PEOPLE OF THE PUSZTA – EXCERPT

CHAPTER TWELVE: The defencelessness of the girls. The morals of the puszta. The conquerors

The daughter of one of our nearby neighbours committed suicide. Male farm servants who are weary of life normally put an end to it by hanging themselves, the women and girls by jumping into a well. No other methods were usual. Even here they strictly preserved some tradition of propriety. The girl had “gone up” to the manor-house; this is why she killed herself.

The cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn. By the time we arrived there on our way to school, she was lying on the thin ice formed by the water which had been spilt from the well. Under this covering the black clods of earth, the pieces of straw and dung glinted and sparkled like rare jewels under glass. There she lay with open eyes in which, like the small objects under the ice, was frozen the broken terror of a startled glance. Her mouth was open, her nose rather haughtily tilted, and on her forehead and beautiful cheeks there were huge scratches which had either occurred during her fall, or been made by the cowherds as they let down the bucket before they caught sight of her amongst the ice-patches in the dark winter dawn. She was barefooted, she had left her boots in the assistant farm manager’s room, by the bed from which she had suddenly leapt and dashed straight as an arrow to the well.

The labourers who gathered there from the stables and granaries stood in front of her for a moment silently and with a shrug of their shoulders, until the farm official from whose arms the girl had fled to her death chased them off to work, irritably tapping his boot with his cane and shouting even more truculently than usual, which was obviously a result of his irritation. And this the farm servants respected too, for rather surprisingly they obeyed at the first command and even if they did steal a glance or two behind as they moved off, their eyes showed sympathy and understanding. The official – and I cannot help it if all this sounds rather like a medieval horror-story filtered through the imagination of Eötvös – circled round and round the dead body, white as a sheet and utterly unable to do anything. He kept looking around, his face twitching, and kept everybody at bay, quite unnecessarily, like a dog with its bone. He was a squat, fairly stout figure, it was plain that he would not get over his annoyance, for he must have felt himself horribly deceived. The girl had transgressed custom and the usual order of things, for surely nobody could have been shocked that this was the girl he had commanded to come to him the day before. (The gossips said later that he had been drunk and wanted to pacify his more primitive desires.) Was it not the duty of the farm servants to obey in all circumstances? Neither he nor they could comprehend this rebellious act. She ought not to have sunk to this action for such a reason as that! Yet the girl by dying suddenly developed a personality and stood apart from the community. Her impenetrable silence provoked the anger of her own father against her. In amazement and indignation the old man stood there bareheaded, raising and lowering his arms as though excusing himself in front of the farm official. Later in my imagination this girl became the angel of defiance and revolt for me, with her pale, dead face and the raw flesh showing through it. I envisaged her character, the powerful spirit in the “simple peasant girl”; the spirit which revealed itself in the fire of suffering to me was like that of Joan of Arc… But at the time I certainly could not imagine what had made her escape from the world in such dire haste.

It was, after all, from her usual world where, in the cynical village proverb, “only bread is not shared.” Had she a fiancé? Both she and her fiancé were born into a world where the reader would find it difficult to find his feet, even having read thus far, where faithfulness can exist without physical fidelity. Both of them must have known that, like the bites of gnats and lice, there exist other kinds of bites and stings against which there is virtually no defence, but which can have as little effect upon one’s honour or one’s spirit as the former. The people of the pusztas are realists. After all even I, a child, knew this view of the world and regarded it as natural. I both saw and heard many expressions of it which only now, in retrospect, give me cause for reflection. “Oh the old swine!” said the farm servants not long before this episode, of the old steward when the news got around that – in the strict sense of the word – he had been abusing the 12-14-year-old girls as they bent over the low troughs in the granaries where the wheat was washed… “Is that right for such an old lame creature?” All their head-shaking and indignation was directed at him; nobody gave a thought to the girls. Not even the estate which in such cases, as in every other sphere, took action only if it thought its interests were endangered. On another occasion it became clear that one of the overseers of the day-labourers, whenever he was ordered to supervise the machines or maize-hoeing or thinning out the root-crops, always selected the same three girls for his gang and always made them fetch water, which was the lightest work. True, they were not yet of age. When it became known that he had “made use of them”, it was only the woeful pleadings of his wife and five children re-echoing through the puszta that prevented his dismissal. And not for moral reasons, but for his lapse of discipline. The puszta followed his family’s fate with sympathy and anxiety.

Yet the relaxation of discipline for such reasons as this was truly rare. The people of the puszta did not abuse favours. Nor could the assistant farm manager who ‘made use of the girl destined to die complain on this account; he had used her not as a human being, but as one might use a drinking-mug or a shoehorn. The girl’s family had not established any rights to undue familiarity or to any other claim. No, her funeral brought them no closer; in any case the assistant did not turn up at it. The girl was dead and her death was filed away in people’s memory as if she had been snatched up by a machine or trampled on by a bull. Old Sovegjarto the coroner, who according to local legend decided the cause of death from the bitterness of the relatives’ weeping, signed the certificate and we sang the girl away and cleared up after her. Perhaps I was the only one on the puszta who years later still attributed a romantic atmosphere of death and fate to the farm official, and almost expected him to shine in this role. He did not play this part.

He could swear abominably (doubtless he tried to compensate thus for his youth and upstart origins) and he expressed his mental struggles and perhaps even his mourning by becoming even more churlish and irascible than usual for a long time afterwards. We understood this too.

I might also have expected the farm officials to defend and spare their peasant girl-friends, an attitude obviously based on stories of the rich count and the orphaned peasant girl. They did not defend them. The girls themselves did not flaunt such relationships, particularly in the presence of their illustrious lovers.

It was certainly experience that taught them this. The gentry could not abide familiarity in public. I remember years later working as a day-labourer on a nearby puszta, tying up vines, I suddenly jerked up my head in surprise when I heard a farm official who had been sent out to supervise us attacking one of the girls who was falling behind. “Do you imagine,” he roared, “that you can lounge about all day long because last night…” and here he used a word for intimacy which even the farm servants employ only to show their contempt.

The blood rushed to the cheeks of the girl concerned. This public disgrace seemed to strike sparks from her. She bowed her head and hurried on with her work, but when the official bowled off in his trap, she turned round, forced an unforgettable smile on her flaming cheeks and shouted after him a remark which I had never heard before from the lips of a farm girl.

At first I did not like this girl, not because I thought her depraved, but perhaps because she had been able to gain entry and insight into a world from which I was excluded. Moreover at this time the childish hauteur of folk who are debarred from something was beginning to turn me against it. However well I knew its inhabitants, the manor-house was still a feudal castle and a witches’ den, and in its unpretentious way it did indeed swallow up young maidens. Did I envy the girl? Possibly. I thought her stupid to wander blindly in that bewitching world; none of its secrets surrounded her, she was not magically transformed into a fairy princess or into a cat. Every morning the poor creature appeared among us, sleepily yawning and rubbing her eyes. I turned away from her. But gradually my curiosity overcame this peculiar sulkiness. If we happened to be working side by side I began to ask her questions impersonally. What happened that night and how did it happen ? My inquiries soon became mixed with other elements; I was beginning to reach adolescence. “Tell me about everything in detail, from the moment you opened the door…” She glanced at me in astonishment over the leafy vines. “Whatever is there to say about that?” “What did they say, how did you know what was expected of you? How did they invite you there in the first place?” At lunch-time I settled down beside her. The more stubbornly she remained silent, the more I hung on to her and the more colourful became my imagination. “I was given a pencil,” she said. I sidled after her everywhere and on occasion, with the coarse superiority of gawkishness, even wanted to make advances to her myself. “Isn’t it all the same to you?” I asked flippantly, but with face aflame. She hit me in the chest. It was of no account that she had gone up to the manor-house; that would not have upset her, nor shaken her sense of virginity, for it seemed to have happened in a dream. Around her too, perhaps because of her very silence, I seemed to sense an aura of death. I should not have been surprised if she had jumped down a well. She did not; she became a “happy mother” of four children in one of the dark dens of the drivers’ dwellings.

What I so much wanted to know in detail I found out much later when, far removed from my old superstitious prejudices, I walked in utter, real and unfeigned boredom through the musty rooms of those famous manor-houses, the last refuge of antlers, antique furniture, embroidery and chromo-lithographs of appalling tastelessness. Now I had to feign appreciation and delight. The inhabitants of these gloomy rooms could have been my friends; it depended on me how far they would take me to their hearts. I listened to the conversations with a fixed smile and nodded at the most scandalous stories and opinions, like an ambassador who has no right to interfere in the affairs of a foreign country.

I was the writer who had travelled round the world. To those who had even been as far as Budapest I was the editor-in-chief, though none of them, fortunately, had ever read a single line of mine. I asked polite questions and restrained my astonishment at the ignorance shown by even the older generation about their immediate surroundings. I was astounded at the stubborn defence of the spirit evidenced by the young folk who were blind to the filth and squalor seething and bubbling all around them; if they were girls, they preserved their angelic innocence, and if boys, their idealistic patriotism. It is certain that they were able to remain pure; the infamy that welled up beneath them did not reach even the heels of their boots. They simply took no notice of it, just like the refined young countess who smiles in accordance with the strictest etiquette as she gallops beside her beau over the spring meadows and utterly disregards the horse beneath her as it frequently relieves itself. Often after dinner, when the company had been suitably reduced as the wine went round, and the men who had stood the test were thrown together in affectionate companionship, I would use the warm intimacy of this all-male fraternity to ask how we stood with the farm girls. It was a welcome question, which brought out happy recollections, good stories and tales of masculine triumph everywhere. The ribald conquests of old turned into gallant escapades. “Oh, in my time…” they began and their eyes grew tender at the sweet savour of the past. “Last year on the puszta here…” they continued, naming the very girls I knew or to whom they would introduce me the next day, and they would vie with each other in telling me all the details. Homeric gusts of laughter swirled through the dense clouds of cigarette smoke. “That one demands another drink!” I joined in their laughter and, in the brief interval after a round of drinks or the swaggering demand that we drain our glasses, my glance rose from the glistening red faces to rest on the ceiling and I was astonished to realise how little it needed for me to mingle with this society and how close my laughter was to being really sincere. Was this perhaps real life – this unconscious acceptance of sadism – and my pangs of conscience a sign of disease? Fortunately there was always somebody who overstepped the mark. They would grasp me by the arm and with the slobbering familiarity awarded by the half-educated to a writer (for a writer understands everything, and as a Bohemian must be a connoisseur of filth), they would tell stories, veiling their indecency in guffaws, and answer my questions in such detail that my taste, if nothing else, reminded me of the task in hand. “You can make a jolly good little tale out of that!” I could scarcely bear to listen. “Do you mind if I take some notes?” I interjected. The story-teller winked at me: “Naturally without mentioning names, old chap…” “Naturally,” I replied.

My old curiosity was rekindled. The tales were more or less the same everywhere and most of them went into details about the physique of the girls. What interested me almost to bursting-point was how the girls behaved. How did they know what they had to do and when?

“Tell me everything in detail,” I said to these casual acquaintances, barely concealing my excitement, “from the moment she comes through the door and you call her inside. How do you let her know that she can come in, or rather that she must come in?”

All this went much more easily than I had imagined. “Well, you just send a message to so-and-so to come that evening,” said a young, friendly-looking steward as he embraced me, “to mend your clothes. I’ve only had girls come up to me to-do mending. That’s how they knew me. When they were with the machines or out hoeing, old chap, and I asked one of them if she could sew, she would look down at the ground and know perfectly well what she had to do. And there was one girl whose father brought her along. True, the old man had a reason for laying it on thick, because we were all ready to rap his knuckles, for something he’d been up to.”

“So there are some who don’t come readily, then?”

“Just a few, old chap, just a few, but all the same they all know what’s wanted. At most they make a little scene when they’re inside-that is, the cheeky ones. But all the lot of them will come-you know, it’s a kind of honour for them, a sort of distinction… They envy those who have the ‘right of access’, because they can tell stories afterwards. One of them scratched me horribly, a one-eyed girl; for three whole weeks I was dead keen on her, perhaps just because she was one-eyed, confound her. Another brought her elder brother with her, she had to have a chaperon. All right. Both of them had terribly severe faces. We sat down and started talking and soon became good friends. Round about ten o’clock the lad said, ‘Well, sir, shall I leave the girl here?’ ‘Yes, leave her here, my boy,’ I said.”

Private conversation with the girls, of course, is hard to get going, but there is a remedy for this too. “Drink, old chap, drink; without drink it’s a complicated business, especially with those who are legally under age (not yet 16); once upon a time I took a great fancy to them. I was mad on them, my friend; I’d read some idiotic book and was crazy about them and them only – the unbroken girls, as they say round here – a whole stream of them one after the other… I was mad. Anyway, you want a bottle of wine; without that they’re tongue-tied, and the whole game just isn’t worth the candle unless you can talk a bit. Of course they don’t even want to drink, they’re dreadfully bashful. But if they won’t have wine, you can give them tea with a good tot of rum in it, they’ll all take a sip of that. Supper? They wouldn’t touch it. And as for cake, they’ll just break off a little piece and peck away at it all evening. I had some sweets and chocolate waiting for one of them. She took the whole packet and stuck it into the pocket of her skirt; she wouldn’t even glance at it in my presence. They’ve got good manners, these people. But if you can implore them to get the first glass down, then you’re away.”

You can have a good conversation with them about all sorts of things.

“For example, where they were on Sunday. What was the dance like? Who are their girl-friends? In short, everything except work, because that might remind them of who they really are. And you mustn’t mention their mother either. You can talk about their father, brothers and sisters and even their grandmother, but don’t bring their mother into the conversation, old chap, even by accident; that’s my advice. If you do, it’s all up and you can begin again at the beginning. But best of all they like to sing. I’ve had some lovely evenings like that. She comes in and sits in the corner, well out of the light, and sings away to herself and laughs quietly, according to how much you can get her to drink. When I was working over the way at B., I had a room in the estate manager’s house and he had some unmarried daughters… sol had to be careful, I couldn’t make much of a row. But the farm girls there were always wanting to sing, so in my room they just hummed away under their breath and it was as delicate as the twanging of a thread of cotton. I’ve never felt so much at home with anybody, not even with a fine lady, as with these little girls as they sang; I could have listened to them till morning. Afterwards they began to grow sleepy. Particularly after they’d had a bath, because I made them have a bath too.”

They do not abuse this confidence; there are no such cases. It is just as I had surmised. Indeed those who accept the invitation are all the more diligent and obedient. “It is as if they want to keep in your good books… They’re all the more ready to take your orders, as if something might come of the affair… In short, they’re women. But in the presence of others they wouldn’t admit for the world that there is anything between us. Or rather they betray it when you meet them at work by looking down at the ground and their hands move like lightning – at least that’s what happens in these parts.”

Translation by George F. Cushing

Editor’s Note: Gyula Illyés (1902–1983), poet, writer and essayist, one of the major masters of modern Hungarian literature, published People of the Puszta in 1937, a classic account of the life of farm servants on the large land estates of Transdanubia, among whom he grew up as a machinist’s son. He worked and studied in Paris between 1920 and 1926, and became connected with the Surrealist poets and artists. After returning to Hungary, he worked as a bank clerk, and was ultimately invited to be an editor of the famous literary magazine Nyugat (The West), by the Editor-in-Chief, the famous poet and writer Mihály Babits. After his early free verse poetry, visionary and pantheistic, with its slow breathing long lines, Illyés switched to the closed rhyming forms of folk poetry and the Hungarian classics in the early 1930s. Left-leaning and anti-Nazi, a member of the National Peasant Party, the Communists tried to win Illyés for their causes after World War II, with no success. He published hardly any new work between 1948 and 1956, and his secretly written poem from 1950, One Sentence on Tyranny, became the emblematic work of the October 1956 Revolution, banned in Hungary until the late 1980s. Returning to publication in 1961, Illyés lived to a productive and succesful old age, writing a substantial body of poetry, drama, translations, and essays. (Kodolányi Gyula)

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