by Zsuzsa Vathy

Zhena Zhurbina teaches all three Szixtin children. This is possible because she is an excellent Russian teacher, sought-after by primary as well as secondary schools. She works long hours and besides teaching, in other words in her spare time, she is a supervisor at a boarding school. But even this is not too much for her, she is a glutton for work, her sense of vocation energizes her, increases her strength.

Zsuzsa VATHY - Born in 1940, She is mostly well known for her short stories. Her first volume of short stories appeared in 1970 followed later by other volumes of short stories and novels all well received. You are reading here an excerpt of her forth coming novel.

Zhena Zhurbina is holding a PSE class. She is wearing a black skirt, a red sweater, brand new beige socks. There is a scarf around her neck, perhaps she has a sore throat. Irén Hege, who sits in the front row, says it is not a scarf but a stocking that she is wearing around her neck. She may be right. - The form mistress takes PSE very seriously; in the first half of the lesson she deals with politics, in the second half with class affairs. The first half is given over to society, she says, the second half to the class community, because the one is built upon the other.

The lesson, as always, began with quotations from Lenin. - What did he say about electricity? What did he say about the proletariat? What did he say about religion? - for Zhena Zhurbina loved Lenin as others love their fathers, her chosen father in place of the cast-off one.

'Who said...' asked Zhena Zhurbina, walking up and down between the rows, then turned to face the class. 'Who said: Electricity supersedes God?' Silence. 'Who said it? Who?' The class, as one, shouted: 'Lenin!' They looked at each other, that is, they all looked at Ivanka: he always took the lead. He knew about such things. And anyway, who else could have said it?

'The proletariat is the vehicle of the meaning of history.' - 'Who said it?' The class enthusiastically roared: 'Lenin! He said it!'
The form mistress looked appreciatively at her pupils. Her class. Her clever, intelligent class!

'The next one will be a longer quotation. Pay attention now!' Zhurbina's face softened, suffused with joy. 'The gods were created out of ignorance and fear. The proletariat liberates the workers from their belief in the afterlife by offering them a better life in this world.'
The class was silent. Zhena Zhurbina had never cited those words to them before. No wonder, she had found them in Lenin's 'Selected Speeches' just the night before. The whole class looked at Ivanka. The hope of the class stood up and hesitantly said: 'Stalin?'.

Zhena Zhurbina sighed. 'No. Those were His words also.' The form mistress straightened her red cardigan, turned to face the class and said that the next question would be the last, but the most important one. 'Who said: The proletarian dictatorship uses force if need be.' Pause. 'Ruthlessly, promptly and unhesitantly.' The form mistress' eyes flashed. 'Anyone who does not understand this is not a revolutionary!' - 'Who said it? Who said it,' she asked again.

The class, dismayed, remained silent. 'Don't you know?' asked Zhurbina, disappointed. 'Why don't you answer me?' Only two people replied. 'Lenin,' said Ivanka, quietly. 'Lenin,' repeated Szabó.

The form mistress nodded. 'Yes, Lenin said it,' she said. And added, with awed, self-conscious pride: 'His words were a message to us Hungarians. A message addressed to the leaders of our Hungarian Soviet Republic.'

A one-armed inspector 'from the county' came to supervise Zhena Zhurbina's teaching. The one-armed man must have been a person of importance, they wouldn't have sent just anybody to inspect the complex methods of pedagogy. The inspector had dark wavy hair, a composed but purposeful face, and was wearing beautiful, hand-sewn shoes, a short-sleeved shirt and trousers, no jacket. This was at once a protest against the customary attire of former times - a previous intelligentsia shall not prescribe how he should dress, tie, jacket etc.

Zhena Zhurbina stared at him the way she must have stared at the abbot when she took First Communion as a child. It was the true bolshevik who stood before her, the New Man personified, in whom intellectual ability was combned with modern erudition, the kind of man the party sends to the schools of villages and towns to help create and educate the New Man in a calm, cool, collected way. When he smoothed his short proletarian moustache with his right hand, the teacher's eyes misted.

Zhena Zhurbina, whose real name was Margit Homoki, had been nicknamed Zhurbina by her boarding-school pupils because during PSE classes she read them passages from 'The Forger of the New Man' at every available opportunity - the most important book of the new world, for which the author had received the highest honours of the state, and whom the teacher had reverently placed on the topmost shelf of her heart. On this day Zhurbina was wearing her familiar red cardigan, her new beige socks and lace-up shoes, high-ankle boots as they were then called; her face was reddish-brown, her skin dry, as if she worked in the fields every day after teaching school. She put on her cheap, plastic-framed glasses and told the class: 'Your assignment for today is an essay. The title' - she walked to the blackboard, and picking up the chalk so that the all-important sentence should be seen as well as heard, wrote - 'The New Man'

The class tittered quietly, she had set them the very same essay on the previous occasion. Zhena Zhurbina gave them twenty minutes to complete their assignment; while they worked she walked up and down between the rows, glancing into the exercise books of the most promising students; she hoped some of them at least would include her favourite, oft-repeated sentences, for instance, 'Religiosity is a form of mental deficiency, constituting a danger to the patient, but harmless to the patient�s environment', or 'The five-year plan is more important than domestic bliss.'

The important person from the county sat at the form mistress' desk, turning the pages of the attendance book. He turned the pages slowly, as though he knew every student listed there, but wished to know them better; from time to time he would jot something down in a notebook of his own. The stump of his missing left arm was completely hidden by the short-sleeved shirt, it must have been amputated directly below the shoulder. When the twenty minutes were up, Zhena Zhurbina picked three students, those she considered the best in the class - she had read their essays almost through while they were writing them - the fourth, who put up her hand to have her work read, was Mária Baráth, she was always putting up her hand for everything - and the chosen four were asked to read their essays, ten to fifteen sentences, out loud to the class.

The form mistress considered Anna Szixtin the best in the class at composition, and of course her work came up to her expectations. Her essay began: 'The New Man is cut from a different, special mould. He enjoys the company of large, jolly groups of people, can delight in a poem open-mouthed, but he also loves to work, his capacity for work is legendary, his two calloused, work-worn hands show that he is no stranger to hard work.'

Iván B.'s composition began thus: 'In the New Man a sense of responsibility and a sense of dignity are equally to be found. If his occupation is to do with animals, he will be as fond of cows as he will be of sheep, if his occupation is to do with people, the only thing that he will be concerned with is that they become cheerful, tranquil persons working for common goals. He is always ready to make sacrifices for socialism at the cost of his own personal success.'

The reading aloud of the four compositions took them up to the end of the lesson. When the bell rang for break, the man from the county glanced at his watch and said he was very interested in the essays of the rest of the class; he would like all the students to hand in their exercise-books, he would read all the essays during break and would announce the results during the next lesson...

'The next lesson will be maths', the class cried. Then hopefully, asked: 'Will it be cancelled?'

All the one-armed man said was that there would be no maths lesson that day, they had more important business to take care of, and told the form mistress he would like to be left alone during break.

When the ten minutes were up, the bell did not ring to signal the end of break. This was unusual, even odd, but no one cared, all the classes were out in the courtyard, buzzing like a swarm of wasps. It was like having two breaks one after the other, perhaps even longer. The break ended with the loudspeaker crackling to life, summoning the students back to their form rooms. This had never happened before.

The one-armed man was sitting at the desk, Zhena Zhurbina stood behind him. Because of the long break the class was noisier than usual, everyone was playing around, it took a while for them to settle. They all knew without a shadow of doubt that Anna's essay would be pronounced the best, she could not be outdone at composition, it was not for nothing that she had won the inter-school competition.

The inspector stood up and looked at the assembled students. There was something not quite right about that look. He waited a moment, then said that their form mistress and he had agreed that Vadnai's composition was the most carefully considered, the most mature of all the essays. It was he who had recognized most clearly what the healthy functioning of principles really meant. He was the only one who had realized what the new face of the New Man was supposed to be like. 'Keep it up, Vadnai,' he said. 'I'd like to hear more of you in the future. I would like to see you at one of the workers' universities, later in life as a military surgeon, or a pilot, or a simple party worker. As a true New Man.'

Vadnai should have gone up to the desk, but he was so overcome by fear or perhaps by awe that he could not move. First he grew pale, then he started to laugh uncontrollably, his shoulders shook with laughter, and he grimaced as he laughed. Those sitting behind him kept nudging him to go up to the table to get his exercise-book.

'To observe the rules of democracy,' said the one-armed inspector, 'mention must be made of the other compositions. On the whole, they were all good, most of them were quite clever and merit praise. Two of them however were unacceptable.' - And here he spoke Anna's name, and Vera M.'s. - Then the man from the county lowered his voice, and the words came out as a hiss from between his teeth: 'Their compositions represent the narrow-mindedness, the cowardice and the constricted outlook of the middle classes. A typically spineless ideology. They show no interest at all in the masses.The face of the new intelligence does not appear in them at all. To become fellow-travellers, they will have to be re-educated.'

The class looked as one at Anna and Vera. They stood up and strangely, both felt as if they were naked, as if someone had made the clothes disappear off their bodies. The inspector from the county snatched up his notebook, and, as if he had pressing business to attend to, hurried out of the classroom. Zhena Zhurbina trailed after him. She did not understand where she had gone wrong. According to the inspector, certain things must be changed. But what? She must understand what it is that she does not understand.

The class erupted, but it was impossible to tell who they were making an uproar for, or against. They kept drawing further and further away from Anna and Vera. Finally everyone left the classroom, only the two narrow-minded, spineless weaklings remained.

One stared out of one window, the other stared out of the other window. Neither of them spoke a word to the other. As if they had never seen each other before.

Zhena Zhurbina's birthday was at the end of May. Some said it was her thirtieth, others that it was her fortieth. No one knew for certain, the one thing they were sure of was that it was a round number. The form mistress told the class that she did not want anything for her birthday, flowers least of all, she didn't even like to think about birthday greetings and flowers! It was giving that made her the happiest, so the best way to celebrate her birthday, the greatest gift her students could give her would be to accept her gifts to them.

Miss Margit's face glowed with pleasure. It was a face at once old and young. She took a package out of her bag, held it up and cried 'Vot!' in her second language. And again: 'Vot!'

The package contained tiny notebooks bound in red paper with black letters saying, To My Dear Pupil From Miss Margit, May 22, 1952. Miss Margit had had the red note-books bound at the printer's. Each notebook was made up of twenty tiny pages stapled together, and each had a student's name written in it.

For once, no one smiled derisively. Those who were not moved were too taken by surprise to smile. Miss Margit ran her eye over the class two or three times - she was the most moved of them all - the notebooks will be a keepsake for them, she thought, something to remember me by, and they'll never forget my birthday either.

Then, for a moment, she changed back into the familiar Zhena Zhurbina, and said: 'I'd like you to write down some of my favourite thoughts on the first pages, words that will remind you of me.'
Write this down: 'Politics is the science of happiness.'

New Line: 'Seek, love, and defend the party.' She folded her arms. 'The third is an admonition: 'Never be afraid to express your opinion, even if it differs from the opinion you held yesterday. Only animals never change their opinion.'

Miss Margit bared her teeth in what passed for a smile. 'This is the last one,' she said 'Understand our age, and your head will not ache, nor your heart, and you will not suffer from indigestion.'

Then she paused for what seemed a long time, deeply moved. 'This is the very last one,' she said. 'But write this one in Russian: Vse dorogi vedout k kommunizmou'. With a tremble in her voice she repeated in Hungarian that all roads lead to communism.

Translated by Eszter Molnár


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.