THE 8TH DISTRICT OF GOD
The location is the outer 8th district of Budapest, which is called Józsefváros (Josephtown). This is definitely not the Palace District, but the other side of the Main Ring Road which marks the border between the City and the Zone and populated by drifters and others who are stuck here for good. At times, I get the feeling that time here passes as much as it stops. One street is turn-of-the-century Paris, with classic houses bearing down on you and crumbling wall ornaments from a more prosperous era, all impregnated with the discreet exaggerations of petty-bourgeois morals and taste. Another is modern Berlin with its crystal-shaped shopping mall, fountains, and a casino.
Yet just a few steps away you find yourself in a village amongst dilapidated buildings, you can see an old manor with a stork-plumed chimney, now turned into a shady little pub. Next door there are public gardens with tomatoes, peppers, and corn plants, decorated with geraniums.
In the opposite direction lies a vivid yet desolate residential complex.
Down on through an alley with the dull yellow hue of Italian mafia movies and we finally arrive at the Zone, beyond all time and space.
Native Hungarians and gypsies live here alongside Turks, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabs, a myriad of Africans, exchange students, old revolutionaries, squatters, refugees, petty criminals and mafia-types, as well as followers of a dozen other sects and religions.
Here, in just a few square kilometers, you can find everything that defines our Europe, the old one and the new. I live here and most of my stories originate from this district; that’s how this book came to be.
“Guess what, I got admitted to the police!”
Last night I started feeling hungry so I went to the nearest all-night corner shop.
There was a young gypsy, not even old enough to shave, hanging around disheveled bums, tired laborers, idle regulars and working girls about to start their shift—the usual customers. He was staring longingly at the ice creams in the locked fridge, before turning to the shopkeeper, who was beginning to stiffen with annoyance.
“Guess what, I got admitted to the police!”
The shopkeeper chuckled.
“You? How old are you?”
“It’s not a joke. We just finished primary school. I passed the exam. I’m going to secondary school,” the boy jabbered.
“You`re going to be a policeman, are you?”
Some of the customers glanced over; disheveled bums were sighing, sleepy laborers raising their bushy eyebrows, idle regulars trying to look like they had been interrupted, working girls fluttering their eyelashes left and right.
The boy looked around, and as he had done a few years earlier when he auditioned to play the youngest son in school plays, he drew himself up to his full height, puffed out his chest, and answered with as much confidence as he could muster.
Then a stocky man piped up. He`d been loitering near the door until then, hidden behind the others. His deep, mellifluous Morgan Freeman-like voice, filled the entire shop:
“I wanted to be a policeman, too…”
Thinking he was taking the piss, the boy squinted at him, sizing him up.
“That’s a joke.”
The crowd parted. No one knew what was going to happen next but they all knew it would be sudden, as usual, and unavoidable—no reflex fast enough to stay out of it. The locals are always vigilant; they sense at once when the air rarefies or thickens. So they bunched up, all apprehensive, and kept on staring left and right: at the boy, at the ice creams, at the well-built man filling the entire entrance.
The man waited, or at least looked like he was. Actually, he was contemplating half a lifetime of memories; he lowered his head and like someone coming to the end of a very long sentence, he said quietly:
“I wanted to be a policeman too… and then I ended up as a security guard. It was the best I could do.”
It wasn’t what people were expecting; everyone began fidgeting, one of the bums yawned, another elbowed him, the laborers jostled to get more space, the regulars—a flush-faced man and his grumpy-looking wife—grumbled about how much longer they`d have to wait while the girls were giggling and scratching themselves.
The boy raised his eyebrows and turned back to the shopkeeper.
“How much is this melon ice cream?”
“That one? Two twenty.”
The boy counted the coins in his palm again, there were still four 50 forint coins; his shoulder twitched and a smile appeared on his face.
“Never mind. I’m 20 forints short.”
Just then, the man appeared next to him, and as the boy was about to turn and head for the exit, he grabbed his shoulder and held him back.
“This is your lucky day, policeman. I’ll sort you out. How much do you need, 20 forints? There you go.”
Crooked market tale
Saturday afternoon at the tram stop, near Teleki Square flea market. I was waiting for the tram, along with many others, when a girl with highlighted eyebrows—or an effeminate boy; to be honest, I couldn’t tell—asked me:
“When is the tram coming?” she asked.
“In 5-6 minutes.”
“Cool,” she said, nodding.
We would have continued waiting peacefully but all of a sudden, three kids appeared on the other side of the road; they must have been about 10 years old and seemed up to no good. They started to sling insults at the girl with increasing volume and malice, yelling every obscenity and curse they could think of. I prefer not to repeat them here these since it is far from folk poetry. Enough to say that they didn’t spare her gender, job, origins, parents; all these things got covered in filth while she just stood there in a circle of bystanders slowly starting to drift away.
The girl—looking at her closely, now he looked more like a boy to me—endured all this quietly and patiently, until suddenly she blurted out:
“Fuck off, go back home to your shitty Romanian shithole!”
Then she looked at us, cleared her throat and even seemed to flutter her eyelashes a little when she said in a kind, quiet tone:
“It goes on like this all day long. This place is always like this… if you weren`t here, I wouldn’t believe that Hungarians live around here, too. These brats, I don’t know what hole they crawl out of but they are everywhere!”
The kids crossed the road and continued to yell their shrill obscenities. The girl—or the boy—didn’t say another word to anyone, she just took the insults in silence. A couple of long minutes passed like this, the tram didn’t come so we waited. We said nothing, just stared at the ground in front of us helplessly, as usual.
One of the market-women in the nearby market is a black lady, supposedly from Sudan; she must have heard the cacophony of insults and decided to find its source. So she came to the tram stop and shouted at the kids in perfect Hungarian, stressing the first syllables beautifully:
“Get the fuck out of here, you little shits! Don’t let me catch you around here again!”
The small horde backed off and left quietly. The girl—now she looked like a girl to me—raised her eyebrows in surprise and mumbled thank you politely. She looked at us and we could see neither good nor evil in her eyes, they simply reflected the same indifference with which we`d been looking at her.
DÁNIEL LEVENTE PÁL (1982) is a poet, writer, editor and circus dramaturge. He is the author of four poetry collections and a book of short stories. After a few years of freelancing, between 2012 and 2016, he was the editor-in-chief of one of the biggest university publishing houses, ELTE University Press. Since 2016, he has been working for the Capital Circus of Budapest as a playwright-dramaturge, he has created five circus shows in cooperation with world-famous circus artists, one of his shows (The Children of Atlantis) was the most successful circus performance of the last 25 years in Hungary. He lives in the infamous VIII. district of Budapest, which is Hungary’s biggest urban slum. His latest book (Az Úr Nyolcadik Kerülete – The 8th District of God) was an instant success in Hungary. He collects stories, fragments, nichés of the slum.
About the Translator:
ADRIENN POLECZKY lives in Budapest, Hungary. She studied English and French literature and linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest) and Université Nice Sophia Antipolis (France). Certified with a Diploma of European Masters in Conference Interpreting, she is a conference interpreter and a translator (Hungarian-English-French). She is also a certified graphic designer and the audio guide script narrator and translator of several exhibitions in Hungary (Hungarian National Gallery, Vasarely Museum etc.)