(On and à propos Tibor Várady’s book Goose-Downs and History)
The secret source of Humour itself is not joy, but sorrow.
Lieutenant Nikola Tepić was the half-brother of Major Milan Tepić, the latter well-known for having blown himself up along with an ammunition depot at Bjelovar to prevent it from falling into Croatian hands while fighting for Serbia in the war that would eventually disrupt Yugoslavia. Major Tepić later had streets, squares and parks named after him in Serbia. Yet my introduction here is less about him than about his less famous half-brother, who commanded the military reconnaissance unit in Csáktornya (today Čakovec in Croatia). Nikola was a man of good humour, keen observation and reasonable patience, although not immune to fits of superciliousness and prone to reach the end of his tether on occasion. This would happen particularly when the rank and file had had a good rest after one of those gruelling military exercises that left everyone drained. Then slowly it all began anew. Tension reasserted itself among various national and ethnic groups. Whispered slurs against Gypsies and Shiptars (Albanians) would become increasingly vociferous, until absurd conflicts began to escalate, fed by God only knows what violent sentiments and motivations, to the point when it was the slim against the fat, the short against the tall, you name it. Lieutenant Tepić watched this for some time, but after a while he could not take it any more. He sounded the alarm, whipped everyone into full combat gear, then assumed position at the head of the file – yes, in person, this official Marathon champion of the Yugoslav People’s Army – and hit it off in a brisk double march, the wings of the barrack gates flung wide open before him.
Through hills and dales, woods and fields, thorns and thickets, under birds on trees and poles, past watchmen’s huts they went, this trailing company hard on the heels of Nikola. By the time the good lieutenant decided to relent at last, the men’s tongues lolled from their mouths to the ground. They could barely muster a stagger. In fact, upon catching up with their commander, some of them stopped and bent over hands on knees, panting and coughing so hard they nearly spat out their lungs. A few even vomited. Before ordering a break after so many kilometres, lieutenant Tepić took off his cap, smoothed over his bristly hair and, truth be told a little out of breath himself, addressed his sergeant, whose face had turned from purple to ash gray.
“See, Balázs, how alike they all are now”, he said.
Without saying a word more, he issued the command to set up camp. That night, the rank and file slept after their forced march like the camp prisoners in Miklós Radnóti’s Seventh Eclogue. There was no quarrel. Before he went to sleep, the sergeant himself listened to the trickle of the nearby stream for a while, and nodded in satisfaction when he heard the lieutenant snore in his tent. Then he, too, was carried away on the wings of dreams to some place far away he can no longer remember.
Was it to Újvidék? Or Novi Sad? Same town, different language. Home, anyway.
Well, Tibor Várady, in his new book exploring the legal estate of his father and grandfather in Nagybecskerek (today Zrenjanin in Serbia) – nota bene, this is the point where the anecdote related above becomes relevant – quotes Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész, specifically from page 16 of his book A végső kocsma (“The Last Tavern”), where the author states peremptorily that being “Jewish” is not a clear-cut category except for anti-Semites, especially now that this race has not really been looked upon with sympathy. Várady adds that this observation also applies to Hungarians residing in Vojvodina or, as it was called by Hungarians back then, the Southern Province. The same is true for any other group of people. He continues by suggesting that no human being can be unambiguously identified by his association with race, ethnicity, or even history. Which is not to say he denies the right of a group to avow a common lot. For such communities of fate do exist. At this point, the author navigates onto literary waters, asserting that, at times, we are all more alike than dissimilar. PERHAPS WHEN WE RUN OUT OF STEAM, quoting this time not Radnóti, but another great Hungarian poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, who relates the poignant story of a fatigued tour guide becoming an ordinary tourist in his utter exhaustion. Someone like the next man. To some extent, the description fits lieutenant Tepić, who could hardly be surmised to have read Kosztolányi.
And while we are at war: another thing Várady’s book deals with is the concatenation of wars, not only in the chronological sense, but also in terms of causality. The planes of time may often overlap and the text digress, taking the reader on a topsy-turvy ride as so often happens in modern novels. Yet despite these bumps along the road, or perhaps because of them, the seemingly discrete events coalesce into hard evidence, unquestionable lessons to be learned, as we found in Várady’s previous book, Socks by the Chandelier, Lives by a Thread. These correlations lay bare the traps we have a habit of falling into, not learning anything (or at least not enough) from what has come to pass before, when these lessons, not least among them the repeated warnings of the pitfalls of nationalism, are offered to us on a plate, as it were.
It is lamentable that so few people are capable of drawing their conclusions from past mistakes, perhaps because they are simply men in the street who have better things to do than heed the admonitions of history. They never grew up to understand the lesson. It is just too complicated for them. No matter their ethnicity – Serbian, Hungarian, German, Slovakian, Ruthenian, Romanian, or whatever – they do not comprehend their own desperate writhing and thrashing in the tide of history, and lack the capacity of seeing things in a cause-and-effect relationship. As a result, they consistently blame others for their problems, real or imagined. They are deaf to words of caution, forever immune to any stretch of time or space in which their delusions could stand a chance of eradication once and for all. By the same token, it is impossible to make them understand that, if they happen to belong to the majority at a certain point in time and space, efforts to vindicate minority rights are not made to the detriment of their own rights. Such an ambition on the part of minorities does not necessarily equal nationalism, much less chauvinism. What it does constitute is the subject of amnesia on the part of those who used to form a minority at one time themselves, before the cards were reshuffled by history in a thrilling, suspenseful weaving of the plot that would put to shame the most accomplished action-movie screenwriter.
Yet more often than not, a lapse of memory of this sort is not so much symptomatic of some memory disorder as simply a heartfelt manifestation of getting even. A rematch of sorts, to put it mildly.
Where was I? At WAR, to recoup my leitmotif. War as a factor capable of restructuring time itself. As I once put it in one of my increasingly rare epiphanies of inspiration, wars protrude from the infinite matter of time like wolf’s teeth from a sheep’s mouth, to serve as something for shaky human memory to hold onto. They are like ropes and pitons for the mountain climber. Without wars, we would all feel far more lost and find our bearings with far greater difficulty, yet they are peerless in their ability to instil horror, sorrow, loathing and a sense of utter futility, not to mention their defiance of description. Yet we constantly wage war and seek to describe it. And this ends my diatribe, without inverted commas. Now onto a personal note, briefly. I earned the chevrons for sergeant in the JNA, the Yugoslavian People’s Army. In my civilian life, I have always been an avid reader, and I fondly remember Tibor Várady’s Kafkaesque novel Az egérszürke szoba titka (“The Secret of the Mouse-Grey Room”), but that is another story. In any case, it seems that Kafka inevitably continues to loom large in this corner of the world. His spirit duly infiltrated the litigation documents that had collected dust over the years in Várady’s family home in Nagybecskerek, be they related to petty offences or major crimes. Many of them have intimate ties with this or that momentous turn of history, each forming a sharp detour in the main trajectory of the plot.
So. Back to war.
One of my grandfathers (both dyed-in-the-wool heroes) was seriously wounded on a reconnaissance mission (apparently a tradition in our family) while serving as a private in the Hungarian detachment of Yugoslav partisans, called the Petőfi Brigade. The other, an ensign, nearly froze to death on the Don River Bend front, which proved a graveyard for the Hungarian army, but survived by an inscrutable stroke of luck. These forebears of mine would routinely make the war as their fulcrum of reference when attempting to place events in time for practical purposes – before, during, between, and after the two World Wars. Then they would hone the result by saying whether this or that happened directly or quite a while after, before, etc. They distinguished between Hungarian times, old Yugoslavian times, things like that. And the Monarchy. The old folks hardly ever reached back to the Ottoman Occupation, although it did come up in their conversation every once in a while. It would be interesting to take tally of the things that drove them to fierce dispute, which was usually cut short the moment my father entered. It would take too long to discuss these altercations in detail, and I do not exactly recall the arguments, although in hindsight, as a mature man, I could hazard a few guesses as to their ulterior motives.
The point is that my grandfathers would file charges against each other with my father, who was not a lawyer, much less a judge, but somehow had an innate gift to deliver justice left and right. As a last resort, when he could no longer think of any other way, he would simply yell at them. This generally reinstated silence.
I was a kid. I did not really understand what was happening. My grandfathers, too, acted in rather childish ways, cowering under my father’s wrath, as we all did. These recollections from my family’s past come rushing in as I peruse Tibor Várady’s last two books. I only regret that my father never bothered to commit these episodes to paper. He was too busy with his own vaudeville-flavoured writings, most of which essentially consisted of commentary on daily politics and, alas, proved ephemeral as such. They were not even truly dejected. (… NO REAL BLUES…) This is just a circuitous way of saying that I often think of Várady with envy, at whose disposal fate placed a veritable gold mine of documents so vast that he would not possibly be able to exploit it all. As a novelist, I would find such a storehouse of records extremely helpful. As it is, I have no choice but to trust in imagination.
Not that imagination is to be scoffed at. It is a case of apples and oranges. When mixed and interbred, call them appanges, if you will.
But is it really all a matter of hitting on the right proportions of ingredients in the blend? If it were, this would be a screaming commonplace, albeit one extremely relevant to my subject here. For this coincidence practically takes the reader by the hand to guide him to page 156 of Tibor Várady’s “goose-downy” book, where the grandson-author, an internationally renowned legal scholar and former Minister of Justice of a Yugoslavia drowned in the bloodbath of history, ponders the transience of efforts to capture the past in connection with the case documents of a divorce in the 1940s as he faces a daunting pile of files that threatens to topple over any minute. Várady admits that, although these divorce case files shed light on a number of facts or, to use his own phrase, modal contexts, which the actors themselves may not remember any more, if they are alive at all, he realises how many unanswered questions about them remain. As he confesses, he tried to trace several documents to the roots to find out what really had happened to the participants. He chanced upon a few trails here and there, but most of these petered out without leaving an explanation. Footprints lost in a stream of water.
The pathfinder must give up.
As for the location of these scenes, he generally found that the Bánát-dwelling families in question no longer lived there, most of them not even nearby. These Hungarian families, formerly entrenched across the Tisza River, no longer have physical ties to the Bánát region. What is worse, their departure left their memories scattered. Turned to dust. Várady hastens to call attention to other perils to recollection, such as the usurpation of memory, as he calls it. He cites the example of Srebrenica, the scene of one of the most abominable massacres in recent recollection, where the author gave a talk. During the discussion following his lecture, a female university student remonstrated that the rivalry among innumerable politicians, historians, international organisations and other entities for the final word on what transpired there effectively robbed the surviving residents of Srebrenica of their right to their own memories.
What Várady has to say regarding the above is a gem of his sarcastic humour: “There is far less frenzy” for the ownership of memories about the Bánát. He only sees fragmented pieces of a puzzle there, which once in a while coalesce into a semblance of order. It is by tiptoeing on these fragments that he repeatedly stumbles into the question of whether human reality is captured by what is recorded in writing or by bequeathed oral memory. He goes on to suggest that it is precisely this rickety nature of the real that motivates the devoted readers of minutes he so often encounters. These people expect minutes to deliver the truth, and nothing but the truth, no less. This is of course impossible. It is simply absurd to expect the minutes of a case to leave no stone unturned.
These considerations bring Várady to the subtle observation that “zealous minute- readers” are really akin to poets. They have a propensity, as he puts it, to cover shaky ground. They tend to predicate their arguments, honour and passion on a reality that will not be around half an hour later. Like poets, inspired minute- readers touch upon the unconscious. However – and this may be when they are at their most poetic – they mainly focus on a vanishing, smouldering reality, which they sometimes succeed in rekindling, just on the cusp of final disappearance. Yet what comes to be incorporated in minutes, which unfortunately attests to the ill fate of their fervent poesis, is not only fleeting, but cannot be reliably identified as what really happened. For instance, the minutes may document that, before the final decision is made, X. Y. comes round to a different opinion or account of the events. Appropriate corrections may be made on the record, while the truly important parts of the story – a flustered face, the violence of someone’s emotions, the participants’ wavering between incomprehension, loathing and compassion – often fall by the wayside. The actual act of creation is passed over. Procedural habits leave little room for the real.
Not to mention the room for dreams, I might add. Small wonder, then, that avowed dream-hunters tread different paths. But this is another story yet again. Still, ardent dream-hunters may converge with ardent minute-readers somewhere in infinity. We are told – say, loosely after the Serbian writer Radoslav Petković, who approached the subject from a different angle, albeit with passion to match – that there is in Venice a shady garden of a labyrinth with a wall deep inside, overgrown by vines and creepers. If you have the perseverance and tenacity, you will eventually find the gate in it through which you can enter another story.
At this point I might add a detail that few people will know. On the face of it, it may sound like a serious case of confusing reality with imagination, as if that garden gate in Venice simultaneously occupied the mind and the soul. It goes like this: Buffalo Bill, the famed hero of the Wild West, once paid a visit to the city of Nagybecskerek, back then a part of Hungary. I am not kidding. Bill, the living legend whose name at birth was William Cody, came riding in as the triumphant director at the helm of his humongous, incredibly popular Western circus troupe. It was in 1906. He came along with Indians, who formed the inevitable set representing the frontier. A part of his staff had been Sitting Bull, the admired chieftain of the Sioux tribe, until he tired of the mockery and quit the show. Later he was killed, but that is yet another story again.
In Nagybecskerek, the good redskins would diligently chase a stagecoach, no doubt for more than a pittance, while the cowboys dazzled the numerous spectators with their devilish lasso technique and others demonstrated the art of sharpshooting. The troupe included a soft-gazed lady of short stature, one Annie Oakley, who would later become an early fighter for the feminist cause. She was rumoured to have used a pistol to blast the flagging ash off of Wilhelm II’s cigar, facing a mirror with her back to the emperor. At his majesty’s own request. Other notables from the United States were present. To make the scene even more bizarre, Buffalo Bill’s show was joined by horse-mounted Kazakhs, Japanese samurai, and God only knows who else. All this proved the necessity of circenses for the people. As long as the show went on, panem was not in question.
At long last, the circus, by then swollen out of all proportion, pulled up the stakes and moved on by rail. The show had to go on, some place else. Buffalo Bill et al. toured Pancsovár, Temesvár, and many other places in what is Romania today. By doing so, they also migrated across the limits of my essay here, leaving no more trace behind them than Várady’s inherited case files. Although glancing at the picture on the back cover of those shelves almost caving in under the weight of documents, not all hope seems to have been lost. They may harbour a trace for Mr Eagle Eye here and there to follow. A relevant lawyer’s writ that could be dusted off. Or something like that. But to retrace my steps once again: it is a fact that Buffalo Bill’s Indians got involved in a tavern brawl one night. In the absence of minutes and other testimony, we will never know how the fight broke out. Was it because of the redskins’ well-known intolerance of alcohol? Was it something else? As the fracas transpired in Budapest, it does not matter for us here. On the other hand, the Wild West gun duel, featured prominently on Bill’s bill, may serve to steer us closer to the metal lead that made history after the invention of the firearm, and, tangentially, closer to Várady’s “goose quill” that recorded for us the story of illegal trading in goose down. Or to Galilei’s historic experiment? No, I would not go that far. But let us pause at one of the chapters of Várady’s book, which describes a gunfight in the context of the history of duelling in Hungary.
I can well imagine my bickering grandfathers, one a leftist, the other entrenched on the right wing, eventually agreeing that their quarrels could only be resolved at gunpoint, although I have no idea whether a duel was a permitted option of settling a dispute in my family. In any case, Várady tells us that his grandfather was not averse to duelling. In fact, the latter’s personal records mention no fewer than nineteen cases of duelling, including the one at issue here, all of which he survived unscathed. Curiously, the grandson learned very little about these showdowns from his grandfather, or about anything else, for that matter. Grandpa Várady was a man of few words, and duelling was considered taboo, if a matter of good form and manners. Moreover, it was widely regarded as a legitimate means of rising in the ranks of society. The courts would find it sanctionable and condone it by turns, while the magistrates often engaged in duels themselves. Finally, they concluded that duelling constituted a punishable offence, albeit only by specific separate statutory provisions, which carried a far more lenient maximum sentence.
Like summer squash on the sunny side of the fence, what Várady tells us next is a flourishing growth from the soil of humour: everyone convicted of duelling ended up in the least uncomfortable penitentiaries. In its own way, it is an absurdity – albeit understandable in light of the fact that the parties to a duel of honour habitually hailed from the crème de la crème of society, rather than from its lower ranks – that these convicts enjoyed the privileged treatment that they did in incarceration. They were allowed to spend the night in a private cell, wear civilian clothes, have food delivered from the outside world, and even receive female visitors. They could have their wine too. I mean it. From the documents, Várady clearly establishes their daily allotment of wine as five litres, no less! (There is no mention of the number of female visitors.) Of course, as Várady recounts, there were outcries against these rampant prisoner’s privileges, but to no avail. A national advocacy was formed with the aim of stemming the custom of duelling. A certain István Rakovszky, who served as president of the association, was an avid fencer himself. He must have been very successful in ducking blades and bullets.
This was before hand grenades ever entered the picture, courtesy of Hemingway. When he was challenged for a duel and given the choice of weapon and distance, he tersely replied, “Hand grenade. Ten steps.” Allegedly, the opponent never showed up.
In his book, Várady quotes Lord Mansfield, the 18th-century Scottish jurist, as stating that “most of the disputes of the world arise from words”. He then goes on to cite Confucius, who once said: “If I came to power, I would begin by restoring the meaning of words”. Words of wisdom. Allow me to hazard the guess that, if the meaning of words had been restored in due time, many a duel could have been prevented – not only in Nagybecskerek, and not just under the Monarchy. At the same time, these musings make me wonder what would have happened if Annie Oakley, that slight-figured genius of a sharpshooter lady in Buffalo Bill’s troupe, had fallen in love (despite being married) with someone in Becskerek and decided to stay. Perhaps making a living doing what she did best, say by giving private shooting lessons to the local genteel public. Such lessons may well have scaled back gunfights far more effectively than any honing of semantics, thereby favourably influencing the statistics kept by Grandpa Várady.
It goes without saying that all of this is pure conjecture. And I will not go into speculating about what would have ensued had Annie, aiming her gun with her back to the cigar-puffing Wilhelm II, been given a slightly concave or convex mirror, without her noticing the curve, unwittingly or on purpose. What kind of impact would that have had on the outbreak of the First World War? Or on the whole story recounted by Várady? Who knows? Let us leave it at that. This bullet has been fired many times in connection with Hitler, anyway. As was that Monarchy-era hunter’s shotgun which plays such a central role in the book I have here tried to interrogate by subjecting it to the technique of free association. In vain does that shotgun make an unexpected appearance in my final reflection here. It will no longer be fired – by Buffalo Bill or anyone else. So that is that. So much for guns and jokes that do not get cracked any more.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel