The Last Window-Giraffe

Peter Zilahy (trans. Tim Wilkinson)

August 28, 2023 
The following is from Peter Zilahy's The Last Window-Giraffe . Zilahy’s award-winning books have been adapted into theater shows, radio plays, and a wealth of other media, inspired songs, and even flash mobs during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Zilahy has performed on Broadway, lectured all over the world, was a Kluge Fellow at The Library of Congress, and a fellow of Akademie Solitude, handpicked by Nobel laureate Herta Müller.

három puszi = three kisses
háború = war
harag = anger
halál = death
hatalom = power
híradó = news bulletin
hazudnak = they’re lying

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Dad asked me to come by. They were knocking down the house in which I grew up to make room for a bigger and better one. On the train, I drank to the health of Hungarian girls with three mafiosi from Novi Sad. They would all have Hungarian wives, they said. I went to the Rudas Baths to melt away the Belgrade winter.

I stretched out in the light streaming in through the hexagonal holes in the vault, waiting to be shaken up like a snowstorm paperweight. The dome of the Rudas Baths is a continuation of the traveller’s brow, a building which has holes by design, even without a siege — quintessential Budapest. I’m floating below the dome in an inverse snowfall, between hot water and a scorching sun: a Hungarian skull slipping into a Turkish helmet.

The next morning, I set out to pack up my childhood. The house is small, as if it were a model. The trees have shrunk: tiptoeing through a bonsai garden. The parental house stands empty, curtainless, with my room the only one still holding anything — packed with the Seventies, or to be more precise, from ’75 to ’85. Books and stones, photographs, love letters — I packed the lot into whisky boxes. I walked around the old villa. It only took a few seconds, I had outgrown the garden. There used to be a flight of steps under the old walnut tree, but that was covered with earth when the slope was taken into national ownership. A pharmacy was built where the orchard had once stood, a boiler house in the place of the apple trees. I stopped by the stone blocks that had once been used to carry palm-trees. The steps were several yards beneath me, in the ground. I lay down on the ground and rolled around until I was covered with snow.

I dreamt that we were frying spek, I got grease all over me. I climbed the walnut tree, but kept on slipping back down. I persevered until I had climbed all the trees. Children and trees of various sizes appear. They all grow together, leaves and branches, nails and hair, all the children were me and I climbed all the trees in the garden. Finally, I defied orders to get down, even though I knew the dream would end soon, so the children would not come down from the trees and the alarm clock goes off, the school bell rings, class starts, a tram clangs its bell, a ship blares its horn, a conductor blows his whistle and the bells of Belgrade toll — but the trees and children have all coalesced into one and they’re laughing at me. I’m left standing down below, old and helpless, and up in every tree are children swinging their legs. That’s how the dream ended, unfinished.

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‘ “Can’t get me, I’ve got pax!” — in hide-and-seek shouting this means that even if the seeker sees you, or the catcher catches you, it doesn’t count.’

War criminals must answer for their actions before the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. A war criminal is someone who enjoys what he does and in wartime acts in an uncivilized manner. He shoots from an off-side position, slops food on his opponents’ clothes, never warns before attacking and always drops bombs on the sly.

The evening news on Serbian TV starts at seven-thirty. The news bulletin shows three protesters with flags and beer bottles who are sometimes Communists, sometimes Chetniks. I know them by sight. They’re the three who’ve been demonstrating in Belgrade for the past forty days, and CNN is blowing it up like crazy. These three are responsible for all the disturbances, for misleading and alarming the populace of Belgrade. Milošević asserted to a foreign correspondent that it was Karadžić’s men who were the rowdies on the streets of Belgrade. At seven-thirty those who don’t like the régime start whistling and drumming. You get to know your neighbours. We stand at the window with wooden spoons and pans. I’m now in the process of splintering my fourth wooden spoon. For me, Belgrade is more the revolution of broken wooden spoons than of rotten eggs.

home, heroes, hussars, housewives, head-hunters, history, hide-and-seek, The Hague, hard of hearing, hawthorn, Habsburg, Hungarian, homesick

The late ninth century by the shore of Lake Balaton. There’s a flat calm. You can hear the fish in the water; fat carp in the dense pondweed. Then all of a sudden, dust and hoof beats — the dust and hoof beats of a Magyar horseman beating a tactical retreat, Franks in hot pursuit. Dust and hoof beats, dust and hoof beats. Two Franks. An arrow is shot to the rear. One of the Franks clutches his heart. Once upon a time . . .

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In shooting his arrow behind him, while conquering his future homeland, the valiant Magyar did not spot a pair of butterflies which crossed his path. Engaged in their nuptial dance, the butterflies were separated. One of them flew over Lake Balaton, lost its sense of direction and was done for. Its wings were soaked and its respiratory tubes became clogged. Anyone who has seen a butterfly thrashing on water is aware of the enthralling tension with which the air becomes charged in such moments. Through the vibrations set up by the thrashing wings, a town collapsed in India, burying thirty thousand people under the rubble; the English king, Alfred the Great, died; the Maya abandoned their ancient cities; the Bulgarians captured the White Castle that became Belgrade; the Vikings landed in Normandy; Abdurrahman, caliph of Cordoba, berated his gardener for a badly pruned rosebush; the Tang Dynasty collapsed in China; and in an Amerindian camp in the Amazon basin, the slave girl Dawn Light gave birth to quintuplets, which the cannibals took to be a good omen.

Roughly six hundred and sixty-six years later, the backwash of that butterfly’s death throes created two empires on the shores of Lake Balaton, one to the north, one to the south. In one the sun never set; in the other, it was always rising. The border sundered the Hungarians, who thus became their own neighbours: two Hungarian provinces with Hungarian governments and with Hungarian populaces paying taxes to both sides, Habsburgs and Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire stretched from Aden to Algiers, from Basra to Buda and the Balaton; the Habsburg possessions stretched from Košice to Cuzco, from Tenochtitlán to Tokay, with the Balaton at their border. That is how, at the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Modern Age, the Hungarians found themselves in one and the same empire as Incas and Persians. The Balaton was a common territorial water, with prowling gunboat patrols, both linking and dividing the two worlds, from the Mayas to the Copts, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Waves have been breaking on the Balaton ever since. It’s no coincidence that the country’s only decent tectonic fault line is situated here. Let that suffice to show how rash and risky it is to shoot arrows to the rear. That’ll teach the Magyars to mind their manners.

Mehmed II the Conqueror seized two hundred cities and twelve countries. After capturing Byzantium, he overran the Balkans, but he got bogged down at Belgrade. According to one contemporary collection, the siege of Belgrade was inscribed on the majestic palimpsest of the Sultan’s mind with the miraculous recording plume of his thought. This Ottoman graffito likened Belgrade to the very heavens and numbered its weapons as multitudinous as the stars. But the licentious, filthy and gluttonous Magyars provoked the patient Sultan into attacking. As an illustration of the situation, a miniature was painted which showed Mehmed chopping off Hunyadi’s head. A hand-painted propaganda codex.


From The Last Window-Giraffe. Used with permission from the publisher, Sandorf Passage. Copyright © 2023 by Peter Zilahy. Translation copyright © 2023 by Tim Wilkinson.

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