István Örkény, one of twentieth century’s most unique Hungarian authors and playwrights, was renowned for the short stories he began writing in the sixties, a seasoned author and mature individual who had seen the world around him turned upside down more than once. “One Minute Stories” are indeed read in no more than a minute or two, but continue to resonate in the reader’s imagination the following day. With simple and precise descriptions, Örkény presents trivial details from an unexpected angle, building stark and often absurd contrasts that create a paradoxical tension of amusing grotesque; but to him the grotesque can not only expose bitter truths, but also provide a flicker of hope. “The grotesque undermines everything we thought of as complete and final,” he confesses, “without offering an alternative. In lieu of a period at the end of a sentence, it adds a question mark, instead of closing, it sets a new path, it opens up a beginning.”
Translated by: Mark Baczoni and Judith Sollosy
Translated by Mark Baczoni
Sylvester Gács, a forester with the North Hungarian Forestry Service, patrolled the woods (every tree of which he knew by heart), doing the rounds of the pathways he himself had trodden out with growing restlessness. At forty-four, halfway between excitable young man just starting out and the vouchsafed reward of retirement, his energy was beginning to fade; he’d even had enough of his forest, and was more and more bored of the profession he loved. His melancholy took no particular form, but filled the long, lonely wanderings of his rounds with the most peculiar assortment of memories, ruminations, and speculation about the future. At first, he had chewed over these in silence, but with time had gotten into the habit of saying out loud whatever came into his head. Better to hear the sound of his own voice than the mute silence of the forest.
When someone so intensely alone starts talking to themselves, it’s not necessarily a sign of insanity, or eccentricity, even; all the more so if, like Sylvester, they’re merely expressing things floating up from the half-remembered past.
Once, for example, he stopped by an Austrian oak and stared at a pale yellow butterfly, the spitting image of the yellowing leaves everywhere around.
“When did I first see one of those?” he asked.
Not only the colour, but the shape and patterns of the butterfly’s wings matched perfectly the leaves of the oak. He would have been six or seven when he’d first seen such a creature.
“Look there,” said his father (also Sylvester and also a forester) “how perfect an example of mimicry that is. It’s called Katydid. It’s actually a cricket, but to protect itself, it’s dressed up as an oak leaf.”
“What about you, then, father?” the six or seven year-old Sylvester had asked.
“I’m a man dressed up as a forester,” his father smiled. “You too, my son, will be a forester, God willing, when you grow up.”
“And he was absolutely right, my wise old man,” Sylvester told the trees, continuing now on the well-trodden path. “Suffered so much before he died, in hospital in Miskolc, poor man…I suppose that means,” he added, “that he’s neither man nor forester any more.”
Stopping, he was lost in thought; something new had occurred to him.
“Who knows how all this works, really?” he asked. “If a yellowing leaf is really a cricket, and a forester is really a man, then maybe other things too are not what they seem – after all, every living thing tries to protect itself somehow…What about this stone?” he said, picking up a stone and flinging it away, “What about this trunk, or this bluebell, or the North Hungarian Forestry Service? What, really, is the whole world, anyway?”
He stopped once more, because that was a question he could not answer. He tore off a yellowing leaf and, casting his eye over it, examined the network of little capillaries running in their incomparably delicate, regular way off the main artery, asking loudly, almost angrily:
“What is real, then?”
He turned on his heels and headed back along the path all the way to the oak where he’d found the cricket dressed as a leaf. There it sat still. The forester watched it, and as he watched it, suddenly took fright. The thing his father had called Katydid all those years ago gave a wobble and then fell off the branch; slowly, just like a leaf, it meandered down into an ankle-deep pile of fallen leaves.
The Old Man and the Great Big Automobile
Translated by Judith Sollosy
The Following story may not be true, but stories that are not true deserve our attention, too, because it’s the way stories are told that’s enlightening. Anyone telling this particular story five years ago would have told it in the following way:
An old man is walking, ragged and barefooted, along the road from Balaton. After a while he starts waving his arm, because he sees a great big automobile come along. The great big automobile stops, and the driver opens the door.
“Why are you waving, Comrade?” he asks.
“Where are you headed?” the old man inquires.
“We’re heading up to Budapest, Comrade.”
“Would you kindly take me with you?” the old man asks.
“There’s no room in the car, Comrade,” the driver says, slams the door, and steps on the gas.
Now as the sun is shining, the blue lake is sparkling and we are exchanging many good stories with each other, this story, too, comes up again, but in a new guise:
An old man is walking, ragged and barefooted, along the road from Balaton, when a great big automobile comes along. The great big automobile stops and the driver opens the door.
“Are you headed for Budapest, old man?” he asks.
“Yes,” the old man says.
“Get in, old man, we’ll take you along,” the driver says with a friendly smile.
The old man goes over, sticks his head in the window, and asks:
“Have you got a radio?”
Both stories are good, but neither story is true. The truth is that the old man, ragged and barefooted, is walking along the road when there comes a great big automobile, but it never occurs to him to wave, nor does it ever occur to the driver to stop.
This is the true story. On the other hand, it is not as good as the other two.
Translated by Mark Baczoni
We’d had a very good catch. They said I’d brought them luck; they’d been hauling in catches of five, or four, or seven hundred kilos to Szemes for weeks now, whereas today – by old Muskát’s reckoning, they’d raked over thirty-five hundred kilos off the lake’s bed with the nets. Most of the men were still working away on the barge in the blinding glare of our floodlight, packing the fish in ice, sorting them according to type, quality and size.
We’d dropped anchor somewhere near Dörgicse, just beside the reeds. Thanks to them, the pools of light connecting the two boats had become almost a physical body; all the mosquitoes, moths, and other nocturnal insects on lake Balaton were in a frenzy, swirling in the band of light. I could barely move them away from me in the cabin on the bridge, though it had only a pale ship’s light in a brass and glass-domed housing.
Old Muskát had lain down beside me, spread a newspaper over his eyes, and was sleeping. He’d balled himself up so small that even on this impossibly narrow and short bunk, where two stick-thin men would barely have found room to sit, he was able to make room for me beside him. I lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke where the cloud of insects was thickest. I stared out into the sightless night; now and then a lighthouse in one or other of the harbours in Somogy winked back at me. It was all quiet now, only the waves lapping on the hull.
All at once, someone piped up behind me somewhere in the stern.
“Hey! Has anybody seen the star?”
“What star?” I asked after a small pause, there having been no answer.
“The paper, you know.”
I looked around. In front of the wheel was the compass in a battered wooden case; to the right and left of it, a shortish shelf. Old Muskát kept his pipe tobacco there, and besides that there were a few finger-smeared glasses, in case we got hold of some beer or wine. Then there were the papers: one of the big dailies, a technical journal, and Women’s Own, all of them creased to death and dog-eared. I did wonder at first why the fishermen subscribed to Women’s Own, there being strictly no women allowed on the boat; but then, perhaps that’s the reason.
I went through the pile of papers and called back:
“The Star’s not in here.”
“The devil take that Balog,” said the voice.
‘If he means the latest issue of The Star,’ I thought to myself, ‘there’s a story of mine in there, too.’ I ruminated on how such a hard-bit fisherman would react to my story…I was filled with happy daydreams. Who’d have thought that something one writes would find an audience here, in the light of a pale ship’s lamp beside the reeds somewhere below Dörgicse? This isn’t the most God-forsaken profession in the world after all, I told myself, and could hardly sit still with pleasure. I went out on deck. The night was cool, the reeds sighing softly but powerfully behind me. I was struck by the scent of fish soup. Two men huddled over a spirit stove had been making fish soup since midnight in the biggest enamel pot in Hungary.
This soup is the ancient right of every fisherman on the Balaton, and has been for centuries. I was there when they brought the fish for it over from the barge; I’m no expert, but it looked like they weren’t the worst of the catch. I watched them make it in the old Balaton way – without any fat, but with so many onions that not even two of them had managed to slice them up before the tiny flame had brought the enormous pan of water to the boil. And now, at the same time as the heavy footfall of the fishermen returning from the barge set the boat swaying gently, the smell of the fish soup suddenly spread all through the night, warming the heart like a woman’s laughter.
Either because of the smell, or because of something else, old Muskát woke up. He took a report on the catch, casting a grateful glance at me, the guest who’d brought them good fortune. There were comings and goings, plenty of clinking and the banging of mess tins meanwhile. Then a bold, jovial voice called:
“Ahoy there, colleagues! Which of you’s got The Star?”
‘Well, well,’ I thought, ‘another reader’.
“I do,” said someone in the bow.
“Who’re you then?”
“Well get a move on, Szabó.”
‘How badly he wants it’, I thought delightedly to myself as they brought old Muskát his soup on the bridge. He got his brought to him on a tray in a white porcelain bowl. He was the head fisherman there, the Captain, the lord and master. He was the old god of the Balaton, who knew where, when, and in what direction the fish would swarm, and could guide the fleet to the very spot.
A giant heaved himself down on the threshold of the cabin. Even sitting down, he blocked the door completely. You could only see out onto the boat through his rumpled hair, a stranger to the comb. He put his red mess tin full of soup down on the ground beside his wellies and cried,
“Where’s that Star, then, blast the lot of you!”
My skin started tingling, I confess. I’m passionate for literature, and I’ve met others who love it too. But never had I met such ardent fans of it as these storm-tossed sailors…Now, I could hear the cry all round: “The Star, The Star, where’s The Star?”
“Here it is,” said Szabó from the bow.
“Get on with it, then, before I knock your block off.”
So it was among the sailors outside when the tousled giant pulled himself aside from the doorway, letting pass a young, graceful lad. He entered the bridge with a mess tin brim-full of soup and handed it to me.
“Perhaps you’d like to join us, Comrade?”
“Thank you very much.”
“I’ll get you The Star as well,” he said.
“Don’t bother,” I replied. “I’ve read it.”
“We usually put it on our knees,” he said, bemused.
“Your knees?” I said, bemused in turn.
“So our trousers don’t get oily,” he told me.
“I see,” I said, taking the hot mess-tin by the handle and holding it suspended in mid-air, waiting for The Star.
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