Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

Hungarian author Peter Nadas's A Lovely Tale of
Photography P R O S E:
A Lovely Tale of Photography
Peter Nadas

Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein
ISBN 80 9021716 8

Born in 1942 in Budapest, the novelist, playwright, and essayist Peter Nadas started out as a photojournalist and reporter. From 1969 on, he devoted himself fully to literature and eventually became one of the outstanding figures of contemporary Hungarian letters, receiving several honours for his writing - including the Prize for Hungarian Art (1989), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1991) and the Vilenica International Prize for Literature (1998). Among his notable works are A Book of Memories and The End of a Family Story. Nadas currently resides in the Hungarian countryside.

In A Lovely Tale of Photography, Nadas revisits his old profession in the story's lead character - a photojournalist suffering from a strange combination of schizophrenia epilepsy and unrestrained desire. The novella is constructed as a kind of narrative film sequence of short "scenes" which run together in a continuous flow of characters speaking different languages and appearing at different times. The result is a hallucinatory narrative supported by a not always identifiable "voice" that wafts in and out of the story.


*   *   *


"Fright, of course, is usually greater than danger. And that's good. Think about it: if it did not grow to gigantic proportions, able to carry away body and soul; if it did not shake you up, chase and pursue you, make you tremble; if it did not turn the hyena into a clever fox, the lion into a scaredy cat, then artlessness, our lack of suspicion would lay us low in the slightest danger. And it's good that this is so. Everything isgood just the way it is; so good, in fact, that it couldn't be any better; anyone trying to improve on so much good is either evil or stupid. I see you have nothing to say. I understand. What's more, I agree with you, dear Kornelia. I did reach into your soul. But don't be afraid, or rather, you may be afraid, because now I will reach even deeper. I shall grasp even your slippery little heart that's pounding so fast. And since you cannot possibly call me stupid, I have made myself evil in your lovely eyes. You need not answer, I can see contempt shining bright in those eyes. Your hatred makes me shudder. I need nothing more than that, believe me. You consider me a fraud, a common thief. I have taken advantage of your weakness; I've had your camera confiscated. You need not have any hope: neither terrible Henriette, nor sweet little Milena will divulge which secret cabinet we've hidden it in. It wouldn't have been worth it to deprive you of anything less than that. And now I pass sentence: you are to look at me with your two lovely eyes, and what you see you should touch with your slender fingers. If you wish. Or with your lips, even your tongue. If you wish. Feel that you can do anything. If you wish. You even have the power not to wish. That would be the taste of freedom, Kornelia. I grant you, this is only my own sentence, and an arbitrary one at that, still you have nowhere or nobody to appeal to. In a vast, terrifying void I have left you alone with only your senses to keep you company. Your body is full of little bubbles, all ready to burst. You must clutch at anyone you can. There is nothing more to hope for. If you had been a banker, I would have taken away your money; if a hunter, your weapon or just your ammunition; if a painter, your brushes. I won't delude you, Kornelia, by saying that you will never again recover what you have lost, but until you learn how to reckon time the way you should, I shall take from you even more. If you feel hunger, you have to appear at the communal meals, or, if you refuse to chew and swallow along with the others, you will have to perish of hunger. And I'll go even further. Don't think that fate has thrown you together with some half-witted devil. As of today, not even a glass of water will you receive in your room. Whenever you look at me it's the devil you see; who else would you see. I am healing your soul. All the rest will be taken care of by that lovely, young body. You punish me by not replying. I am enjoying your silence."


*   *   *


Between the open door of the terrace and the massive chest of drawers stands a short black-lacquered wooden column on which a white wide-mouthed faience bowl is brimming with a huge somewhat unimaginatively arranged bunch of flowers.

And there is a voice whispering passionately.

"Thirst is the inner sensation of the need to drink. Looking at the full range of this need, we may distinguish three different kinds of thirsts: dormant, otherwise known as regular thirst; artificial, or false thirst; and burning thirst. Dormant thirst is but the search for that latent equilibrium which exists between the processes of evaporation and secretion, and the need for these processes, with the purpose of replenishing the evaporated and secreted fluids. This form of thirst follows us everywhere and in a certain sense it is part of our existence. The artificial or false thirst, however, which is peculiar only to humans, is derived from our congenital instinct to seek in everything we take in through our mouth some unearthly power which nature has failed to provide. Beverages produced by fermentation can soothe, at least so it seems to inebriates, this desire. The slaking of this sort of thirst may degenerate into a state in which the need to drink ceases only when the drinker is completely debilitated."

A still life: half-open red roses, yellow gladiate lilies, blue irises, mauve larkspurs,white daisies, but also wildflowers of the field, crimson clover, sweet William, knapweed, cow-wheat, dead nettle, poppy, rape, comfrey and wild millet, and even blades and ears of common grasses, bent-grass, foxtail, couch grass and oat grass, all of them framed in white baby's breath, are standing erect or hanging over and off their receptacle, motionless and everlasting, while the white muslin curtain of the door is alternately rising, floating, billowing, and getting deflated in the fine breeze.

Henriette, bending over her tabouret, is engrossed in her embroidery.

And thus the whisperer continues.

"Amatory thirst is not very different from the one just mentioned. This thirst, too, is most conspicuously characterized by chapped lips, and among young lovers it is quenched by a variety of saliva and other secretions. However, at this time, let us not talk of the things young lovers take into their mouths when their desire reaches the pitch of frenzy. Suffice it to say that while the tongue of the one is dipped into the well of the past, that of the other swallows the future up to the larynx."

Kornelia winces, a lovely drop of blood is perched on her fingertip; she has been watching it emerge, and now she thrusts the finger quickly into her mouth; she draws on it, as if wishing to suck a lot more than what there is in the finger. She lowers her embroidery into her lap and looks at the still life around her.

And the whispering continues.

"Burning thirst develops when the slaking of dormant thirst becomes impossible. This most aggravated form of thirst makes one's tongue burn while the gums go dry, the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth, and one's whole body is consumed by agonizing hot flashes."

She closes her eyes, opens them. The curtain stirs, slowly swelling out. She closes her eyes and opens them again.

"What are you thinking about? Or are you daydreaming?"

There is no response.

"His every line, his every word is full of anxiety. Your poor, poor father."

No response.

Relentlessly the voice goes on whispering.

"The sensation of thirst is more intense, more excruciating, and more maddening than any other bodily sensation, and for this reason it is no accident that in most languages it is synonymous with uncontrollable desire, and we often use it to form phrases such as thirst for revenge and bloodthirsty."

"If we are done, I shall read it out loud, whether you want me to or not."

Some time goes by again. It sounds as if the whisperer's throat were being cleared, but the words do not continue.

"For God's sake, Kornelia, do give in. No point in resisting. Are you still hoping that memory will preserve your pictures?"

Kornelia opens her eyes, looks at the unchanging still life around her, closes her eyes.

"If you don't come with me to the dining room I will have to have my supper sent up again. You're breaking my heart; just think, the food will be steaming, sending out its aroma, and I won't be merciful, I will devour it to the last morsel."

The whispering is so dry that it is barely a whisper any more.

"Appetite, if it does not reach the point of hunger, is always accompanied by a pleasant sensation; those who fast voluntarily often give an account of having reached a state of heavenly lightness; however, nothing heavenly looms over the peaks of thirst, for thirst does not carry one to otherworldly heights, rather it drives one into irrepressible and miserable restlessness; and those who have no hope of slaking their thirst will be hurled into depression or plagued with hallucinations."

Kornelia gets up, walks to the flowers and lifts out a blade of grass. Water is collecting into a drop at the end of the blade; she licks it off, nibbles momentarily on the grass then lets it drop to the floor. She pulls out another one. Henriette looks up and, with her mouth slightly open, remains motionless; she cannot help seeing Kornelia pull an iris out of the bunch and not only make the water drop onto her tongue, but also take the succulent stalk between her teeth and suck it, chew it, an animal voraciousness distorting her features.

"Oh, my pet, don't! My heart is breaking. Kornelia. My poor, poor little Kornelia. I'll bring you something. I'll do anything."

And there is a voice.

"But Kornelia did not hear any of these words. Hunger can be suffered, but thirst drives one into fanciful hallucination, into madness. At this stage the soul no longer knows the meaning of shame or humiliation. With a single movement she lifted the whole bouquet from the wide-mouthed bowl. Water from the stems of the flowers poured onto the floor, but what did she care if it appeared to her to be a waterfall coming over the rocky peak. No, this I cannot look at idly, shouted Henriette. She jumped up to stand in Kornelia's way to prevent Kornelia's terrible humiliation. But she was not as quick as the delirious girl who simply let go of the flowers which scattered inertly all over the floor, and with both hands grasped the bowl because her parched lips wanted only water, water, only water, nothing else."

But Henriette also gets hold of the bowl; their knees are pressing against the short column, which tips over, the bowl falls to the floor and shatters to pieces. SILENCE On the black-lacquered short column the flowers are displayed in a new bowl. They may be the same kinds of flowers, though they are arranged differently.

And there is a voice.

"The rebellious soul afflicts itself with thirst, hunger, and silence, but the rational world can be neither punished nor driven off its course. People shamelessly eat and drink, say the proper words, belch and fart - because they are digesting - and under the cover of night they beget children; minute follows minute, the hours pass, filling up with themselves, and who would brood over time that is out of joint?"

Kornelia is standing in the open door of the terrace; an anxious Henriette is behind her.

"Kornelia, my sweet, I beg you, hold on to your senses."

And there is also a voice.

"A daydreaming Kornelia was standing in the open door of the terrace, loyal Henriette behind her. Two lovely human statues. One is rebellious silence itself, the other the guardian angel of bounden duty."

And then, on the steps leading to the terrace, appears the elderly lady, accompanied by the young man who had so much reminded Kornelia of Karoly.

Translated by the playwright Imre Goldstein, who also translated Nadas's earlier works A Book of Memories (with Ivan Sanders) and The End of a Family Story.

Peter Nadas's works are available for purchase from Amazon.com:
A Book of Memories.
The End of a Family Story.
A Lovely Tale of Photography.

A Lovely Tale of Photography is available in English -language bookstores in North America and Europe or directly from Twisted Spoon Press.




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