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Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing

          HAIL, CAESAR!

          The autumn of 1942 was drawing to an end when my call-up papers arrived. True, I had been expecting the Hungarian State to give some sign of its solicitude for several months. I knew my turn would come. In fact, most of my classmates had already made brief appearances in uniform, grey-faced and undernourished, their hair cut in regulation style. They had twenty-four hours’ leave to visit their families and disappeared just as suddenly from civilian life the following day. Such lightning visits became rarer and rarer as the situation constantly worsened and the training camps had to speed up their work so that, after a little preparation, all this human matter could be carted off to the various fronts.

          When I left my family one winter dawn, I was bitter at heart, so certain did I feel that I was leaving this life behind for a considerable time. My presentiment turned out to be true. My young wife was expecting our son, György, when we parted. This, far more than the possibility of dying on the Front, really upset me. The thought of being sent there at once did not worry me unduly. I knew that, though there was need of us there, the minimum training period was ten weeks. With a bit of luck, I thought, if I pretended to be a bit of an idiot, this might be prolonged to my advantage. After that, we’ll see. Something is bound to happen – perhaps Hitler will visit Stalin in Moscow and tearfully beg his pardon. Or the armament factories may go on strike. Anyway, something unforeseeable or unexpected might alter the politicians’ minds and we’ll all be sent back home. Anything was possible: that was how things stood. In any case, a lot can happen in ten weeks, I whispered in the ear of my little wife, who was crying softly. And I might even be home earlier, I said to myself, none too convinced. It was not to be.

          Military training is nothing more than the art of drilling a civilian once he has been tamed and crushed. It seemed to me an unspeakable aberration. Amongst other examples I remember a brutish drill sergeant, who looked like a caveman, making me wash down the whole wardroom because my boots were not clean. Standing stiffly to attention, we were expected to salute, looking him straight in the eye, and say loud and clear, "Yes, Sergeant! Your order has been understood and will be obeyed without fail!" After which, raising one’s leg briskly and as high as possible, one had to let it fall and strike the ground three times: once saluting him; once doing an about turn and a third time before departing in the direction of the task to be performed. Something about my manner of saluting must have displeased him as I was made to repeat it eight times in succession. "What’s the use of such idiotic antics?" I often asked myself and never found an answer. In short, I was more often ‘in solitary’ for insubordination than training with my platoon. The heavily-barred cell window looked onto the yard of the barracks. In the morning I would peep out at the company off on manoeuvres and saw them returning at midday dirty, exhausted and looking decidedly less soldierly. So the days passed and I was beginning to think I could have been worse off. True, I was unlikely to put on any weight. A soldier’s rations ‘in solitary’ were the worst part of the punishment: three hundred grammes of bread and a little water per day. The two sentinels on duty outside my cell were relieved twice daily. They must have been a little older than I was: the ripe, pertinent aspersions they cast on army soup revealed a far greater experience than mine. My jailors, thinking they could easily find themselves in my place some day, occasionally slipped me a bit more food or even a cigarette. On such occasions they were much more vigilant, fearing the sudden arrival of a superior officer, which would certainly have got us all into serious trouble. Another time, during my fourth spell in the ‘institution’, I managed to get myself another four days for not saluting an officer who had his back to me. One fine day all that changed.

          It must have been around ten in the morning when a voice barked outside my cell door asking the guard, "Where is this celebrity, then?" I could not see him as the door was shut. A moment later I heard a short, sharp backhander resounding on the face of my sentry. "Oaf!" yelled my visitor. "That’ll teach you to open the door a bit quicker!" "Good God!" I thought, "That must be the Boss." I had never seen him in the prison but remembered the many stories running round the camp concerning his sinister reputation. He was more of a myth than a real person as far as I was concerned. When I arrived, he had been temporarily been posted elsewhere on account of his unspeakable behaviour. His dreadful brutality was one of its lesser manifestations. At any rate, he was back and this visit boded no good for me. All were agreed that it was impossible to get on with him. His mood-swings were extreme and the apparent calm with which his cold, blue eyes appeared to be looking into the distance without noticing the subaltern standing stiffly to attention before him or the regulation salute of those he passed was only a sly game. In a fraction of a second he was quite capable of giving a loud bark as he stopped to bawl out some lower-ranking soldier going peacefully about his duties. The poor fellow, taken aback by such aggressiveness, at a loss for words and petrified with fear, could expect the worse for the man’s aim was sure.

          Such was the potentate who burst into my cell like a cannon ball, putting to an end my tranquil solitude. To start with, he grabbed me by the lapels and threw me out. I was expecting yells and blows but nothing happened. Instead, he stared with his expressionless blue eyes into mine and said quite calmly that this life of luxury had to end. He promised that in future he personally would organize my time – the final days of a life which I had done nothing but waste up till then. "Yes, your final days," he said with an icy glare, "because you’re soon going to die in any case, you dog!" He pointed to the ground as a sign that I was to precede him. He took me back to my hut, which created genuine panic among the sub-officer instructors who, despite their stripes, were under his orders. They were petrified with respect and fear and stuck out their chests even further than regulations required. Motionless, they waited for the ever-unpredictable orders of the great swollen-headed barrel. It was a barrel tipping the scales at more than seventeen stone and looked it, with its enormous, deformed belly. His face, though shaved with great care, sagged and he was on the short side, which made him look even more out of proportion. His complexion was strangely waxy. Even his liver hated him.

          Though this is a mere detail, his been equivalent to that of a lieutenant in the French army. The Commander of the barracks – ‘the father of the regiment’, as he was commonly known – was his superior. Normally, he should have used his authority to put this lieutenant in his place. Yet the latter was so insolent to his chief that even we common soldiers were shocked. He was so bursting with arrogance one might have thought they had exchanged uniforms. Strangely, the Commanded seemed – or pretended – not to notice anything. How was it that the superiors of this creature put up with him without having him downgraded or at least struck off the officers’ roll? Perhaps a domineering, dictatorial person makes an impression on every social group. People certainly seem to feel the need on occasion to accept that some arrogant person among them – not necessarily the strongest physically – should be permitted to override their opinions.

          One often feels the best way to treat a vain, aggressive megalomaniac is with silent contempt. It is also the easiest way out, even if it cannot be called cowardly. However, such passivity does have a major flaw in that it gives the advantage to the adversary so that he has a free hand to impose himself on all around him: silence is, after all, consent. Such individuals excel at forcing their opinions on others. I would go so far as to say that such people are to be found in every walk of society.

          Let us climb the wall of the barracks to escape for a while from this tin-pot potentate. You can meet such types in civilian life who use methods more insidious than physical violence. The servility which we in our weakness are led to adopt when faced with a megalomaniac is a widespread phenomenon.

          The first thing to note is that this disease finds the elements necessary for its survival everywhere it goes: in offices, factories and in that hothouse where it flourishes best, social life. The tyrant is one of the mad Caesars: his mania bedevils the life of those closest to him, their primary duty being to serve him faithfully and without question. A more predictable tyrant would not be so bad: he would be easier to pay court to. But his own mania turns him into a social tyrant and that is what makes his disease more deadly. For a start, he crushes those around him by showing off his knowledge. His culture descends on his subjects like an avalanche and makes them incapable of thinking for themselves.

          We crawl before his greatness and the least of his affirmations – or rather edicts – passes for gospel truth. We are so fascinated by his charisma as to lose control of our own actions and decisions. Not only does he give the illusion of being all-powerful, he is the great steersman of our destinies and careers. If an interpretation of Chopin is not deformed according to the wishes and rules he lays before his adoring public, the punishment will be exemplary. The world of the arts to which I belong also has its ‘Miraculous Mandarins’ who control the artist’s rights and prerogatives. To take an example, a potentate of the first water would not accept being spoken to like an ordinary mortal but with luck, providing His Majesty is in the right mood, one might perhaps dare to stay timidly, "Sir…" only to be frozen to the spot by his pale, indifferent stare. Without so much as hearing the sound of his voice, you realize his whole being is crying out, "Call me ‘maestro’, my dear fellow!"

          His face puffed up with pride, his blank gaze quickly sizes you up. Then with a sharp movement of his neck he dismisses you and turns his inspired features elsewhere. What is he thinking? Perhaps he believes in the apothegm concerning the Académie française: "Run it down but get elected if possible."

          For my part, I feel he is to be pitied. Despite his efforts, he never really makes the grade as a true potentate. He knows as well as anyone that a few facts about music history learnt from second-rate books full of platitudinous phrases, which he juggles with in order to shine, will not suffice any more than his obsequious manner of spouting this knowledge in an attempt to scale the Olympus of professional critics. A ram cannot pick its teeth with its horns. Yet we go on begging the great man to reveal the mysteries of perfection so that, by his example, we may come to worship him even more.

          He is that rare bird who cannot survive without a daily bath of homage and devotion. I do not dare to think what would become of us without him. There should be a campaign to protect the species so that it may be fruitful and multiply.

          Megalomania is despicable, a sort of virus, the worst to have hit humanity since the Creation.

          Such were my thoughts on coming across my first tyrant during military service. True, he was more clodhopper than intellectual. Even so, all things considered, his methods were the same: getting others to respect him through fear, which was the only way open to someone so insignificant. The stripes on his uniform gave power to his ideas on human relations and his systematic crushing of subordinates. Thus, in the guise of a warlord, the great Barrel could put into practice his favourite maxim: "An iron fist in an iron glove."

          I will pass over in silence the dreadful treatment I had to endure subsequently thanks to this man. My physical resistance was sorely tried by his insane, gratuitous cruelty and the flood of contradictory orders this lunatic submitted me to. I was constantly exhausted and he took a malign pleasure in maintaining me in this state. There was still some time to go before I was due to be sent to the front, and so much the better, I thought. This was to underestimate the Barrel.

          One morning on parade we were standing to attention waiting for the day’s orders. Suddenly, my name was called out. I took three steps forward in the manner described above, saluted and remained motionless. I was trying to guess what sort of disciplinary task was to be the reward to redouble my enthusiasm for dying on the battlefield. I already knew the joys of twenty-five mile marches under a boiling-hot sun, in full kit – apart from a water bottle. Then there were the charms of the marshes I was made to wade through certain nights (rainy, if possible) until dawn, under the orders of a valiant drill sergeant strolling casually by my side and giving friendly encouragement in language obscene in the extreme, intended to prove once and for all that there was a parallel between an animal’s sex organs and the first words of Hamlet’s soliloquy. To add weight to his argument, he cited my ancestors as an example, tracing my family tree as far back as Attila.

          This time it was nothing of the kind. The warrant officer on duty ordered me to the Commander’s office. The top man was actually waiting for a common soldier! I hurried off with all the haste of a criminal anxious to know his sentence. What else could I have done? As the order was being read out I noticed the Barrel standing not far off. I felt his empty gaze on me until I reached the veranda, when I was lost to view. I went up the steps four at a time, froze in salute before the Commander and stated my identity. I was ordered to get all my kit together and prepare my combat equipment as I was one of the ‘volunteers’ leaving for the Russian Front next morning at six.

          Enough said. I gave the regulation salute and left the office feeling completely drained. I slowly went back down the steps looking vacantly ahead. Up till now my life had been a series of foregone conclusions. Civilian life had accustomed me to hardship and I had learnt from a variety of unpleasant events and experiences, accumulated in record time during my military ‘training’, to take the blows of fate without a murmur. As I reached the foot of the steps and came out of the shade into the dazzling, sunlit yard, an object rose up before me: I found myself face to face with the Barrel. Once again I gave the regulation salute. Very gently, he asked, "Well, you poor chap, is the news bad?" I told him briefly what had occurred. He listened without comment, glanced over the top of my head (hoping to see the halo which was soon to encircle it) and walked slowly away. In a flash I realized my rapid promotion to the rank of volunteer was entirely due to him. I was in my eighth week of training and logically was not due to leave for the front for another fortnight. The procedure was of course illegal, but effective and unassailable. The Barrel had said he would see to my final days personally and had kept his word. So before finishing my regulation ten weeks’ stay in the barracks I was to leave my final haven the following morning. I tottered to my room and sat on the bed stunned, incapable of thinking clearly. Then I started examining everything around me down to the tiniest detail. I do not know if it was a way of saying farewell or of fixing in my mind objects which, quite insignificant not so long before, now seemed so important because they might ensure me a further fortnight of life. No fatigues or punishment could have plunged me into such despair as that news. The Barrel truly had accomplished his task well.

          I was suddenly seized with anger, not so much at him as at my own inability to defend myself. The boom of Stalin’s death-bearing cannons was already resounding in my ears. Plunging my head in my hands once more, I feverishly tried to think out some way of defending myself by detailing all the injustice I had been subjected to. I was sure that when the top men at the War Ministry got to know of this the entire General Staff would be so indignant that their first humane action would be to search for me, combing the whole Russian Front if need be, and the second to repatriate me so that I could finish my fortnight's training at the barracks.

          In such a topsy-turvy world, aberrations like this one were frequent. The unnatural rhythm of the kind of life I had been subjected to for some time now was beginning to shake the foundations of my mental stability.

          When I came down to earth again I was resigned to the fact that any attempt at putting off my departure would be like attacking a windmill. If I did not want to join the next convoy of cannon fodder, I would have to die before morning. Nothing doing: I had no inclination whatsoever to hang myself and even less to be killed in two days’ time somewhere out in the Ukraine. What I wanted was the fortnight here which was my due, far from the marksmen who, if the Barrel had his way, would transform me into a sieve on the first day. So I got up and went out into the yard. All of a sudden a solution occurred to me: I had to fall ill there and then.I wasted no time pondering on the unlikelihood of my plan working. I put it into action on the spot in full view of all the others. Without cushioning the blows with my hands, I threw myself on the ground and lay there quite still with my eyes shut, wondering how things were going to turn out. I could not be accused straight out of faking a fall in which I had hurt myself badly. I knew what a risk I was taking because anyone caught shamming just before leaving for the front was cured once and for all by the comforting words of a priest sent by the military tribunal before summary execution.

          There was no going back now and no knowing the outcome: not just my freedom but my very life were at stake. The many years in military jail (where discipline was even more draconian) to which I might at best be sentenced would give me the chance to meditate at length as to whether I had the right to simulate a giddy turn. But I no longer had any choice: the die was cast.

          The Barrel cannot have been around at that moment. My eyes still shut, I realized people were crowding round me. Then I heard a warrant officer order me to be carried to my hut and, once I had regained consciousness, to be helped to the Infirmary – to my greater satisfaction. I was lifted to the camp bed which had been my home and place of rest for two months but disaster always strikes when least expected. Once I had recovered a little, two soldiers supported me by the waist as we went towards the Infirmary some way off, my body covered in bruises and my face bearing an apt expression for the occasion. A male nurse came in and as quickly left: the medical officer had already gone. His locum was ready to examine me but eve if his diagnosis were in my favour could not – since he had not the right to do so – give me a certificate exempting me from serve for a while, which was my last hope. At this news, I really did begin to feel unwell. It meant that the medical officer would not be back before ten the following morning whereas I was supposed to be in line with all my kit and in battledress ready to leave at 6 a.m. sharp. Officially, then, my fainting-fit would not be taken into account; that was the ruling. All I could do was go and get ready, making quite sure not a gaiter button was missing when the time came to depart. Once on the train, if my condition was such that the health officer responsible for the convoy had to consult his pocket medical dictionary and, in the unlikely event of his not being able to diagnose that my condition was caused by my being sick of living, he might decide, once we had reached the Gates of Hell, to have me sent back. However, a musician’s daydreaming has nothing to do with a soldier’s duty. The locum knew his job and was sympathetic, explaining with a trace of irony that it was "a slight, temporary dizzy spell caused by the surprise announcement of my departure."

          So off to the stores I went to get my new outfit: boots, helmet, machine gun, ammunition, bayonet and other such peace-bearing utensils indispensable to mutual understanding between the belligerent citizens of the world before they were sent off to war by their paternalistic armies.

          The building was an endless succession of rooms. Apart from the first few, which distributed clothing, thus transforming the little soldier into a fiery warrior, the others overflowed with light arms of all kinds, original as well as attractive and intended to aid their owners in despatching the adversary into the next world with all possible speed.

          The pile of equipment in my arms mounted as I moved mechanically from room to room. I overheard a storekeeper vaunting the merits of a new kind of close combat dagger to a group of young recruits, showing them yet again the ideal angle for penetrating an enemy’s ribs. The climax of his explanation was: "and you’ll see, lads, twist it just before pulling it out and that’ll be the end of him." I was pretty disgusted and thought, "I give up. If I leave for the front tomorrow, it will show I’m not even capable of putting a spoke in the wheel of my own destiny." That was, incidentally, also the opinion of the locum.

          "There we are; it’s too late now," I thought, returning heavily-laden to the barrack room. Then things took an unexpected turn. At the end of the afternoon someone came from the Infirmary to say that the medical officer had had to return for an emergency and would examine me – straight away. This new turn of events had me worried: it would not be easy to re-enact to order the role in which I had invested so much. If this man, who was reportedly hard-hearted, were to think he had been troubled for nothing it would mean a one-way trip to the courtroom. I could already see myself advancing handcuffed towards the execution post between two armed soldiers.

          I was obliged, despite my apprehension, to answer his summons, which I had so fervently wished for not so long ago. According to instructions, I was in the Infirmary waiting room at 6 p.m. sharp. The walls were plastered with consulting room doors behind one of which was a man I did not know and on whom my destiny, so merciful with me so far, was to depend once again.



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