about the regulations of the railway company; perhaps about his family and his children; maybe about growing beetroots. The possibilities were unlimited. God Almighty only knew what he was talking about. From the rhythm of his speech I felt that he was telling a gay, long-winded story which, within broad epical banks, rolled towards its final development. He was not in the least hurry. Nor was I. I let him wander from the point and splash like a rivulet, for I knew he would eventually turn back and flow into the hollow, comfortable river-bed of conversation.
     He often smiled. The story he was telling me must have been rather spicy, and there were parts which, I presume, were definitely unrepeatable. He winked at me confidentially, as if I had been his accomplice, and laughed. Now and again I laughed with him. Often I pretended not to share his views. After all, I did not want to spoil the man. I only appreciated in moderation that old-world, golden humour, which really came from his heart and flavoured his narrative. It was about three in the morning, and we had - I mean he had - been talking for fully an hour and a half, when the train slowed down as we neared a station. The conductor took his lamp, apologized that he had to jump off, but assuring me that he would soon be back to finish the story. I was sure he had not yet reached the climax, which I was anxious to hear.
     I leant out of the window. I bathed my head in the fresh air. On the ashgrey of the sky there were magenta flowers of the dawn. In front of me was a village smelling of fresh cream, on the platform a few women with kerchiefs on their heads. The conductor spoke to them in the same language as he had spoken to me, but with better results, for they at once understood what he said and made their way towards the third-class carriages at the back of the train.
     He was with me again in a second, a smile still on his lips, and continued his narrative laughingly. He soon came to the point which he had promised. Then he shot out his laughter. He laughed so much that his whole body was trembling. He was surely a devil of a fellow. He was still laughing when he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a notebook fastened with an elastic ribbon. This he opened and produced a dirty letter, which, presumably played an important part in the story, and was, perhaps, even its decisive argument. He pressed it into my hands, indicating that I should read it and give him my opinion. You all can imagine what my opinion could have been. I saw only Russian characters written in pencil, almost obliterated by hard wear.
     Naturally, I took it very seriously and continued to feign an intelligent interest, while he stood aside and studied my facial reactions. 'Yes,' I mumbled, 'Yes, yes, ' in negative, affirmative and interrogative tones. Meanwhile I kept on shaking my head as if to say 'typical,' 'extraordinary,' or 'yes, that's life'. You can use these movements of your head in every conceivable situation that might arise. There has never been a circumstance when you could not say 'that's life'. Even if someone dies, as everyone must do once, we say again, 'that's life'. I toyed with the letter, even smelt it close to my nose. It had a faint smell of moisture, and since I could do nothing else, I handed back to him. Besides this, there were several other things in his notebook. He produced a photograph which, to my great astonishment, depicted a dog. I studied it with pursed lips as if I were I devotee of dogs. I soon noted, however, that he did not approve of this. It seemed to me that he was angry with the dog, so my face became grave and I gnashed my teeth at the animal.
     My astonishment, however, only reached its peak when, from the little side pocket of his notebook, he brought out a little object wrapped in tissue paper and asked me to open it myself. I opened it. All I found were two rather large green buttons such as Bulgarian peasants wear on their coats. I played with them, rattling them together, as if I were a collector of buttons, but the conductor suddenly snatched them from me and, as if he did not want to see them any more, hastily hid them in his notebook. Then he took a few steps, turned around, and leant against the side of the corridor.
     I could not understand and jumped towards him. Then I saw something which jolted me. His eyes were full of tears. That big, strong man was weeping. To begin with, he tried manfully to conceal his tears. Then he broke down and wept until his lips were trembling. I began to feel giddy over this deep, unsolvable tangle of life. What could this mean? What could be the connection between these long sentences, the laughing and the weeping? What had one to do with the other? What had the letter to do with the photograph of the dog? What had the photograph of the dog to do with the two green buttons? And what had all of this to do with the conductor? Was this all madness, or the contrary, the humanly, healthy overflow of sentiment? Had the whole thing any meaning at all in Bulgarian or any other tongue? I felt near to despair.
     Then suddenly I grasped the conductor by the shoulders with full force to give him courage, and shouted into his ear 'no, no, no' - in Bulgarian. Almost choked by his tears he stammered out another monosyllabic word which might have meant 'many thanks for your kindness' but could also be interpreted as 'you won't knock me about next time, you big bully.' Slowly he came to himself. His panting became less audible. He wiped his wet face with his handkerchief. Then he spoke. But now his voice was totally different. He questioned me sharply. I presume that they meant something like this: 'Why did you say 'no' after you said 'yes'?' 'Why don't you now agree with what you said before?' 'Let's finish this turncoat game.' 'Let's get down to brass tacks. Well, yes or no?'
The questions were quick and resolute as if he had fired them at me from a machine-gun pointed at my breast. You simply could not escape them. It seemed as if I had got into a scrape and my good luck had deserted me. It was my superiority which helped me out of it. I pulled myself up, looked at him with an icy, sharp stare, and, as one who regards it to be under his social position to answer such questions, I turned on my heels and, with long steps, returned to my compartment. There I dropped my head on the little cushion I had brought with me and fell asleep as quickly as someone who dies of heart failure.
     I awoke about noon. It was bright and hot. There was a knock on my window and the conductor came in. He reminded me that I had to get off at the next station. But he did not move. He remained standing by my side, like a faithful dog. He spoke again fluently, quietly, without interruption. Perhaps he apologized. Perhaps he was accusing me because of the bizarre scene last night. That I don't know, and can't tell you. But humble contrition and repentance were reflected on his face. My attitude was cool. I let him shut my suit-cases and take them into the corridor, but at the last moment I began to pity him. When he had given my luggage to the porter and I had slowly descended from the train, I threw him a dumb glance which expressed this idea:
     'It was not very nice of you to do what you have done, but it is only human to make a mistake, and this time I will forgive you. ' Then I said aloud in Bulgarian, 'Yes.'
     The word had a magic effect on him. The conductor softened. His face brightened. He regained his former jovial expression. He gave me the salute, standing stiffly alert. Thus he stood in the window, tense with happiness, until the train moved off and he disappeared out of my sight for ever.

Translated by Adam DE HEGEDUS

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