‘The Book of Mordechai’ and ‘Lazarus’ by Gábor Schein: Excerpts

The two novels, The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus, trace the legacy of the Holocaust in Hungary. The Book of Mordechai tells the story of three generations in a Hungarian Jewish family, interwoven with the biblical narrative of Esther. Lazarus relates the relationship between a son, growing up in the in the final decades of late-communist Hungary, and his father, who survived the depredations of Hungarian fascists during the Second World War. While The Book of Mordechai is an act of recovery—an attempt to seize a coherent story from a historical maelstrom—Lazarus, by contrast, like Kafka’s unsent letter to his own father, is an act of defiance. Against his father’s wish to never be the subject of his son’s writing, the narrator places his father at the centre of his story. Together, both novels speak to a contemporary Hungarian society that remains all too silent towards the crimes of the past.

Translated by Adam Z. Levy and Ottilie Mulzet

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The Book of Mordechai: An Excerpt

It is said of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol that in his youth he heard the future in the whispers of the trees. Then there was Nachman of Breslov, who could not sleep in his newly built house; among the fresh boards he felt as though he were lying with the dead. He heard voices as well but not those of the future. And after his first night in the house, he woke his wife and three sons at dawn with great shouts, Fire, he screamed, though the house had not yet begun to burn; he waited until they were all outside before he set it ablaze. What was it that Rabbi Zusha’s trees whispered? And what was it that the boards of Rabbi Nachman’s house said, the ones which stood charred by morning facing the prayer house? Of this there is little we can know. Where our story begins there are no forests, nor are there fields, and even if there were, our protagonists would not hear the words of the trees, if they still speak at all, if Rabbi Nachman had not been the last one to hear their voices, having burnt out the words within them once and for all.

Our story begins with a silent wooden object and does not leave it. But we will never glimpse this silent object, it will remain hidden until the end by an oilcloth cover, under which receipts, shopping lists, notices and letters have been slipped. When P. sat down beside the oilcloth cover, for the silent object is in fact a table, he felt the way the orange floral pattern and the poison-green stripes stretching between the flowers stuck out a little here and there. Further in on the table, there stood a lemon-yellow plastic bowl, with discarded paper in it, and beyond that a patterned metal box, filled with buttons and sewing needles. Waiting for P. in the other chair was an old woman in a synthetic violet wrap decorated with floral print finer than the tablecloth’s and with several pins stuck just above her breast on the right and left side, a green measuring tape around her neck. When P. sat down, or, rather, when he lowered himself into the backed chair aged a deep brown, the old woman immediately butted the book that lay open before her on the tablecloth with her thick, stumpy fingers and, half-turning her head to the young man sitting beside her, said, ‘Here, read!’

The book, which the old woman brought out from the back room, her daughter had got in 1953, more precisely, according to the inscription, on 19 May 1953, on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. On the left side of the yellowing, heavy pages was the Hebrew text, on the right the Hungarian, and accompanying the story were the black-and-white impressions left by the copperplate engravings. The translation was the work of Leopold Blumenfeld and, as paging through the beginning revealed, the Leaders of the Pest Israelite Women’s Association’s high regard for the Scripture enriched the literature of Hungarian Scripture with this book.

Leopold Blumenfeld, who will have a role in our story not only with this translation but also with the foggy memories that have survived him, and who, though he was long since dead in those days, will remain with us until the end; he was born on 6 July 1869, four days shy of one hundred years before P. In Berlin, Leopold Blumenfeld was a student of the famous Rabbi Sigmund Jampel, with whose letter of recommendation he read the Book of Esther for the first time on his return home to Turócszentmárton on Purim in 1896. Two years later, he was invited to stay by the same congregation which, thirty years later, when they could not keep a rabbi any longer, made P.’s great-grandfather one of its leaders. Leopold Blumenfeld remained a bachelor all his life. His only passion, which not one of the surviving anecdotes about him fails to mention, was his usual afternoon walk. In warm summer weather or winter frost, he was often seen with his friend, the village doctor, who perhaps was one of P.’s ancestors, walking on narrow earthen streets lined with sumac trees in the vicinity of the synagogue. As for what they spoke about, that no one knows. In truth, the doctor only went to temple with his daughter and his rather homely wife on the new year and the ‘day of the fast’, otherwise he kept himself at a distance from his friend’s practice. Leopold Blumenfeld, who was famous for the fact that, in place of lengthy sermons for the new year, making due instead with a short story here and there and by way of explication adding merely, ‘My dear brothers and sisters, and this was word for word the truth,’ the Leopold Blumenfeld, who that year, when he stood for the first time before his congregation, leaning against the wooden balusters of the bema and glancing around with a look full of significance, said to his followers in a temple orator’s raised, sonorous voice, ‘Once the emperor asked for Rabbi Gamliel and said to him, “I know what your God is doing, and I also know where he is.” With this Rabbi Gamliel gave a deep sigh. The emperor asked, “Why do you sigh?” And the rabbi answered, “One of my sons went out to sea. I miss him and would like it if you could tell me where he might be.” To this the emperor said, “How should I know, Rabbi?” The rabbi then smiled and said, “You don’t know what is happening on this earth, how then could you know what is in the heavens?”’ And Leopold Blumenfeld’s congregation waited in vain for an explication of the story. After a short silence held for effect, quietly, practically in a whisper, all he said was, ‘My dear brothers and sisters, and this was word for word the truth,’ and turned around, stepped down from the raised platform of the bema and sat back down in his throne-like place beside the covenant.

Lazarus: An Excerpt

‘School had yet to begin. Still, they woke up early that day and, as they sat in the larger room, Péter began to tell his son a fairy tale about a fisherman and a water sprite. Péter sensed that the story was captivating his son much more than usual, and he himself would have liked to make the tale more elaborate, adding new characters, casting the fisherman into a storm and other perils, to make the story last longer, but he could not, as he had to go to the hospital. His father had been taken there by ambulance the previous day, and the night before, an operation had been performed.’

That is how this book should begin. But it cannot, because you have forbidden me to write it, and in defiance of your prohibition I am writing about you, about those weeks during which, deprived of your voice, you suffered your last agonies. And now it is my turn to torment you, holding you fast in this silence. I shall build a sepulchre above your grave, made of words—that material completely alien to you in those last weeks—making it impossible that, apart from this book, which shall henceforth be your body and your home, there would be anything else between us; and all the while, I perhaps shall be secretly awaiting that moment in which, in a real house, you will open the door for me and be unable to comprehend my surprise. As if your body were consumed by a sudden flame. Without even time for us to scream. A great storm of fire, as if dreaming; we watched the flames, we watched your body as it burnt, and when we awoke, you were nowhere to be found.

‘The fisherman took out the dress made of fish scales. The fairy looked at it, turned it over, then she suddenly wrapped herself in it, leapt into the water and swam away. The fisherman only had a harpoon, he flung it after her. The water then flared silver, and the fisherman realized he had mortally wounded the water sprite.’ That is how the tale of the fisherman ends. I do not however want to write about the flaring of the water, but of the fire. About fire, about that man whom I knew—that man whom I could give any name at all, your name or another—for the fire has separated you both: he is burnt up, nothing remains of him, while you are in this book, forever entangled with me, and you will have to listen to me now, you will have to endure my platitudes. For the body belongs to no one. There is no way to tell one from the next, and even if there were certain distinguishing signs—a brown cicatrix on the leg, a long scarred gash running from the stomach to the abdomen—could we not imagine the same blemish, the same scar on another body? All that you were is nothing now. You live on as nothing, just as I myself am nothing, for I am now writing, although the words do not belong to me. I am writing a body, a burning book. I will let it burn anew, let the words perish with it—but not without a trace, for burning always leaves a mark.