The Last Window Giraffe

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The Last Window Giraffe

A Picture Dictionary for Five and Above (excerpts)

The window giraffe was a picture book from which we learned to read when we didn’t know how to. I could read already, but I had to learn it anyway, because that’s what’s school for. The window giraffe revealed the world to us in alphabetical order. Everything had its rhyme and reason, both symbolic and everyday. We learned from it that the sun rises in the east, that our hearts are on the left, that the Great October Revolution was in November, and that light comes through the window, even when it is closed. The window giraffe was full of seven-headed dragons, fairies, devils and princes, and told us that they do not exist. I remember four kinds of dragons that do not exist, and also three princes. Syllable by syllable, the window giraffe taught us to read between the lines. It was taken as much for granted as the teddy-bear on TV before bedtime. Nobody thought of questioning it. The window giraffe was the window giraffe. The window giraffe is my childhood, the changing room, the P.E. class, and growing all the time, an age before a better age, the soft dictatorship, my homework, my innocence, my generation. The window giraffe is a book, and I was one of its characters. Twenty years later, when asked, I realized that the first and last words, the alpha and omega, are ‘window’ and ‘giraffe’.. Yes. The window is the beginning, light comes through the window, the giraffe is the end of endlessness, surrealism, flaming giraffes, we will live for ever! A lexicon which contains what’s been left out.

Paris has its own window giraffe. I saw it on a postcard. It’s called the I-fell-tower. Zsófi Brünner sent it after she defected with her parents to France, and was now studying from a French alphabet book. The I-fell-tower has a long neck, four legs, and an awful lot of windows. It is both window and giraffe, and its name sounds good too, excitement and promise in one, the promise of a sudden leap, the final break from a worm’s eye-view, which the express elevator inside degrades into a question of technology. Zsófi looked a bit like a giraffe herself, except she didn’t have a window or an express elevator inside. The express elevator was in my throat when she tip-toed over to my desk on her matchstick legs and let me smell her scented rubber. I spent the whole night in an ecstasy of syllable-practice. The letters came towards me like cat’s eyes on a dark road. The next day, Zsófi defected. Our headmaster told us, they had to leave unexpectedly. He could have said “cut off in their prime”, like our Party leaders go. The scented rubber left an unerasable mark on my heart. Later we found out it hadn’t been a holiday at all, when she sent the I-fell-tower as a substitute for herself, which was just like the window giraffe, except it made some sense, provided you could read between the lines.

This is the first thing I remember from childhood: I’m crawling on all fours, and it’s rest time at nursery school. The curtains are drawn, the moon is shining on the white covers. It can’t be the moon, we were never in kindergarten at night. I’m crawling on all fours under the beds, afraid that if the others wake up, I will wake up too. I am alone, a near fictitious child, balancing on the creaking parquet floor, bread crumbs drill into my kneecap. I’m so small, nobody sees me, I’m worming my way along the enormous room, it’s as if I’d been doing it for hours. I am winding my way between the white sheets, trying to avoid the dangling hands and feet. Dead little angels. Formations of fleecy clouds float past, a pedophile’s heaven, soft fingertips, dimples, curly locks. Right! Somebody’s coming under the bed, our heads bang against each other, but because of the sheet, I don’t see the face. Panting against my neck, hot breath. The teachers are coming, white socks and white slippers, we crouch under the bed, a little hand takes my little hand, a sweating palm. Hoo!

The historical building on top of Sas Hill where I went to school was a convent before it was promoted to an institution of learning. When the Germans came, they used the auditorium as their headquarters, this is where Budapest’s military commander was arrested. The auditorium later served as our gym, we ran round and round in circles within its historic walls, history class in a tucked head stand. The Magyars came in on the road of nations, said the man with the waxed moustache, it sounded good to me. They tried to hitch a ride on the steppes with a piece of marrow-bone with “Hungary” scratched in runic script, but nobody could read it. A leapfrog across the vaulting horse and cartwheel on impact. According to sir, there is a great expanse of wasteland which stretches from the Pacific to the Great Hungarian Plain, from the Amur to the Danube, more or less, with the Magyars at one end and the Gulag at the other, so we’d better behave. He’d slap us with both hands so we wouldn’t lose our balance, this was the happy medium. I prefer to climb a pole or run two rounds, no more helping hands anymore, he said, and leaned on me with his emphasis – he just wanted to mould an honest Magyar out of me. Something was wrong, I could tell, because considering that our language is the greatest treasure that was left to us, they were trying to get me to hold my tongue, got history all jumbled up with anatomy, patriotism with grammar, solidarity with mould. In short, the Magyars came a thousand years ago, and they’re still coming, happily ever after. Nobody knows from whence, or where they are headed, and he who knows is wrong. Or not really Magyar. Or not honest. The Magyar is shrouded in mystery, or perishes. The Magyar does not stand out, he looks just like anybody else, he assimilates with ease wherever he may be, the one exception being Hungary, where he can’t, being prevented by a common tongue. A Hungarian is also a little bit Serbo-Croatian. A little bit without a country. He’s marching down the road of nations, driving huge herds before him, and is constantly at war. From behind, the eddy-wind brings gigantic slaps in the face. My image of the Magyars, which grew out of studying Karl May and the Feszty Panorama, combined the progressive traditions of the wild west and the wild east. The Magyars lived like cowboys, and fought like Indians. They collected antiquities way before the Great Discoverers. Cortez and Pisarro are the descendants of Lehel and Bulcsú.. The Magyar Indians launched an assault on the Middle Ages, holding it up halfway like some stage coach, they rode round and round whooping, and shooting arrows at anyone who stuck their head out. They even attacked the Vikings and the Moors, plundered the monasteries, and kicked the shit out of Europe, though that’s not something to be proud of. That’s not why I brought it up. Then they had a look at the Atlantic and realized that the pastures had their limit, you can’t ride round and round the globe whooping it up, there was an ocean to cross. There was nothing for it but to climb up on the stage coach, but they sat above the wheels. The Carpathian Basin had been an ocean once, had we arrived in time, we might have become a seafaring people. Our very own sea, not a historical one, not so soaked in blood, not a rented weekend cottage.

The Pioneer, that’s me! Brave and intrepid. What should I be afraid of? My twenty-five kilos are utopia made flesh. My knowledge accumulates unceasingly, merrily and voluntarily, just like the friendship between nations. The Pioneer, that’s who I am. Dib, dib, dib – dob, dob, dob. Wherever I can I lend a hand. To you, and you, and all of you! You didn’t get into trouble for nothing. I’m steadfast as the trust endowed upon me, as upon us all. One tug on my necktie and the reactionaries scatter, sobbing all the way home.

The twelve points of the Pioneers, in contrast to the prescriptive Ten Commandments, reflect a descriptive worldview. They project a fulfilled future before our eyes. The Pioneer is a complete perfect being and acts like one by, for instance, always telling the truth – point six. I’d rather have the New Testament any day. If a stone is thrown at you throw bread in return: just great, when the creator runs out of ideas food-fights are always an option, then it becomes burlesque. But what if a Pioneer says all Pioneers are liars? Because everyone knows Sohár tells fibs, even if he has a red tie and a whistle. It’s a nice whistle but Sohár doesn’t deserve it. In the end we must admit the Pioneer is only human. This could be point thirteen. Then again it’s so obvious it doesn’t need a separate point. The thirteenth point remains unspoken. We all have our weak points. I, for one, stole a logic game and hid it in my socks. I was only a Little Drummer at the time and my parents made me return it, but you could tell they were really proud because in those bright red circles and triangles they saw their son’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge. As for stealing, there was no separate point on it: it was built into the system.

I was a virgin, but it didn’t bother me. I didn’t have a clue. The world was black and white, you could watch it on TV. It’s still in front of me: the extra time in the Holland-Argentina final, the link-up of the Baader-Meinhof and the Solyut-Apollo, the death of the King (I didn’t know who Elvis was, but dad was gutted), the gas explosion at Zsana, the volcanic clouds over Mount St. Helens, the Hungarian space flight, and the Rubik Cube World Championship in Budapest. Sports were exciting in black and white, during a boxing match, you had to count the number of stripes on the guys’ socks. I even remember how many stripes my first date had, I’m not sure about the colour of the eyes, I see her in black and white. After the first kiss my parents bought a colour TV, and it turned out that the Dutch are orange-yellow, the Italians are blue, and there are green and red devils, only the Germans remained black and white, as if they were being punished. Their country was split in two as well. I almost felt sorry for them.

Bath time was during the news. Every now and then mother would look in to see if I was all right. Dad was watching TV in the living room. To protect me from the lies they had to know the details. I could hear mother sighing – what a shambles I’m making in the tub, I’m flooding the apartment. I dived down. Under the water I heard a voice telling me what had happened in the world that day: a landslide killed a hundred and fifty people in Bangladesh, a revolution broke out in West Africa, a new kindergarten and an Olympic pool were opened, and MTK beat Fradi 2-1. I had no idea who was sending me messages in this way, or why, but they clearly had plans for me, because they also told me what the weather was going to be like. The following day I could distinguish several voices in the tub, which pointed towards an organization. This manner of communication seemed to be a logical one. I couldn’t send them messages, because you can’t talk under water, and they could only get in touch with me during bath time without my parents and teachers knowing.
I didn’t understand why it was so important for the organization that I should have detailed information on the latest war games in Poland, or which Transdanubian towns were being granted city status, but I knew that if I paid attention, sooner or later I’d be given a sign. My life gained a deeper meaning under water. When one Sunday mother was washing my hair and, unsuspecting, she pushed my head into the water, a pleasant female voice whispered in my ear that the hail had ruined the crops. I knew immediately what they expected from me, and to be honest, I had no objections. To make a big mess. After going to bed, I used to battle submarines and fighter planes in the dark even before this, sometimes I ended up on the floor, and it was only due to my dogged persistence that in the end the victory was mine. From that day on, I sabotaged the development of our people’s democracy like a busy honey-bee. Earthquakes, power failures and gas explosions marked my way. Based on the information I received in the bathtub, I discovered the location of military objectives. When a factory or a power plant was inaugurated, I was there, doing what I had to do. The comecon was anxiously fidgeting behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing that it was me who was chopping down the bean stalk.

In 1956, on the five-hundredth anniversary of the triumphant battle of Nándorfehérvár, Budapest is shot to pieces. With the use of new venues, the Soviet army is reviving the traditions of ’44. The city is riddled with holes, holes on the house walls, holes between the houses, the new holes getting mixed in with the old, and whether a house looks the way it does because of the siege or the revolution, because of ’44 or ’56, becomes a non-stop topic of conversation; it can’t be ’44, it’s a new building, no it isn’t, it’s a typical Bauhaus, can’t you see the curved terrace? Then the snow fell and covered up the holes, then more snow fell, and the new snow got mixed in with the old, and nobody could tell any more which snow was covering up all those holes, and people waited for the snow to melt, because the eternal snow was occupying the country. Forty thousand big, and several million smaller holes. Budapest is the city of holes. I was born in this city of holes, there were bullet holes on the hospital wall, and bullet holes in the tomb stones. A two-meter long grass snake slithered into the grave of Baron Manó Schwanbergi Kruchina (and his wife Marianne) right in front of my nose. The baron died in ’56, his wife in ’44. Was it the class struggle, or a drunken tomb stone carver? Then the tomb stone disappeared, and there was a hole in its place. Then instead of the hole, a new grave. You could follow the cycle of the holes. The house in which we lived was built on top of the hole left by my grandfather’s house, and as a child my father used to play in the bomb craters in the garden. The large holes were replaced by houses, the smaller ones were used to dump rubbish. Discarded TV sets and vacuum tubes stood in heaps at the back of the garden, an information rubbish dump on Liberty Hill. In one of the holes we found a winged bomb, and even that had a hole in it. Someone had screwed off the detonation head. We climbed the walls and stuck our fingers in the holes, and eyes closed we tried to imagine the bullets. The contemporary history of Budapest, written in Braille. Budapest cannot be seen with the eyes, only with the fingers, it can be seen only through its holes, read between the lines, wall-size hieroglyphs, epic and lyric variations, war-time graffiti, crude erotic messages, an archive turned inside-out.

AuthorPéter Zilahy
2018-08-21T17:23:48+00:00 January 1st, 2001|Categories: Prose, Literature, Blesok no. 18|0 Comments