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Excerpt

The Birth of Emma K.

Zsolt Láng (trans. Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet)

October 28, 2022 
The following is from Zsolt Láng's The Birth of Emma K.. Láng is a Hungarian author, essayist, playwright, and editor from Transylvania, Romania. He has published five short-story collections and five novels and one work of criticism. His most recent novel Bolyai won the 2020 Libri Literary Prize, one of Hungary’s most prestigious literary awards.

God on Gellért Hill

Our Lord was ruminating over who gave him the power through which he created the Earth and the Sky and the living creatures from clay. Whom this boundless power came from. And if it was now his own, why wasn’t it absolute. Because it wasn’t absolute.

Our Lord was sitting in Budapest in Buda on the Gellért Hillside, or rather standing, and looking at the foggy Danube valley. That is, he wasn’t looking at it, he was staring at it. With his boundless power, piercing through not only the fog but walls too, he could have caught and punished countless liars but he didn’t. Instead, his gaze fixed below, he breathed a prayer to an all-powerful God and asked him to take away Ida Pallády’s mind.

That our Lord was sitting or standing about on the side of Gellért Hill, at the top of Számadó Street near the Sióvölgyi family’s villa, would be an exaggeration. Our Lord doesn’t tend to sit or stand about, he floats. But just so we aren’t constantly searching for words and forever refining what we come up with, let’s postulate that we’re not talking about the Father or the Holy Ghost, we’re talking about the Son, and then we can confidently say that there stood the Son of God at the corner of Számadó Street and Tündérlaki Hollow, in front of the Sióvölgyi family’s villa, or at least that’s the name that was engraved with intricate lettering into the small nickel-plated sign on the wrought-iron gate. He was dawdling in front of the porter’s cabin, which hadn’t been built for a porter but for the rubbish, so they could lock up full rubbish bags from bin-hokers and stray dogs who often wandered up the hill. He was waiting a short distance away from the shed because it crossed his mind that he might be taken for a bin-hoker and get himself into an altercation. He kicked his heels there for at least ten minutes and prayed as he waited, nervously staring at the town. Suddenly he gave a start and his gaze dropped towards the figure making her way up Számadó street, none other than Ida Pallády. It was no accident then that our Lord was loitering where he was. Nor was it any accident that he wasn’t pondering over the wealthy patients of the concrete alcohol rehab centre opposite or the probiotic milk kefir in his pocket, but was utterly immersed in the problem of Ida Pallády.

Ida Pallády herself was barely known in wider circles, but her surname said a lot. Her great-grandfather was the famous pilot who was the first Hungarian to fly across the ocean. There are some of course who debate that he was Hungarian, after all, every member of the family professed to be Italian, but the point is that Guidó Pallády chose Budapest to be his home, and every one of his descendants grew up here. Ida had never set foot in Italy and spoke no languages other than Hungarian. She prays to our Lord in Hungarian too, but so intensely that our Lord understands, in fact, he listens readily and willingly, and as he does, he’s thrown out of joint and gets caught in the eddying invocation like a fire whirl, unable to get free. Nor does he want to. Our Lord wants to help Ida.

Ida never had a religious upbringing, at most our Lord was mentioned as a swear word, but she wasn’t the swearing type, so she seldom said his name. But our Lord still heard her, like he heard the silent prayer of the probiotic milk kefir carton, in which the 250 ml carton, glued through a special process, asked our Lord that it might hold strong, and not burst at the seams due to the building pressure of emitted carbon dioxide as the kefir fungi matured. As for Ida, she prayed for things our Lord couldn’t grant because if he did, it’d cause a stir the size of which not even he could resolve. He’d tried several times to divert Ida’s attention, but she was adamant.

Ida was an auditor in a nearby institute, but that’s by the by, the crucial thing was that in the neighbouring office worked Tamás Simon, who Ida liked to chat with, what’s more, since the young man wrote poetry, and she adored poetry, she began to adore him. Indeed, the reason Ida came climbing up Számadó street, taking advantage of her lunch break to climb Gellért Hill to the abandoned playground below the Citadel and plumped herself on a graffitied bench to let the gusts of wind dry her tears, was the following: three months previous, Ida had allowed Tamás Simon to spend a long weekend at hers, what’s more, she hadn’t just welcomed him into her flat or into her bed but into her body too, not primarily because she’d enjoy it, although she did, but because she adored him. As a result of this invitation, their lives didn’t simply become entwined and entangled, they became entangled to different degrees, and consequently Tamás broke up with Ida a month ago, and, what’s more, he took a job offer and began working in the Pest side of the city. In his absence, Ida’s adoration grew stronger, but it wasn’t adoration any more, it was burning hatred. She wished Tamás would burn in Hell, that his shapely body would be torn to smithereens and that each of the thousands of little particles would suffer individually, multiplying the agony a thousand times. Our Lord tried to divert Ida’s attention, he went so far as to get her four numbers in the lottery and win a modest sum, then three days later in a car crash he killed her mum, or rather Mrs László Pallády was called to him, but neither the sudden stroke of luck nor the mourning snapped her out of it. She had such a capacity for hate, Tamás fled even farther and relocated to Debrecen in the east of the country, but was constantly sent back to Budapest, due to his presumed contacts. Tamás did his best to wriggle out of such jobs, but quickly realized he was less anxious when he was sent than when he wasn’t. He missed her, and not just her body into which he’d been welcomed three months ago, and not just welcomed—entreated to stay, pampered, showered with everything an honoured and welcome guest would be. He admits, he got sad because he couldn’t escape the thought that this exciting sojourn would become a tedious trek, because bodies waste away and habits thrive, but he also had to admit this sadness had no grounds, it was based on blurred prejudices, whereas the current Debrecen one was true sadness, and so he’s asking Ida, could they pick it up again and continue with the same upward trajectory. Ida slammed the phone down, but not before yelling, fuck off and die you pig, because she thought Tamás meant to fleece her of everything, like a robber with a blacked-out victim.

Ida wasn’t blacked out at all, the slam of the receiver and its coming apart in her hand attested to the contrary, never mind the burning desire to be standing beside Tamás, to wrap the coil around his neck and to pull it tight until his head went blue. Ida played out this strangling scene several times a day, and her muscles had grown so much from the exertion, she’d had to replace the cable on the office phone four times already. The image of the torn wires and their fraying ends makes it clear how potently Ida could pray, so it’s no wonder our Lord appeared at the top of Szamadó street. But that wasn’t all, walking up the adjacent Tündérlaki hollow was none other than Tamás himself. He was still at the bottom but since his legs were longer than Ida’s, it seemed they’d arrive at the same time in front of the rehab centre on the small square, where our Lord was also waiting.

Tamás was in love with Ida, there was no question, he fell in love at first sight. So if that was the case, then why did he leave her a month ago? He thought he knew why. Because through the open bathroom door he caught a glimpse of Ida washing the bath out after him, he saw her disgustedly rinsing it with the showerhead, though he already had. But it wouldn’t have mattered, had she not just five minutes later slandered the Chinese with the same disgust on her pretty face: they’re swarming all over but they can’t even learn proper Hungarian, and they smell, they can wash all they like, they’ll always be dirty, and they ought to send their kids to separate schools, the last thing we need is them together with Hungarians, once there was a gypsy classmate and the whole class got nits. That’s what she said to him, then she rolled onto him and made grand promises that come Christmas she’d have a separate gift for every inch of his body.

Another five minutes, three even, and they’ll meet at the corner of Számadó street and Tündérlaki hollow. They won’t be surprised because not a minute goes by when one doesn’t think of the other longingly, but furious, desperate and angry that the other is so different. Ida Pallády hates Tamás so much that our Lord worried the hatred would catch hold of himself too, and he’d smite the young man down in front of her with a lightning bolt. That’s the last thing he wanted; the consequences of a November lightning strike were catastrophic, besides, he’d prefer to avoid that because yesterday Ida visited a fortune teller in Buda called Enikő—though her real name was Tatjana Fjodorovna, she was a Georgian refugee, more precisely, she was the fugitive wife of a Russian mafioso in Georgia, hiding out under a false name—and for a sum she had put a curse on him; therefore, if he’s struck by lightning now, our Lord would be playing into the hands of some halfwit fortune teller. To say nothing of picking a fight with the Russian mafia.

They ran into one another in front of our Lord and he saw their hearts leap. Admittedly, in that moment with a wave of the hand he swept the fog away from under the Sun, and with the sudden wash of brilliance he did sneak a pinch of goodness and modesty into their hearts. Though they could hardly breathe from the shock, though warmth filled their hearts and they wanted to throw off their clothes, though they wanted to rush into one another’s arms, yet they locked their delight away in a cage of indifference. They at least agreed to stroll up to the top of Gellért Hill and have a coffee. Tamás suggested the Citadella cafe but Ida didn’t like it, so not far from the rehab clinic they sat down in a glass-walled cafe facing the hillside.

Our Lord followed them, as long as he’s here, he wants to see it through to the end. There’s still no guarantee he’ll intervene. Creation is like throwing a stone: there’s that ballistic arc from taking aim until reaching the target, and then there are the changes caused by gravity and wind; to intervene meant to retroactively meddle with time, at least that’s what a philosopher claimed with whom our Lord didn’t agree (hence he never read the philosopher’s thoughts, though he could see into them). Our Lord is our Lord because he sees things differently, he thinks differently, his reasoning is different from man’s. But let’s not get mixed up in the difficulties of creation. The situation’s already complicated enough; Tamás can’t understand why four months ago he didn’t even notice Ida, why three months ago he was writing her poems, two months ago he was sicker of her than his fake silk pyjamas and his bulky fridge, while Ida couldn’t take her hands off him, but now he’s crazy about her and she’s slamming down the phone. But maybe that too will change, after all, they can only have been reunited by the indomitable will of fate. Meanwhile Ida can’t understand why she’s completely forgotten her rage at one stroke; why she hasn’t pulled the kitchen knife out of her handbag, given she carries it to slit Tamás’s neck when opportunity may arise.

Our Lord listened to their conversation with instinctive interest. They were talking about Mrs Pallády’s ridiculous death, about death, about loneliness, about broken fridges, about the kitsch fountain in Debrecen. Tamás ordered two shots and two coffees from the boy in the buffet, Ida expertly added which kind of coffee she’d like, how much milk, and most importantly that the milk was to be warm. Tamás said please and thank you, Ida didn’t.

Tamás couldn’t tell her what he wanted to. He could feel how important it was but he didn’t say anything. Not because he was afraid, but because he couldn’t find the words, that is, he did tell her, of course he told her, and she asked, Why do you want to change me? I don’t! So why’d you say you did? I don’t, I just want to be with you. Don’t bother, you’re incapable, you care about no one but yourself! I do, I only care about you. You haven’t even noticed my new glasses, what are you talking about? I didn’t notice because I care about you, I’m listening to you. If you cared, you would have noticed! Come on, you’ve had a new pair of glasses made that are identical to the old pair, just so you can say, fuck me! Fuck you! Impotent scumbag! You shit! Fag! Slut!

Our Lord held his head in his hands. Moments before, he watched in amazement as a Croatian coach swept past the cafe, and in one of the windows he recognized one of the gawking tourists to be Radovan Gujevic, wanted around the globe on a charge of ethnic cleansing, nowhere to be seen, then here he is in Budapest. Although it was a place our Lord liked no more than other cities of the world, a second ago, as he was looking at the reddish-golden hillside, it did pain him a little that he hadn’t seen it for so long, it was such a beautiful city, like Paris or London, but different. He was lost in his thoughts, and hadn’t noticed which criminal word had let the others break loose. He stamped a foot and the glass walls shook, tremors ran through the cups, the glasses and the brandy bottles on the glass shelves. Even the bar stools began to rock. After the shelves quietened down again, the cafe boy looked out at the sky, and cursed those bloody sound-barrier-breaking supersonic aeroplanes. Yet not a single jet plane was trailing across the sky, as the nation’s military leaders were having lunch in the Golden Chalice restaurant below the Citadella, with the air marshals of the British Royal Air Force; it would’ve been improper to disturb the officers with a sonic boom, besides, the planes weren’t to escort the guest aircraft back to the border for another two hours. The couple fell silent and hadn’t the energy to continue. Tamás decided he was better off without Ida, in hopeless longing, Ida also thought how good it’ll be to go home alone, throw herself on the bed and sob away her pain, and after to go on hating; she’ll tear apart the phone cable, and grip the wooden handle of the kitchen knife.

Except that our Lord didn’t want it to end like that. Especially as he was there. The best would be, he thought, if the Croatian coach, not the one hiding Gujevic but the next one, were to drive into the glass-walled cafe because of a leak in the brake fluid, and those inside were gathered up in pieces, and the police wouldn’t even know how many met their death; then the owner of the cafe who’d been dreaming of a new life for a while now would seize the opportunity to go to Australia, and he’d live in a fishing village until the day he died, happy as nobody ever asked where he came from. But our Lord didn’t have the power. Anyway, he didn’t want Ida or Tamás to die. With these two he wanted to send a message to those he created in his own image. An important message. Maybe, if Ida was to fall pregnant, and when the child grew up if it discovered and understood life’s greatest secret. Or maybe if it had some special ability. Like it could fly. Or at least walk on water.

He let out a weary sigh. He fell to his knees. He didn’t care any more. He’d grown tired of bearing the endless cross of not-quite-absolute power. They took no notice that he was even there. Even if the agony drove them into the ground, they still wouldn’t change an iota. Ida would never move her fridge two centimetres, so Tamás wouldn’t bump his elbow when he came into the kitchen from the bathroom. Tamás would never drop his accusatory tutting. No, these two were incapable of rising above it and looking down on the certainty of their own existences. The agony of such a life would drive him into the ground. The agony of his own was already driving him into the ground. The next time he was endowed with power, he wanted absolute power. Otherwise there’s no point. A stone throw is only perfect when the fist doesn’t let go but flies with the stone.

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From The Birth of Emma K. by Zsolt Láng (trans. Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet). Used with permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Copyright © 2022 by Zsolt Láng. Translation copyright © 2022 by Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet.




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