JÓKAI’S ANGELS AND THE THIRD VOLUME OF THE NATIONAL CHRONICLE
On 5 May 1904 the halls of the Palace of the Heavens were filled with mellifluous sighs. The Lord was savouring the last sentences of his trusted servant’s work. ‘In the centuries to come the great mission of the Hungarian nation shall only have a glorious continuation but shall never End.’ ‘Thus has the history of the Hungarians come to its close.’ He then muttered to himself and shut the ornamental covers of the book. He woefully turned his head right and then left. Finished. The angels who were eyeing and prying at the door of the Great Hall overheard the bitter words: finished, no two ways about it: it is finished. The angels peered through the narrow opening, and read the author’s name on the book. So this Jókai is finished. So the Lord has had enough of him. They quickly weighed up their looming duties, that it was May, it was warm, and that there was this age-worn creature of their Lord down there of whom everyone had now had enough. That is, no time to wait for orders, just a whiz down, then extract his soul from his chest and then scurry back to the Noble Presence.
Rapid wincing of feet in the ante-chamber of the Palace of the Heavens, then a whole posse of angels descended upon Jókai’s villa in Buda. Snip-snap, with the speed of a fly-swat did the angels scoop out from the body the small lump that the Lord had planted there all that long while ago. They had hardly risen over the ground when a spat broke out as to which of them should bring it, warm,in hand, to their high commander. They almost tore it apart as each struggled to appear best in the eyes of the Warden of the Heavens. Eventually they agreed to tumble through the doors of the Great Hall together like a delegation of peasants petitioning a ruler: ‘we are joined in our grief, our lot here is but one man’.
Rattling, thumping, a clatter of bare angelic paws. ‘What is going on here?’ thundered the Lord into the azure. He didn’t have to wonder too much, the doors of the Great Hall swung open, the golden handles smashed to the columns holding the roof of the Heavens and like wheat grains emptying out of a knocked-over bucket the angels streamed in before their liege lord.
‘Here it is my Lord, we’ve got it,’ said the pluckiest one, while the others were tossing their accretion ahead with their feet.
‘What’s here?’ the Lord exclaimed in astonishment.
‘Well, the one who’s finished, old Móric’s soul.’
‘What do you mean he’s finished?’ now roared the King of the Superior World. ‘Who in heavens do you think you are?’ thundered he, quite beside himself with rage.
‘We only thought we could pre-empt your order, sir,’ ad-libbed another angel uneasily.
The Lord suddenly turned around and in a measured yet firm tone hissed only this much:
‘You must leave now, but the soul shall stay.’
The angels backed out through the door in blank amazement, they couldn’t for the life of them understand what they had done wrong. One called Giuseppe who hailed from Sicily remarked flippantly:
‘Didn’ ‘e say we was supposed to do wha’ we did?’
‘Oh, Giuseppe, you’re so silly, it’s a wonder you could become an angel in the first place,’ sighed a fellow resident of the Heavens squeezing his way next to Giuseppe.
And Giuseppe, as if anyone would give a damn, began in a yapping, almost beastly voice to relate the well-worn story that in August 1591 it was so baking hot out there in the gravel plains of Sicily that it well-nigh made a man’s brain boil in his skull, and when he once couldn’t make it home to his wife and children by noon, to escape the sun burning him to a cinder, he darted into a chapel. He sank on a pew, fell asleep, too, and thus didn’t even notice when bandits flocked in and packed the treasures of the chapel into big sacks. The pillage over and the sacks full of all the gold and silver, to cover their traces the intruders set the chapel alight. Giuseppe meanwhile was in a deep slumber and had an ominous dream. In this dream he was wandering the streets of the desolate village in the worst of the midday sun, knocked on this door and that door but there was no answer. The sun was scorching his clothes, his skin, all parts of his body, and was now biting into his flesh and internal organs. Then he suddenly woke up, but too late, the fire had almost seared his bones, the sluice gates barring the soul burst open, and it started to ascend towards the Realm of the Lord. He cast about with his hands to hold back, but all was in vain. And because he died in such innocence, unable to finish the course of his life as he had wished, the Lord granted him angelship.
‘What a rabble,’ said Jókai when the angel noise subsided. ‘They flew my soul out from the spheres of the earth before I could utter so much as Oh my God.’
‘You can no more turn chalk into cheese than an angel into a spinning paragon,’ quipped the Lord to make the guest feel at ease, as if he’d always been preparing for the flight. ‘By no means did I wish to summon you. I’d rather have kept you down there so that you could carry on the good work on the history of the Hungarians, a more elevating read I have hardly seen in recent aeons’. Wherever you open it, you find the glory of the Good, you meet heroes such as I would wish to see in my heavenly host. Had you not called my attention to them, I certainly wouldn’t have noticed them at all, and all my angels would be Giuseppes. Therefore, I reckoned that you ought to find out about another hundred years of Hungarian history so my phalanx may have more of those sterling warriors’. The venerable storyteller was quite taken aback.
‘A hundred more?’ he asked incredulously.
‘Almost a hundred,’ the Lord answered. ‘I will send for you in August 1996. But by then you must feel content with your lifespan, gather up the third volume of the national chronicle and away you come’.
Jókai quibbled a little saying that if he had to return couldn’t he continue Zoltan Karpathy or The Golden Man instead, and that in fact he had run out of steam to take the trouble, to take the journey back, and yet another almost hundred… But the Lord wouldn’t fiddle about any longer, and gave a push to the small lump of a soul with his foot and whirling and turning it fell back into the mansion in Buda, right into the recently vacated body.
Jókai’s death and later his funeral occasioned days of national mourning. Everyone felt bereaved. Those who had read his works, those who had not, and those who thought that this Jókai was in fact King Matthias the Just and that with his death justice took its final exit from the land of the Hungarians. Rumour has it that even Pál Gyulai, the ferocious critic, shed a few tears, but he really began to sob only in 1909 when the envoys from the blue yonder swept his soul into the depths of hell. Long did the soul of one Pál Gyulai descend, and hardly had he hit the bottom, he turned to one of his fellow inmates:
‘And where’s that liar Jókai?’
‘Not here, pal.’
‘Where is he then?’
‘Can’t think of him anywhere else than in the Palace of the Heavens.’
I am honour bound not to evoke the stream of expletives that squirted out of Gyulai who left no patch of the Lord’s Empire unscathed. And this torrent started afresh when a globe-trotting angel spilt the tidings that the Lord had sent the mendacious storyteller back to earthly life, as few things were closer to his heart then those mendacious tales.
Gyulai’s ignorance of Jókai’s return was one thing, but neither did Bella Nagy, his widow, nor any other creature of the Lord, human or beast, know across the width and breadth of Hungary. Through sheer dent of invisibility or possibly something akin to that, we cannot even begin to try to unravel the pursuits of the powers of the blue yonder, the obliviousness remained. The opinions of votaries of the occult science of names, for instance, that the returned soul migrated into the author called Móra or into the author Móricz cannot be taken seriously. Suffice it to say that the great storyteller stayed here in our midst but no-one knew a thing about it. He lived, and lingered on in secrecy. He kept his watch and peered so he could detect the heroes who would join the Heavenly Father’s army one day.
He would sit around on the eaves of forests, in the recesses of private houses, on street-corners, he would be out on the battlefields and at cabinet meetings, would escort people who expired without any particular reason, would stand at the borders when the axes of foreign powers chopped off the hereditary limbs of the country as if they had been withered and useless branches of a tree, then he would observe the health provisions of the war-weary nation, the spreading of infection, the progress of gangrene in the wounds, the steady pumping of medications, the mistaken choices and doses of remedies, the sporadic patches of new skin, and the otherwise decomposing organism. He watched the physicians of the disease to preserve a few on paper so commanders on earth could become captains in heaven. He sat out with a bundle of paper spooled in his lap as if he were hiding a huge toilet roll stashed away for loose bowels. But hardly would he commit something to paper, such as the deeds of a dashing Hungarian lad, or hero, who not only conquered the enemy but also pierced an arrow through the devil’s heart, hardly had he begun to tidy up the script to match the experience, he saw only one thing, that it just wouldn’t fit. Like a child’s outgrown trousers, it cannot be forced on, and even when it can, it’s taut and tense, another drop of food in the stomach and the bulge fires off the buttons. The great storyteller cast away his drafts one after the other and kept on watching: maybe in a few more years he would stumble on the much desired fresh blood. Then came another war, a new Armageddon, another generation going under, but still no sign of succour to the nation, and while everyone was mouthing entreaties to the Lord, no-one advised his commander: ‘Captain, we mustn’t be sucked into this battle because if we do we shall all perish.’ But the Lord wouldn’t conduct earthly affairs this way, so hundreds and then thousands were lost, and those who were not ordered to the battlefields were crunched to their deaths by their brethren in some fit as a pastime. And things couldn’t stop after the war. The villains exchanged uniforms and the weed-killing of people went on, as if murder could cure the ills of anyone’s life. Some were scattered out of life, others from the country, from their towns, or merely from their abodes. And the old storyteller would point uncertainly here and there with his pencil but couldn’t compose that epic. Came revolution, and retribution, years which made the baying of the Hyena of Brescia pale in comparison like some whimper of a Viennese court jackal. Yet his greatest amazement came when all those who lived to see the end of their trials and tribulations and somebody asked ‘Was it him?’ answered, without batting an eyelid, ‘Come on, you can’t be serious’. As if their minds had been swept clean of all memories. And many of the fibbers died, too, and went to hell. The roasted Gyulai grumbled as he would, that all right these belonged here, but where is the chief liar, that Jókai, was he, of all people, lodged in the Palace of the Heavens? Yet the old storyteller would never cross the line to deny what had happened, the most he did was to embellish the events here and there. And it was no use when forced denials became definitely a thing of the past. No fear inhabited the bosoms of the sinners, for they could shrug their shoulders: no-one remembers what happened. And no-one pointed to them: ‘here is a perpetrator’. And as sins remained unpunished there was nothing to stop the proliferation of the perpetrators. The master of the pen remained unruffled by appearances in his narrative, but he fretted all the more because of his failure to find a single epic story on the basis of which the Lord could choose an angel warrior into his host, and the year 1996 was approaching with merciless certainty. There were those who appeared to be real heroes but had no chance to prove their mettle, others were heroic to the boot, but when they were called to act, they went soft in the head or were dispatched to their deaths, or took their own lives. And while the old storyteller felt attached to many of them, none of them turned out to be the hero he was looking for. When the ancients desired something they got it done in a flash.
‘I wish there were but one such man,’ he pondered, ‘I could tag the rest of them to him’. But the pondering was soon over as time was up, ‘96 had arrived. The Lord’s angel descended, grabbed Jókai, custodian of the heavenly Father’s secret of secrets, and flew him into the farthest reaches of the great firmament, right to the presence of God the Father. Woe and grief, never had the grey-bearded master been more frightened, he knew he had not been able to deliver and was scared out of his wits that the Lord would in his fury load another hundred years on his back. He stood there awestruck in the hall of mirrors of the Palace of the Heavens, and long minutes passed before the King of the Heavens addressed him: ‘Well, my servant, where is the third volume of the National Chronicle? Lay it open for me, let me examine the novices of my angel army.’
Jókai cast his eyes down with trepidation, staring at his toes in embarrassment. He well-nigh submerged because of his shame but for the knowledge that any measure of sinking would take him back to earth, and if unchecked, he could even find himself next to Gyulai. He wracked his brain desperately and eventually hit upon a rescue plan: ‘Father!’ he said, ‘I didn’t actually write them down. However, if we could rewind these years before us, I’d point at them and you could record all their names.’
‘What? You mean you didn’t write it down?’ sizzled the Lord’s voice. ‘Watch those hundred years again?’ grumbled and expostulated he, as it was simply unknown for him to converse with anyone who does not carry out his duties, but when the nightmare of the likes of Giuseppe joining his army rose before him he calmed down.
‘Well, all right,’ he agreed with resignation and told the cinema angel, Lumiet, to set up the projector. It was the type of old-fashioned machinery where the speed could be adjusted by hand, in other words a decent, divine contraption.
These were unpalatable moments as no-one wished to watch all over again what had already been a difficult experience before. But the old storyteller knew that his time had finally come. He launched into a running commentary like a reader during silent movies.
‘There’s a staff colonel here, and a prime minister there, yet we do not co-opt them into our army but those who carry out the orders and are killed in hails of bullets and die of starvation or are blown away from the mortal world by epidemics. If we go on watching, here’s the Regent and his staff as they claw back the severed parts of the country, yet we don’t recruit them into our heavenly army, but those who left their lives behind in the Russian winter, and those who crawled their way back from captivity, those who, defying the odds, returned from scenes of torment and set out to rebuild the country, the obliterated Buda and Pest, from their ashes, stone by stone. And within slightly more than a decade, when the city was pounded once more, there were those who built it anew yet again, and there were those who endured the prison years without a word and no matter how spirited themselves out of the dungeons and could pronounce in this country the words good morning, good evening.
And if we wind the reel forward and reach the point when you sent for me, you may see right up to the last cuts people whose names are not written in pearly letters into glorious codices, whose names fly out of people’s memories as easily as their souls slip out of the material world. These are the heroes of the third volume, and if it hadn’t been for them, no-one could even begin to work on the fourth volume, to write down a single word in our nation’s tongue, or even whisper into someone’s ear as much as: ‘I love you’.
The Lord was deeply touched by the narrative of the grey master, and no doubt also felt pleased that he could now muster the heroes of millennia in less than a hundred years, and could recruit such a large army of angels that he will have adequate numbers of personnel for each heavenly task.
‘Well, my servant, you have done your duty,’ he said with calm composure. ‘You may leave.’ There’s an island there in the back, a newly created territory pertaining no country of heaven or earth. There you shall live from now on. I know that once love gashed so deeply into your heart that a wheat sack could slide easily through the wound. There they will stitch up that slit.’
Jókai had to fight back his tears and the Lord was proud that he could cause genuine surprise.
‘Go, don’t keep the soft-handed heart surgeon waiting,’ he said, and gently prodded the grey master. And Jókai set out on the familiar path to the sublime lands of the Golden Man…
Translated by Miklós Lojkó