New work – 7th March, 2011

Our Street (extract from the novel)

Foreman József Sudák

New work–7th March, 2011

New work

Foreman József Sudák
Sándor Tar's prose is considered by the many as the best depiction of the human cost of the years just following the change in regime of 1989. His best known collection of short stories which most critics and readers consider a novel, Our Street (1995), presents the lives of people living in a street at the far end of a small town.

Each story zeroes in on the life of a man or woman trying to survive in this confined space as best they can, which each finding his own answer to the question of survival, and most of whom, left them without jobs or sustenance, find their strength and consolation in alcohol. As Tar’s contemporary Ádám Bodor said, "Sándor Tar chose to remain where the other writers have left. He has not forgotten what brings a sudden silence to a pub." Yet the intertwining stories of the people on Our Street are told with such absurdity, pain, understanding and humour that paradoxically, the book reaffirms their humanity and gives each of the characters the gift of dignity. Accordingly, he manages the seemingly impossible and, paradoxically, Our Street makes for a pleasant read. It most certainly makes for a haunting one.

"Our Street appears 'anachronistic' not by virtue of its realism (this is a variety of realism that is more sophisticated than one would think at first glance), but by virtue of its humanism. We have got unused to this word. If one chooses to write about people who live a life of indolence, the upper crust (the beautiful and the rich) is always an easier topic than the unemployed (the ugly ones, etc.). What can an honest prose writer do with dazzling and boring people but look for the animal in them? And what can a writer who undertakes to write about the habitual customers of a down-and-out pub find but human beings?... The cathartic summary of Sándor Tar’s masterpiece is as follows: vegetating is beautiful." (István Kemény)

Foreman József Sudák

Attila is the prettiest boy in the street, and everybody knows it. He’s an adolescent now, and he’s in eighth grade, but when he was smaller, everybody wanted to just eat him up. In summer he wore tiny shorts, and he went from house to house, and if the gate wasn’t open, he’d bang on it and shout. Wherever he went, they picked him up, pinched his cheeks, and stuffed candy and cake in his mouth. Sudák did, too. Once he sat down on the ground in front of the boy, and kept gazing at him for a long, long time. Then he asked the child, tell me, how in God’s name did you turn out so well? Maybe that’s when something went off in his head, because something definitely went off, except it didn’t show at the time. He was living with a tall woman at the time, a drunk, and it’s a good thing he didn’t marry her, just shacked up, he later explained, because he’d have been fleeced, with the woman taking half of everything. What that everything might have been he didn’t say. He pushed her through the gate, locked the door, and good riddance to her. She tried to move back in two weeks later, but the new woman poured a washbowl of dirty water on her, just like that, over the gate. Jolán Árva stood there in her suit, with a cigarette, necklace, wrist watch, and the sudsy water pouring down her. I can’t believe it, she said aghast, that deaf bitch poured water on me, because the new woman was a deaf-mute.
    A thing like that can be kept under wraps for a while, of course. Sudák had brought her from a ways off. She had a nice face and a fine figure, except people noticed that she wouldn’t go out, not even to the general store. Sudák said she’s not the gossiping kind and prefers to keep her council, and others would do well to follow her example. If anybody went past her, she nodded and smiled and muttered something as if in greeting, and quickened her steps. She wore pretty dresses, smelled nice, had rings on her fingers, and once Dorogi said at Misi’s café how he’d like to doodle her, out of curiosity, if nothing else. Then after two or three weeks he said, boys, that woman is deaf. You’re kidding, they said, surprised, she can’t be. Deaf as a door nail Dorogi said. There I was outside the gate shouting to her to send Józsi outside, but she went on hanging out the wash, her back to me. I was shouting so loud, half the neighborhood came to see what was up, but she kept throwing the wet clothes on the line, I swear.
    Once Sudák said he’s the overseer at the Plastic Works, but the card players at Misi’s countered it out of hand. Come on, they said, don’t stretch your luck. Okay, then it’s foreman, Sudák said, and refused to bargain any further. Jancsi Hesz looked into it and said, you’re nobody there, Józsi, you’re a janitor out at the yard. Sudák didn’t answer him. As far as he was concerned, he’d put an end to the discussion the other day. He’d made up his mind by then that he would have a child and let their jaws drop in surprise, the whole lot of them! He was already dismantling the old house, planning to put up a new one in its place. He’d knocked together a small room and kitchen at the back of the yard. It would serve till them. The yard was filling up with gravel, bricks, and beams, and it didn’t matter any more that the woman was deaf and dumb, the people of the street had taken a liking to her. She was clean and neat, and Sudák, too, had changed for the better under her influence. He didn’t drink in the shop, stopped going to Misi’s, unless for a small shot now and then, then went on his way. He now preferred to buy his wine from Mrs. Sarkadi and drink it at home with his new woman.
    He’d originally come from Debrecen, and people said he was divorced. He got off the bus, spotted Misi’s café, went inside and asked for a small glass of Unicum bitters, at which the tavern fell silent. What did you say, Esztike asked, Unicum? Can’t a fine gentleman like you make do with something else? The fine gentleman got the hint. Sudák’s hair came down to his shoulder even back then, and his moustache drooped down to his chin. He gulped down the shot of pálinka, then inquired whether there was a house up for sale in the village. There was. Even back then, the regulars at Misi’s knew everything. There’s old man Koda’s, they said, he just died, and his son doesn’t want it. They even knew who he should talk to, he was right there, except he’d gone outside to pee. It’s got everything, they told to Sudák, furniture, bed sheets, flowers in the window, flypaper. Even a dog lying in front of the door, because it won’t leave the house long as there are chickens left to catch. Then the Koda boy came back. He was drunk as a skunk, but manageable. The others helped steady him while he signed the bill of sale, and Sudák laid out the two-hundred-thousand forints on the spot. He didn’t even go see the house. He’d be seeing it enough now that it was his, he said, and why don’t they have another drink? But he’d like the key, please, because he’s not going back to town any more. What key? There’s no key. The door’s secured with a piece of wire. In these parts, people don’t go around thieving.
    It was a real bargain, the talk of the town. Sudák paid for the drinks, because Esztike took the money from the Koda boy. You shouldn’t walk around with all that money in your state, she said. Come back tomorrow. I’m putting it on the shelf behind the peach brandy, everybody knows about it. You can fetch it tomorrow. But now, go on home. In the meanwhile Sudák told those present that he’s a gentleman. He never lived in a village, only in town. He also told them how he’d come so low. It was a sentimental story, nobody liked it very much. Then came his adventures, by which time Misi, the owner, appeared with three cases of beer. Sudák was illustrating dance steps by then, how you need to bend your knee at every step, it’s not easy, springing like that. He said that his cap was like the cap of the Spanish volunteers. Nobody argued, as the people of the street had never seen a Spanish volunteer. Still, Misi commented that he thought it was a beret just like the one he keeps in the basement, except it’s on crooked. That man lies through his teeth, he said to his wife Esztike, but he can’t be all bad if he’s got money. Later Jolán Árva also made an appearance, and she could also do folk dances, and by closing time Sudák asked for her hand, and she offered it. What celebration! After the tavern closed, everybody trooped over to the house with a case of beer. This guy doesn’t fool around, Misi said to his wife. He came with the four-thirty bus. It’s eleven now, and he’s got a house and a wife. As for Dorogi, the following day he said he couldn’t remember who slept with whom in that rumpus, but in the morning the dog climbed out from under Sudák and it was growling something awful.
    People could’ve gotten used to Sudák’s lies and his different way of speaking and dressing, if only his money hadn’t run out. Jolán Árva was a great help to him in this, because she took it into her head that she’d have to put on airs and nice dresses now that she’s hooked up with such a handsome man with the dancing feet. She stopped being on a first name basis with people, and started smoking like a chimney. They didn’t get married, it was so old fashioned. We love each other anyhow, she kept saying. They went to a dentist in town, but only when they needed a tooth pulled, that’s all they could afford. Consequently, Sudák’s lips shifted on his face, while Jolán’s stretched. This may have also played a part in their relationship growing sour, but the main reason was that Jolán Árva took to the bottle and wouldn’t hear of children. Except by then Sudák was doubly determined to have a child, come hell or high water. There was Attila to remind him. He wanted a good looking child just like him, except a girl with long, curly locks and dark-blue eyes.
    He hadn’t noticed till then that he didn’t have a child; till then, his entire life was taken up with various culture groups, dancing, and pranks. He worked in Barcika, then Pest, then Debrecen, where he began to suspect that he’d never become a professional folk dancer. His ex-wife had changed, too, she got old, broke her leg repeatedly, then gave up dancing altogether, whereas you should’ve seen the two of them dancing to the song that went, “in my rose garden on a lovely night in spring.” The penitentiary warden at Palkonya even made a special point of congratulating them, saying it’s not even dance, it’s art! You can veritably smell those roses, I swear! Jolán Árva was a far cry from anything of the sort and she didn’t want children, that was the source of all their troubles. She said she couldn’t. Sudák took her to the doctor. I took her to the bee farm, he told the men at Misi’s, and they gave her a physical from head to foot. Then they couldn’t stop laughing. What’s so funny, I ask the doctors. Nothing much, they said, except half of your wife’s lungs have got to go soon. Her lungs? I ask. What for? To make room for her liver. Just like that. It may not have been true, but everybody had a good laugh over it. Sudák had shacked up with the new woman by then, and was planning a house, a garden, and a family in earnest. There’s gonna be palm trees growing in the yard, he announced once, the likes of which this place has never seen, and more. A swimming pool! A glass roof! And monkeys, somebody said, at least two.
    In 1989 he was anticipating the change in regime like spring rain. The Magyars, their time has come, he said. At last! Magyar music, Magyar dance, Magyar bread! In 1990 he got fired because almost always it was the morning shift that woke him. He was a night watchman and they got fed up with him. For months he got no money, and bit by bit he sold the gravel, the bricks and the beams from the yard. Also, Katóka still did not bear him a child. At times he thought, maybe it’s too late. Meanwhile, next door Attila was growing into a handsome adolescent. As time passed, Katóka divided off a part of the room with a curtain, because when Sudák was drunk, he was unaccountable. He’d dance and sing in front of the mirror, then slap Katóka, or kick her in the shin.
    Sudák had wanted to be many things in his life. A dancer, a partisan, an actor. He even took up ice skating when they started broadcasting ice skating shows over the TV, and in his dreams he was the happy father of little Attila and a beautiful baby girl. Now he took it into his head that he’d like to be mayor. But only a couple of people know about it, just Jancsi Hesz, Dorogi, and Piroska néni. He practices delivering speeches in front of the mirror. He is fifty-five years old, and his hair has turned gray. Just you wait and see, he says to the mirror. Just you wait and see.

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