FERENC TEMESI Hungarian novelist was born in Szeged in 1949. His most successful novel is A POR ( The Dust ) published in 1986-87. Although he travlled around the world, he still lives in Hungary. The central figure of his short story is a fictional character.
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A NEW-ZEALAND WRITER
At the end of October 1956 (I was almost seven years old) a Pobjeda ( a Russian type of car whuch means victory) stopped under our window. One of our familyfriends, a woman of Kecskemét, almost 100 kilos, got out.?
You should pack your bags. By tonight we'll be in Vienna, she said.
My father, a great Hungarian patriot, replied:
We don't go anywhere.
Better go abroad than to prison, said auntie Kati.
But I haven't done anything, anything important, said my father referring to the revolution and the war of independence.
The Russians were already in thw vicinity, in Romania and Yugoslavia ready to launch an attack.
It will be just enough to get imprisoned, said aunt Kati, who always surprised me with the most expensive Christmas present each year.
In the refugee camp, we were pleased to meet the family Ehrenfeld, our former neighbours. A foreigner's friend is a foreigner, say those who are at home. But what is home? I quote from a Greek or who-knows-what-nationality philosopher for help:
A, Your home is where your heart is.
B, Your home is where you can hang up your hat.
A heart is a hat.
My father didn't want to stay in Europe. New Zealand sounds just fine, he said. The Russians would never get there. Only if they bored through the Earth they would come to there.
Indeed, self-delusion is the art that keeps us alive. You fall into a dream like into water. If you can swim everything is fine. The truth is you awake from one dream into another one. Life is after all the art of self-delusion. But God save those who take our illusions away.
We escaped from the future into a past. And we were right. On the ship, we were pleased to meet the family Ehrenfeld (whose daughter, 5 year older than me, I very much fancied) for the second time. In the end they had not gone to Israel.
Abel Tasman, Dutch sailor first stepped on New-Zealand's soil in 1642 I did it in 1957. In the beginning things didn't work out very well. My father worked as an unskilled labourer (as if we had stayed at home). While I picked up the language very quickly, he had some difficulties, and learned it very slowly. My mother, together with the family Ehrenfeld set up a fried dough stall: she provided for the whole family.
New Zealanders are very friendly and sweet-tempered just like the millions of sheep that graze in the fields. Only with the Maoris (the Old-Zealanders) did the New-Zealanders have some difficulties: They happened to live exactly on the gold veins. Indeed, there remained no more than threehundred thousand Maoris altogether on the two islands. I wondered how many of the 16.000 and 12.000 New Zealanders killed in the First and Second World Wars were Maori. I graduated from Auckland University in English and French. I became a librarian and spent my life explaining what literature was about. For not even Australians have heard about it. By this time my father had fought his way up and had become a stockkeeper. I married a New Zealander and we had a son and a daughter.
Suddenly things started working out. My novel "Bridge" - under the pen-name Terence Mefis - was published by the American Viking Press and became overnight a best-seller number one in English-speaking countries. Weekly, newer and newer editions were printed.I am glad we met and hope our acquaintance will last long the gentleman told the £5 note. Lincoln, Grant and Washington (on American money) suddenly became my close acquaintances. It's rather amazing: If something is successful in America it will be successful elsewhere. I became famous in New Zealand too. It will do if you write one best-seller in English and invest it well: you1ll be financially secure for the rest of your life. Nevertheless, my further novels became best-sellers too. I am not saying that I am considered rich in New Zealand, let's say I am quite well-to-do. I was able to free my mother and father from the daily grind. But not myself. A writer always remains a writer.
I bought a house in a small coastal-town on the Southern-Island. That's where I live now. (80% of New Zealanders live on the Northern-Island). I chose to live here because it had both things I liked, the sea and the plain. Two flatnesses. For the same reason I bought another house in the Netherlands, in Zeeland, an area which was banked up and thus gained back from the sea.
When my new novel "We Don't Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go" was published I bought a farmhouse on the Great Hungarian Plain as well.
A refugee monk never says anything nice about the cloister but honestly, I have never said anything bad about Hungary. I live the rather monotonous life of international writers, travelling from symposiums to festivals, book exhibitions and universities. I don't tell lies - it's a New-Zealand trait in me: The people of this nation say that white is white and black is black. Recently, I have founded a scholarship for my needy Hungarian fellow-writers. Partly, because I didn't want to forget the language in which I intended to write my major piece of work, partly, because I could deduct the amount from my considerable tax.
foundation tuned into a disaster. I chose two young Hungarian writers and I invited them into my home for a year. A.B. and C.D. whom I thought to be the most talented arrived indeed. I paid for their plane tickets, since I was richer than the Hungarian Writers' Association which didn't even own the house where it was located. I am not sure I made the right choice since I could not read every one of the numerous Hungarian literary periodicals. But what can you do? In New Zealand, there were 52 daily papers issued as early as 1895.
The scholarship was for a year, I provided the accommodation and 2000 New Zealand pounds monthly as pocket money, a considerable amount. But my Hungarians didn't like Bluff, which indeed is a small place, but it is a seaport. They were bored. A guest sees more in an hour than the host, I told myself. But there's a Burmese saying that the guest's life lastes seven days.
Firstly: A.B. and C.D. hated each other. A. B. whispered in my ears that C.D. is a cosmopolitan-Jewish-hireling, while C.D. argued that A.B. was a narrow-minded nationalist. I was fuming secretly at them as a geyser. I tried to reconcile them. CD. once asked me if we had grass. We had nothing else but grass, I replied, pointing to the 10-meter-long brushwood. They told me they meant hemp. Hemp? Yes, we had hemp too, I said more patiently than Samuel Marsden, the first Christian missionary in 1814.
I showed them the New Zealand hemp blossoming in yellowish-reddish, with one- meter long leaves and flowers. They weren't impressed. Even at the kiwi bird they looked quite bored as if they saw such thing at home in the garden every day.
If you wanted such grass you shouldn't have gone this far but to Holland, I replied peevishly, since I had started to have enough of them.
All people here are descendants of criminals, A.B. said once.
We are all sinners, I replied gently. But don't mix up New Zealand with Australia. My initial joy of being able to speak Hungarian with them slowly came to an end. And their English was a good example of what the native English would call hunglish. Supposedly, they know Hungary at all. I have to admit there are not many of them in New Zealand.
They could hardly believe that we only had four towns with a population of over hundred thousand. I took them to each of them. Wellington, the capital city reminded them of the sirloin, but they didn't know after whom the sirloin was named.
I showed them the only active volcano, as a kind of warning. The tables were turned. I started to get bored with them. I skipped off and left them to my wife. She only knew one Hungarian word:
megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekkel. As it later turned out, it wasn't a great idea.
Then I had a serious word with them.
But you are writers, I said. How generous I was! There are not many writers under 30. It is that kind of profession. One year should be enough to complete a shorter novel.
They looked at me as if I were insane.
Now we are going to sail to the Steward Island, just opposite us. I have a summer cottage there that I call the winter cottage. It has two floors. I told them to draw lots for which of them would live upstairs and which downstairs. It is an excellent place to write, I said. It is 19 Celsius degrees in January and 12 Celsius degrees in July.
Then the next surprise came. They could only write on a computer. I personally used the old mechanical typewriter of my father until my friend (and secret lover) Nicky lent me an Olivetti electric typewriter. I was as happy with it as a child.
Guys, I said, if you use a computer, there won't be a manuscript.
Who gives a damn about the manuscript, C.D. replied.
Collectors and antiquarians do, for instance.
They didn't turn a hair.
Then the next surprise came. One of them was only willing to use Macintosh, the other IBM. But this couldn't prevent me from achieving my target: I bought them the computers. Taking them to the island had been my longest sea-cruise. I thought I had got rid of them for a long time. Little did I know, I mean, I wish I had known, what was awaiting me.
A host is his guests' captive. My young Hungarian eagles kept visiting me from Steward Island for a barbecue, a drink, a chat or just without any reason. They hated each other - I hated both of them. No wonder, that I seized the first opportunity to escape when I got an invitation from Mexico to a symposium in world literature, and the biggest Spanish-speaking book-fair. Pretending to feel sorry I left the two to my wife.
I also invited my secret love Nicky - we deserved a honeymoon at last. Nicky said yes, but only if I write her name as Nickey in the future. With pleasure, I replied, and soon we were on our way. You don't need to spur a fleeing horse. I didn't know that taking Nickey with me would mean a lot of trouble. Mexican men were mad about blonde women with a fair complexion. Nickey had to wear a shawl and sunglasses.
Mexico is a magical land. Once there, everybody feels it. It is one of the richest countries in the world in natural resources, with a population of 80 million people. New Zealand and Hungaryare not in the same league. Unfortunately, every sixth year a new bunch of politicians turns up making promises during the elections to root out the blooming corruption of the former regime. Then for the next six years they become the robbers of the country. That's why the nation has learned to accept its fate. What has to come will come anyway. Only the past is certain. the present is for improvisations and who cares about the future. In practice it means that punctuality doesn't mean anything to them. Nickey and I struggled for a week to keep our own New Zealand ways in possibly the most polluted city in the world, Mexico-city with a population of over 20 million people. (Nickey's eyes were more inflamed than mine were but luckily, we got over it in a few days otherwise we would have left). Once we resigned ourselves to our hosts' attitude to time, suddenly things started to work.
If a Mexican is late for an appointment, he will rarely blame the indescribable conditions of public transportation. He will simply not say anything. He would smile at us: nicely, innocently and charmingly. In the present. Being two-hour late, what's that? You should only apologise for the rudeness of arriving somewhere on time. Spending is much more respected in this land (where not only the psilobe fungi but also peyote is grows as quickly as seers and fortune-tellers) than saving, which is a typical New Zealand virtue. The Mexican would save money for a fiesta, but not for a bank.
I called my wife: she told me with relief that A.B and C.D., my two Hungarian writers visit her less and less. I was happy to hear this news. I was less happy to hear that instead of working on their novels they are making trips to Australia with my money. But I shouldn't be a perfectionist: the big distance between us was a priceless source of joy.
In addition, the symposium moved to a sleepy and dusty but nice small town, Morélia. Here I saw the word ESPANOL written on a house wall - someone crossed it out and wrote NAHUATL above it. A gringo like me will never understand it. Obviously, for some Mexicans Spanish is not patriotic enough, they prefer the language of the Aztecs. I resolved for the hundredth time that I was going to learn Spanish (easy after French) even though I wold not be understood by the almost thirty groups of Mexican Indians.
Nowhere is there more vanity than at a novelist world symposium. So I slipped away with Nickey to a nearby lake (bigger than the Balaton) called Pátzuaró. The island in the middle is small and completely built-up. It is called Janitzió. It is full of mainly blue but also orange, brown, green, red, pink purple and white-wall houses shining in the sunshine. On the top of the island there is a statue that vaguely reminded me of the Statue of Liberty, though not at a close look. Our Mexican friend Juan-Pedro's patriotism emerged as soon as he had gulped down a bottle of Jalisco (the best) tequila, or even when he drank the cheapest and worst spirit called charranga
All the land belonged ti us - up to the Canadian border, he proclaimed
Unfortunately, we had to leave the charming island for Guadalajara, a city with a population of six million. The biggest Spanish-speaking book and software fair was organised here. Needless to say, every important publisher in the world was present. Even the Chinese and the Russians paid attention to this 700 million and still growing market. Only the Middle-Europeans didn't.
Finally, I saw a real fiesta! Nicanor Parra, the Chilean "anti-poet" as he calls himself, received the Juan Rulfo prize and the hundred thousand dollars cheque. He mentioned (undoubtedly as a kind of joke) the name of the Mexican lottery association as one of his sponsors. What shall I say? He was the real winner in the lottery. Even days after the fiesta, Nickey and I still needed to remove the confetti from our hair. Then my wife's telegraph arrived:
"the guys live with Maori girls STOP they don't receive me STOP come home immediately STOP your better half STOP".
On the plane, I wanted to tell our fortunes with cards (tarot cards of course) to see what would await us at home, but I left the pack of cards that I had bought from a Mexican fortune-teller in my hotel room. There couldn't be a worse omen than this.
You don't need to sail, but you need to cheat. Still, I had a bad conscience as I returned home with my secret love, the unpredictable and stubborn Nickey. First of all, I brought my Hungarian writers-plants under control. I didn't water them, but cut them and thinned them out a little bit. I finished off their affairs with the Maori girls when I talked to the authorised chief of the tribe. I stipulated that my would-be writers are obliged to inform me every fortnight about their completed work and I remarked that other people would happily change with them. The Maori chief and this latter remark had their effect: Slowly, they seemed to realise the situation and their temporary alliances even for womanising disssolved .
In the meantime, the elections were held in New Zealand. My father voted for the National Party, my mother for the Labour Party and my wife the Liberal Party. I personally voted for the Social Credit Party whose programme I considered the most progressive. They promised to abolish all taxes should they get into power.
In the meantime, I accepted an invitation to London. It was a promotion tour organised by my publisher in London, with all the necessary interviews for the BBC or my favourite daily paper, the Guardian, which was on the brink of ruin, and many others. I was a scholarship student in London once and I still had sweet memories of the French, French-Canadian, Belgian, Kuwaiti, Japanese, Greek etc. girls I had met there , all of whom widened my horizon both intellectually and physically.
I called in my two scholars and made a slight hint that I would keep an eye on them while I was away. I offered them to live in my house in Bluff for the time being. There could be no more efficient discouragement for burglars than they. I had such a bad conscience that I had also invited my wife Jennifer for the journey. Every New Zealander wants to visit London at least once in his/her life. London means to them what Rome means to the Catholic. The children were old enough to be able to take care of themselves, both my daughter and my son had left home, luckily for all four of us.
My wife was totally thrilled by our trip, she had several dresses made that she thought were suitable for London.I didn't want to tell her that London is the cesspool that collects all the idlers of the British Commonwealth. I didn't want to spoil her pleasure. I didn't tell it her either that the most suitable dresses for London can be found at Selfridges's and Harrods's. I didn't mention Oxford Street: those tailors make you wait years for a dress. You see, the locals don't fall for every new fashion trend. My favourite place for buying clothes was the street market at Petticoat Lane.
Whenever I went to London, I traditionally stayed with an old family friend, Roland. It didn't occur to me that I was with my wife and that I promised her to be her guide. I was trying to show her everything from the huge halls of the British Museum to the tiny rooms of the Courtauld Institute Galleries.
Unfortunately, our host Roland was a night owl. He worked at nights and - being a good Hungarian - he drank too. Our common drinking sessions became more and more scarce because of my wife, and Roland became more and more morose during our dinners. I also made the mistake to visit the students' residence of the London University where I used to live when I was a student here.
I was so deeply disappointed that it could only be cured with huge amounts of whiskey. Once I stayed in a pub while my wife visited some sights of interest. I drank Whiskey strictly "straight", that is, neat. In London pubs, only the alcoholics don't ask for ice or soda water, although I have never met any. By night, I was tipsy and instead of chatting to Roland who was the English historian of Hungarian literature, I was evil enough to fall asleep. I fulfilled all my duties that my Londoner publisher organised for me and in order to ease Roland's ill feelings I agreed to make a reading for the local Hungarian community. My lecture was held in the Polish House, in London, I still don't know why. Maybe because Hungarian and Polish are good friends. There was a full house and I was asked why I still wrote in Hungarian too. I replied that I intended to write my major piece of work in my native language, which met with huge success.
Once when my wife visited the National Gallery and I headed for a pub, a student smiled at me. I, in a cowardly way, only approached her after two whiskeys, unfortunately, by that time she had already gone. I will never forget her smile.
In the meantime, Roland got really fed up with us. He hated me at least as much as I hated my Hungarian scholars, and he withdrew even at nights on the pretext that he had some urgent work to do. I tried to make a slight hint to Jennifer that we should go home when I suddenly got an e-mail from Nickey (using her secret e-mail name we had agreed on previously), and informed me that the guys set our garage on fire and our two cars burnt down. Of course everything was insured but I still flew into a violent rage.
I already realised that accompanying Jennifer had cost my friendship with Roland, but I didn't know yet what I was going to do with the two villains once we got back to Bluff.
When I caught sight of our house tears came into my eyes, although I am not an emotional man. The sunk-garage burnt down completely and left black ugly trails on the house walls too. I asked my guests what happened. They didn't know. What was even worse, the firemen didn't know it either. I couldn't prove my guests' guilt. Nickey, who kept an eye on the house while we were away, couldn't add anything either. I couldn't believe that my scholars were that evil-minded that they damaged me on purpose. The insurance paid like a Japanese businessman. I sent my Hungarians back to the cottage on Stewart Island. But firstly, I asked them about the enormously high phone-bill. For phone-calls are usually very cheap here. A.B. and C. D., my two chosen scholars said that they didn't have a clue. That was as big a lie as Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring looking at each other.
Poor them, they certainly called home! But for hours! They couldn't even choose the right time. I looked at them, and only said:
Why didn't you tell me, you were homesick.
They didn't even know what homesickness was, and they had never had a better time than here and now.
Everybody has homesickness, I said, the question is when it comes out. There are people who only have it after decades.
Then we left.
The next day, my mother phoned me, informing me that my father was taken into hospital. I knew right away that it was over. My father didn't leave the house for years and except for the close family he didn't receive anybody. He didn't read the newspapers and he didn't watch TV either. He was lying in his bed silently. I had never heard him complain.
When I visited him in the hospital, he had already one foot in the grave. He was repeatedly speaking about one of my books. I didn't dare to send for a priest, in case he thought we had given up hope for him. We should have sent for a priest. I only saw him again in the funeral home, a name used by the doctors for the mortuary.
All we can say about death are clichés. One of them is that my father got closer to me after his death than in his life. Clichés are irredeemably true. Such sorrow overcame me that I could only handle it alone. I told my wife Jennifer that I was going to my house in Zeeland (in the Netherlands) for an indefinite time but only my closest circle should know about it. My teeth are closer to me than my acquaintances, to say nothing of my relatives and guests. I told my scholars to write a short novel in first person singular about a Maori girl.
Then I took a KLM flight. What do I care about New-Zealand patriotism. I flew second-class, because I read somewhere that Pakistani ministers also do so. But most importantly, so does Charles Feeney, who is a self-made millionaire (in American dollars) and still doesn't own a house or car. His watch, allegedly, is not worth 15 dollars. But he gave about 600 million dollars on charities in the last one and a half decades. So what do I care about my two morose scholars. In my house in Zeeland, I was sitting for a long time paralysed by pain having only the Tibetan Book of Dead, the Bible, novels by Marquez and poems by Pessoa with me. Then suddenly, I was ready to leave. Firstly, I visited my friends in Haarlem, two petit bourgeois who believed in the supernatural powers of their cat so much that they wrote down each single note when the cat walked on the organ. I liked them but I needed something different. I invited my friends to a pub in Amsterdam: a writer, a painter, a publisher, a poet, and a filmmaker. And another one who did all these things together plus being a musician too. I forgot to mention that I arrived from the New Zealand winter to the Dutch summer. I got so sunburnt in Zandvoort that I couldn't move due to pain for three days. The meeting didn't work out. I was burnt as badly as my garage. If this was the punishment for looking at the young girls' breasts on the beach, then I'd like to ask our dear Lord to give them bikini tops too.
Then I got a message from Nickey who informed me under the code-name Samuel that my protégés, instead of working, left for a trip to the Antarctic. I recovered immediately and booked a flight with a New Zealandairlines. First-class.
What awaited me at home? A lunatic man had shot six people and injured another five. Certainly, my scholars couldn't be among the victims since they were away on their expedition to the South Pole. What could have possibly interest them so much? The seals or the icebergs? I didn't even want to guess. One thing was sure: they have still had far too much money. When they returned I halved their scholarships for the second time. Furthermore, (certainly illegally) I also took their passports. Until they finished their short novels they wouldn't leave my cottage on Steward Island, I told them. I was raw like the polar circle. As are the guests, so is the party, I said.
Misfortunes never come alone and don't only speak Hungarian. My wife, Jennifer greeted me with the news that she had learned about my affair with Nickey and of course about our honeymoon to Mexico. It was a very stupid thing for me to start a relationship with another woman in a small town like Bluff. Did I really think I could get away with it? She told me that she was already considering a divorce when my father died but she respected my pain and waited for a while. Until now. Then she handed me her lawyer's business card and drove away. She could do so: It wasn't she, after all who had to support me for the rest of her life but the other way round, and I haven't mentioned royalties yet. Both of our children backed her up and it made my situation even more difficult. This new-conservative generation is far worse than our fathers' bigoted attitudes. That's it: my father! Since he died we have spoken to each other every day. Now he said:
I knew he meant Hungary.
I headed for home with mixed feelings leaving my deranged family and my two captives behind. Not to mention my capricious love, Nickey, who had not the slightest intention of following me.
Your first impressions will control your sense, say the Chinese. Well. Let's not speak about the weather. Let's concentrate on the spectacle that welcomes you if you are unlucky enough to arrive in Hungary by plane. Firstly, the taxi driver will try to convince you that the fares showed on the taximeter are in American dollars. Another taxi driver would only take you to your hotel for HUF 5000, of course without giving you a bill. Finally you take the airport bus. The giant placards are American-style alongside the road, but the hotels, wine-bars, houses with falling plaster, perishing factories, unkempt women and ragged, staggering people look very much local. Is this city supposed to be Eastern Europe's Paris?
There's dirt everywhere, and a greyness that seems to have impregnated everything. The roads, the pavements, the cars are dirty, like filthy snow that was only piled up but not removed. Black mass spattered all around. Conditions are better in the centre. One can still see that Budapest must have been a beautiful city at the turn of the century. Walls perforated with bullets, soot settled in layers are made even more visible by certain companies that renovated only a part of the houses. Banks and hotels are on international level. And the air. If you step out of your transportation-box to enter your living-box, you'll be made dizzy for a long time by the mixed smell of paprika potatoes, petrol, stew and the exhaust fumes of the two-stroke engines that you dare to breath in
Some people get their eyes inflamed, but not as badly as in Mexico-city.
If you turn on your TV in your room, you'll be pleased to see the beautiful Parliament Building. However, the seven people who are seated there would certainly go in eight different directions.
In New Zealand by contrast all parties know that the benefit of the country, or I could say the good of the country comes before their parties' interests. Thus, they are always ready to make a great coalition. We don't even need enemies. We'll sort it out ourselves.
But let's go to the Budapest streets. I have never seen so many stressed and moody people. If someone smiled at me, I noticed, he or she was a foreigner. (I shouldn't mention the lovers, should I? Anyway, nowhere else in the world would lovers act so indecently in the street, unless there was a housing shortage)
People are walking waist-deep in dog shit and only the prostitutes are more aggressive than the beggars.
In Paris, clochards are part of the cityscape, a bright spot, the symbols of freedom. It's a nice freedom that forbids both the Rich and the Poor to sleep under the bridge or to steal bread. But let's leave this topic. The masses of wrecks, the giving up of one's last dignity is shocking. The human market on Moszkva Square has no equivalent in Middle-Europe, maybe in South-America. Texts in English and German everywhere - we would hardly know where we were except for what we have seen on the street. There are already seven-digit numbers, people in tracksuits shouting into their mobile phones on the street, others doing so in suits, in their cars, making driving more dangerous. It's a country of smartly dressed robbers and badly dressed thieves.
While I was there, a bomb exploded in the city nearly every day. Criminality is a logical extension of this way of thinking and life that is called here business. This is a banana-republic without bananas.
Journalists who compare Budapest to Chicago are ignorant. Chicago is a beautiful, glittering, vivid and strong city, where Sir George Solti used to conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra, 7don't think early capitalism used to be like this in New Zealand. I thought, how lucky my poor father is, who didn't see this. He had a completely different picture about Hungary in his mind until he died. I urgently had to go to the Great Plain, to my small farm, which I have only known from pictures.
The farm looked exactly the same as in the pictures: with tiles and locust-trees. Uncle Pista Beszédes, an old acquaintance of the family (his daughter, Böbi used to be my baby-sitter and a general servant of our family as long as we could afford it) bought it for me: I had never lost my Hungarian nationality (however hard I tried, but let's not joke about it). The main point is that I could be as lonely here as on Stewart Island or Zeeland in the Netherlands and I was only 15 km away from my hometown.
When I stopped the rented car in the grass-covered courtyard of the farm, a stork had just landed. We were speaking without words till dusk. I carried in everything from the car that I thought I would need on a farm where there was even electricity. Though there were electric heaters everywhere except for the kitchen, I even chopped some firewood.
I slept like a baby.
The next day I turned on the TV for fun.
There was news about the English who managed to clone a complete sheep out of one cell. Poor New Zealander sheep, I thought, our days are numbered. I already regretted that I turned on the TV. I went to the guestroom where I found some very interesting writings in the drawer of the table. The title was "Illness". "Antal Csütörtök, county road supervisor got ill. If he- had pneumonia or simply fell into the ditch, doesn't really matter.
His servant brought the news about his illness into the office, the other servant passed it on to the main town-clerk. After three days, the main town clerk informed the presidency about it in a written form. The deputy-lieutenant gave the file to the vice town clerk, who threw it into the old cabinet, together with other files, and left for a holiday.
An honorary legal trainee usually cleaned his fingernails next to the deputy-lieutenant and sometimes opened the old cabinet as if he were interested in the cases. For some mysterious reason he showed interest in the case of the road supervisor. He wrote on the back of the file: to be sent to the chief physician for an examination of the illness."
I was here in the story when Uncle Pista Beszédes1, who deserved his name, came in. He told me that all the young people had already left that's why the fields with this good, black soil are empty and uncultivated. He only cultivates land and raises animals for personal use. Even I knew that agriculture only seems easy when you are writing about it. Peasants are people who buy small-scale and try to sell big-scale. However, they pay the price for delivery and other costs each way. I could say that agriculture is not a business but an occupation. While it's the base of all civilisations. If we destroy the farms, grass will grow in your cities, in the streets. I listened to the old man's complaints and knew exactly: The old peasant will get the worst in the battle with the European Union.
I kept on reading.
"First the deputy-lieutenant signed his initials on the order then it was taken with the other ones to the registration office. One week later the order was ready and got back to the deputy lieutenant's desk for signing together with the other orders. By this time, however, the deputy lieutenant was summoned to the compulsory bear- hunting in Transylvania. His deputy, the main town clerk only remarked when he saw the piles of files: I wasn't born yesterday, I don't want to write down my name 400 times! Let's wait till the old chap comes back. Once bear-hunting was over the file finally got to the chief physician with the instruction to examine the road-supervisor's illness."
I was at this part of the story when a well-built man opened the door. He told me, he was Vince Angyal, a composer. He is composing here in the school called Klebersberg Kunó, which he bought, and of which lights I could also see from my farm in springtime. We played a game of chess and I let him win. In the meantime, he told me that he composed only for himself. Art has been destroyed by the cynical, wild-capitalist layer of society who first sucks out the country's blood then skips off. Bureaucracy is worse than it used to be: he would emigrate if he weren't that old. We had a glass of wine and he said good bye. I took the papers in my hand again.
"The head physician decided to visit the man on Wednesday, the following week. One Wednesday is like another, so on one Wednesday he really set out. He completed a report about the results of his visit, in which he claimed that the road supervisor wasn't at home when he tried to visit him. According to his tenants, the illustrious representative of public administration might not at all be ill, since three days before he celebrated his name's day in the circle of his friends and devotees. So it is possible that the road supervisor is malingering and it would be advisable to send the files to the Prosecutor's Office for a further investigation."
It was then that Bálint Hadnagy, my childhood friend arrived. I did not ask him how he learned about my arrival: in this part of the world you wouldn't ask such questions. But I asked if everything was all right with him. Surprisingly, he didn't complain. He said, he was fine. He was a livestock-farmer (he employed guest workers from Transylvania) and thanks to his relations he could also sell the animals.
Money is like dung, he said. If you disperse it, you will make a profit, if you collect it, it will smell. But you also need good luck. You can't make plans against good luck, because you can't be lucky against God's will. Coincidences are blasphemies, he said, and gulped down the rest of my New Zealand bottle of whiskey. The only satisfied man has left.
I read the papers to the very end, which were left to me by a certain Sz.V., according to the signature in the drawers.
"It is almost unbelievable, but the files reached their destination in two weeks. In the deputy-lieutenant's office the road supervisor's case was examined. Three months after the case the road -supervisor was amazed to read that he only escaped a suspension because he had never had a disciplinary offence before. He appealed against the decision claiming that he had only missed one day and had reported it in time. The disciplinary committee charged him with 50 crowns and later reduced it to 30 crowns considering the mitigating circumstances. The road supervisor didn't dare to appeal to the ministry because he was scared of being sacked in the end".
I packed my bags and headed for my hometown. A half of the road was occupied by farmers and their tractors. They were carrying flags. I thought there was a national holiday.
One should obviously find sense inlife, since it doesn't have sense, I was brooding on my way home, to the town where I was born. I learned from the placards of the peasants who blocked the roads that they didn't celebrate, but were actually on strike. Everybody knows in New Zealand that if the peasant doesn't shit, the gentleman won't eat. It was very sad to see their weeding tractors.
It 's unnecessary to think about the sense of life because you sooner or later arrive home. I always looked forward to this moment: will I be shaken when I see my homeland again? We prefer our own countries to others, because we were all children before we became cosmopolitans, philosophers or travellers. I haven't experienced homesickness so far because we left Hungary too early, besides I was travelling all the time and I didn't have time for it. Still: every blade of grass has its place in the world: where it was born. Your home is where you must be received.
So did I experience it. I stayed with Bálint Hadnagy, two houses away from my birthplace that was owned by a policeman now (of course after we had emigrated our house was confiscated). I asked the policeman if I could look around the house where I spent my childhood. He let me in as if it were completely self-evident. Then I learned the truth. You have the most space at home. Although I had a house twice as big in New Zealand, a man's home is his wife's home too. (Until you have been left by your wife like me). I found the secret engraving in the window-frame, a swastika. It had been engraved by the former owner of the house, a nazi-friend Hungarian officer. Obviously he wasn't aware of the fact that the swastika symbolised eternal life in the Orient and not some battle-hatchet. It was still there. I don't know why, but this trifle calmed me. It suggested some kind of continuity. However, the town has changed enormously to its disadvantage. It was supposed to be a gate to the Balkans both intellectually and economically. Instead, it was on its way to become an ordinary Balkan town. I am not saying it because a bank opened where the pub used to be, a bank instead of a pub, a brothel instead of the flower shop (in fact, another kind of flower shop). No, I didn't mean them: the air has changed. The language has. I don't mean the mixed language of those who settled here from the Viharsarok during the oil-fever. I mean the lot of Serbian speech. There used to be Serbs in my hometown in my childhood too, but they all became assimilated into Hungarian culture. Now they had not the slightest intention of assimilating. They almost boasted about being different. Even in mild-mannered New Zealand this attitude would not be welcomed. Most of them, as I learned, were gun, petrol, drug or people smugglers, respectively. The real-estate market flourished, but it commanded a high price. Gun fights and Mafia settlings became an ordinary thing. When a mob shoots down its rival that is fine. But if there's a bomb attack in front of a church, the Szent Rókus, that' s another thing. The number of brake ins also increased. Fewer and fewer people wanted to break through.
My fellow-countrymen experienced the so-called wild capitalism, but not even the wild ones liked it. I was especially angry since nobody seemed to recognise me. True, how should have they known me? Only the most inferior, second-rate American books were put on display, on the street stalls or the shop-shelves. Luckily, I was far away from these.
Although I wasn't recognised myself, my money was. Bálint Hadnagy made some hints among his old friends that I turned up. Soon the applicants arrived. Some of them wanted to admit me as their partner in the world's most profitable business, others simply wanted to borrow some money from me.
Not to mention the two men, who in spite of Bálint's warnings, applied for a scholarship. I didn't want to seem partial so I rejected both of them.
One night we went out for a drink, which turned into a massive drinking bout. When the owner with his meek face - he was gently washing the glasses - boasted about how he killed more than 100 people in the current Balkan war, that was the last straw for me.
Seven Greek towns competed with each other for Homer, seven Slovakian villages for Andy Warhol - I didn't need it. I know where I was born. But where am I going to die? It's more important.
Where I am going to die, I don't know. But two corners from my home a teenage boy was killed by his fellows for his bicycle or dog- I turned my back on my hometown for a while.
As soon as I reached the main road a hitchhiker stopped me. I was pleased: Our problem is not that we never get anywhere but that we don't have company on our way. As I soon learned he was (with a ruptured tendon) one of the stars of the Hungarian ballet, I asked him about the state of the national ballet as if I had a real interest. The guy was complaining uninterruptedly. He said that within the State Ballet Association at least 10 societies co-existed, in addition there was a Chamber of Ballet, an Independent Ballet Association and a Dependent was being created.
So what, I said. Everybody has the right to choose his fellows freely. Don't you understand, he asked. It's like a cake that got rotten from below. Whenever you cut off a slice you get a rotten part too. The untalented are everywhere.
But it's democratic too, I pointed out. People have the right to manage their own untalented fellows. It doesn't matter if they are the supporters of Bejart, the classical Russian ballet or the motion theatre.
In a union, small things are growing and big things are getting smaller, said the boy with all the premature wisdom of a dancer. For what is it all about? You can be a dancer in many ways. It's is a good thing. But being many-sided without a higher unit means chaos.
But unity without pluralism leads to tyranny, I replied. Only those things have a value that matter.
There will always be a pack, said my rising star. We used to be each other's rivals in our class at the State Ballet Institute too. But the ballet society is something different. It's like a dog. The more it likes you the more it makes you dirty. The trouble with this interdependence is not that you have to take all the virtues and faults of other people - wind takes its sweet and foul smells from different places too - but that such interdependence is moved by fear and interest.
The slogan is (whether it's known or not) is from Marcus Aurelius, I comforted him. What's good for the swarm is good for the bee. Why is it a crime? Many spider nests defeat a lion, as the Ethiopians say. You can break an arrow but not a bundle.
You don't understand me again, he said. We put ourselves in ghettos. If you belong to one association you can't communicate with the other one.
To which one do you belong?
To none of them. I have a one-member association that one female member might temporarily join.
Certainly! The worst cliques have only one member, I said. Then in a more conciliatory tone, I added : deep inside we are all alone.
What makes me nervous is this thing with the ghettos. All those Academies, chambers and associations of minor importance. The people who had the idea first and established them, wanted to express that they and their followers were on the top. The others are them. We have to exclude somebody from the circle otherwise we will be left with nothing. Then from time to time we'll raise somebody to us. Do you understand me?
Certainly, I said. A real dancer wants everything and everybody, but doesn't need anything or anybody. Only space. He's like a tomcat: he chases the other tomcat away but he plays with the she-cat and the kittens.
In the associations we need people, continued the star, who have time to look down on others, who can become the pariahs of the ballet. Being an academy, chamber, or association member is worthless without it.
If, people, unluckily, could understand each other they would never agree on anything, I pointed out. But I advise you what Szá'di, Persian poet (originally Muszkli-addin, born Muszkli-addin about 1184 - 1291) suggested. He said: you should court people who are of higher rank than you, and make the most out of their influence. In the company of equals you will never achieve anything, you'll gamble away your good luck.
So, that's why we have to proclaim ourselves to stand on the peak, said the star. We always have to look down on someone in order to believe that we managed to get on, in the art of unhappiness, that is dancing.
Look, you should be glad that you are strong enough to be an outsider. A dead religion has no achievements.
My star, the private dancer was silently shining. We said good bye. I called my agent from my hotel room. It was ill fate. You know, he is the one who bosses me around. He informed me that he organised an American promotion tour for me. What could I do? I had to go to America.
Before I left Hungary I had read in the newspapers that Macedonian off-shore companies set up an agency in Tündér utca, in Szeged. That was something! I had the next surprise at the airport: the excellent representatives of the local airlines only shrugged their shoulders when I presented my previously booked ticket to Frankfurt. They were kind enough to give me a Zurich - Frankfurt ticket so it was only my luggage that missed my connection flight to Washington, I, rushing alongside the assembly line, could catch it in the last minute.
How did Al Capone formulate it? "America is a virgin land with all of its brothels." I didn't like to dedicate my books in big cities. Big cities are islands. Small town's America is the real America. Luckily, my agent knew about my preference and included a number of small university towns in the advertising and dedicating tour of one of my older books with the I-don't-know-which-edition. "Yankee Doodle came to town / Riding on a pony / Stuck a feather in his cap / And called it Macaroni" - I was humming Edward Bangs' famous song on the plane. From sea to sea (more precisely from ocean to ocean) did my journey take. Why should I have been in a hurry? The Americans don't care where they are going. Only one thing is important to them: to achieve a world record during the journey, possibly. We, backward New Zealanderd, don't like to undertake something whose outcome we don't see in advance. That's how I feel about my novels. America is 20 years ahead of Europe but at least 6 hours behind it.
Americans are the only nation on earth that slipped from barbarism into degeneration without the usual interlude called the civilisation, said my friend Robert Creely, probably the greatest living American poet and also novelist (and Jack Kerouac's former mate) who was a living denial of his declarations. American elite is just like any other elite, the difference is that a huge gap come after them. My friend with his bohemian looks was rather different from his colleagues. There was only one thing I never understood: why he had his hair dyed. Certainly, I never asked him about it. In other countries fine art and literature is left to a number of vagabonds living in attics and feeding on macaroni and alcohol, in America you can't differentiate a successful writer from a decent businessman. Meanwhile, how beautiful are Broadway's' lights for those who can't read. My problem with American writers is that they don't want to be good but great writers. In the end they won't be either of them. America is a country where more money is spent on chewing gum than on books. I used to feel myself at home on university campuses but now if I lit a cigarette in the street people would look at me as if I were a criminal.
I remembered John Wayne's saying: "Selfishly enough, the Indians wanted to keep the land that other people needed." What is amazing is that there are still people who think like this. Meanwhile America is a big friendly dog in a small room. Even at the slightest move it knocks down something. There's no trouble with the real Americans, but the ideal Americans are really dangerous. They think of themselves as part of a rescue team on a 24-hour duty. Their operational area includes the whole world. America is governed by women and the press. It's a country of a vast number of boys who don't want to grow up. And it was only a question of hundred thousand (!) votes that not German is spoken today. Of course history books don't tell about it. And not about the robbing of Mexico, that was unlucky enough to be too far from God and too close to America. American is the man who wants to guzzle and to stay slim, he wants to drink and to stay sober, wants to waste his years and to stay young. They are washing themselves all the time (They wash their hair daily). You can't make a revolution in a bathroom. In America this typical Eurasian impishness would never happen. Wasting is a national habit here, and everyone is convinced of having a great sense of humour. On America's tomb the following epitaph should stand: IT DIED OF THE FALSE BELIEF OF BEING A MORAL GREAT POWER. In the country of the 40 million bathrooms and showers people have a bad conscience because they have money. It's the country of the bad haircuts. It's far from being perfect, but somehow its imperfection makes it more human. If you disappoint an Irish man his blood pressure will go up, a Danish man will shoot himself, an American will get drunk. I don't want to speak disparagingly of my largest audience. It was Bob Creely who gave the best definition about America during a drinking session: It's big enough for everything to be true that is said about it.
And then I heard that two literary scandals came out in Australia. My trip was over. I headed back home.
Wealth = Speed. I realised it on the plane on my way home, when I took some Australian and New Zealand newspapers in my hands. Aussies are quick. A few years ago they didn't even know what football was, and now they gained a glorious victory over the Hungarians in their own playing field. They haven't heard much about literature either and they have even two literary scandals. One writer's sin was to have written a book about an emigrant family under a false Ukrainian name and to have won a prize with it. Then a Caucasian man won another prize with his book about an Australian aborigine woman in first person singular.
"I am not Flaubert", wrote Madame Bovary, so why is it a crime? When I taught creative writing one of the basic exercises for my students was to identify themselves with others in first person singular. Could the Aussies possibly not know what literature is? Or were they just angry because fiction was sold as non-fiction? It means, you have to write novels based on facts nowadays. Readers want the author's blood, it's beyond dispute.
So do writers, as I realised it soon. When I got to Bluff, Nicky called me and said that my ex-protégés A.B. and C.D. are fucking my ex-wife Jennifer. I flew into a violent rage. Our possessive feelings outlive our emotions. These two who I stuffed with money, spoiled and pampered, are paying me back like this! Well, if this is how the Hungarian guests are I'll show them what New Zealandehospitality is.
If you are cheated, you are mostly angry because the cheaters think they are smarter than you. However, nothing is as miserable as we think. But one thing is sure: if suspicion arrives, love leaves.
I invited them for hunting. Of course only I had a gun. We stopped at a clearing: There were only three of us, the two guests who hated each other and the host who hated both of them. First I questioned them. They denied everything. Crime has a lot of tools but lies fit everywhere.
Now, listen to me, I told them. If I shoot both of you now, I will probably get four years with a good lawyer for a double voluntary manslaughter, in self-defence and fear for love. I will be the prison's librarian and write your stories. And I'll get an early parole for good behaviour.
They kept on lying.
Look, I said, you should never tell lies to lawyers, doctors, priests and writers, because it would only cause you troubles and they would see through you anyway.
At least you should tell me some mitigating circumstances. On Jennifer's side this was purely an act of revenge.
They still obstinately denied everything.
All right, I said and added very politely: our profession is about lying. You are only lying now because you can't think of a better story than the reality. You hid your own emptiness into this lie. Your masks tell me more than your faces. Have you finished your novel at all?
They only nodded a no.
I am afraid, it's over guys, I said, and let the gun down. You are not even worth of half a year prison. Get out of here.
I am very much fed up with you, I said. You are stinking like dead bodies do. Start packing your bags. You'll take the first ship. I won't pay for your flight because I don't want to give you the pleasure of speed. At least you'll have plenty of time to think about your lost opportunity. Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale!
They were just staring at me from the ship. It was worse as if they had scolded my mother. Cattulus this is my friend whose lover was a prostitute too. It means: Forever brother, I welcome you and goodbye!
I turned my back to the ship. I have never seen them again. I sold the Macintosh. It's amazing how quickly such machines lose their value, I bought the IBM 386 with the 6.0 Windows (and a brand new printer) second-hand, so I decided to keep them. I cleaned up my cottage on Steward Island, and for the first time in my life I saw the title of my work on a monitor: THE BOOK OF MY SINS.
How do you say? The letters disturbed me a bit but I spent more and more time with my new toy every day. I fed 32.000 international master games of chess into the computer too - I didn't even realised that I was alone.
Once I got a letter. There was a Hungarian stamp on it, I thought it was from the two traitors. But I was wrong. It was from two further applicants for the scholarship. I didn't even bother to say no.
Translated by Monika Rees
1 Beszédes means talkative in Hungarian
2 Viharsarok: "Stormy Corner", a region in Eastern Hungary