“Don’t be too sweet because
people will eat you,
don’t be too bitter because they
spit you out.”
the revolution of 1956 he was twelve years old
– he was racing on the Boulevard wide-eyed – he carried water to
the thirsty freedom-fighters, ran all the way to the Austrian
border, then returned to Budapest because in the middle of the
confusion he forgot to tell his parents that he’d intended to flee
to the free world. Now he is a professional. New intellectual. Party
member. Well-known sociologist. His name often appears in newspapers
and scholarly journals. He drinks excessively. Presently his
favorite author is Bulgakov. He talks little and slowly but watches
all the time. He even managed to acquire a small apartment. Only
once in a while, cautiously, does he meet the members of the old
gang, his university chums. One evening, after the third glass of
Albanian cognac, he began to talk. Although his confession is not
unique, it accurately reflects the Weltanschauung, the
existential philosophy of his generation in Hungary.
“You know, only those people are being kicked
out of ‘our’ company who deserve it, those who don’t even make
an effort to play the puppeteer’s role even half-heartedly. You
may do anything, nobody would notice it as long as you hold up the
puppet representing you: the puppet’s face is well-manneredly
rigid so that you can put any words into its mouth. You may freely
kick your friend in the ass if your puppet bows afterwards. Then you
may apologize by referring to a momentary black-out, to collective
responsibility, or to some disturbing news of foreign policy. Soon,
he, the abused one, will be begging your pardon; how could he even
suppose that you assaulted him deliberately.
“You may be late everywhere, you don’t have to
keep any promise, you may get away doing nothing in the office, only
the excuse text has to be convincing, say, your grandmother died,
you have a personal crisis; even more effective, start complaining
about how compassionless people are in general. Then, talk about
your new plans, serendipitously found ideas that captured your
imagination and describe briefly how you want to accomplish them.
Thus, you don’t have to lift a finger. If this does not work or
someone becomes a nuisance, cut his throat. Tell later that he had
committed suicide because you’d discovered his
counter-intelligence spying activities and in his last lucid moment
he put the knife into your hand to compromise you. People will
believe you since there is a need for spies all the time.
“Do anything or do nothing, only the ideology
counts; have it ready at their disposal at all times, also, keep it
up to date, check the syllabus, there is a wide variety in the Book
of Wisdom, different shades, types for all seasons.
“But don’t ever tell the truth because then
they’ll expel you. Don’t tell you cheated on your wife because
there was a good-looking chick and an opportunity, so it just
happened. Rather, talk about the significance of progress (she could
have promoted you!), the ugly tactics of women or the power of
alcohol. Better yet, paste a blue beard on your puppet. Then you don’t
need to give an explanation.
“Don’t tell that you don’t work because you
are lazy and you hate the job, it does not interest you, or that it
gives you more pleasure to collect ‘numbers,’ sex-scalps among
“Tell anything but the truth! If you do, it’s
not the puppet but you, the naked you, on the stage and the
numerous, poker-faced other puppets, like the Lilliputians descended
on Gulliver, will attack you, tie you down and will gyrate their
dance macabre over cleansed but lifeless body.
“Other topics: I tell you the story of our love.
At that time, at the beginning. We had no warm home, soft nest; we
owned only the doors so that we could lock out each other; we also
had suffocation to blow onto each other, and we had corners into
which we could squeeze each other. This way we could spare the
considerable expense of a warm home, a soft nest.
“Are you interested in the history of my
philosophy? Voila! At first I knew all the right answers. Later I
arrived at an inquisitive stage and my entire life twisted into an
enormous question mark. I was hanging, dangling on it, and believed
that the rope around my throat was tightening irrevocably. But I was
young, and my body extremely resilient. I went on living without
ever solving any of the problems, without ever getting even one of
the answers to those urgent questions even though they had meant to
determine the mode of the rest of my life. In those days I could
never imagine how anyone could exist this way, that my little
scattering actions could not be disciplined, could not be herded
into any kind of prefabricated, illusory structure designed by the
forever croaking strategy-cocks.
“All of us are prodigal sons. In my family, I am
the one. Millions of families can boast or curse similarly while
talking about their offspring who are like me. The only difference
among us is merely quantitative. My history goes like this: my
progenitors had survived heroically in this most rotten spot of
Europe. They did not multiply much, only moderately, enough to
fertilize the Hungarian soil with one body; they threw in their seed
only to guarantee their own crop. Every generation added a bit to
this family heritage. They did not want to waste, rather, to hoard;
their frugality was on par with the narrow feudal conditions
economically, with the anachronistic modes of the Middle Age’s
spiritually. Their greatest profit, and most coveted, generally
growing interest, was in the recurrent promise of the future. This
is how it became possible that I had inherited an already
considerable fortune: myself.
“One has to invest the capital gain, has to make
it work; that’s why my parents sold the ancestral mansion from
over their heads and gave up all their earthly goods. Now they could
collect the long awaited dividend: me. I am a hard glass able to
reflect perfectly all the glittering of the world’s gems;
diamond-hard, you can cut windows facing the future into me. All
hopes and anticipations of some hundred years’ toil are
exclusively mine. But, what can I do with it? Today the economy is
still feudally narrow, the promises, too, are the same if one reads
them backwards. So I squander and drink away the inheritance
leisurely as it behooves a prodigal son.
“An old age sage once said: those were the true
lazy people who had been constantly in the mood to do something.
That’s how I got hold of a wife. When it became obvious that birth
and death were rather easy, I decided to make a stretch between the
two a trifle more tolerable. To promote this project, and to become
eligible to apply for an apartment, one needed a partner. After an
early lecture at the university, I proposed to a superficial
acquaintance, a girl. Along with her came two friends of mine. We
walked to City Hall. There the legal paper was acquired; soon the
apartment materialized, too. I broke the nutshell of the institution
of marriage with little or no effort; and like many others, found
the shell empty. I live and have someone to sleep with. No hassle.
For a temporary solution, this will do. Too bad women always want to
look younger; nothing else is so incongruously funny and nothing
makes them seem older than this ceaseless endeavor.
“People in the free world don’t understand us;
they are above it all, but we natives can never step out of our
circles, our roles; cannot break out from behind the square box
enclosure, unpunished. We are subdued, full of inhibition, maybe
lazier, because why be different? What’s the use?
“I no longer go to concerts or to the theater.
What for? By necessity, by profession, I am compelled to read the
reviews written by those who lie better than I do; from their
criticism I learn the proper text for tomorrow’s ideology session.
If I am in a desperate need of sedation, I can put on a record. One
does not have to enjoy Bach or Bartok in a crowd; formalized acting
does not interest me either. I can always read the play if I want
to. Among the mass entertainment I can tolerate only the movies.
Every week I continue wasting two hours of my life in the dark where
I don’t see peoples’ face; they cannot see mine as the sweat
gradually covers my countenance and slowly melts the wax on it.
“The wanderings of my contemporaries, the
world-trotting of these pseudo-Ulyssesses do not make me jealous or
bitter. I never covet their peregrinations, even though the
government granted me permission to visit no other countries but
Bulgaria and Rumania. Once there, in the company of Soviet comrades,
I got dead drunk and joined them singing old, reactionary songs of
patriotism about the River Volga and ‘Lara’s Song’ from Dr.
Zhivago. For a few minutes I felt light, almost fulfilled. I don’t
know what freedom means in the West, I don’t really care, because
when your head is swollen, it is considerably more difficult to pull
on the mask.
“My puppet-game, my idiocy is not an historical
category. I too had dreams once, with my friends, about the
redemption of the world. Now, at the threshold of manhood, they seem
like no more than mere illnesses of adolescence. I write articulate,
concise, well-composed articles and sometimes smuggle the gradually
decreasing sediment of our old dreams into them. Once in a while I
even argue; for struggle, for fighting, there isn’t enough
sobriety left. Anyway, for what? For whom?”
All of a sudden he seemed sad, more and more
depressed, his Tartar face turned blank; his steel-blue eyes gazed
coldly at the sole Matisse reproduction in the room. With languid,
emotionless gesture he threw the butt of his long-burnt cigarette
into the garbage pail. One could read nothing anymore from his
half-opened eyes. Like an eel, slippery, smooth, a free-swimmer.
While saying farewell, without any provocation, someone asked him if
he was happy. He did not seem to comprehend. “This is an
anachronistic question. It cannot be answered. I am. I live. I
exist. If you prefer, I am alive. No more, no less.” He turned
slowly, walked back to the cocktail table and refilled his glass to