THE HERETIC OR A PLAGUE OF SLUGS – EXCERPT FROM A PLAY

A Play in Two Acts

Act One
 

Scene One

 

A dismal office. Shelves up to the ceiling, several filing cabinets, a safe. Two desks with files piled up on each; a telephone on each, one telephone has a microphone and tape-recorder with a microphone attached to it. A smaller desk with a typewriter on it. Chairs. Doors: left leading to the corridor, and right leading to the Commander’s office. A narrow window, covered by a grey curtain that increases the impression of depressing gloomy weather. Through the open window one can hear the monotonous heavy pattering of the raindrops on the metal windowsill. The regular sound of the Secretary’s typing also increases the monotony. Emil stretches out in his chair, leafing through a pornographic magazine with a satisfied smile. Val searches for something in one of his desk drawers, takes out a small bottle of brandy. Both men wear uniforms with buttons, epaulets and jackboots. Val takes several quick gulps from the bottle. After a short while he closes his eyes in disgust and grows pale. He stands up. The bottle falls from his hand. Emil notices it and the Secretary looks over at him. Val clutches the corner of his desk spasmodically. He is about to be sick … he runs out into the corridor. His two office-mates follow him with their eyes, then look knowingly at each other. By the time Val returns, the Secretary has begun making coffee in a small espresso machine; Emil pretends to read, but observes Val over the magazine. Only the monotonous patter of the raindrops on the windowsill breaks the apparent calm. Val stands with his head bowed, pressing his hands over his ears, then runs to the window, and nervously opens the curtains.

Emil (has a propensity for getting fat. He has soft features in a characterless face. Tossing the picture magazine on the table, he turns around once in his chair and looks at Val sympathetically.) What’s up? Something eating you again?

Val (impulsively with a fanatical look) That damned gutter! That incessant dripping and knocking on the windowsill is driving me mad!

Emil It’s made of aluminum.

Val What is?

Emil The windowsill.

Val (somewhat cooler) Perhaps … I’ll close the window. (He draws the window shut.)

Emil The rain is not the only thing making that noise. There’s also that typewriter.

Val (stepping away from the window) And the noise in my head. (Pointing to his temples.)

Emil (teasingly) And how are your eyes?

Val (does not realise he is being challenged) Them, too. (He begins to pace up and down the room.) I can’t bear it any longer.

Emil Eat something.

Val I’ve lost my appetite. For the time being.

Emil “For the time being?”

Val For a good, long while.

Emil (trying to cheer him up) Well, let’s hope it returns by Saturday night! The Commander is planning a banquet, at which …

Val (interrupting him sharply) I’m fed up with all those banquets! People gorging themselves, boasting, feeling smug, self-satisfied. Growing fat, unrestrained and always being amiable! Everything … This calm makes me feel the failure … (Goes to his desk, collapses on his chair, and drinks again. Gradually, more and more quietly.) I’m growing dull. I’m becoming insensitive. … That’s the most terrible thing that can happen to a human being. (His hand reaches for the bottle again.)

Emil Don’t drink any more. (Whispering.) Not while you’re on duty … (Calls in a confidential voice to the Secretary.) Nelly, make the coffee good and strong!

Val (as if he hasn’t heard) One’s muscles grow completely soft and, what’s more, they atrophy … Sunsets woven out of gentle gossamer; not a single evening incident; never a telephone ringing in the middle of the night; you can sleep peacefully. You can snore undisturbed until you croak in bed like some Oblomov…

Emil (stands up, folds his arms, and steps closer to Val) Now, there’s no need to exaggerate. Lots of people would gladly change places with us.

Val Lots? … You mean those who do not know how lonely the animal tamers are … Besides we have to deal with those creeping, crawling creatures. (Shivers as if he were cold.)

Emil Quick, Nelly! Some hot coffee! (Suggestively.) Make it sweet, as only you know how. (The Secretary serves the coffee to Val. She looks at him worryingly, then starts to put sugar in his cup.)

Val (gestures for her to stop) Black.

Emil (The Secretary also serves him coffee. He stirs it) You’re right to call them crawling creatures, Val. There they are – lying at our feet. We’ve defeated them!

Val Who, these? Only enemies can be defeated.

Emil That is what they were before the general, your uncle …

Val (interrupting him bitterly) In his time everything was different!

Emil (lecturing him) He revolutionised public security using the most efficient methods. Anyone who resisted or dared remain stubbornly silent, he had lined up against the wall. After several such series of executions he succeeded in breaking the stupid resistance once and for all. So, according to the dialectics of things, your uncle laid the foundations for today’s peace and organised structure.

Val (puts his hands over his ears) Enough! That’s not what I want to hear about him. I have respected him because he was a different kind of conqueror from us. That’s why I chose this career: I thought I’d be needed. My victory would be needed that I’d succeed, like everyone succeeds, through sacrifice and hard struggle. (Dejectedly tosses the empty bottle into the drawer.) But here, there’s no need for energy. In this town people waste more energy than is released through nuclear fission … (Emil tries to suppress a yawn.) Did we win? … Such a victory can only stupefy and destroy you. (He puts his elbows on his desk, as if exhausted, and buries his face in the palms of his hands.)

Emil (hearing the last speech, he alternately looks first at Val, then at the Secretary. Words fail him. Pause. When he speaks, he speaks to soothe himself) The best is to do one’s duty. Yes, I think that’s best. (The telephone on Val’s desk rings. Val remains motionless, as if it were not for him. Emil and the Secretary look at Val, and then at the phone, in silence, as if paralysed. Silence for a few awkward seconds. Emil jumps up from his chair and grabs the receiver.)

Emil Hello, yes … I mean, no. Not personally … That he’s outside somewhere? No … I mean, he went out just a short while ago … No, he was here … I’m giving him … Excuse me, if not absolutely necessary … Yes, I understand. I’ll give him it … I mean, I’ll give it to him. … Yes, sir. (He replaces the receiver with a great sigh. He then leans closer to Val who remains motionless with his head resting on his hands.) He wants a new report, urgently. … From you. (Pause.) Val, don’t you feel well? … Do you think I could replace you? (Val nods uncertainly.) All right, as you wish. (Turning to the Secretary.) Nelly, put some fresh paper and new carbons in your typewriter.

Secretary How many copies?

Emil The usual number.

Val (raises his head) The text, too.

Emil (annoyed) Yes, it’s yesterday’s also. But the data are different.

Val (hopelessly) Not for long.

Emil Fortunately not. The final goal is near. (Selects some reports from a pile of documents and takes them to the Secretary.) OK, Nelly, you can type these. Take four from the “Unknown” column and add them to the total of the “Gained” column. (Turns towards Val.) This gain is the result of our work yesterday. (The Secretary begins typing the report.)

Val (slowly straightening up in his chair, to Emil) How many are left?

Emil As far as I can recall, three …

(The Secretary finishes typing and takes the sheets of paper out of the typewriter. Emil takes them from her.)

Emil (reads the text nodding as he goes, he mumbles so only the numbers are comprehensible) … out of the 33,859 inhabitants of the town, 26,741 are literate – that is, above the age of six – … of these 26,738 were recruited … unknown or supposedly neutral or hostile elements: three. (To Val.) I was right, there are three left. (Adjusts his uniform.) Now, I’m going to deliver the report instead of you. He might ask you what’s the matter. (Starts moving towards the office of the Commander, then turns back.) May I tell him at least that you’re not feeling well?

Val You can tell him whatever you like. (Puts his head back into the palm of his hand.)

Emil (to the Secretary) Console this youngster a little. (Knocks, then opens the Commander’s door.)

Secretary (looks at Val for awhile, picks up the newspaper and steals up behind him. With forced frivolity) Beware, for sadness is infectious.

Val (looking up) And the saddest thing is that cowardice is also.

Secretary How you have an answer for everything! (Pause.) Do you want me to read something? (She turns the pages of the newspaper.) Here’s an interesting piece of news. Let’s see what you make of this. (Reads.) “Saturday night unidentified persons abused the common graves … ” (To Val.) What are these “common graves”?

Val The graves of those whom the general had executed.

Secretary (continues reading) “The news spread through the town like wildfire. In order to avoid panic, police blocked all entrances to the cemetery. During the detailed investigation that followed, it was discovered that the unusual deed was committed by a herd of monkeys that had escaped from the zoo …” (While she reads, Emil enters.)

Val Monkeys, my arse! Much worse than that, they were trained people! … I can tell you that, from what I hear, it was an organised action. Presumably, this is how we experiment with official public feeling. And if by any chance the residual resistance flares up in anyone, we’ll quench it at once.

Emil That we also know well enough.

Secretary (with surprise) But then what’s the point that the newspapers … ?

Emil That’s the way things have always been done. And always will be.

Val (ironically) Nelly’s doubts are reasonable. At an historical moment such as ours, at this level of organised structure, a free press could be safely introduced.

Emil (joining the game) We must think of preserving the traditions, too … And anyway: there’s always someone who believes it.

Val One or two …

Val (interrupts him) Everybody?

Emil … Everybody will pretend to lap it up.

Val (jumps up, leaves him, nervously) Who’s this everybody? A huge, powerless, pointless nothing. (Turns around, shouts.) I’ve always been interested in the individual, do you understand? He who dares to look me straight in the eye with defiance and scorn! I was looking for romance in this profession. Strength, savagery, unrestrained rhythm, the dance of the instincts – not trained, rigid motions and foolish eunuch-grins! … (With final despair.) There are no individuals any longer! There never ever will be! … What’ll we do?!

Emil We’ll amuse ourselves. You don’t have to work yourself up into tragedy at once, when the most amusing situations are lying at your feet. Everything’s a question of imagination. (To the Secretary.) Have two people brought in off the street.

Secretary (with surprise) Two people?

Emil Yes. Whoever they catch first. (The Secretary goes out to the corridor. Emil makes himself comfortable behind his desk.)

Emil (to Val) I’m going to teach you a game … Come on, sit down. This’ll do you good. (Val hesitates at first, then dejectedly heads toward his chair. Sits down. The Secretary comes in through the door to the corridor, followed by Reding and Fürst, who are being pushed into the room by the First Terrorboy. Fürst is lean; his worn, drab overcoat reaches nearly to his ankles. Reding wears a checked jacket, the sleeves are short, as if he has grown out of them. They both have neglected appearances and characterless faces.)

First Terrorboy (his head shaven bald, he is a big, hulking fellow, wearing a black turtleneck tee-shirt. Comes to attention. Roars) The two persons are brought in, at your command! (Emil gives him a sign that he can leave. First Terrorboy exits.)

Emil (in a cold voice to the two civilians) Come closer. (Waits until they dare to go closer, keeping his penetrating look on them.) Still closer. Enough. (Waits.) Look at each other. (The two men quickly look at each other.) Do you know each other?

Reding and Fürst (together) No.

Emil (To Val) Correct. (Folds his arms.) Well then, let’s see you one by one. (Pointing at Fürst.) You stay here. (To Reding.) Get the hell out of here. Wait outside until I summon you. (Reding leaves in a hurry, going backward.) (To Fürst.) What’s your name?

Fürst Walter Fürst.

Emil How long have you been working for us?

Fürst I … since the beginning of spring.

Emil (severely) More exactly.

Fürst When that big snow started to melt, if you remember.

Emil I will ask the questions here, not you.

Fürst (pulling in neck) Yes, sir.

Emil And you must remember.

Fürst Yes, sir.

Emil So, how long have you been working for us?

Fürst Since the beginning of the spring when the snow …

Emil (with pretended impatience) Enough! (To the Secretary.) Find his file. (The Secretary looks for the file in the lower drawer of one of the cabinets, finds it and brings it to Emil.)

Secretary Shall I type the confession?

(Emil examining the file shakes his head, “no”.)

Secretary Shall I switch on the tape-recorder?

Emil Not necessary for the time being. (To Fürst.) As far as I can see, you don’t perform your duties as a citizen.

Fürst (opens his eyes wide) Me?!

Emil Tell us again what was your assigned duty.

Fürst (rapidly, as if repeating a memorised poem) To collect as much evidence as possible against Mr Stuszi that he does illegal killings.

Emil What?

Fürst That he kills pigs without permission.

Emil Who? Fürst Mr Stuszi. Emil His full name.

Fürst (obviously straining his brain) I can’t remember … The one who’s called blockhead by everybody. You know.

Emil And do you think that you have fulfilled your assigned duty?

Fürst I report to you respectfully that I’ve done my best …

Emil Answer the question: did you manage to collect evidence against him?

Fürst (with a sunken face) No, I didn’t manage to.

Emil (with pretended anger) None at all?

Fürst (shakes his head. He is frightened, and speaks rapidly) When I saw that he pulled down his pigsty and gave away his last sow as a present, I tried to make a trap for him. When it was getting dark, I led a pretty little piglet from the sixth neighbour, smuggled it in through his gate and drove it up on his porch, straight under his nose.

Emil (with interest) Where did you learn such cunning?

Fürst Well, you know, all sorts of people turn up where I work. Also educated people: lawyers, politicians.

Emil And what is your job … when not on duty?

Fürst I’m a toilet attendant.

Emil And then what happened to that pretty little piglet?

Fürst He gave it something to eat and drink; I heard he also bathed it. Then placed an ad in the paper asking its owner to come and get it. And the owner did.

Emil (without enthusiasm) Oh?

Fürst That’s right, and not just one owner, but a bunch of them.

Emil So you failed and for weeks you’ve made yourself scarce.

Fürst Forgive me for saying so, but my workplace is not an office that I can leave whenever I take a fancy to. My colleague has just been promoted, to say the least…

Emil These are all excuses. You’ve deceived us, you’ve not even reported the event … (Pause.) But don’t you worry, your Mr Stuszi has done a better job of looking after you.

Fürst (surprised) After me?

Emil After himself. He fulfils his duty; he doesn’t begrudge his pieces of information. (To the Secretary.) Would you find the file of this Stuszi.

Secretary May I have his first name?

Emil (to Fürst) Now, do you finally remember it?

Fürst No.

Emil (to the Secretary) He knows only as much as Stuszi … Why, do we have so many Stuszis?

Secretary We have several.

Emil Look for the blockhead among them.

Val (stirs, quietly) They’re all that.

Emil (To Fürst) What is your Mr Stuszi’s profession?

Fürst Butcher.

(The Secretary hands Emil a new file.)

Emil (studies the file then looks up at Fürst) Now you see, I was right. This man doesn’t sit around twiddling his thumbs. He states about his next door neighbour that he sells on the black market old, stale rat-poison from before the war; according to his report, he himself caught two other neighbours in the act of stealing into the circus without tickets. These two persons are imprisoned on remand at the moment … And, here’s the best proof (He waves the file.) that he is doing his duty to the community with devotion! He’s made a confession about his own wife’s political undermining work. Not only does the woman whisper about exchanging money on the black market all day long in front of others, but also in the evening, in the marital bed, she worries him with disturbing news. (Throws away the file.) You see, this is a man! Not like you.

Fürst Well, at my age it’s not so easy … I have haemorrhoids because of sitting all the time …

Emil (taking his chance) Aha, so you’d like to retire?

Fürst (frightened) No, not yet. The pension is very low where I work.

Emil But a good-for-nothing like you can be made to retire prematurely.

Fürst (bursts out) I don’t know what wrong I’ve done that now suddenly I’m considered suspicious.

Emil Nobody here suspects you. Suspicion should’ve been your task. (Looks at his watch like someone in a hurry.) But anyway, we’ve finished. You can leave. (Fürst looks around uncertainly. He does not dare move.)

Val Didn’t you hear what he said, my good man? You’re free.

Fürst (in despair) And what does that mean that … I mean …

Emil (in a bad humour because the game did not go as he would’ve liked it to: it did not lift Val’s spirits. Shouts) Get away with you! What else do you want?!

Fürst Please, I beg you, I don’t want to retire yet. … I’ll do anything so that … that I should be found worthy … I … I’m ready to make a confession.

Emil About whom?

Fürst (a big swallow) Well … about Mr Stuszi.

Emil Do you know any damning evidence against him?

Fürst As far as knowing is concerned, I know nothing … but I’ve heard that …

Emil What have you heard? … Spit it out!

Fürst … that one can confess what one doesn’t know but is asked for … I mean, if it’s necessary.

Emil (with a satisfied smile) Damning evidence is always necessary. … You never know … (Stands up, steps closer to Fürst.) What’ve you cooked up about Mr Stuszi?

Fürst (cunningly) It depends: how much evidence is needed?

Emil How many more years would you like to work?

Fürst (as if he’s been stung, suddenly shouts) Mr Stuszi robbed the butcher’s shop where he works.

Emil (laughs without mirth) All right, all right, but you ought to prove it.

Fürst Why? There’s rarely anything at all in the shop. So it’s not difficult to prove that he’s the one who’s guilty.

Val (pacing up and down) I’d suggest you do something else. There’s a man outside who was brought in here together with you. Give us some hard evidence against him.

Fürst (stunned) But … but I don’t even know his name.

Emil (with a superior smile) That’s nothing for you to worry about. It’ll be there when we need it.

Fürst But what can I say about a complete stranger? … I don’t have such a big… (Points to his head.) such a big imagination that I could concoct something like that …

Emil Leave that to me … We can begin then, can’t we? (To the Secretary) You can

switch on the tape-recorder. And type the confession. (Sudden blackout.)

Translated by Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse

(The Heretic from Silenced Voices: Hungarian Plays from Transylvania, Selected and Translated by Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse, Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2008, 99-157, ©2008, is reproduced by permission of the translators Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse and the publisher, Carysfort Press, Dublin.)

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