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t a l e

c l a r a  g y ö r g y e y


“Don’t be too sweet because people will eat you,

don’t be too bitter because they spit you out.”

(Arabic proverb)


uring 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 women.

“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 the brim.



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