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Authors: Imre Kertész

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BOOK: The Union Jack
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15/11 move in, 18/11 ÁVH [State Security], Council = ÁVH, ÁVH 2x—no response, Rákosi’s secretariat … In September of 1953 Mrs V. [i.e. my wife-to-be] Mrs V. a.m.… Asked her by reg. letter to remove furn … Have to keep my own furniture in cellar because I’m looking after her stuff … Her wardrobes are crammed full of dirty clothes, under ÁVH seal, they can’t be aired … She claims she doesn’t have an apartment and is staying as a guest with somebody. Does that mean she doesn’t need the things in the wardrobe? The woman puts on a good act and is quite capable of sobbing, if required, but I’ve had enough of that and I won’t tolerate her furniture in my apartment any longer—.” So we had had to spend the disaster winter that lay before us, which was ushered in at the very start by temperatures of twenty to twenty-five degrees below zero, in various temporary shelters, including the aforementioned kitchen of the woman friend from earlier days, a spare room of distant relatives surrendered on a very explicitly temporary basis, an exceptionally charmless sublet room, made especially memorable by its ice-cold latrine on the outside corridor, and so on, until a miracle—admittedly, all too temporary as it turned out—in the shape of Bessie, a former snake charmer and her Lónyay (or Szamuely) Street sublet apartment, dropped into our lap. It
doesn’t matter in the slightest now how and why this miracle occurred, although it would be wrong to leave out of this story—the story of the Union Jack—the earthly mediator of this heavenly miracle: a grey-templed gentleman, known as Uncle Bandi Faragó in the cafés and nightclubs around Nagymező Street, who, somewhat flashily for those times—the disaster time—and the occasion—the disaster—used to dress in an aristocratic green hunting-hat, a short sheepskin coat and English-style tweeds, whose face glowed with a permanent suntan even in the deathly pale winter, and besides that allegedly pursued the exclusive occupation of a professional conman and adulterer, as was indeed confirmed decades later when, from a newspaper bought out of sheer absent-mindedness (since the so-called news was of no real interest), I was silently and genuinely shocked to learn about his death in a well-known common prison, where, allegedly, a permanent cell, his slippers and a bathrobe were set aside for him even during the days that he spent on release; and who one afternoon, in one of those cafés around Nagymező Street, one of those cheap, noisy, draughty, gloomy and filthy cafés with music which, since the state, though holding them to be iniquitous, at least heated well and kept
open until late at night, had become an illicit day-and-night shelter for outcasts and in which my wife-to-be and I were, so to say, temporarily residing much of the time instead of in our temporary residences, suddenly came up to our table, and, really without any prior or more direct introduction, declared, “I hear you’re looking for lodgings, my lad.” Then to my apathetic admission, which ruled out all hope in advance: “But why, dear boy, didn’t you come to
me
?” he asked in a tone of such self-explanatory, such deep and uncomprehending reproach that, in my shame, I was lost for words. Later, after we had gone to the imparted address in Szamuely Street, where the door was opened by a lady, getting on in years and—as Gyula Krúdy might have put it—of statuesque figure, with yellow forecurls peeking from under her green turban, the face slightly stiffened by heavy makeup, and wearing a curious silk pantaloon besprinkled with magical stars and geometrical designs, who, not content with a verbal reference, did not allow so much as a toe into the hallway until she had glimpsed the message written in Uncle Bandi Faragó’s own hand on Uncle Bandi Faragó’s own calling card; so when this lady led us, my wife-to-be and me, to the room that was to let, a spacious corner room with a bay window,
the dominant furnishings of which were a decidedly oversized divan big enough for at least four persons, a mirror placed in front of it, and a standard lamp with a shade plastered with all sorts of obsolete bank notes (including the million- and billion-pengő denominations that had been in currency not so long before) that gave a mystic lighting effect, my wife-to-be and I did not doubt for one second the original purpose to which the room had been put, and it seemed most probable (and at once a clue to the miracle) that around that time, in that era of denunciations, the room’s intended purpose—who knows, perhaps due to a denunciation that just happened to be pending—did not, all of a sudden, to be concise, seem expedient. Things may have changed by the spring, but during that winter we had the chance to peek into our landlady’s past: we could see her as a young woman, wearing an ostrich-plumed silk turban, with a giant speckled snake coiled around her naked back, in some nightclub in Oran, Algiers or Tangiers, which there, in that Lónyay (i.e. Szamuely) Street disaster-sublease, struck one as indeed quite extraordinarily implausible, and we could handle and ritually marvel at a profusion of relics which were every bit as implausible; later on, however, the snake charmer became
despondent, and it was apparent from her increasingly consistent demeanour that, above and beyond the hostile feelings towards people that naturally arise in one as time goes by, she was not guided so much by the random targets of that transcendental antipathy as by palpably down-to-earth goals: she wanted to regain her room, because she had other, presumably more lucrative, plans for it. I shall try to skip the details as rapidly as possible, for I can only relate those details in this spirit, the spirit of formulability, which is by no means the same thing, of course, as the real spirit of those details, which is to say the way in which I lived and survived that reality; and this nicely illustrates the iron curtain that rises between formulation and being, the iron curtain that rises between the storyteller and his audience, the iron curtain that rises between one person and another, and, in the end, the impenetrable iron curtain that rises between a person and himself, between a person and his own life. I woke up to all this when I read those words: “… he saw her love and distress, and he knew: so life must be to be creative.” Those words, all at once, awakened me to my life; all at once, I glimpsed my life in the light of those words; those words, or so I felt, changed my life. That book which, from one second
to the next, swept away the haze of my formulations from the surface of my life, so I might see that life, all at once, face to face, in the fresh, startling and bold colours of seriousness, I discovered in the new (that is, repossessed) apartment—absolutely out of place, absolutely implausibly, in the manner, as I remain convinced to this day, of a miracle that spoke to me alone—among the forgotten odds and ends, the above-mentioned denunciation slips and, thumbed to tatters, several volumes of pulp, shock-worker, partisan and romantic novels, the latter of defunct imprints. That book, so I felt, marked the start of the radicalisation of my life, when my way of life and its formulation would no longer be able to stand in any sort of contradiction with one another. By then, the time when I had been a journalist, or even a factory worker, had already long gone; by then I had committed myself to my seemingly boundless, but also supposedly boundless and intentionally boundless studies, being able, thanks to a congenital ailment, to absent myself from my occasional jobs for months on end without running any immediate risk in the meantime that my mode of existence would, in all likelihood, qualify as a crime of so-called “publicly dangerous work-shyness.” At that time all this completely preoccupied me, producing in me a sense of exaltation, of
mission
. I suppose it was then that I became acquainted with the experience of
reading, reading
for nothing in particular, an experience in no way comparable with the experience of reading as it is generally understood and designated, the sort of reading bouts, or mania for reading, which might overcome a person at best just once or twice in a lifetime. Around that time there also appeared a book by the author of
The Blood of the Walsungs
, a volume of essays, in which there was an essay on Goethe and Tolstoy, whose chapter titles alone—“Questions of Rank,” “Illness,” “Freedom and Eminence,”
“Noblesse Oblige,”
and the rest—were enough in themselves almost to dumbfound me. I recall that I read this book all the time and everywhere I went; the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy was tucked under my arm all the time and everywhere I went: it was with me when I boarded trams, went into shops, wandered about the streets—and so also, one especially fine early afternoon in late autumn, when I set off for the
Istituto Italiano di Cultura per l’Ungheria
, the Italian Institute of Culture, where at the time, in my boundless thirst for knowledge, I was learning Italian, and during my passage across the city I registered, indeed, here and there, even participated, at least as an astounded spectator, in the intoxicating events of a day that was later to become memorable, a
day that I or anybody else could hardly have guessed would turn into that particular memorable day. I was, I recollect, somewhat surprised when I turned off Múzeum Boulevard into the otherwise normally deserted Bródy Sándor Street, hurrying towards the nearby palace of the Italian Institute, which had originally been built as the one-time Hungarian Parliament. The lesson, however, started at the normal time. After a while, the street noise penetrated into the room even through the closed window. Signore Perselli, the finicky, jet-black-moustached
direttore
, for whom, on his rare visits to lessons, it took no more than a blatantly clumsy pronunciation of the word
molto
to be excited into demonstrating how it should be done with Italian fluidity, with the initial “
o
” closed and the final “
o
” short, the intervening consonants being articulated with the tongue drawn back, almost like saying “m
a
lto,” on this occasion burst into the room in genuinely frantic haste to exchange a few no doubt diplomatically apprehensive words with our teacher before scurrying on to the other classrooms. A minute later, everybody was at one of the windows. In the slowly gathering dusk I could clearly see that on the left, towards the front, green rockets were being launched from the Hungarian Radio building above
the heads of the darkly milling crowd of protesters there. At that very moment, from the opposite direction, three open-topped trucks turned into the street out of Múzeum Boulevard; from above, I had a good view of the militiamen with the green markings of border guards who were seated on the benches, rifles squeezed between their knees. On the back of the first truck, leaning against the driver’s cabin, stood a lieutenant, evidently the commander. The crowd fell quiet, opened ranks, then roared. It is quite unnecessary here for me to evoke the manifestly pathetically affecting words that they started to shout to the soldiers down below, words which only at that given moment, that elevated moment of pathos, were able to exert an effect of genuine pathos. The trucks slowed down in the dense crowd, then came to a halt. The lieutenant turned about and raised an arm aloft. The last of the trucks now started to back out of the street, to be followed by the other two, amidst jubilation from the crowd. At this moment, we who, from an Italian diplomatic viewpoint which held itself to be above and beyond all this, had no doubt suddenly become unwelcome guests, capable of who knew what sort of emotional or other manifestations, were ordered to gather downstairs, beneath the long, neo-Renaissance
vaulting of the entrance. The heavy, two-leafed gate was bolted from the inside with iron bands. There we squashed together, between the sounds assailing us from outside and the security guards standing by behind us, until the Institute’s burly porter, evidently on some signal, swung the iron bands back and swiftly threw open the gate though which each and every one of the sixty to eighty of us, on a vigorous shove being applied from the rear, found ourselves, in a trice, deposited outside on the by now twilit street, in a vortex of buffeting sound, swirling movement, ungovernable passions and inscrutable events that teemed between the buildings. In the ensuing days, my attention was divided between the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy and the events that raged outside; or, to be more precise, the cryptic and unformulable promise that inhered in the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy, in the gradual comprehension and eventual acceptance of it, was linked in my mind, in a strange but quite self-explanatory manner, with the equally unformulable, similarly uncertain but, at the same time, wider-ranging promise inherent in the external events. I cannot say that the events that were stirring externally diminished my interest in the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy: to the contrary, they height-ened
it; on the other hand, I also cannot say that while I was totally immersed in the world of the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy and the spiritual and intellectual jolts of that experience, I
also
absent-mindedly paid occasional attention to the events that were stirring in the street: no, that is not what happened at all; I would have to say instead, however strange it may sound, that the events stirring in the street
vindicated
the heightened attention paid to the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy; the events stirring in the street during those days thereby
bestowed a genuine and incontrovertible sense on the heightened attention I was paying to the essay on Goethe and Tolstoy
. The weather turned autumnal; several quieter days ensued; down below on the street, of course, but especially on looking out from the window, I could see how much the street had changed: detached overhead tramway cables snaking between the rails, dangling bullet-riddled signboards, smashed windows here and there, fresh holes in the peeling stucco of the houses, dense throngs of people on the pavements of the long, long street, all the way up to the distant corner, and very occasionally a vehicle, a passenger car or lorry, tearing by at great speed, with some highly conspicuous distinguishing marks, the more garish the better. A hurtling jeep-like vehicle
suddenly appeared, with the British red-white-and-blue colours, a Union Jack, draped over the entire radiator. It was scudding at breakneck speed between the crowds thronging the pavement on either side when, sporadically at first but then ever more continuously, evidently as a mark of their affection, people began to applaud. I was able to see the vehicle, once it had sped past me, only from the rear, and at the very moment when the applause seemed to coalesce, almost solidify, an arm stretched out hesitantly, almost reluctantly at first, from the left-side window of the car. The hand was tucked into a light-coloured glove, and though I did not see it close up, I presume it was a kid glove; probably in response to the clapping, it cautiously dipped several times parallel to the direction in which the vehicle was travelling. It was a wave, a friendly, welcoming, perhaps slightly consolatory gesture which, at the very least, adumbrated an unreserved endorsement and, by the by, also the solid consciousness that before long that same gloved hand would be touching the rail of the steps leading down from an aircraft onto the runway on arrival home in that distant island country. After that, vehicle, hand and Union Jack—all disappeared in the bend of the road, and the applause gradually died away.

BOOK: The Union Jack
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