Translated by Erika Mihálycsa
Nobody could understand where it appeared from all of a sudden: where the roasting heck, where the cavernous tree’s hollow, where the sad-faced Santa’s pitchblack anus, where the treeshrew’s furrowed tail, where the Cinderella’s outgrown glass slippers’ skuzzy footbed, where my skanky backside, where the Jungfrau Joch’s crystal-glittering cliff slightly thawed by global warming, where the tsunami’s murderous crest, where the desert jumping mouse’s well-kept secret inner pocket, from. Where on earth from. This no one understood. When we were all getting on so nicely without it. We have all accommodated ourselves to its non-being, the place of the absence was furbished and rented out on permanent lease. It was padded with velvet, you could snug in it like a fat tabby in a basket behind the sunlit shopwindow, stretch pleasantly and softly with the sun on your back. You could reckon with it, knowing all too well it is not; it was a reassuring Archimedean point of our everyday. It was nicely calculated, tried for size, its ups a tree and downs the tube measured, ‘tis time the heart should be unmoved — and then, oops, there you are.
It’s true you could hardly notice it at first. The only ones to see it were the early birds up with the sunrise, with the first cockcrow, and sometimes with a sweet little tart, they could furtively observe how it slipped in noiselessly with the first sunbeams and delicately licked the nape, armpits and toes of the sleeping, scrupulously, one by one down to the little toe. These lucky chosen could hardly believe their eyes and they, in turn, were hardly believed by the ones to whom they surreptitiously whispered their discovery. No kidding, are you pulling my leg, I know a tall tale when I see one, do you actually think I’ll swallow this, this is what they reaped and other similar naughty things, when all they were trying to do was to share their reallifeexperience, to little avail. No one of the late risers believed them. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning, they kept repeating, whereas it was exactly because the early risers were up too early and saw things the late risers could not as much as imagine, let alone believe [Is it possible to believe what you cannot imagine? Argue for, or against!]. So the jeered-at early risers were eventually forced to organize themselves into small groups for observing the further dissemination of laughter, so they could comfort each other at least, since they weren’t believed by the late risers. Then it all started to gain ground gradually.
It was no longer only the early risers but the mid-early risers as well who noticed that something was seriously amiss, they felt it while brushing their teeth and looking into the mirror, they felt it when they were shaking sleep out of their comatose children’s eyes before sending them off to school, they felt it when they set out to the marketplace or when they got on the impossibly crowded and grimy bus, and they felt it when looking out of the impossibly grimy bus’s impossibly grimy windows. While on other occasions they would merely gaze at the figures scratched into the soot and grime without seeing anything, now suddenly the golden reflection of the light falling on the river, and the slope of the hills rising on the other bank in the mid-early morning sunshine were revealed to their eyes, and in these moments they were overcome by some unrest stirring within, something they thought could be easily brushed away until the moment they saw on the other travelers’ mid-early morning faces the spreading, so far hesitant but well visible, indeed patently obvious, of smile, and then they intuited that something was seriously out of joint, but they were not born to set it right (whatever it was). Therefore they sank their eyes in embarrassment into their papers and tried to behave as on other occasions, tried not to take notice of the other travelers, tried to coldly, callously ignore them, but it was too late, far too late (in vain they had got up mid-early), because that certain little smile, the beginning of a smile, a smile-germ, a smile-seedling, a smile-fizzle, a smile-burp, made its appearance in the corner of their mouths too, no matter how hard they tried to suppress it. Everybody was grinning at each other on the bus. It was awful. Nie gehört, as my grandma would say. Or eventually, nicht normal. Or something like that.
And then of course the hour of the late risers came, the las cinco de la tarde, eran las cinco en punto de la tarde. All right, this is the hour of the very-late risers, but for lack of time we can’t go over every single time phase, because the thing was spreading at such a pace that by the time we’d get to the end of it there would be no time to warn the night shift and it wouldn’t be fair to them, would it, anyway it’s always they who get the short end of social inequality, because everyone believes that whoever sleeps through the whole day should go to hell whereas in point of fact, it is quite the contrary. So as I was saying, the hour of the late risers came in the end, by which time this small fart of a start-up smile has grown into a full-blown laughter that went over the whole city, swept over it so to say, like a bona fide East Iowa tornado, at the sight of which even the much-suffered old farmers raise an eyebrow. There was no time left even to take refuge in our lego-cellars, to hide under the table, to put on drag, to return the tickets and reclaim the money, to wait for the ice-cubes to melt in the whisky glasses, to deny till you’re blue in the face, no time to dissimulate (although you must always reserve time for that!), no time to play for time, what is more, there was no time as such at all, because everything froze into this giant laughter with the force of a hurricane, it stretched above the city like the transparent membrane of some microclimatic, sunpower-fuelled Japanese amusement park, and in the batting of an eyelash took over control. Now the mid-early risers and late-risers were bitterly sorry for not believing the early risers; had they believed them, they would be able now to follow plan B, that would automatically launch the anti-aircraft rockets, nipping laughter in the butt.
But let’s not mope: if laugh we must, we’ll laugh, for sure laughter can’t catch us out. I may as well tell you what the people were up to: to pretend they are laughing but in point of fact, inwardly, to not be laughing at all, thank you very much. This was the battle plan. And so it happened. Or at least we thought it happened so. We laughed day and night, we were good-humoured, ha ha, no complaints. When asked how we felt, we didn’t start into the habitual tirades about our woes, we just winked and laughed heartily. Every laugh was like a punch in the stomach, but manliness is all about standing it for sure, isn’t it (as for womanliness, who can tell). Time went by and at once we woke up feeling that with every laughter a strange, tingling sensation penetrates us from head to toe, like the wave bath at Gellért Baths, or a 5-gear dildo with a baby battery, but in any case it is at the very least like an illicit homoerotic massage you get in a girls’ school, in one word, it was irresistible to the absolute imaginable degree, and only the oldest could remember what it felt like when someone tried to resist, sometime around the ’68 student revolts. Suddenly it occurred to us that all you need to do is let it resound in the streets, on the squares, up hill and down dale, and you shouldn’t be ashamed because everybody was infected, the whole city was one huge, maple-syrupy laughing colony where tourists flocked from all corners of the Earth to get their fill and their money’s worth of miracle-watching, and hey presto we were put on the list as the world’s eleventh wonder, although as far as I remember the tenth had been far less wonderful.
Time passed and the city’s folk started wondering, in an utterly despicable manner, but-still-ing and yet-ing and neverthelessing about where the roasting heck, where the cavernous tree’s hollow, where the sad-faced etcetera did this sudden laughter appear from, what could cause this arguably miraculous, but at the same time entirely incomprehensible and slightly ghastly return of laughter. For the oldest ones also told us that a long, long time ago, before the times of the Time Upon, there used to be a naturally luxuriating, spontaneously welling, organic laughter, but one day around a quarter past five p.m. or thereabouts, in that dim, opalescent dead time when everybody is relaxing, because it feels as if time had indeed died and would never be resurrected again, then once in the batting of an eyelash laughter disappeared and by the time the city woke up from its afternoon siesta, it vanished and they could whistle for it. And in vain did they appoint the scapegoats (the usual suspects), in vain they poked their fingers at each other accusingly, what was done could not be undone: it was gone. And now was back again. Who can understand this? the city kept scratching its head and looking at each other, perplexed. At this point, as a last resort, they switched on the radio, hoping they would learn something, although only the oldest could remember the times when you could still learn anything from the radio, and lo and behold, the announcers, two women with a gurgling laughter were just relating how Little Red Riding Hood, yes she indeed, our very own dearest Little Red Riding Hood, finally got big by the wolf, and that by now even Granny had forgiven her for this utterly unacceptable and ignominious mesalliance, and that now the whole hyper-cool lil’ family is rejoicing together over the coming of the little Little Babe (if the mother’s name was diminutive, the child’s one would be doubly so, this was the time-honoured rule that all made a point of observing).
So did this unexpected turn become the immediate and, in retrospect, obvious cause of the miraculous return of laughter. And if you hadn’t laughed so much—hey, you in the back row, do share what’s so damn funny—my tale would have gone on for longer.
Erika Mihálycsa is lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, translator of fiction and poetry by Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Patrick MacCabe, Jeanette Winterson, Anne Carson among others, into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian literature have come out to date in World Literature Today, TrafikaEurope, The Missing Slate, Numéro Cinq. Editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION – For the Future of Aesthetics, issued by Contra Mundum Press.
The short stories of Hungarian experimental writer Zsófia Bán (1957, Rio de Janeiro) ironically imitate the rhetoric of the school reader, subverting authorized knowledge and dominant cultural, historical narratives, exposing their lacunae from a distinctly woman’s perspective. Bán is a professor of American studies in Budapest.
Original text: Zsófia Bán, “The Miraculous Return of Laughter” from Night School. Budapest: Kalligram, 2007.