Magazine article World Literature Today

The Pillar of Salt

Magazine article World Literature Today

The Pillar of Salt

Article excerpt

Z, the story writer, decided to end her diary. What is more, with an eye on approaching Christmas, she would adorn it with stars and, in memory of 1956, would stick on it the holed flag, and-in order to record the blood-curdling turn in world politics-place the striped, star-studded US flag next to that of her homeland. She would even annotate the year. Confect inscriptions, place props on the bottom of the page, dedicate a marble slab to her dried-up wells, verdant trees, her roses (long wither'd) and spring turn'd to wintry woe, and add extra weight to the lugubrious diagnostic of climate change with the temperature curve of the ever hotter, terminally ill summers. And because she had her fountain pen, pencil, laptop, desk computer, and plum yogurt, she decided that for the enlightenment of the generations to come, she would save the main events of the year, that is, her life, from perishing, into the narration's present. After which she would bow down in front of her protagonists and walk-ons, beg their forgiveness and forgive them, then set them at liberty one by one (last of all her alter ego, the experienced dreamer whom she had given her name on January 1st this year). The way Count Tolstoi freed his serfs, and Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves, to speak with Kurt Vonnegut. Peace out. Bon voyage!

Seemingly Z had no difficulties in turning her back on her characters. But in reality she was loyal to them to the point of madness. She kept looking back, like Lot's wife on Sodom stifled by the brimstone and ashes, and paid little heed to the fact that from time to time she turned into a pillar of salt. In her heart she tarried with them in the erstwhile setting, like footprints in the virgin snow stretching all the way to the mountain shelter, or a fallen glove on tram fifty-nine withdrawing to the garage for the night. And in the deathly serious fifth act, like Romeo: Hold, there is forty ducats. Let me have a dram of poison-she spoke now and again to her apothecary on Érdi Street-such soon-speeding gear that the lifeweary taker may fall dead. Although she made this request in dead earnest, at the same time she was convinced that her death would prove to be only transitory. As we have repeatedly stressed, Z didn't believe in time's tyrannical power. For her, the tragedy's most important act was the sixth: the raising of the dead from the stage's battlegrounds, the straightening of wigs and fancy gowns, the removing of knives from stricken breasts, taking nooses from lifeless necks, lining up among the living to face the audience.

It so happened that on one chill-filled, gloomy morning, not far from her erstwhile school but underground, in Deák Square station, Z took up her place in the queue waiting for subway 3. (The capital's city council had decided that very day, on the mayor's insistence, that on account of the ill omens, from the following morning the subway would cease running for security reasons. So she made up her mind to abandon herself to the no-doubt carnivalesque atmosphere and take one last journey, come what may. The death-fear showing on people's faces was a shock. She remembered a merry, youthful dream about the Last Judgment when the cockleshell vehicle rattled in and she got on the swaying birdcage, from whose metal planking the post-Soviet blue paint had long peeled off in the course of the many hundred thousand kilometers of running amok, when all of a sudden her former colleague B, thirty years her senior, appeared in front of her, whose reminiscings from the times of the Arrow-cross men and the Communist secret police were inscribed in her own memory, and whose anecdotes they would always share at department meetings in the golden olden days of Kádár. …

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