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Authors: Imre Kertész

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BOOK: The Union Jack
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steaming chasm of the Grand Boulevard, and each time, in the stifling room, I too thought longingly of the dust-choked, leafy boughs of the roadside trees, perhaps just stirring in the twilight air, the passers-by sauntering beneath them, the dilapidated terrace of the Simplon (later Simpla) Café opposite, the clandestine streetgirls clacking by afresh, far from clandestinely, on their high-heeled shoes towards their beats in People’s Theatre or Cabdriver Street. It was all the more conspicuous, though only later did I attribute any significance to it, that at the end of the lecture this bigwig, his face boiled red as a lobster, sweat pouring from his brow, and literally trembling—from the effort, I supposed at the time (if I supposed anything at all at the time)—was in no great hurry to get down to the street; quite the contrary, he was hardly able to tear himself away from us, addressing several of us individually, until at long last we were rid of him, and I too was able to step out onto the balcony and, with a sigh of relief, look down at the street where, at that very moment, the bigwig stepped out of the building and, at that very moment, out of a black limousine that was idling by the pavement jumped two ominously helpful men to assist the bigwig most eagerly, but perhaps a touch insistently, into
the black limousine, while in that unexpected hush which sometimes falls for a brief moment, like a climax or an orchestral pause, to interrupt the din of the city in the settling twilight at the end of each unbearable day, the nightmarish lights of the street lamps suddenly lit up. It will come as no surprise to you, mature, cultured people that you are, I said to the friendly gathering, mustered mainly from my former students, which had been continually urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack, to learn where that black limousine took its victim, or that the bigwig had been continually spying down from the balcony on the black limousine waiting below, hoping, for a while, that the black limousine was not waiting for him, then as time passed—during the lecture—slowly ascertaining beyond any doubt that it was indeed for him that the black limousine was waiting, and after that ascertainment all he could do was spin out the time, that is, as far as he was able, delay the moment of departure, the stepping out from the entrance gate of the building; as for me, however, I hardly know what surprised me more, and of course more disagreeably: the encounter four, five or six years later, on what was then still a tree-lined Andrássy (and later Stalin, Hungarian Youth, People’s Republic, etc.)
Avenue, with a battered, half-blinded, broken old man, in whom, to my great horror, I recognised the erstwhile bigwig, or the “ad-hoc meeting,” as it was called, that was convened in great haste at the editorial office the day following the balcony scene, in the course of which I was obliged to learn certain things, each more absurd than the last, about this bigwig, who just the day before had been a figure of general terror, general homage, general creeping and crawling. These absurdities were brought to our attention now by the hysterically twitching ravings of a pampered youth, now by the incomprehensible outpourings of rage from the senior editor-in-chief himself, a being who, in his mortal terror, had been reduced to some primeval human state, a pulsating amoeba, a mere existential jelly, and had stayed utterly transfixed in that reduced state, yet who only the previous day, scared rigid, had kowtowed and smarmily crept and crawled in the presence of the selfsame bigwig. It would be utterly impossible, and utterly beside the point, for me to recall this man’s choice of words, more absurd even than his absurd assertions: they consisted of a farrago of allegations and abuses, protestations, excuses, insults, pledges, threats and suchlike, expressed in the most extreme manner, not
eschewing the use of animal names, with the names of canine beasts of prey prominent among the abuses, for instance, and dragging in the language of the most bigoted religious sects amongst the pledges. Now, I would be very curious to know whether the friendly gathering that had been urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack was able, even dimly, to imagine that scene, as I asked them to do at the time, since I myself, sadly, do not possess the requisite powers of evocation or means of expression; however much they may have nodded, strained and tried, I am sure that, in the end, they were incapable of it, simply because it is quite impossible to imagine such a scene. It is impossible to imagine how a grown-up man, well into his forties, who eats with a knife and fork, wears a necktie, speaks the language of the educated middle class and, as senior editor-in-chief, can lay claim to unreserved trust in his faculty of judgement; impossible to imagine how such a man, unless he were drunk or had suddenly gone off his rocker, could all at once wallow in the mire of his own fear and, amid spasms of twitching, squawk streams of such patent nonsense; impossible to imagine such a situation occurring, or rather, since it did occur, impossible to imagine how such a situation could have occurred; and in
the end, it is impossible to imagine the situation itself, the scene and all of its details: that group huddled together facing the ranting buffoon, our group of adult men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, and even sixties and seventies, reporters, stenographers, typists, technicians of every sort, who listened in consternation, with earnest-looking faces and without a single objection, to those near-meaningless ravings that belied all common sense, reason and moderation by their self-negating anger, their veritable paroxysm of self-negation. Let me reiterate: the question of the credibility or incredibility of the words and the accusations—words more fitting to a pulp thriller and accusations reminiscent of mediaeval chronicles of heresy, which went far beyond the orbit of critical judgement—did not so much as cross my mind at the time, for who could have made any judgement there, apart from those who did the judging? What sort of truth would I have been able to perceive there, aside from the truth of that ludicrous and, in essence, childish scene; oh yes, aside from the truth that anybody might be carried off, at any time, in a black limousine, aside from that, in essence, again plain childish, bogeyman-truth? Let me reiterate: the only thing perceived by that stupefied, irresolute, twenty-year-old
young man (I), torn between unremitting horror and an unremitting itch to laugh, was that the person who only yesterday had still been a bigwig there was today fit only to be abused with the names of canine predators and to be taken off anywhere, at any time, in a black limousine—in other words, all that he (I) perceived was a lack of permanence. And now, before that friendly gathering which had been urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack, I was unexpectedly moved to declare that maybe morality (in a certain sense) is nothing more than permanence, and maybe people create states which can be designated as lacking in permanence for no other reason than to prevent a state of morality from being established. If this declaration, uttered at the dining table, may of course seem exceptionally slipshod, and probably, indeed in all certainty, untenable under the much more considered circumstances of writing, I still maintain that there does exist at least a close connection between
seriousness
and permanence. For death—if we constantly prepare for it in the course of life as the true, indeed, as a matter of fact, sole task that awaits us; if we rehearse for it, so to speak, in the course of life; if we learn to see it as a solution, an ultimately reassuring, if not satisfying, solution—is a serious matter. But
the brick that happens, by chance, to drop right on our head is not serious. The hangman is not serious. And yet, oddly, even someone who has no fear of death fears the hangman. All I intend by all this is to describe, inadequately as it may be, my state, my state as it was then. The fact that, on the one hand, I was afraid, while, on the other, I was laughing, but above all, in some sense, I was confused, or I might even say I reached a crisis point, lost the refuge of my formulations; my life, maybe due to a quickening of tempo or
dynamics
, had become ever more unformulable, hence the sustainability of my way of life ever more questionable. Here I must remind you that professionally I was—or ought to have been—pursuing a formulation of life as a journalist. Granted that for a journalist to demand a formulation of life was a falsehood in its very essence: but then, anyone who lies is ipso facto thinking about the truth, and I would only have been able to lie about life if I had been acquainted, at least in part, with its truth, yet I was not acquainted, either in whole or in part, with the truth, this truth, the truth of this life, the life that I too was living. Little by little, I was therefore recategorised in the editorial office from
talented
journalist to
untalented
journalist. From the moment that I slipped,
for a while at least, out of the world of formulability, and thus the sustainability of my way of life, the events going on around me—and hence I myself as an event—disintegrated into fragmentary images and impressions. But the camera lens that captured the jumbled images, sounds and even thoughts was still, agonisingly and irreducibly,
me
, only a me that was growing ever more alienated from myself. The diabolical wooden spoon had once again scraped the very bottom of the human soup in the cauldron of
so-called world history
in which we all stew. I see myself there, in depressed listlessness, at meetings that stretch out to dawn, where the hounds of hell yap, the whip of
criticism
and
self-criticism
cracks on my back, and increasingly I just wait, wait for when and where the door will open through which I shall be ejected who could know where. Before too long I was to be stumbling around in rust-tinted dust beneath the interminable labyrinth of pipes of a murderous factory barrack-complex; bleak dawns smelling of iron castings would await, hazed daytimes when the dull cognitions of the mind would swell and burst like heavy bubbles on the tin-grey surface of a steaming, swirling mass of molten metal. I became a factory worker, but at least it was possible, bit by bit, to formulate that
afresh, albeit only with the vocabulary of adventure, absurdity, mockery and fear; that is, with a vocabulary congruent with the world around me, and in that way I more or less regained my life once more. That I might have a chance of regaining life
fully
, indeed that
a full life might be possible at all
—but now that I have already lived this life, now that what still remains of this life (my life) may also be considered as already lived, I must formulate it more precisely, indeed absolutely precisely: that a full life
might have been
possible—that is something I only began to suspect when all at once, after the formulations of adventure, I unexpectedly found myself, dumbfounded and fascinated, face to face with the
adventure of formulation
. This adventure to surpass all my adventures, however, I have to broach, as I remarked in my preamble, with Richard Wagner, but before broaching Richard Wagner, as I have likewise already signalled, I had to start at the editorial office. When they first “took me on” at that editorial office; when I started to go in, day after day, to that editorial office; when, day after day, I telephoned in to that editorial office from the city hall (having been assigned to that column, the “City Hall” column) the latest city hall news, indeed reports, I formulated this aggregation of facts, and not yet entirely
without reason, as “I’m a journalist,” since appearances, and the activity that engendered those appearances, truly did permit me, by and large, to so formulate it. That was my period of naive formulations, of unbiased formulations, when my way of life and its formulation did not yet stand irreducibly opposed to one another, or in an opposition that was reducible solely by radical means. What had carried me into that career, and therefore into that editorial office, was a formulation, a book I had read, that—above and beyond the necessity of my making a “career choice,” so to say, and, yes, above and beyond my irrepressible longing—I might cast off the shackles of parental harassments and a childhood prolonged by education. After stints as a commercial traveller in wines and in building materials had been brought to a close by risible results, indeed quite simply by my having become a laughing stock, then attempts at the printing trade or, to be precise, as a typesetter, had merely introduced me to the experience of futile torment and monotony, quite by chance—if such a thing exists (chance, that is to say), though I personally doubt it—a book came into my hands. This book was a formulation of the life of a journalist, a Budapest journalist who moves about in Budapest coffee-houses,
in Budapest editorial offices, in Budapest social circles, pursuing relationships with Budapest women—more particularly, two women, one an aristocratic lady, who was referred to solely by the French brand name of her perfume, the other a girl, a poor, simple, decent creature, palpably finer than the lady of the branded perfume, because she was endowed with spirituality but was born to be oppressed, thereby evoking perpetual twinges of social and metaphysical conscience, so to say—a totally false and falsified formulation, but one that, if memory serves me right, was presented with genuine longing, and thus genuine force of conviction. The book told about a life, a world, that could never have existed in reality, or at best only in formulations, the sort of formulations for which I too was later to strive, for purposes of the sustainability of my way of life, formulations which draw a veil over a life that is unformulable, that grinds ahead in the dark, stumbles about in the dark, lugs the burden of darkness—in other words, over life itself. This book about that journalist, and thus also, to some extent, about journalism itself, held no inkling about journalism in the disaster era, or about disasters at all; the book was
lighthearted
and
wise
, or in other words, an unwitting book, but a book that with
the allure of unwittingness exercised a fateful influence on me. The book may well have lied, but, as I recollect, the lying was certainly honest, and it is highly likely that I was in need of just such a lie at the time. A person always lights upon the lie he is in need of just as unerringly and just as unhesitatingly as he can unerringly and unhesitatingly light upon the truth he is in need of, should he feel any need at all of the truth, that is, of liquidating his life. The book presented journalism itself as a sort of happy-go-lucky pursuit, a

BOOK: The Union Jack
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