In the parlour the table was laid for six, but the driver and the guide were left outside. Sitting at one of the tableheads was Zina, on the other Luka, the finance minister. Beczásy raised a tiny glass:
’Let us then drink the promised glass of plum brandy.’
The brandy connected Luka’s limbs, on the way to slowly and loosely detach from one another, with a sweet sense of hovering; he soon took the caraffe from Beczásy’s hand and started pouring drinks himself. He barely noticed that they had finished eating dinner by that time and he was sitting next to Zina, they were talking about Tolstoy in Russian, whether War and Peace was the greater work, as Zina argued, or Anna Karenina.
’Anna is the incarnation of the longing for freedom,’ Luka expounded in ever more porridgy voice, ’she is the premature victim of the marriage of sense and sensibility in a society built on injustice and exploitation. Oh for god’s sake! Anna is a real woman!’
’I can accept your argument, sir,’ Zina answered and winked at Beczásy who had in the meantime moved into the chair facing her, ’Anna Karenina is adorably complex, but allow me to find more worth in the work that represents individual relationships not merely through psychological dispositions but within the ensemble of the social ambient’s expectations and dynamics.’
’Tolstoy was a great man, a great realist and a great master of dialectics,’ Szenkovics joined the conversation. ’There is no better evidence for this than the fact that he was able to reassess his own views under the impact of reality, and even though he initially intended to pillory an immoral, irresponsible woman in his novel, in the course of writing he realized that Anna is a complex figure whose downfall is not provoked by her own faults but by the hypocritical social norms.’
Beczásy didn’t understand Russian but at this moment hardly regretted this fact: he was watching his wife, an irregular beauty, he was listening to her poised alto voice and felt proud at the evident effort with which these two pipsqueaks tried to impress her. He was woken from his reverie by his little daughter who climbed in his lap in her frilled light blue dress and with her chubby baby’s paws tried to reach the plate full of cakes in the middle of the table.
’Tania, my bearcub, tell me better which cake you’d like?’ Zina asked, reaching toward the child a plate for the desert with a napkin.
’All of them, Mama’, the answer came and she ran straight across into her mother’s lap.
Luka could not take his eyes from this little Tania, she has the same name as Anna’s daughter, who knows what befell that one. Anna is a revolutionary, she has to tend to all the world’s children, she can’t be pampering one forever. So she sent the little blue-eyed Tania to the orphanage, she must have grown up since. Perhaps this green-eyed Tania, too, will grow up, in the worst case she’ll have less cakes to gorge on so that others may have a slice too, in the worst case she’ll grow up without a father and a mother as so many of us do, Luka thought and reached out to the little girl, pulled her over into his lap and asked her what she’d like him to get her the next time he comes, for there will be a next one and then he’ll bring Betty with him, how happy she is going to be to have the occasion to make conversation with such an intelligent woman in Russian, for if nothing else, these overspoilt bourgeois definitely know how to make conversation.
From the threshold Liliann, the elder daughter was watching the scene mortified. She saw the ruins of the dinner, the animal bones under the table, the human bones in the ditch, her father as he sat proudly watching her mother who was smoking with a long cigarette-holder in her mouth, she saw her unsuspecting baby sister in the lap of a stranger, saw the other stranger who would navigate through a dictatorship betraying everyone, but first of all himself, she saw today’s hare hunt, every single hare on its own, she saw the orphaned young ones starving to death, she saw other hunts going for roebuck, fox, boars and deers, she saw the dictator shooting bears at the feeding-place, she saw her mother up to her thigh in water cutting rice, she saw her father beaten to death at the Securitate, she saw how her father aged 81 walks out on the street in December 1989, erect, right into the revolution, she saw, she sees the dictator fleeing like game and shot like a dog, and she saw that everything is full of joy and full of sorrow.
She was standing on the threshold in her white frilled nightshirt, barefoot, with her curly blond tresses afloat, nine years old. She saw everything, but only said in a small voice,
’Tolstoy était végétarien.’
Zsuzsa Selyem is a novelist, poet, translator, and Associate Professor at the Department of Hungarian Literature, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania. She was the recipient of a 2005 Academie Schloss Solitude writer-in-residence bursary, and of a 2015 Landys and Gyr writer-in-residence bursary (Zug, Switzerland). Her 2006 novel ‘9 Kiló’ (Történet a 119. zsoltárra) [9 Kilos (Story on Psalm 119)], representing Hungary at the 2007 European First Novel Festival, also appeared in German and French translations.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in the Department of English at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. Articles by her have appeared in Joyce Studies Annual, Joyce Studies in Italy, The AnaChronist, and Estudios Irlandeses, among others. I am the editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of the online journal Hyperion – For the Future of Aesthetics, issued by Contra Mundum Press. Her translations (from English/German into Hungarian) include fiction by Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, poetry by William Carlos Williams, Medbh McGuckian, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Günter Grass. She is a regular contributor to several Hungarian-language literary magazines. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, Trafika Europe, Numéro Cinq, The Missing Slate, and B O D Y magazine.
(This story is taken from ‘Moszkvában esik’ [It is Raining in Moscow], forthcoming from Jelenkor Publishing.)