Translated by Erika Mihálycsa
April 13th fell on a Friday. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the evening cultural programme flaunted the name FRANZ KAFFA under the picture of Kafka. As if this were not enough, the programme was delayed by an hour because of the news bulletin dragging on for unusually long. The presenter was a freckled-faced young woman whose quaint name no spectator could possibly remember. It was then that Zsolt Láng realized his wife was cheating on him: the moment he saw his own face on the screen. He had never liked to watch himself when he was on, yet for some reason now he didn’t turn off the tv or start zapping. He stood, planted in front of the tv set, holding a glass of wine. Waiting for his wife who would be late as usual when there was a deadline in the editorial office. It was not the lateness of the hour – it was past 11 p.m. – and the fact that she was nowhere yet that triggered his suspicion but that, as they say, he could read the signs, signatures of all things fishy. He stood staring at his own face and drew two conclusions. Number one: this face is repugnant. Number two: whoever wears this face is certainly betrayed by his wife.
When the programme was over, he rushed to the bathroom and checked in the mirror if his face was quite as daunting. Its size nearly filled the glass. Supercilious and bored. His ruffled hair was no great help either, making his head look even bigger. Double chin below, mane on top. Great mug filling the frame. No smile but a grin. Not pleasant but pompous. Not smart but snooty. “Thank you for coming”, the presenter said by way of good-bye, to which he gave a complacent nod. The camera assistant obviously expected as much as a “Great being here”, so the camera zoomed on him for quite a while, for quite a disproportionate while. The fleshy, freeze-frame face crept into the spectator’s room like some catching disease to which the organism responds by producing antibodies.
Zsolt Láng experienced a strong allergic reaction to 100% of contemporary Hungarian authors. When any of the papers asked him to write on such and such, he would invariably turn the request down. Last time, however, he agreed to review the latest book of Zsolt Láng, for reasons only known to himself. His wife was enthusiastic about it… She would laugh out loud while reading, her face all flushed. A sound enough reason to make the author repugnant. So he wrote a back-patting critique on “this highly interesting new work penned by the remarkable Transylvanian novelist”. To bulldoze somebody while praising them: he was incomparable when it came to that. But while he might have made a point of misspelling the name as Lángh, no-one could object in the least to the review. And then again, you could always blame that extra h on the proofreader.
In the meantime his wife got out of the car and was walking home. It so happened that on Kálvin Square she was stopped by two policemen who were obviously bored to high heaven, and it took them no time to discover that the car documents had expired. Perhaps they could faintly smell she was unsatisfied. Perhaps they fell for her skull-shaped earrings. Or, equally plausibly, they got completely engrossed in her name. For they expressed a strong conviction that Zsolt Láng could under no circumstances be her name, Zsolt being a man’s name for all they knew. “Indeed”, she smiled back, “my husband finds it bothersome as well, so he just calls me Zsó. You could call me that, I suppose.” The policemen didn’t find this funny, not a wee bit. On the scale of their sense of humour there was one mark only, with a giant 0 written above. Still, Nil was no Naught, as Fibonacci, the man who gave this number its outlandish name, knew all too well. Of course at this moment Zsolt Láng was hardly preoccupied by the difference between Nil and Naught. Screw the car, she shrugged, got out and started on foot towards Szabadság Bridge. It was early spring, the night pleasant enough to walk in a light overcoat.
When she reached the Customs House she crossed the river, as she had loved gazing down on the Danube flowing by ever since she was a child. She recalled the afternoon scene. Her husband had asked her in a tone not dissimilar from that of the two policemen, “Reading again?” and, as there was no reply, he had added scornfully, “You are reading this Zsolt Láng as if you were in love with him.”
She kept thinking about this. Perhaps she was indeed in love with the author. At the editorial office she googled him and was startled by how much he resembled the man she met on a vast stretch of white, sandy beach in a dream. Especially his eyes.
She gazed over the parapet, focusing on a nearing barge. She wondered if there were any people aboard. This moment she noticed the bird flying in from Csepel isle. It was huge, huger than any bird she had ever seen. The reflection of the points of light on the water flashed on its wings, moving noiselessly. As if it had not one but at least three pairs of them. Do archangels exist, after all? Her heart stopped for a moment at the thought. Might be because she’s tired. Still, she liked being tired, it is a good state, brings everything into sharper focus. When tired, she could see through people. And occurrences: she could sense what was to happen the next instant.
Now if she really had such abilities, she might not return home at all. Or would she? Hard to tell. She loved her husband, there was no question about that. Or perhaps she didn’t love him at all.
Avoiding the back streets, she was trotting up Villányi street. So strange, these April nights are. The time when the plaster statues detach themselves from the facades. They shake off the dust and whiz off headlong through the streets to go sniffing around the city.
She could never love exclusively, or hate exclusively. Merely a mix of the two. It was no different with Zsolt Láng’s books. She loved and hated them at the same time. Limitlessly. Was there an edge for her? Where does adulation end and anger begin? Wherefore this ambiguity? She had no idea. That man in her dream grabbed a handful of sand and let it trickle from his fist. When all the sand was gone drops of water seeped from his hand. Between the two, where sand turns to water, there is naught. She shuddered. She took out Zsolt Láng’s novel from her handbag and tossed it over the parapet, into the Danube. The book flew with wings spread out like the huge bird a moment ago. It landed on the stern of the barge that was just about to disappear under the bridge, caught on the upper edge of a half-open door. But this she could not see, as she was already walking away.
Her husband was waiting for her, his anger gathering. The future was a roaring sea of fire; the past, but slumbering certainty. This very moment they are together, he had no doubt about that. They see each other regularly. It must have been going on for three months at least. He could tell, because his wife became very punctual all of a sudden. Before that she would always be late. The only time she was not late was when clocks were advanced to adjust to summer time. And even then her punctuality would last a few brief days only, until she realized the clocks had changed. After that she would start lagging behind again.
He had no doubt what they were doing. Just climaxing perhaps. He’ll sniff his wife’s body head to toe as soon as she sets foot in their home. Cat’s hair stuck in cats’ caramel, as they call resin. He needs unequivocal evidence. Like the few hairs of their cat he found stuck in the resin oozing from the tree-bark beneath the silent greenfinch nest. In point of fact ever since he was brought into the world he had longed to find unequivocal evidence that it was no bed of roses, this world into which he was brought.
His wife passed the corner of Szüret street; in ten minutes she would be home. As she turned the corner of Késmárki street, she noticed that someone was walking behind her. Was she being followed? Inside her pocket her hand found the keys so she needn’t waste time. Would she scream? But why was she panicking? Didn’t she also follow others, quite often, longing for that hazy thing that can be sensed in closeness? She arrived at their gate and pulled out the key. That man was just opening another gate, two blocks from their entrance.
Her husband had opened yet another bottle but realized he wasn’t in the mood. Besides, something that never happened to him, he had to rush to the toilet. Most unusually, at this late hour. But he had to: indigestion. He got scared. He needed to take something, but had no idea whereabouts the pills were. He called his wife, heard the ringtone and later, the voice on the answering machine. He conjured up her image, her body all aquiver, her back arched, her head thrown back, moaning, setting those sounds free. Mint tea, he must at least drink some mint tea. He put on the kettle, started scrutinizing the kitchen shelves but found neither mint nor chamomile. Called his wife again: again, there was no answer.
His wife had left her cell-phone in the editorial office; it was dutifully vibrating on her desk. It could have gone on vibrating unmolested, had she not set the answering machine to turn on after a few seconds. She was still fumbling with the entrance lock. Imagining what would have happened, had she needed to open it in one move. She started laughing at herself, her whole body silently vibrating just like her phone on the desk. You couldn’t with the best intentions in the world call it a relaxed laugh, judging by the look of it. No wonder she was so clumsy with the lock. For if she could open it in one move, she would be in the courtyard already and from there it is only five steps into their hall. And her husband would turn on her and go on and on without pausing even to draw his breath. In such moments all it would take would be to let herself be pushed on the bed and play along, then he would stop eventually. But she couldn’t face it now, not tonight, certainly not. She felt ravenous, but he wouldn’t even leave her alone to eat now. She was fed up. “I’m fed up!”, she screams out and, as she happens to be holding the bread knife, she starts flailing it around. If the story goes by simple denuements, her husband will have a stroke on the spot. No way. He misconstrues the gesture and grabs at her wrist, she jerks her knife-flourishing hand away for fear she might wound his hand, but bumps her elbow in the furniture, her arm bounces back and the point of the knife pierces his throat, his jugular vein to be more precise. She faints at the sight, or rather, she wishes she could faint, but instead she has to watch it all… Of course it might just as well happen that as soon as she enters her husband whizzes off to the supermarket to fetch some strong liquor. At which sight she bolts out and sets off for the Citadel and, because at night the temperature drops abruptly and it starts snowing heavily, she will be left on a bench covered, head to toe, in the snow faintly falling.
500 kilometers to the east it started snowing precisely at midnight, on the edge betwen today and tomorrow, that is, between yesterday and tomorrow. Zsolt Láng was staring out at it, mortified by what was going on outside his window. For hours now he had been trying to write a letter to his friend in Berlin, but so far he hadn’t got past the preparations. Some years earlier he got offended – the reason being some “misreading” – and he hadn’t known what to write him since. In fact by now it was merely this wound that connected them. And to think that they had eaten spring nettles together, which according to the Germans was the sealing of friendship for good and all: if two did that, they would become inseparable. It happened exactly ten years ago. He was living in Berlin with his family at the time, in a flat on Uhlandstrasse close to the Kempinski Hotel, so in the mornings he could often see Imre Kertész, recently be-Nobelled, Frühstück-ing behind the vast glass panes. He heard that Kertész was living close to the Kempinski on Fasanenstrasse, a street with a scent of linden. He, on the other hand, had returned to Marosvásárhely, or Târgu Mureș as it was also known, to inhale the smoke from old Mr Sandu. For old Mr Sandu ran a smoke-house in the back yard of his house that was almost glued to their block of flats. Zsolt Láng liked Mr Sandu and would good-humouredly bear the smoke. After all, it was not Mr Sandu who had his house built in the middle of the nationalized garden of the block of flats, but quite the other way round. When the neighbours had denounced the old bloke, Zsolt Láng defended him, even delivering a high-wrought piece of oratory about his thrift and orderliness that he, Zsolt Láng, witnessed day by day thanks to the fact that he could literally see through Mr Sandu’s home and life. In the end the inspectors, now several policemen the stronger, turned tail and the smoke-house of old Mr Sandu has continued smoking the neighbourhood unmolested ever since. To tell the truth, sometimes it is rather annoying that you can’t open a window during the day or night. Indeed, it can happen that he feels he must burst with rage and fury. But fortunately he always manages to write it out of himself.
My name is fortunately not Zsolt Láng. This name is popping up everywhere like mushrooms after rain. The other day I came across an article about one of these Zsolt Lángs, a village baker somewhere on the Pannonian Plain, who sent back the flour to a woman who had the bad grace of passing an uncomplimentary remark on the prime minister. If you google the name you can easily find this piece of news and once you read it, you will inevitably presume that each bearer of the name Zsolt Láng is liable to withhold bread from somebody just because they happen to favour the enemy party.
I have no idea why this name is becoming so fashionable. Might it be because of its inflection that invokes the past? That final t in LángZsolt: the past-tense suffix of a flamboyant nonce verb, the first syllable flaring up, the second quenching the flame with the ineluctability of the preterite. Nowadays the tendency of turning towards the past is uncommonly strong. The past they keep turning to is of course nonexistent, an invention, but once they turn into it there is no more need to drag the real past to the daylight, look it in the eye, turn it over and over again in their minds, cogitate on what the consequences are, and of what causes, and whoever we raise high or cast down in the process.
My name is Zsolt as well, Zsolt Weibel. My wife doesn’t like the past. She dubs me Zsolesz. Two syllables: Zso-lesz, Zso-will-be. In her eyes I am the future, that’s the message behind the nickname. We have been through sperm screening. Three times we were supposed to go but we skipped the first test. The doctor gave us quite a roasting. Mr Zsolt, he said, you may believe this is all right, but it is our work you are ruining. The naked truth is, I was afraid to go. After all, one is always intimidated by the doctors.
Although the first lab test diagnosed a mild form of oligozoospermia, it is not a serious problem. It is not a problem at all. It may be caused by a variety of factors, including the stress involved in any screening. The second test – the third, that is, according to the clinical protocol – already yielded first-class results. Perhaps because my wife lent a hand in collecting the sample and her presence made me thoroughly relaxed. The lab nurse said when taking the test-tube that she could feel even through the glass how it was all a-swirl and a-buzz, like a swarm of bees.
After such excellent results I was released, but not before being given a meticulous life training programme. A bit of work-out in the mornings, but nothing too exhausting; a light but nurturing lunch; and of course I had to keep off all harmful things. No alcohol, no cigarettes.
How will it be when the day comes? Will it be fine, Zsolesz? I have been thinking so often… Sure, we all know how far daydreams are from reality. It rarely ever happens the way we imagined it. Still, we do consider all those thousands of possibilities. How will I behave? Will I be disciplined enough? Will my body toe the line? Will it not?
And then the day came. I woke up in the morning knowing, this was to be it. Although my dream was about something not even remotely connected. I was put to clean the windows of a ten-storey tower block, all of them, inside and out. Still, when I woke I had a clear awareness of what was in store for me. And indeed my wife called at noon to tell me she reached luteal stage. We should meet at the clinic. Or would I prefer it at home, after all? No I don’t, I said a bit impatiently, because we had talked it all over and after weighing the pros and cons had brought a final decision.
It just occurred to me while I was being driven in a cab to the clinic, that this is just like ping-pong versus table tennis. Two different, incommensurable qualities. There is nothing that these words share. Fucking and conceiving a child.
When I arrived I gave my name and was sent by the receptionist into the opposite room. Here I had to change, that is, they gave me a queer-looking night-shirt with lots of velcros. But not before shaving me. Shaving my pubic hair I mean. I have no idea why this was necessary, but let’s drop it, obviously it must be easier to handle it this way. One commenter had suggested the best way was to shave myself, at home, but unfortunately I forgot this small detail. It is a rather hurried and inclement procedure but one can get over it.
From here I was ushered into the waiting-room where apart from me there was a burly red-haired chap splayed out on his bed who resembled Oliver Kahn, the legendary goalkeeper of Bayern, in the act of storming out from his goal to bulldoze that master trickster Inzaghi. On the other bed, sunk in himself was a nondescript, pale-faced lad. And there was also a tattooed young Roma man with pumped-up muscles who, in contrast, was surrounded by a whole legion. Now and again he yelled out, let me go, because he was visibly on edge, slapping around in fits of hysteria. Peering in through the crowd around him I could see that the grimaces contorting his face spoke of genuine qualm. His mother – I presume that old-looking woman next to him was his mother – was encouraging him with loud, warm words, at which the young man broke down and in no time the whole gathering was heartily sobbing. I understood nothing of what they were talking about, I could only distinguish two words, stoko and gufa, that were often repeated. In the end the family left the room. Then the young man showed it to us, with evident pride, how big it was. No one wanted to look, I only threw a glance in its direction when he turned to address me. Uncle (that was me), whadjasay? I could see a tattoo there, its colour rather appalling. Isn’t that something, I answered, he nodded thankfully and started relating the story of the dragon-head and how it ended up there, a story definitely worth putting to paper, he hoped he would find somebody of the author class to help him out.
Before I could answer anything they came for me and pushed me off on the wheel-bed. Just a slight haste in their movements, barely perceptible really, as everybody knew their duty. I was glad I had appealed to this clinic and not to the much pricier one where the patients couldn’t even expect their doctors to attend on them at all hours. I said patients because indeed, I was feeling shittier every second now.
Fortunately dr Kiss appeared, to whom we had given the money in advance. Some say it was a mistake to pay him in advance, but I thought it was manlier. After all, there is a thing called trust.
My wife, perhaps on account of the money, had suggested at the very beginning to try to solve the whole thing at home because it would be so much cheaper. But after I handed over the envelope to the doctor she didn’t bring up the subject again or if she did, I placated her by pointing out that the money had been spent anyway. All in all, it was much safer if the whole thing took place inside, in a well-equipped clinic. Safer and, what is paramount, more efficient.
To be frank, when we were in the preliminary stage of planning I, too, was carried away by some sort of romanticism. Mother Nature’s soft lapel would often appear in front of my mind’s eyes, complete with birdsong, the buzzing of insects, a clearing filled with the soft rustling of the wind where the sounds and scents mingling with other noises, whispers and rhythms would merge into one sole, mysterious, crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing, incessantly throbbing overture… No! Let us remove the risks while we can! Let’s hold life firmly in our grasp. I prepared for every opportunity. I have been jogging for two years now in the mornings and thanks to this one-hour daily exercise I am fit as a fiddle. I can bear anything and I reach consummation in everything. I finish whatever needs to be finished. And I won’t go on with what cannot go on.
All of a sudden three people appeared around me and attached all kinds of appliances to my body. A valved thing was hung on my bed in the event my body would not function properly. Fortunately there was no need, I was only put on it for trial for a few secs. I was surprised myself at how impeccably every inch of me worked: readily like an intelligent dog that wouldn’t disgrace his master, so it is far better-behaved when among strangers than when alone, when it would try some silliness now and again.
My wife was plugged in as well. All kinds of wires were hanging from her which were eventually plugged into different devices. When a low whistling signal started getting louder, the assistant told us to hurry up as the ovule was just about to detach, the missiles had to be on their way.
The two monitors were placed side by side and I was allowed to watch but could hardly pay attention to so many things at the same time. A nurse injected something into the infusion bag, I felt a coolness penetrate my veins. Like when a door opens and from the room comes that smell of old, from childhood, kindling an irresistible desire to enter…
Push now, now withdraw. How to make my movements more efficient, in what order to set them – nurse was not only telling me but she took an active part, parting my wife’s thighs, re-arranging the bumps of muscles on the wane into the desired position. Her help was most welcome, although even so, once I was in, I halted. Not over yet! nurse cried, don’t stop! Her voice slapped me a shade too shrill and this unnerved me. Goddam, no! yelled dr Kiss, pay attention to me and nothing else, you did well, relax! A deep sigh escaped me. His fostering did me a world of good. It just flickered through my brain, how lucky we have appealed to him. Although perhaps if I had got scared it would have been through easier. Who could tell what would have been best.
I was watching my breath. Don’t hurry, doc was repeating and, just as if he shared in my plight, he was panting. I knew very well I must not hurry, we had been working on this in pre-conception exercise. Abdominal breathing is no help at this stage, on the contrary, it diminishes your chances. Thoracic breathing is needed and then gingerly, through the nose and mouth. In small, very small draughts. You focus on something faraway. Then time almost stops. Nothing stirs. And when doc yells at last, Now, Now let it go and for the sake of emphasis slaps your thigh, then you get all cramped but let it go, in despair, almost fainting.
What was my first thought? If everything worked as expected… Or rather, I thought of nothing because the nurses were already busying themselves, switching off monitors, carrying off my wife while I was trolleyed into the waiting-room which felt cold, unusually cold. In the end I came to think, yes, the first thing that occurred to me was that I must be fat after all, too fat. I must have misunderstood something. Eating regularly was important but you were not allowed to run to fat. If for no other reason, at least because if you were not fat it was much easier to get at a thin body. My thighs were burning and I felt pangs of ache in my testes. I was trembling. I was alone. I would have loved to hurry home as quickly as possible. I hoped next time it would be better. I have read in the comments of Conceptionista.org that the third conception was really a piece of cake, you could easily squeeze it in a lunch break. But for the moment I’m not thinking that far.
ZSOLT LÁNG (b. 1958), based in Transylvania, Romania, editor of Lato literary magazine (Tg. Mures/Marosvasarhely, Romania) is one of the most representative voices of his generation. His fiction is characterized by a propensity to wordplay and a relentless exploration of the politics of language. He has published more than ten volumes of short prose and essays, as well as a tetralogy entitled “Bestiarium Transylvaniae” (I:1997, II-III: 2003, IV: 2011).
About the translator:
ERIKA MIHÁLYCSA is a Joycean and Beckettian scholar and Flanneur – that is, a Flann O’Brienist. She teaches 20th century British fiction at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. She has published mainly on the language poetics of this unholy trinity. She has translated Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds”, Patrick McCabe’s novels, short fiction and essays by Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, William H. Gass, John Banville, Emma Donohue, Janice Galloway, poetry by Beckett, william carlos williams, Sylvia Plath, Medbh McGuckian, Ted Hughes, Paul Durcan, Gunter Grass, Matthew Sweeney among others, into Hungarian.
Read more work by Zsolt Láng:
Author website (in Hungarian)
Short story (in English) at Hungarian Literature Online
Information (in English) about Zsolt Láng’s novel “Beasts of the Earth”
Another short story (in English) at Hungarian Literature Online