Mihály Kornis: Danube Blues

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Mihály Kornis

Danube Blues

(Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy)

When I think of the Danube I think of the dead. The dead the dead the dead. Those who in nineteenhundredandfortyfour were marched down to the river bank and shot into the river. I was not here at the time but had I been here I would have been shot into the river too. Katalin Kornis was hiding under circumstances which had she given birth to her son then would have never survived the nationalist liberation. She wouldn’t have survived because those we call the Arrow Cross would have taken her to the bank, they would have taken her there along with me and they would have requested me too to kindly divest myself of my shoes and to kindly divest myself of my coat and I would have had to see my beautiful young mother shiver from the fear and the cold in the middle of a throng gone made in the face of death furiously cursing between its teeth and stung with abhorrence at its own helplessness — to see her grab my arm, possibly screaming and trying to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t turn round and see the guns pressed to the chins…

But I don’t know why I’m telling you this story in the past conditional the story that did not happen for it might give you the impression that it did not happen whereas it did. You bet it happened! It happened a lot more than this evening for instance is happening in which we are all participating and acting our part like the well-bred people we are hours de varié because it just so happens that ever since nineteenhundredandfiftynine I’ve known perfectly well that as a small Jewish boy I was there with the rest of them on the jew-bank and I was shot with the rest of them into the jew-danube they were all shot into the Danube everyone I knew and loved, to the last man!, and not just Radnóti but Petőfi too and István Széchenyi and Mister Imre Nagy and Count Lajos Batthyány and Raoul Wallenberg and auntie Weisz and old uncle Weisz and Attila József — everyone who disappeared swimming in blood; György Dózsa and Magduska from Mauthausen and those two little ruskies in a tank burnt to a crisp in front of the Hotel Astoria who loved me and stroked my head before they were burnt to a crisp and the college students in windbreakers who talked to me as they stood guard by the front door when a couple of days before I ran outside to them when I wasn’t supposed to to see see the goings on and who were arrested in front of our house and now they were all in the Danube in ‘fifty-nine they were all in the Danube everyone who was good, then died. There they were, bobbing up and down in the jew-danube.

So then. The whole thing happened in November of ‘fifty-nine when I went down to the Danube to look for bombs because it got ’round in our class that there were these real fantastic personnel mines and striped hand grenades swimming in the water among the rocks under the quay next to the corroded remains of the Elizabeth Bridge, listen!, all you gotta do is dip your hand in and fish around the water’s chock full of the stuff and you can do with it whatever you want you can blow them up even or take them home and have them tick under the bed like an alarm clock isn’t that neat?… So after school I went down to the river bank slipping past the houses fully conscious of all my sins and with a racing heart I seriously expected to be tailed, quilt jackets from the secret police for instance or what have you anti-revolutionary elements cowering in the dark, beware!; I dragged my obese jew-body down the steps to the river and the wind let up, the wind let up and it was three o’clock in the afternoon and I shoved my gym stuff under my bum and watched the river and after a while I calmed down.

This is how I am. This is where I am. The sky it’s like someone’s gone and puked on it: a filthy head, stifling, a rag pressed close, an unbroken sheet of menace. The ligh, it won’t come down, it hasn’t got a mind to, not any more. Thick saliva-dribble, and spreading! That’s the way it is these days, the sky’s cut itself loose from the earth, period. And don’t bother asking why. Asking is out! Of course it’s none of my business. Or who knows. Nobody knows. Oh the water it’s stirring licking in between the rocks splashing inside the iron debris; there’s all sort of bombs, it’s impressive, I wear, bombs wherever I look, stone bombs and iron bombs saucer-shaped monsters strange objects overgrown with green slime… How am I supposed to take it out?, how am I supposed to take it out?, it’s gonna tear me apart, like shit, this whole thing it’s no joke I better think it over, hey, man, stop think what you’re doing!

The Danube is yellow. Mud-yellow. Soldier-yellow. Ugly, not pretty. In the middle it is calm but near the shore it is weeping; it is like an old man, constipated, rolling on because it’s used to it slowly forward bubbling cold, talking to itself. come to think of it old boy have you seen my spats?… The water eddies hissing around the middle; it’s clogged up and no wonder it’s hiding things, bent under its own weight, a miser, a Jew, and now it’s regurgitating it!, there!, and there!, the ugly corpses they’re coming to the surface, the jew-crutches, the fugitive coats, the blood-soaked bandages, the cripple-jewels!, goodness me, where’s all that stuff coming from?, what’s going on here?!

And I jump up, I spring to my feet, my cheeks are on fire, I thrash my arms about excitedly, the middle of the river, it rises to a hump, the jew-martyr stuff circling round by the thousands, merchants’ sabbath-hats, flatulent poormen’s sweaters, tumified slips and massacred college-student shoes; and also pitiful Hungarian flags, lovingly hidden Kossuth coats-of-arms and the crusty remains turned inside out of the beautiful four-pound loaves they were handing out for free they are all dancing in the muddy-white scum howling and roaring and jostling each other for space then up again!, and down again!, goodness me, what a turmoil, what a jew-dance, what a crowd!

But hold your horses, that can’t be!

We all had to strip.

I remember perfectly well I was killed they shot me down those that were bigger than me shot me down I couldn’t even pay attention properly even thought I wanted to…

We all got killed.
We all had to strip.
Everybody from our house got killed! Everybody had to strip.
They killed our freedom-fight.
They came at dawn.

They broke down the two front gates with flame-throwers. I was sleeping, dreaming about a black gaping hole. From the bottom of the hole came a shower of light a burst of rain pouring the other way around and I wanted to be inside but I couldn’t because they entrusted me with a paper box outside it was loaded with money it looked like the money of the people passing by there by the Ady movie house the box on that certain chair. Somebody said take good care of it, mityu! and so I had to stay right there though I longed to jump inside inside the light even though whatever entered the light turned into blue gas in front of my eyes a bunch of sidewalk litte, for instance carried there by the wind, and also small animals birds mice and a pink…

But they woke me up.

Ghetto-dawn, pus-dawn. A grey pus-universe. Rooms kicked to shreds, carton suitcases, muddy rugs… Everything stayed behind, everything stayed behind and fell silent when we left slam-bang period!

That’s all there was to it.

hush-a-bye, baby,
nurse is away,
sisters and brothers are gone out to play;
but i by your cradle,
dear baby, will keep,
to guard you from danger and see that you…

You want to see? Go ahead, look! But I’m gonna look right back at you. We are marching to our deaths like true soldiers while you must furtively sneak past on the sidewalk licking the corners of your lips. We are marching on to die for Magyar freedom but you will stay behind. I wonder why. To point your fingers with lowered eyes? To mourn and to laugh?

O, these mute, cowardly Budapest houses! Furtive rooftops, pidgeoned windows… Is this how things will stay? And no questions asked? Go on invigorating without us?! While — wouldn’t you know — we have to treck down to the Danube because the un, it’s is not coming to our aid? Dad promised, but where are they? It’s no skin off my back of course, I’m holding Mother’s hand, she thinks I don’t know but i do. I can take it. I could’ve been a man of the world let’s say that’s what I had in mind a piece of wandering freedom handing out free bread and duck to the masses. And now sly traitors will subjugate my beloved home instead. fidonc! In a place like this I don’t want to be anyway! The mustaches, the salutes, the flinging out of arms! The filching, the underhanded changes: for budapest evening Evening News, for free people Peoples’ Freedom, for peoples’ will “Peoples’ Balls”, the ranting baker’s calls* — well, I will have none of it! I clap the soles of my patent leather shoes against the pavement and the march to death is disconcerting to be sure but at least we go with heads held high. Who wants to learn German here anyway any more and who wants to learn Russian here any more?, and who wants to learn anything here any more? Let them go to day school on free peoples’ feet for now and forever more. Let them have their baked beans and East German slides and lie, lie, lies.

We prefer to die.

Now. Winter. Now. Winter, cold!

Icy mid-morning moon, mangled shreds of air brushing against you, on the other side white snowy mist. freezing cold. We all had to strip. It’s not gonna hurt. I’m so ashamed of myself. It’s not gonna hurt! The whole house, it’s here. I am naked. The whole house, it’s here, the whole house! we are about to die like vermin somebody said. there’s no helping it somebody said. I knew it was going to happen! Daddy’s back, it is shining! Daddy’s fat back. lard-jews somebody said just look at you somebody said fertig! Kindly lean forward, like you would at the pool. Fat-jews at the jew-pool. But some are skinny! Grandma, she is skinny. It’s not fair, some are skinny! Leave me alone don’t you touch me don’t you touch me! The cock is clicking. The cock it’s clicking already and I can’t think of a single good Jewish prayer god bless the magyars. god bless the magyars well we couldn’t pull it off and now it’s too late the fascists wax victorious. Konyec filma my brothers oh ye Hungarian proletarians! I knew it was going to happen I’m peeing down the inside of my thighs! We are about to die in. We are about to die into the Danube. Yes siree everybody’s gonna die right into the Danube! No kidding, kid: we aren’t gonna be! Why don’t they shoot already? Everybody’s screaming. Everybody’s naked already, everybody’s not already! Old uncle Eisler next to me, he’s not, too, like a living mass of dough, like a living quivering mass of soft white dough! This is standing-torture: the flapping old jew-flesh, the laughable shit-curve spines! Mommy, mommy, oh-oh mommy dear! But never mind I don’t care give me liberty or give me — o.k. hussars! — ready, aim, fire away… —

now its warm. it’s here. it’s inside. warm all over.
hot and boiling. good.

And as I watched the old river, burying myself back in fifty-nine, for the first time in my life I saw — no, not ugly clothes but ghosts or how should I put it; my relatives, they bobbed to the surface of the water; there they were bobbing up and down in the jew-danube dressed to the hilt and I even said to myself right away: immortal all those that I loved, the great classical poets and freedom fighters the college student and child partisans shot through the head and those whatchammacallit forced laborers, or forced labor camp inmates!; and incredible as it may sound me, too, yes, me, too, and mom and dad and everybody from our house grinning like a Cheshire cat from inside another painfully dull drowned life as we were regurgitated from the depths of the whirling vortex of the mud-yellow bubbling river; there we were holding hands and clowning around on the back of the water dancing the can-can of the unburied dead, the military-boot waltz and the mud-tango on tip-toes together; ill mannered flashing our bums grinning ragged and free as the wind, all for you — I mean for me because nobody else saw even though I was glancing around in a fevered frenzy, how come the number 2 tram hasn’t come to a screeching halt and why hasn’t a crowd gathered on the quay and I couldn’t understand why nothing was happening when it’s here, it’s here!, WE are here! Petőfi is here splashing Budapest’s ass and stroking the hands of all sorts of old Mrs. Weiszes and spitting at Gellért hill so mightily that it is covered in fog and with a shout of whatthehell! he shamelessly kisses all the summarily hung women on the lips be they Jewesses or streetcar conductors; we are all here, misbehaving ourselves, and we are afraid of nothing, we couldn’t give shit, what I mean is we are shitting golden flowers into the danube to make it beautiful at last, to set it on fire, to change it! Wherever the eye can see we’re jostling each other for space under the ashen sky and in the misty air me and Lovassy and Wesselényi and my grandmother and Radnóti and Bálint Balassi and my father’s older sister and Imre Nagy and the poor little ruskies burnt to a crisp in their tank — in short, the entire United Magyar Synagogue, who belong to me, we are having a grand time of it together now, resurrected and radiant as the sun, and then off the bat Petőfi gives the rallying cry: fuck it, why don’t we head for budapest!

And all the murdered Jews ascend to the skies, all of dead Hungary ascends to the skies, they hide Budapest from the sun. Then we start raining down on the streets like cats and dogs and I scream with delight because all hell breaks loose in the city everywhere in a thousand and one spots and on November 7 Square* the electric sign blinks lies! — lies! — lies! — lies!; and the public statues curse out-loud and every street sign goes up in flames and every public building shakes itself as if something itched or from pain and every public servant feels he’s inside a barrel and every telephone booth vomits and the empty Peoples Stadium heaves a big sigh as the great big nothing moans and groans inside it and all the passers-by fall to their knees and the Radio apologizes non-stop we ask your forgiveness ladies and gentlemen because we ask your forgiveness ladies and gentlemen because the fact of the matter is that it is incumbent upon us to ask your forgiveness! we ask your forgiveness! we ask your forgiveness! we ask for your… And all over town the newborn babis take power into their own hands and the caps fall of the heads of all the police and in the grocery shops the dead stand on line wanting dead meat and dead bread and paying for it with dead money when they get to the cashier’s and they board the dead buses and every bus gets into an accident… And in this manner all of Budapest is slowly resurrected and it learns to live with its own dead self.

And never again will others play the lord over it.

Anyway, that’s what I saw there, on the bank of the Danube, back in 1959, and to tell you the truth, it scared the daylights out of me. The slimy water, the grey ashen-sky, the treacherous mines under the sludge, it was terrible….

And I ran home, soaked to the bone.

And out of breath, I telephoned my mother, who was an employee of the bread factory in Zugló, and I said, the danube is full of corpses, mother, living, speaking corpses! they’re back, and i’m scared…

And she said, there’s no need.


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