By Zsuzsa Selyem
Translated from Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
The song of the sirens
On that journey Odysseus wanted to hear the song of the sirens. He already knew what it was like. And this time he didn’t have the others tie him up.
A few hours were left before they reached the island. Time was dragging on. Wild images in Odysseus’s ancient head.
Silence was supreme. The waves were of course babbling all around the ship.
And the island was still there. And Odysseus not tied up. Silence was supreme.
What should we do now?
Are they dead?
Did I only imagine it?
Odysseus the cunning returns home.
What, have you never been to a dog fight? But you must see it, it’s a fantastic sport. For two hours the dogs tear at each other, the perfect bloodline wins. What, it’s cruel? Nonsense, it’s just a sport. When we see one about to bleed to death we throw in the towel and the master removes the other dog from the ring. You’ll have to come to see for yourself. There was only a priest once whose wretched pitbull — the dog dealer must have conned the eejit — was already half flayed, we were all yelling, c’mon father, throw in the towel, but he was still waiting, we yelled at him, God will blast you, but he just shrugged: if he’s weak he’d better die.
Who am I to praise you? When I was on my way to you the train went up in flames. We were stuck in Sáp for a good few hours, I took a picture of the train carriage on fire, I even — no mean thing — had the black-and-white photograph developed, I thought in your own way you might be glad to have it. The woman who answered the phone told me to call later because you were working. I will never, never call you again, I raged, the picture has been lying on the bottom of my drawer ever since and you are actually asking if I liked your work. Who the hell am I to praise you?
The inmates of the institute fled from one city to the next. To a place where there were no bombings and shootings all the time. Our doc accompanied us too, doc Fiko. But he was despondent all along because his wife remained at home. And his children. Not ours. He painted ugly black flowers on chocolate paper. Also black seas on chocolate paper, and rocks with a cross on top, although we are Muslims. Then he ran away back home against all odds. Some say they jailed him. Some say they sent him to the firing line.
Mono no aware
Two fathers, two mothers, two cars, three children. Portioned out into two families as evenly as possible. It is summer, the sun is shining, they are picnicking together by a cornfield. The fathers spread the checked mats, the mothers produce the carefully prepared food from the baskets, tomatoes, green peppers, cheese, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, the thermos flask with coffee, the lemonade bottle, the little girl walks into the cornfield unnoticed, presses her palms on her ears, on, off, on, off, on, the gay indistinguishable voices are now audible, now not at all, as long as she keeps playing this game she is thinking, if only she had never been born.
For months he had been ruminating on a combination but having to divide his attention into so many directions — applying for grants, teaching, family, shopping — he could never get through with it. Then everything combined in such a way — the grant taken, an academic break followed, his family went on a trip to let him work but before leaving, his wife did all the necessary shopping — that for a full week he had no other task but to get through with that combination.
On the first day he was late to rise, made coffee, leafed through the papers, listened to music and not for a minute did he sit down to the piano.
The second day he went to the swimming pool, it did him a world of good, he felt refreshed all day, watered the plants, cleaned the windows, vacuum-cleaned, in the evening watched one or two films.
The third day he woke up a bit cross-tempered and no sooner did he pour out coffee but he was on the verge of sitting down to the piano — when it occurred to him that the day before he forgot to dust it, so he laid his cup aside and with a soft cloth dusted it all over delicately. When it was over, he sat down and played a few notes. Stood up, made a few steps across the room. The kit for cleaning the strings must be somewhere, at last he found it in the wardrobe. He started wiping the strings one by one, delicately. By midnight he was halfway through.
In the morning he started right away, by the end of the fourth day all the strings and a few keys were done.
On the fifth day he continued the work, dusting every key, one by one.
On the sixth day — he had been working from early morning till four a.m. without a break — the work was completed.
Joseph has no father. He has a mother, aged 16. He has a grandfather and a grandmother. He has an orphanage. Bad marks at school. Printer. Wife, two children. Divorce, no children. New wife, divorce. Clinic, Prozac. Bad, job is bad. Other job, worse, same place. On the morning of September 14, 1989 Joseph walks in his workplace with an AK-47 submachine gun, a 9 mm SIG Sauer pistol, two MAC-11s and a Smith and Wesson 38 revolver and within half an hour shoots eight people, wounds twelve more, then places his SIG Sauer beneath his chin and pulls the trigger. In Louisville’s Cave Hill cemetery beneath his name and the two dates one can read, “beloved father”.
The song of the sirens
Orpheus took up his lyre and started playing.
The sailors hardly remembered the horror stories by now.
In vain did those few birds sing in the most beautiful voices ever heard by man, Orpheus brought in the fad of new songs, the kind of songs Jason and his men took up: the masculine chimes of times to come.
Already the world was divided: there was up and down, beautiful and ugly, true and false. Alone, unharmed.
Already you could descend to the netherworld and come up again. Alone, unharmed.
Already you could make a promise and break it. Alone, unharmed.
Jason was beating out the rhythm while the ship safely left the archipelago. Medea would not understand anything.
When they are hatched from the eggs and manage to clumsily wriggle to the sand surface, they start out for the ocean. The story has three outcomes: 1. crocodiles devour them; 2. a highway was built along the shore which they will try to cross; 3. they start out in the wrong direction: they are pre-programmed to direct themselves towards the lights flashing in darkness, but in our night everything is glaring: the hotels, the parking-places, the shopping malls.
If for no other reason, the older boys in the boarding school would beat him up because no hairs grew on his doodle. He was ten, a spindly child who came to the provincial small town’s industrial school from a village which barely numbered sixty. They forced him to rub off the dicks of the bigger boys.
And then a miracle happened: they agreed that he do it through the blanket.
The parents’ acquaintances, members of a Protestant congregation, came to attend the funeral in large numbers. While the boy’s friend held a speech, they were talking behind my back about the medication the doctor prescribed, about what they would buy for how much. One old woman was munching cake and offered some to her neighbour who also started munching. Cold February day. The boy was let down in the grave. The congregation started singing: metallic, cold, quivery voices. The one with the medicine and the one with the cakes sang along. How shall I survive here for five more years? The boys stand apart, their tears dropping on the snow.
Lee n’gum’s tale
I am a bricklayer. I live the bricklayers’ life: I rise in the morning, it is still dark, I go to work. I work all day, come home, it is already dark.
The memory artist
As long as he was a child they still somehow took it that he would remember everything, e v e r y t h i n g, e y v r e t g i n h, in arbitrary order. A child with a perfect memory could be anything: Solomon was training to become a violinist. But after an illness caught in puberty his hearing deteriorated and he eventually became a journalist. He never needed to take notes. For thirty years Dr Luriya checked on his perfect memory, on Solomon’s well-known streets that he walked day by day; in his imagination it was there — in a doorway, on a fence, on a street-lamp — he placed the words.
Solomon could not forget, but let’s cut the melodrama.
Solomon could not distinguish between the incidental and the ineluctable, in his head all things weighed the same.
They could not bear it, so he ended up in misery, a circus freak.
Since she turned 16 she had been thinking of her life as having a sole meaning: man. She loved, was clumsy, was dumped, she didn’t love but married nevertheless. She couldn’t become a perfect housewife, a perfect woman, perfect lover, perfect mom, but that was what they expected of her and she tried her best. She had two gorgeous children, big house, cars, summer holidays, anti-depressants. Whenever she had the occasion she said: I’m happy, I have everything. Whenever she had the occasion she said: those are dreadful, scum of the earth. Is she still alive? Did she kill herself? Mom, stupid mom.
The song of the sirens
As far as Medea was concerned, Orpheus could pluck the strings of his lyre with Jason, her heart’s lovely desire joining in with his crooning and all the Argonauts could beat the rhythm at will, she would still hear the sirens.
She heard that she would yet have to save Jason’s life a few times. She heard that she would bear him two beautiful children. She heard that her love would betray her for Creon’s daughter, that her children would be murdered by the people of Corinth and that she would have to flee for her life. She heard that there would be a playwright, a certain Euripides, who would win third prize at the Athens Dionysia with a work that would depict her as the abject personification of chthonic female powers.
And Medea heard that diligent scholars of remote ages would unveil the fact that the people of Corinth paid fifteen pieces of silver to Euripides for delivering them from their shameful, old-fashioned child murder. And that later they would also get their Hymn to Love. And that it would cost thirty pieces of silver.
After man exterminated one third of the animal species, he came up with the idea of cloning them. Any of them, on order, for considerable sums of money. The income would naturally be used, apart from furthering research, for the protection of nature. The WGC (World Genetic Centre) issued catalogues in which beside the picture of the extinct species, there was as a rule the price, full and reduced. And in small print, the life expectancy of the cloned animal.
The larger beasts, like the mammoth, could live one or two days at most — these were on offer for parties, children’s birthdays, but the platypus for instance could survive for as long as half a year — and they informed readers that according to recent surveys conducted by child psychologists, this was the ideal time span during which the child’s caring for his or her own animal is bound to reach the desired stage of conscious responsibility, but emotional bonding is yet to occur.
That the extinct animals might eventually escape? Nonsense, the WGC homepage moderator reassured the inquisitive, where could they possibly escape to?
Nil-nil draw for the time being
Every single client of the pub was tensely staring at the huge LCD screen: their local team’s match is broadcast from abroad, the score is nil-nil draw for the time being, qualification is at stake.
A guy enters, hi there, he greets everybody and sits down in front of a slot-machine to play poker, his back turned to the TV.
He plays a few games with a stiff face, then leaves without a word.
A few moments before being lynched, that is.
Are we suspect?
A police car pulls up by the boys with the dreadlocks. It’s past midnight and they are asked to present their IDs. The younger boy looks one policeman in the eye and asks:
‘Why, sir, are we suspect?’
The policeman mumbles under his breath, passing their papers to his colleague who quickly, routinely scans the pictures and the corresponding faces. The talkative policeman asks:
‘Have you taken any drugs?’
‘Why, not at all, sir — and what about you, sir?’
The policeman wards off the question in a teacherly manner:
‘Because you do know, don’t you, that cigarettes and coffee also qualify as drugs.’
‘Of course we know, sir — and have you not by chance had a coffee yourself today? And if you don’t mind my asking, sir, do you smoke?’
Meanwhile the silent policeman had returned the IDs, sat back at the wheel and the talkative one also mutters: I don’t smoke, and off they go with a purr.
He wasn’t there
They didn’t get on at the same stop and didn’t get off at the same stop either, but every night back from work they travelled in the same subway carriage. At the beginning it was pure chance but later both looked around and, as though no agreement existed between them, it became a habit that both should get in the third carriage. They wouldn’t allow themselves the smallest gesture towards the other. They just gave him a quick glance, the way they would with everybody, then turned their eyes away: one of them usually took a book out of his bag while the other would just sit there with his head hanging.
For two years every weekday they travelled home in this way. One evening after two years the bookish one did in vain get into the third carriage, the man with his head hanging wasn’t there. He was never again there.
The whole world
Veronica made herself a decaff and turned on the cultural channel of Romanian public television. She adored this free world, although she only had the chance to teach for three years in it. She was past sixty, well that’s it, in fact she was even glad that she wouldn’t have to fight with the loud young colleagues and struggle with those brazen wild kids you got in the schools nowadays. Life was beautiful as it was: she did her thoughtful shopping, occasionally telephoned someone and watched all those terrific programs on TV.
This Saturday afternoon there was a report on the fashion world, gorgeous girls were treading the catwalk gingerly, their clothes simply took your breath away, my God! There were questions about the works to the designers and critics. The self-assurance, the things they knew! The 2009 Armani collection? Flabbergasting – the fashion critic of Vogue leans into Veronica’s face — it will be in-cre-dib-ly popular, y’know, they’re already wearing this stuff on Miami Beach, on Rhode Island, y’know, the whole world is wearing this!
The gods, seeing how things went on Earth, started a petition. We — the text was penned by Thoth and Hermes and that boy — do not want humans to live this way. We don’t want them to love each other so little. This was the whole text. Everybody signed it: An, Enlil, Marduk, Inanna, Manitouh, Kokopelli, Indra, Vishnu, Tenjin, Chicomexochtli, Isis, Osiris, the Lord God, the nine Muses, Zeus of course with the whole Olympus toeing the line, even the unknown god, and Mami Wata and Wodanaz, and Odin, and Lug and Gwydion, even Allah signed it, even ancient Chaos signed it, every god that ever lived signed it.
Zsuzsa Selyem is regarded as one of the most original voices of mid-generation Hungarian experimental writing. She is a critic, novelist, poet, translator, and academic. To date, her work comprises two volumes of short stories and four volumes of criticism. Her stories have been translated into German and English, and can be read via Hungarian Literature Online.
Erika Mihálycsa teaches 20th-century British fiction at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj. Her research is focused mainly on Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and she is a prolific translator from English and German into Hungarian. Her translations of Hungarian literature into English have previously appeared in B O D Y magazine and on Hungarian Literature Online.