The End

Attila Bartis (trans. Judith Sollosy)

August 23, 2023 
The following is from Attila Bartis' The End. Bartis, born in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely), Romania, has been hailed by readers as one of the most highly inventive Central European literary mavericks writing today. He published his first novel A Séta in 1995 along with a collection of short stories. He has also been awarded the Tibor Déry Prize and the Sandor Márai Prize in 2001 for Tranquility (A nyugalom).

(the cafeteria)

There was a cafeteria on the corner of Majakovszkij Street, where I’d go from time to time for a hot meal. It was cheap. You put your bread and cutlery on an aluminum tray. The soup you had to ask for at the counter. They also served cooked vegetables with small slices of meat swimming in fat, noodles with cheese, pork stew, schnitzl, side dishes… Then you moved on to the cashier. The cutlery was also made of aluminum, and so were the ladles and the parallel bars along which you had to roll your tray. A hundred years earlier, you could have bought a house from that much aluminum, a big one with a garden, bright sunshine, and carrier pigeons. Then, all of a sudden, there was too much aluminum. Sometimes I had to wait for an empty table, but never for long. People came here only to eat. There was a pitcher of water on each table. A woman carried them from the kitchen, four at a time. She was around fifty. She wore a white apron and calf-length canvas tie-ups, just like the two women behind the counter and the cashier. Her hair was gathered in a bun. She painted her eyelids a thick green and penciled her brows. Her gold rings knocked against the handles of the pitchers.

I went to this cafeteria with Father first. He wanted to make cook at home but left the pot on the stove and the chicken wings got burned. We had to keep the windows open for hours. That’s when he remembered that he’d seen this cafeteria on the Boulevard. I was far from elated, because it took half an hour there and back, plus the time it took to eat. The apartment was a different story. We’d already worked things out, when we’d meet and how much time we’d spend together. But if we go anywhere, my room is not within reach, I can’t retreat. Our silence will be uncomfortable, our conversation awkward. But when I saw how desperately he was trying to scrape the four charred chicken wings from the bottom of the pot with a knife, I said, Sure, let’s go.

In the end, it turned out just fine. He told me that he might get a job as a school librarian. It would depend on whether he was barred only from teaching, or from working in an educational institution in any capacity. He didn’t know yet. My hunch, I told him, was that the only thing he couldn’t do was teach, that it made no sense to keep him from working altogether. A school custodian works in a school as well, doesn’t he? That’s true, he said.

That was when I first saw that woman. I was still on the street, but there were no curtains, so I could see her placing the water pitchers on the tables next to the window. The following day I couldn’t get up my nerve, but on the third day, I went back. She came over and replaced the pitcher on my table, even though it was nearly full. Meanwhile, she sized me up, but then didn’t come near me again.

I wasn’t really hungry, but I wanted to see her, with her dark, dyed hair stacked on top of her head, the greasy paint on her eyelids and lips as she carried the pitchers with those eight gold rings on her fingers. She seemed as thoroughly out of place as Father in the rubber factory warehouse. Though actually, that’s not true. She walked around the place as if she owned it, along with all the dirty dishes, the people working there, and the hard-up customers they served. In Warehouse à my father owned nothing, not even his own shadow as it fell over the rubber tires – provided he had a shadow in there to begin with. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t be sure that he was at all visible there. Which is one reason I never went to see him.

It took days before I dared take the camera along, but then I couldn’t get myself to remove it from its bag. It then took another three days before I got up the nerve, placed the Zorki on the table next to my plate, and when the woman came through the swinging door carrying those heavy pitchers, I pressed the button. Except, as soon as I pressed it, I realized that half the picture was taken up with the back of the chair across from me, and that hardly anything of the woman would show. She walked along a row of tables, then headed straight for me. I froze. She glared at me as if she’d caught me stealing. Don’t try that again, she said, then left me high and dry.

It wasn’t even noon, but I didn’t get home until evening. I drank some coffee at one of the Calvin Square stands, went to the station, and checked when a train would be leaving for Mélyvár. Then I went to City Park and sat on a bench for a while. Mothers were walking their children, old people were walking their dogs. All was in order. On the corner of Szív street, I decided, not for the first time that day, that I’d go back and apologize to the woman, but ended up instead giving the cafeteria a wide berth for years to come. Later that night, my stomach was still in knots from the shame of being caught in the act.

Father asked where I’d been. I told him I’d gone for a walk. He asked if I’d taken any pictures, because he saw the camera hanging from my shoulder. I said no, then went to my room. Imolka through a basement window, relegated to the pages of a notebook when I was twelve, or just barely. A cupboard and faucet on the right, a sofa to the left, in the middle Imolka seated at the table, in front of her a plate. On the right a cupboard and faucet, on the left a sofa, in the middle Imolka at the table, darning a sock. And Mother, dead. And also the woman across the way behind the shutters, with her pillow. I knew that if I’d raised the camera to my eye properly, if I’d looked in the view finder, if I hadn’t been afraid, she might have not minded at all. And I also knew that knowing this was no help to me, because unless someone poses for me of their own accord, I’d just be sneaking around my whole life.


From The End by Attila Bartis, translated by Judith Sollosy. Used with permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books. Copyright © 2015 by Attila Bartis, English translation. Copyright © 2023 by Judith Sollosy.

More Story
Questioning Authority and Story: Emily Tesh, Vajra Chandrasekera, and Sophie Strand Tor Books, in partnership with Literary Hub, presents Voyage Into Genre! Every other Wednesday, join host Drew Broussard...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.