A TEARDROP IN THE SEA (‘GOCCIA SCORRE NELLA PIANURA’)

On 15 June 2013 the new wing of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth Library was officially opened. The building now has the capacity for one million printed books, journals, and countless other texts, pictures, drawings and soundtracks, materials with which, between 1983–2000, I had endeavoured to fill this house of Celtic and universal knowledge for Irish university students and staff alike. Like Moses who once reached the edge of the Promised Land, I tried my best to have this brilliant super-modern extension built during my time but in vain. Eventually the completion of the new addition was entrusted to Cathal, my successor and an excellent Irishman of 40 years of age, who finished in 2013 what I had started 30 years ago.

At the age of 80, as I am now, I walk round the unified building, and shed a tear into the rivulet, called Lyreen, which flows by the eastern wall of the edifice. It is of joy, but my happiness is not complete.

Adjacent to my one-time office (really one floor above) is the foreign literature section – originals and translations – which contains one shelf-full of Hungarica, a couple of hundred bound books, mainly donated by myself to the John Paul II University Library as it is officially called. Its foundation stone was placed under Phase 1 of the building by the good and wise Pope, Karol Wojtyla, during his visit to Ireland. He had flown in by jet from Rome to Dublin, where he celebrated a mass in front of 1.5 million people in the city’s Phoenix Park. The next day he took a helicopter to Maynooth, where he said he hoped that the Library would be built in a few years’ time, above the foundation stone he had laid.

Another time I was one of his ushers in Manchester, and received a signed photograph of him which my daughter would later lose when doing her final university exams. She passed with honours, however, perhaps one of the first of the miracles for which he was later to be beatified.

The J. P. II Library was to be financed partly by the Irish state, partly by donations. Like the myriad waterways that criss-cross Ireland, help was forthcoming from many sources; the bishopric of Tuam, the archdiocese of New York and of California, the Vatican, as well as the meagre purses of the Irish people. Yet, all that was not quite enough. In January 1982 Michael O., the president of the College invited for lunch the millionaire Swiss owner of the local stud. His Irish vet was once a classmate of the president. While drinking Irish coffee, the main guest took out his chequebook and wrote down a figure to donate: £50,000. The vet then intervened: “Fifty thousand is not a round sum.” “Indeed”, said the donor, tearing up the cheque, and writing another for £100,000. Then St Patrick’s College (as it was then called) decided to borrow £7 million from an international lender and the library was at last built. I was then appointed its director, and asked to assemble the existing printed material from eight locations on the campus, organise the move, and open the gates to the new Library’s users.

And when it was all done and dusted, the library began to work as a storehouse for the distribution of knowledge, some cad of an academic accused me, the librarian, of putting up ancient books for sale in order to reduce the debt. Just slanderous gossip, rebuffed by the truth but having a hand all the same in some unhappy drops of tears. There are dams blocking a river, and dams blocking one’s work.

The Lyreen rivulet reaches the Rye stream that flows by the eastern side of Carton House, once the home of the Duke of Leinster, now a luxury hotel. It has brown trout, one of whom I once caught angling in May 1986. (The fish was inedible, a pigsty in the neighbouring estate let its swill be channelled in the stream.) A couple of miles further down there was (is) a sluice, where the water is cleaned, and marches further another five miles to join the river Liffey, immortalised by James Joyce in his Ulysses. While symbolically, the teardrop continues its way towards Dublin port and into the Irish Channel – which the geographers call St George’s Channel, materially it is unlikely to have had much chance of survival. It is perhaps split into smithereens by stones inhabiting the water or chomped by the teeth of the sluice or swallowed by a trout. All units of every element get transformed one way or another.

Thirty years ago, in 1983, I took the reverse journey, walking out of storm-torn Hungary in 1956, arriving at an Austrian refugee camp in Villach, and then taking a military aeroplane to Britain. “England, my last fortress, help me to keep my human dignity”, wrote the Hungarian essayist, László Cs. Szabó. Once a student of Hungarian literature in Budapest I became a student of history in London. Then, after a detour to Rome, I became a library director in South America, and later a deputy director and lecturer in military history in Manchester. Then on a frosty winter’s day in 1983 the ferryboat “Eire” took me to the Republic of Ireland. I received a hearty welcome, first as a librarian and later as a writer and translator. Although President Michael, my superior, did not know about the remarkable journey of Lőrinc Tar, King Sigismund’s cup-bearer, to St Patrick’s purgatory in the fifteenth century, nor of Ferenc Pulszky’s admiration of Daniel O’Connell’s policies, he was informed of William Smith O’Brien’s high respect for the Hungarians. And every Irish intellectual knew about the Resurrection of Hungary, describing an obvious parallel with Ireland, which transformed the Irish Liberation Movement during the time of the dual monarchy. Some of my Irish colleagues called my attention to the Yeats poem which nominated the Irish as the Hungarians of the West, not to mention Joyce, with his imaginary Bloom of Magyar origin.

In this milieu, and after a decade of settling down in the job, I spent practically every minute of my free time constructing a dictionary, and writing my Danube trilogy. The Dictionary of Dictionaries is a reference book in the reference section. It lists ten thousand dictionaries, and eminent encyclopaedias written in English, partners to 3,000 language dictionaries of other languages, and 7,000 word compilations of trades, occupations, generic listings, specialised treasure troves etc., with evaluative comments. As a reference book bestseller, its profits earned me a new car. Yet the assembly of ten thousand titles is no more than a drop in the sea of textual knowledge. Strangely enough my inspiration came from Borges, a librarian himself, who had speculated on the worth of uncountable words, and the worth of libraries. I met him once in the Shelbourne Hotel during my first job interview visit to Dublin in 1982. Borges was then totally blind.

There are bigger European rivers than the Liffey: the Danube is one of them, filled with such solid and fluid history and culture that has been actively connecting past history and present sociography and the politics of our continent. The trilogy Danubius Danubia is on the Hungarian literary shelf, occasionally borrowed by Magyar visitors. I sent a chapter of its English translation to Universal Publishers of America. Back came the answer: “Not bad, but you should have written about the Mississippi.”

Meanwhile, the first phase of the J. P. II Library won the architectural award for the best library building in the British Isles of the 1980s. The plaque was shown to Prince Albert of Monaco, the King of Spain, and to Signor Cossiga, President of Italy. Faute de mieux I took the role of interpreter at the Maynooth banquet and stumbled in translating the word acolyte during Cossiga‘s speech. Next to me sat Signor Gianni, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who helped, with a smile on his face; “accolito” he said.  Then, at the end of the day Gianni remarked: “I have perfect English myself, but I let you struggle.” Years later I heard that his distant cousin, Claudio Magris, had won all possible European prizes with his book, Il Danubio. (1:0 to Italy). I was soon compensated for my linguistic failure with a letter from Mr Wang, a refugee from Peking wanting to join the J. P. Library in Maynooth. He addressed me as: “Dear John Paul the Second!” This letter was kept, framed and featured on the wall of my office, and shown to stray cardinals visiting the library. When work began on joining Phases 1 and 2 of the building the letter was transferred to my home where it was admired by my fervently religious domestic cleaner.

“Get a sponsor with a mere hundred million forints and we will film your Danube trilogy in three sequels for Duna (Danube) TV”, said a producer at the channel. Had Gianni heard this he would surely have laughed.

Conceived and born in the heart of my “great and wise” living water (monstrously destructive at times with its angry floods) yet realising my personal insignificance, I have tried to recreate its geographical and symbolic message of interconnectedness, and cultural fluidity – countries dovetailing into one another. I have tried to write a roman fleuve that features both real historical personages and ordinary people, a story embracing two hundred years which – nonetheless – contains a quark of my thinking, as any one drop of blood is circulating in a body interwoven by the network of veins. Have I succeeded at all? Can a planet, however long-tailed or tiny “succeed” coursing across the sky, which is our segment of the vast universe? We are born, teardrops, drops of blood, books, H2O molecules, rivers, seas – embryos, babies, grown men and women, human beings, capable of communicating – then (for want of a better word) we perish. Yet we do not perish, only transform, as we are disintegrated. If there was a purpose in the universe, where matter does not come to waste, but rather changes its form and structure, then the teardrop is dissolved, distributed, atomised. It still exists broken up materially, symbolically and fit for an unspecified purpose.


Ave atque vale.

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