Budapest continues to live off its holes. The city’s new needs are creating new holes, empty plots springing up out of nowhere, holes large enough to be put on the map, and office buildings forced into their place. The Mafia are blowing various sized holes into the body of the city. The atmosphere of the holes has changed. The holes of the nineties are numbered. They’re hardly finished before they’re filled in. Where are the nine millimetres that stood the test of time, the 23 mms that commanded respect, the roaring 38s, the almighty 85s? The holes of yesteryear?
My bumpy road to sexual maturity was paved with the death of communist dictators. My first sexual experience coincided with the death of Mao Zedong. I was bitten by a girl called Diana in nursery school. My voice broke when Tito died, and I first came when Brezhnev went. For three days there was nothing but classical music on the radio, which I thought was overdoing it, some schools even closed. Then for a long time, nothing. As an experiment, I took a girl to the movies, but the film was too good, and I got cramps in my hand. Events accelerated in high school. It was only a couple of months between the first kiss and the first frantic fumbling. Following Andropov, Chernenko also checked out. A couple more weeks, and it was Enver’s turn, but I’d rather not go into that. I first found out about the G spot when Ceausescu was executed. Kim Il Sung cast new light on my broadening horizons, luckily, the charges were dropped. Fidel. Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold.
In elementary school they taught us to write the letters of the alphabet side by side. The words were in a book, like the solutions, all you had to do was read it. The dictionary had all the words that could be said. It belonged to the world of adults, but I could feel that in some way it was beyond them, a dictionary had super-human powers. Whatever you said, if it wasn’t in the book, it had no meaning. Only if it was written down.
The dictionary puts words next to each other which in real life you’ll never find together. The dictionary is a meeting place which raises the accidental to the status of law, like the names in the class register. A class register is a dictionary too, where they keep a record of me, they put down my name, date and place of birth, my father’s name and occupation. They know that my parents are electrical engineers, and I am the son of electrical engineers, which means that I probably know something about electricity. There were no writers in the class, that would have put the thing to the test. The alphabet, like the height line in P.E. class, seemed invincible. At any rate, it stood outside time as we perceive it. Whose turn will it be today? At the time of my birth, I was already a word.
In the dictionary, every word is indispensable, separately they are of no use, but together they make sense, like a class register. It’s the solidarity of words that creates language, like solidarity in a class, it could be anybody’s turn, and every day begins with the reading of our names.
That era when, innocent and blind, we paved the way to a better future in the name of internationalism glows like my last Havanna in front of the Csillebérc disco, waiting for my Yugoslav girl-comrades. One by one our comrades slow-danced with us, their tongues loosened by the foreign surroundings. At night we climbed in through an open window in the eighth barracks and escaped through a closed window when Ivan thought they were after us. The vacation came to an end so we sent letters abroad, hoping that one day our sister troop would invite us in turn, and we could listen to ABBA and BONEY M. Back then a traveller knew what to expect on the pink half of the map, because the peace camps stood united everywhere, you joined the same Party and lived in the same houses where you were not afraid of the same big bad wolf. They treated you the same in shops, and served you the same soup with the same aluminium ladle. And, despite their apparent difference, the hamburgers, the unpronounceable zmrzlna, the hot dogs on Alexander Platz, Romanian whiskey and canned Albanian clams all had something in common. They all contained that same certain thing which did not intrinsically belong to them, something indisputably other-worldly which, no matter how much we chewed it, always congealed into a single block in our mouths.
The letter O is a perfect circle found in the middle of the Hungarian alphabet, whose every point is equidistant from its centre. Accordingly, the centre of the letter O may be regarded as the centre of the Hungarian language.
My Russian teacher says I will never understand Slavic culture until I read War and Peace in the original. She read it while riding the Trans-Siberian express, there and back. I’d rather read Crime and Punishment, then I’d only have to go as far as Moscow. Perhaps it would be enough just working my way through the crime part, then on the way back I could take Aeroflot. Another beautiful word, like cologne recycled from poison gas. Language was part of the pretence. We pretended we knew Russian. Noo! For forty-five minutes I listened in Russian, I nodded in Russian, I sighed in Russian, and put War and Peace down next to me on the school bench.
I had no idea that knowing another language could actually be useful. Knowledge was the condition for growth, it was something for its own sake. If you wanted to grow, you did your homework. We learned Russian because Russian is a beautiful language – it’s not as if Hungarian isn’t ravishing, too, of course. Back then, only the Russian teachers could speak Russian – women with dyed hair in their early fifties, a militant ethnic minority with tribal rites and an obsession for roll calls. This was a matter of survival, head counts before every mission. I had never seen a Russian soldier except in war films, and even then, he was dubbed into Hungarian. The first time I saw a Russian soldier in the flesh was when they withdrew from Hungary. The cold war had come to an end, and peace, too, had come to an end. There was no need to die for it any more, and the Russians sold off their equipment for token sums. My friend wanted to buy a parachute. I was his interpreter.
Parashoot jesty, do they have parachutes, but I guffawed and left off the ty. Good lord, the Russian is and the Yankee yes, they chime! It was worth studying after all. Yankee go home or pashli damoy, it’s all the same, the occupation just a line on the map, an accent, a conjunction. Not the tanks, not the eight grades, not Misha bear, but a signature in my report card. The corporal answered in Hungarian, two vodkas, he said, and he put up two fingers, because there were two of them. He asked how I was doing in school. I resented his familiarity and I grumbled noo-noo, just like I had seen in The Silent Don.. He said he had a son, too, Sergei, and he knows it’s not easy for us either, and what would we say to a Kalashnikov? Or how about this pistol? This is what it must be like for Billy Bunter in a sweet shop. He’ll throw in a cartridge-drum as a gift, and let’s drink to the good old days, the good old days being when I wasn’t even alive yet and our fathers were merrily killing each other off. I should drink to that with the enemy soldier who is talking to me in my own language. Ege segedre, the N.C.O. said, his nazdarovye sticking out. Egészségedre, ege segedre: to your health, to your ass, close enough. Sergei is also called Sergei, like his son, but we can call him Seriosha. He hands me the bottle and quotes Petofi to perfection. Hungary is poetry, he says. I tell him that a group of Hungarian scientists identified the skeleton of Sándor Petofi in a Barguzin grave, but it turned out to be a woman. He says he’s not surprised. Russia is a big country. But he’s not pushy, au contraire, he’s eager to please. He’d rather not go home, he says. He likes it here, he likes the Hungarians, especially the women. And he winks at me, as if I was supposed to know what he’s talking about. I give him a Pavlovian wink back, because I know that’s what you do when you talk about women. We’d rather not bother him any longer, but he begs us to stay, still speaking Hungarian, of course. I’d better tread carefully, maybe he doesn’t even speak Russian. An Obi-Ugric double agent. We back away, waving. When we reach the door, he calls after us: how about some hand grenades into the bargain?
Translated from Hungarian by: Judith Sonabend