Balla

photo by Eliška Balážová

photo by Eliška Balážová

 

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER

 
(an excerpt)
 
“The property shall be constructed as a detached house. The windows in the basement and the bathroom facing the neighbouring property shall be ventilation windows made of frosted glass. Waste will be disposed of by means of a sewage treatment system to be located a minimum of 15 meters from the well, or 30 meters in case of poor absorption.”

(Construction permit No. 263/66, issued 02/07/1967 authorising the extension and remodelling of a family home.)

I made an appointment with a pediatrician even though I was already twenty years old, and in the middle of my military service. The nurse pointed out that I shouldn’t let the doctor see me in uniform; it would enrage him because he hated soldiers, policemen, railwaymen and nurses. That’s why I’m not wearing a nurse’s uniform myself, the woman rattled on. So what made me go and see him anyway? Who knows, maybe I just dreamt the whole thing back in 1963, or perhaps a year earlier. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t feeling well. As I entered the doctor’s office my eyes fell on his hands. The middle and index fingers of his right hand were missing.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.

He examined my testicles and after feeling them for a while he made an announcement that turned out to be quite crucial later on: “Don’t procreate, comrade! Don’t ever procreate because you will father a beast.”

I waited to hear what would come next.

The doctor went on: “However, if you marry a woman who’s weak and sickly, whose teeth decay and whose hair starts to fall out by the time she’s thirty, which is quite unusual in women that age, it will leave its mark on the beast you’ll have fathered. The child will be born a coward. It will grow to be someone who’s a beast inside but keeps this hidden from the outside world.”

He raised the index finger of his right hand by way of warning.

So he wasn’t missing an index finger after all.

I sat on the cold plastic sheet covering the white examination bed with my dick hanging down and my balls in the doctor’s hands. He felt them up.

“But maybe,” he muttered, “we’ll get lucky and you’ll end up impotent. Because one of them seems to be underdeveloped … sort of retracted … a bashful, cute, delicate little ball.” He gave my balls a yank and slapped me across the face: “No fucking, you understand?”

A reflex reaction made me kick him in the face, more of a spasm than an act of aggressive retaliation. I quickly pulled on my underpants and got the hell out of the surgery. He shouted after me from the floor where my kick landed him: “I know you’re a soldier anyway! You think I don’t have all the information on you on file? You’ve assaulted a doctor! You’ll get locked up for this!”

As I ran away I suddenly realized I knew a woman just like that.

Exactly the sort of woman the doctor was talking about.

My son got in touch to say he wanted to sell the parental home. I still owned half of it. Actually, what really happened was that this young woman called, saying she was interested in buying the house from my son. It definitely wasn’t my son who got in touch. He won’t even say hello to me. It’s my younger son I’m talking about. The older one isn’t like that but he’s moved away without even leaving an address.

I once had a father, too. He was a forestry man, if I remember right. He had a standard issue horse and cart. One day he took me out with him, I can still hear the brief sharp sound of his swishing whip. We bumped up and down as we rode on an uneven embankment. Father made smacking noises, spitting from time to time, then suddenly pointed to a wood by the river and said: “See? I planted all that.” The cart trundled off the embankment and clattered down to the edge of the forest. I jumped off into the grass and watched my father from below. He wasn’t old. I’ve always been rather scared of getting old. And that was even before I could imagine what his old age would be like: his legs amputated little by little, the diabetes, the infirmity. Eventually my mother had him entirely under her thumb.

There were bushes growing among the trees, some of them sick, their branches slightly rotten. Below them flickered the shiny backs of amphibians. Dampness. Father dismounted slowly and patted the horse’s rear. He loved the horse more than he loved me but I’m not complaining, I don’t want to take this story too much to heart.

Idefigyelj, listen, my mother would say to my father in Hungarian a decade later, don’t leave it all to me, you’ve got to make an effort, too, she said as she turned him over on his specially raised bed.

Back in the floodplains the water came up to our knees. Enormous mosquitoes that spawned in the water swarmed toward the city in huge clouds. Father reassured the neighing horse. We walked deeper into the woods.

Adok én neked, just you wait, mother would say in Hungarian, panting as she turned father over.

József, she would say, reproachfully.

Idefigyelj, Ilonka, mother would begin conversations with my wife in later years, trying to attract her attention although she wasn’t really keen on women, she preferred men because they listened to her, or at least they seemed to be listening, whereas women only claimed to listen. I’m listening to you, Marika, they’d say as they went on plucking a goose or raising a child, idefigyelj, said mother, tugging at her daughter-in-law’s sleeve. She wasn’t much of a listener. I’m listening to you, Marika.

Mother turned father over again.

Even people who love one another can drive each other crazy sometimes.

Father wore high rubber boots but he took my shoes off once we moved a little further away from the cart to make sure I didn’t ruin them, leaving me to walk barefoot through the mud and water. My trousers were drenched but he didn’t care. I didn’t make a sound even when something sharp cut into my heel, I just stopped for a while. “C’mon, c’mon,” he mumbled although his boots sunk deeper and deeper. The boy needs toughening up he used to say to his wife, my mother. He was always expecting a flood but in fact there was no flooding in Central Europe until much later, and even then our region was never actually affected. Seeing his boots sink into the mud up to his shins I suddenly felt as if, instead of a floodplains wood, we were in the reservoir full of excrement that had been built next to the new sewage treatment plant, where the wood meets the outskirts of our town. I imagined my father sinking in the crap produced by all our neighbours. The crap generated by our entire street and all the neighbouring streets. I wished he would drown in that swamp. Was I being tough enough? He might have approved. Except that now, years later, I realize this is a false memory: by the time the sewage treatment plant behind Lovecká Street was built my father was no longer able to move.

We waded up to a mound in the middle of the wood, an island in the realm of sludge. “Why on earth did we have to drag ourselves all the way here?” I asked crossly, sitting on a tree stump and cradling my hurt foot in both hands. “I like it here,” he snapped, lighting a hand rolled cigarette whose smoke made my eyes sting.

My father’s laziness was legendary.

He never had any goals in life.

Of all the people I knew in those days he was the only one who could switch off, sit down and just stay seated, puffing away without – I’m quite sure – a thought in his head. He would just sit there, immersed in emptiness. Not that he had a clue about Buddhism. His parents had come from the puszta, the Hungarian plains, they had a farm there. We went to visit them once, but only once, since we couldn’t afford the trip, or perhaps because my mother got into an argument with his family and that was that, once and for all. There were horses racing across the puszta and black pigs rolling about in the mud. My father’s parents bred grey cattle, I still remember their long horns set wide apart. And the smell of very old furniture in the long, low cottage. Its inhabitants looked like embittered bankrupt members of the middle classes whom repeated blows of fate had driven from their bourgeois residences in Budapest. The rooms were piled high with pungent furniture… Tiny glass cabinets crammed with religious imagery, the unnaturally cold, waxen face of the Mother of God, miniature crosses with filigree ornaments, vast quantities of goblets, glasses, tea cups, tea pots, porcelain figurines, candlesticks, knick-knacks by the thousand. Old armchairs covered with fabric in various shades of purple, dark grey, dark brown, and a dash of magenta on the dusty old rug. And then those outlandish ottomans… There were ottomans flanking the walls, curving to the right here and to the left there, as if made for people who had grown several heads, too many legs, countless numbers of arms. And innumerable black books, exclusively black with greenish pages, in long rows on the bookshelves. Low ceilings, the smell of mothballs. The scent of sweet liqueurs… And silence, silence, silence everywhere, except for the floor creaking every now and then… Sturdy women in skirts, puny, wiry men in fur waistcoats, and no children, nobody my age, nothing but old people.

But why am I talking about my father?

I was fine with the relationship where I was the son and my father was the father; it doesn’t actually matter if it was he or someone else, basically I felt fine with the relationship where I was the son and someone else was the father. In spite of all kinds of things. In spite of everything. I felt quite comfortable being me in that relationship. I felt at ease in the role of a son. I was up to that role. But I don’t feel comfortable with the relationship I have with my sons. Basically, it was too early for me to be burdened with the role of a parent. Or perhaps it’s my sons who are not suitable. What if they are the wrong sort of sons?

That’s it: my sons don’t know how to be sons.

I did want to have children.

Or did I?

In this respect I may have been different from my peers. As we grew up we gradually left our neighbourhood, but we didn’t move too far away because, of course, in those days you couldn’t move very far. We flew out of the nest, only to land right on an adjacent branch, so to speak. One needed an excuse, such as marriage, to justify the shortest of flights. Although most of us were more interested in football, joinery or tinsmithing, and Barnabáš, the one who was always on edge, had dreamt of becoming a car mechanic, but to be honest, what all of us also wanted was to have sex although, of course, we weren’t too keen on its natural consequences. Or was I the only one who wasn’t keen? I felt that the only thing parents could achieve by means of their lifelong loving care– provided they were capable of such a thing – was to alleviate the suffering they inflicted on their children by bringing them into this world. My friends may well have longed to continue their bloodline, I’d be the last person to question that. But what kind of bloodline would that be? Worker and peasant clans of alcoholics and oafs. We’re not talking the blood royal here, or some peace-loving, “turtledove” nation. This town’s inhabitants had nothing in common with any kind of nation. Nations had dissolved in cross-border copulation while the borders kept dissolving in wars and their aftermath, constantly re-written by new generations of bums who drew the boundaries maliciously or blindly, waving flags and hollering patriotic songs. They did it exactly the same way as their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors: out of habit.

It was my brother who built the house in Lovecká Street. I only lent him a hand.

We constructed a labyrinth, a maze of corridors, small rooms, dead ends and blind junctions. A substantial part of the structure was located underground, so that the neighbours wouldn’t be jealous, while from the outside the house looked quite modest, in fact it was the smallest in the street.

Right at the outset my brother announced: “What is essential is the alternation of light and shade. Shadows will predominate. And also soft, dark corners. Curves in semidarkness. Broken arches. Modest and proletarian rather than pompous. We’ll have ribbed vaulting in the larder. Embellishments are an unmistakable sign of kitsch, and that’s how we’ll fool everyone. The meaning will be carefully disguised.”

I didn’t think much of my brother’s ideas.

I said nothing although I was amazed to see that instead of being straight, the floor of the corridor leading from the porch, the entrance and the hallway to the living room made a curve, then suddenly took a leap forward, twisting round in a bold sweep before reaching its destination. In the middle of the corridor a massive protrusion serving some mysterious purpose descended vertically from the ceiling, which was decorated with three-dimensional symbols. My brother said the symbols formed a map of the basement that the two of us were going to build. To me they looked more like Arabic script. Were we about to construct a message in Arabic in the basement? We had plenty of building materials. My brother had ordered gravel, sand, quicklime, granite blocks, lumber and steel, stressing that we would sort out the finances later, once he had negotiated a price with the suppliers, but I never got to see the details. He also said that the base of the outer walls’ foundation had to be at least eighty centimetres below ground level and the partition dividing the secret chambers from the living quarters would be built of solid brick.

While the house was under construction we lived in the tool shed. My brother insisted that we didn’t go home but stayed there, as we also had to work at night, in fact, mainly at night. We’ve got to be in tune with the building, he stressed. In the mornings, toiling through the night, we would wash in the shed, in a white basin with rusty edges. The soap contained tiny stones, gravel and hairs. It often slipped out of our hands onto the floor soiled by our work shoes. When my brother presented his plan to me, his hands, neck and cheeks were all wet, and in spite of a cheerful wink, there was a glint of sadness deep in his eyes. It’s for you, he said, jabbing at my drenched T-shirt with his finger, that I am building this house, he went on, poking me again, and living in this house will provide the meaning of life, since for its residents the house itself will constitute an event more important than anything they will ever do, and that applies to whatever you do as well. He flicked his finger against my collarbone. Drops of soapy water mixed with grains of gravel and sand ran down to my navel and belt.

I can’t tell if my brother really was a bricklayer.

The way he behaved.

The things he said.

The goal he pursued.

What did it all suggest?

Bricklaying?

His bricklaying skills left a lot to be desired.

What was it we were building anyway?

During the day I would sleep like a log. My brother would collapse onto the sack for a few brief moments at a time. When I woke up in the late afternoon I could only see his abandoned mattress. The blankets had gone cold. He must have got up and gone to the building site hours earlier, letting me sleep. In my absence he was occupied with activities that left no visible trace. When I joined him in the evenings, bringing neatly scrubbed hammers, bricklaying trowels, the spirit level, the triangle and compass as he instructed me, he looked exhausted and haggard but continued working with commendable dedication. He was realizing the construction and, through the construction, realizing himself. I did my best, too. Naturally, we couldn’t avoid making a few mistakes. For example, instead of standard electricity we installed direct current in the building, as we thought it was preferable. The advantage was that I’ve never had to pay for electricity, which relieved the family budget considerably. Direct current can perform all the functions of normal electricity, while serving other purposes at the same time, although, absorbed as I was in the hectic pace of the construction, I never managed to ask my brother what these other purposes were. I lost contact with him in the years following the completion of the building and learned later that he had died. Meanwhile the direct current wreaked havoc. It would flash about the walls insanely, its red-hot glowing tongues lashing out uncontrollably from sockets and fuses, while at other times it would retreat and not show itself for days on end. It would just vanish without a trace. Whenever that happened the light bulbs went out and the appliances fell into a restless slumber, only to snap awake at random, without anyone switching them on.

One day my brother gave a faint smile from above the washing bowl and the flame of the candle on the window ledge made his nose, eyebrows and cheekbones flicker, alternately plunging his face into darkness, and painting it again with light. I suddenly saw that he was immensely old, much older than any brother of mine could possibly have been. He declared: “The basement is vital. In fact, everything is vital. Where’s my towel? No, it’s definitely the basement, more than anything else. We’ll have a go at it tonight. Pass me a toothpick. A nail will do. I’ve got dirt under my fingernails.” Feeling my eyelids getting heavy I collapsed onto the inflatable mattress.

My brother sneaked out and spent the rest of the day on the building site.

When I joined him after sunset, the bulk of the work seemed to have been done. Again, I could detect no trace of activity but I didn’t let this faze me. He had managed to concrete something under the floor. His face gleamed with sweat. A little love nest, it occurred to me, he’s building a little love nest for me and my wife. This is how young couples imagine their first apartment, their first house – as a sort of nest. Made of stalks of grass, bits of twigs, leaves. They are symbols of nature, which are, in turn, a metaphor for fertility. I don’t know how I got this idea, in the cold dark basement of all places. And the other thought that flashed through my mind was that I would use the basement for storing wine, just like every good house owner here in the south.

The centre, toward which the basement sloped steeply, was formed by the well, Hvergelmir. The tunnels we had dug radiated outwards to the northeast, creating a symbol that spread underneath the workers’ district. The energy emanating from the system of corridors – an algorithm beneath the roads, sidewalks, gardens and the suburban football pitch – was meant to confer acceptance and oblivion upon everyone within its reach. This was how the force – which some people might have called sacred – was supposed to impact them, although I have my doubts: I saw my brother’s drawings and the signs on the catacomb portal. The force was supposed to induce a very specific mood, which would make the town’s populace realize that there was no point expecting any major change, that although the change would arrive, for them nothing would change and they would remain the second-rate citizens inhabiting the border region of a second-rate country. Nobody should try too hard, they were to spare themselves the effort. But most importantly: the certainty of inevitable failure would deliver them from any feelings of guilt for a messed up life.

“Initiation takes the form of a periodically transmitted message telling them that not even being initiated will be of any use,” my brother explained. Perhaps he was trying to confuse me. He gave me a stern look to make me focus on what he had to say: “The following information will be helpful. The basement functions as a resonator. As an amplifier. As a transmitter! It transmits to our people the information that a state of resignation is inevitable. This is something that you need to grasp fully. You need to embrace it with all your soul.”

My soul?

Did he really mean my soul?

I’m not sure if I remember his words right.

The vague news of something important below the workers’ neighbourhood spread by word of mouth, through conversations in bars and at production lines, the basement was discussed at the classy Basta Wine Bar over glasses of bittersweet drinks, as well as during the construction of a fence that gradually encircled the Gypsy district. I just listened with an embarrassed smile. I didn’t understand these things back then although I could feel the pickaxe calluses on my hands and hear my brother whispering in my head: “We’re doing it for them. All of this will make you proud one day. Forget about the odd minor imperfection in the bathroom, never mind the hastily knocked-together stairs to the attic, which will bring your wife tumbling down virtually every time. You must rise above the dysfunctional heating and drains. The essence of the house consists in something else.”

And this is the house I was about to sell now, years later.
 
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BALLA (b. 1967) has been called the “chief alchemist of Slovak literature”, “the Slovak Kafka” and “the uncrowned king of Slovak outsiders and misfits”. Since his first short story collection, Leptokaria, appeared in 1996 he has established himself as a highly distinctive voice on Slovakia’s literary scene with short stories populated by a gallery of lonely, mediocre and often malicious and creepy individuals unable to relate to other human beings who often find themselves in bizarre or surreal situations as they try to escape from the numbing banality of their everyday life. He has published eight collections of short stories, the latest being The Eye (Oko, 2012), as well as a novella, In the Name of the Father (V mene otca, 2011), which won Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft litera award in 2012.
Two of Balla’s stories have appeared in English translation, one in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2013 and another in Princeton University’s Inventory #3; his work has also been translated into Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Slovene and Serbian. Balla, who goes only by his surname, works in the local council’s audit office in Nové Zámky, a provincial town in southern Slovakia, a region with a sizeable Hungarian minority.
 
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About the Translators:

 
JULIA SHERWOOD (née Kalinová) was born and grew up in Bratislava, then Czechoslovakia. After studying English and Slavonic languages and literature at universities in Cologne and Munich she settled in the UK, where she spent more than 20 years working for Amnesty International. Since moving to the US in 2008 she has worked as a freelance translator from English, Czech, Slovak, German, Polish and Russian into Slovak and English, and administers the Facebook group Slovak Literature in English translation. She is Chair of the NGO Rights in Russia, and divides her time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London. Her translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, and My Life with Hviezdoslav by Jana Juráňová due to be published by Calypso Editions in 2015. She has also translated work by writers such as Uršuľa Kovalyk, Michal Hvorecký and Leopold Lahola among many others.
 
PETER SHERWOOD studied Hungarian and linguistics in the University of London before being appointed, in 1972, lecturer in Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London). He taught language, linguistics and literature there until 2007. Since 2008 he has been the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Peter Sherwood received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic for contributions to Anglo-Hungarian relations in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, and the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.
 
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Read more work by Balla:

 
Contagion” – a short story at Two Lines

Balla’s Author Page at Anasoft litera

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