Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY: A FAILURE
one morning, a warm, caressing breeze swept away the cold which had
been biting into us for so long. Spring sunshine! The morale of the
whole unit was high. It warmed our hearts and bodies, which wanted nothing
better than to forget the bitter cold winter.
instructions as to our new duties had been received some time before.
Everyone did his best to respect them, following them blindly, and soon
we were all working as one, with the reflexes of a professional army.
waiting for the promised new tanks, I was put in charge of the physical
training of a unit of young recruits. The Company was installed in a
school which did not have a playground large enough for our frolics
so to trot six miles, there and back, to a meadow large enough for a
biggish herd of cattle, which had already been scythed by the old peasants
from the nearby village. The terrain was just right for us and we went
there daily, except on Sundays. I could have taken things easy but the
young chaps were not any more enthusiastic about training than I had
been, so that I had to give the lead throughout the sessions and, taking
my duties to heart, returned to the garrison most evenings far wearier
than those who knew exactly how to appear more exhausted than they really
were. A lance corporal and a sergeant were in charge of disciplining
the reluctant crew but they were relieved that I pretended not to see
the skivers and did as much themselves. The daily return journey alone
would have been sufficient to keep us physically fit, nor was there
any risk of becoming overweight on army diet. To prepare youngsters
for a war they had no wish to fight, I sometimes made them do endurance
trials, explaining to the lazier among them that Adolf’s little party
was not over yet and that it was better to have me on their backs than
the Germans. We did obstacle courses in full battledress. We broke into
a run then suddenly threw ourselves to the ground (still fully kitted
out) and crossed imaginary rivers by crawling along a rope, after which
we took a sort, well-earned break.
always took part in manoeuvres, though there was nothing that obliged
me to. I did it of my own accord – in other words, I was by now little
more than a cog in the wheel of war, a product of the brain-washing
process. In fact it was a mere game compared with the unbearable rhythm
I had had to put up with as a soldier under the orders of that drill
sergeant with his SS methods. It was a good life, made to measure, with
days well-filled and about as varied as the revolving wheels of a steam
very sight of our encampment each evening was enough to make me feel
sick, more out of anger than fatigue. I think it must have been a sign
that the situation was getting me down: I was fed up to the back teeth
with it. Yet more often than not, strange creature that I was, a good
night’s sleep put everything right again and I watched my unit falling
smartly into line not in the least perturbed by the previous evening’s
inhabitants of the nearby village were always ready for a chat. Once
the day’s duties were over, we instructors were allowed out for the
evening. We had a sort of late-night pass, in short. So, we soon got
to know the local civilians, farm-workers for the most part. Some of
us were even lucky enough to be asked in. The kindly, spontaneous way
in which they invited us to share their simple evening meal was most
touching. Generally, we did not hesitate to accept, not so much for
the food as for an evening of peace and quiet with families whose loneliness
was relieved by these evening gatherings. Our hosts’ humble, discreet
desire that we should feel at home was all the more touching as they
had only recently been liberated and had known hard time under the Occupation.
Besides which, most families were deeply affected by the absence of
news from the Front of a son, husband or father. They must have found
it difficult not to give way to despair. They spoke in a flat, laconic
manner in what sounded like a foreign language, punctuated by long moments
of silence. This was especially so with the elderly.
the war, this little place had been a flourishing rural community. There
were fertile expanses of meadow and field, whose products were sold
at markets in the surrounding towns. Now they did not even have the
seed to produce enough corn to survive on. Only a few half-starved cows,
spared by the grace of God, remained of the once prosperous herd. They
wandered over the fields in search of food along with a few mangy, famished
pigs. The cattle had been slaughtered by the pitilessly bloodthirsty
soldiers, friendly or hostile by turns, who were advancing or on the
retreat according to the hazards of war.
used to go for an evening stroll to try and shake off the spectre of
hunger. Quite frequently, someone would come up to us cautiously and
hand over a small package containing an assortment of smoked or fresh
ham and sausage with a piece of home-made white bread. Despite their
great kindness, these people barely spoke – indeed they were almost
cool in their manner. Their faces were set in an enigmatic, unsmiling
expression which seemed to reflect their inner emotions.
attitude was typical of the middle-aged; their daughters behaved quite
differently. Most of them had that mischievous sparkle in their eyes
which is a country girl’s most attractive feature, handed down as it
is from generation to generation. Late in the afternoon, these girls
would appear walking arm in arm. Dressed in all their finery, they tried
to give the impression that they had a particular destination in mind
as they walked up and down on both sides of the village street more
often than was proper. We chose the spot for our stroll because it was
the most animated. Eyes modestly lowered, they pretended to ignore the
insistent stares of the young soldiers they passed before retracing
their steps to pass them again. Each longingly admired the figure of
the man whose arms she would willingly have fallen into had he dared
declare his love. After a day’s physical training, this evening stroll
was our only form of entertainment. There was not a cinema open in the
area. The one in the village had been hit by a missile and reduced to
a heap of rubble.
for music, there was not the least sign of any. Even the main café
where poverty-stricken gypsies used to play, transforming the noble
peasant’s single drink into an orgy of drunkenness, even that, the regional
cultural centre, had shut down. Nor did the odd ribald song, whistled
by some of my companions on the way to our daily high jinks, contain
enough music to reawaken any trace of the fascination it had once held
for me. What is more, on the rare occasions when I thought of the piano,
it was as something purely abstract. I had become a perfect example
of the good soldier Schweik, ready to execute orders at all times. My
entire outlook on life had changed. The day’s menu, the promising glance
of a young blond who had passed us the evening before and the height
of the obstacle we would have to leap over the following day, these
were my sole preoccupations. By contrast, the piano as an artistic ideal
or even a breadwinner had become no more than a distant memory, classified
once and for all under ‘errors of my youth’. Yet again, something unexpected
and beyond my control occurred to rescue it from my subconscious.
I did not want to go to the piano, Destiny intervened and the piano
came to me. That particular day I had been teaching my brood to dig
a tank trap. We came back about midday for lunch in the canteen, known
to some as ‘the nursery’ because the new arrivals were lodged on the
upper floors. We lined up to be served then sat at a table and chewed
hungrily at the dish of the day – ‘fried veal’ as the chef called it.
He was only a couple of letters out: it was more a question of flying
than frying, as anyone who put a knife to it quickly found out. It was
all the same to us. After a morning digging, we would have eaten a plateful
of nails if need be. Once we had got the meal over with, I went for
a smoke in the yard until it was time to return to our adventure playground.
Propped against a wall, I half-listened to my stomach protesting discreetly
(to my relief) against being used as a dustbin. Just as we were about
to move off, a high-ranking officer came up. Taking me to one side with
a conspiratorial air, he peered into my face as if wondering whether
I was intelligent enough to realize the importance of what he, the Angel
of the Lord, was about to announce. With all due solemnity he began:
"In conjunction with the intrinsic needs of the masses, the splitting
of whose psych-motricity consequent on the present state of events,
is undergoing a kinetic transference, High Command esteems it opportune
to concede a fraction of its cultural reserves, subsequent to a bilateral
agreement with urban social advisers, to accord maximum importance to
the implementing of a project in which, as a study of your previous
achievements has permitted us to localise, your participation at professional
level would be primordial."
you care to sit down?" murmured in the sort of melodious, other-worldly
voice used by nurses to calm a patient in a paranoiac fit. "No?
Well, just listen to me. Even if we didn’t go to the same university,
I’m afraid I may well have understood what you’re getting at despite
all the flowery language. Apparently, you and he local bigwigs – the
priest, the beadle, the grave-digger and the mayor (the doctor and the
teacher must have been conscripted) – fornicated together to think up
this cultural junketing for the rustics. Now the knife is at your throats
you’re longing for some fellow to transform your dreary whist-drive
into a Roman carnival. You’d gain yourself an extra stripe when you’re
demobilized without doing a thing for the morale of the local clods.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a tank trap to finish?"
did you say? He stammered in astonishment. "Cogito ergo sum,
with all due respect," and I gave the regulation salute. "Just
a minute," he said, reaching out to me with a crestfallen look.
"I got what I deserved. You put me in my place. Please listen."
"Certainly not," I persisted, trying hard to control my growing
anger. "You are, of course, my superior and I shall continue to
obey all orders from on high and do my best to fulfil such obligations
as are expected of one of my rank. I’ll drive your tanks, drill your
raw recruits, swallow your vile food but, my dear sir, my obligations
end there. My previous achievements, as you put it, were part of my
civilian life, which is no concern of yours so kindly keep your hands
off. You seem to think your problem is solved just because you’ve come
across some intellectual’s file. I was indeed once a pianist and you
think an order form you is enough to make me take my hands from out
a grease-covered engine, rinse them and be ready to give a recital.
When I tell you, my dear sir, that I ceased all playing ‘at a professional
level’, as you so learnedly put it, long ago you will realize what an
absurd mistake you’ve made. Not only would I be incapable of transforming
myself into a virtuoso at a moment’s notice but I can’t even bear the
sight of a piano now. I’ve drawn a line under that part of my life once
and for all."
had let myself get carried away and gave a deep sigh of relief, which
calmed me so that I could look him in the face again. I hadn’t yet recovered
from the effects of my heated speech and was astounded that it was the
first time I had actually said I was giving it all up for good, which
I had never had the courage to do before. Had I sunk so low as to have
to put on a mask to be able to look myself in the face? Almost.
taken aback and put out by my attitude, the officer silently observed
the struggle between my will and my lost illusions. He was to be, though
I did not realize it then, the catalyst of my long-forgotten dreams.
My benefactor remained silent as long as his rule book permitted in
such cases and solemnly assured me that he fully understood. Then he
got back on his cultural hobbyhorse and asked me a most pertinent question.
It was the way he phrased it that amazed me.
long do you think you will need to restore the explosive power of your
hands and burst asunder the hearts of we prisoners?" he asked,
adopting a noble, artistic expression in line with what he hoped was
my train of thought. I stood there daydreaming, oblivious of his presence
and absurd pomposity. He was determined to do his utmost to get me to
change my mind and was pleased to note he had touched on a sensitive
spot. "What about having another try, even after so long?"
I had never thought of it. I had a vague feeling the unease provoked
by the idea restored me to life. I told him I needed time to consider
the question. He agreed with a condescending smile, certain he had already
won. That night as I lay on my bunk I tried over and over again to find
the words to refuse to play ever again, which would mean a definitive
break with the music I loved so much. The same devil who acts on the
mind of the politician starting out on a career with the best of intentions
and who likewise keeps watch over the canonical knowledge of the irreproachable
critic succeeded in keeping me awake all night, tempting me with all
the golden opportunities that would be mine if only I would yield to
temptation. Firstly, the creature said, you will be able to look yourself
in the face again. Secondly, you will be helping your fellow soldiers
no end. Thirdly, you might be offered a job and get out of being sent
back to the Front. Fourthly, it is high time you started to think of
your ambition and only your playing can help you achieve it. Fifthly,
your life is at stake- as you are completely out of your element here
and cannot hold out much longer. Sixthly, what have you got to lose?
true, I thought in my somnolent state, what have I got to lose? The
gents’ gala evening is not for another ten days. Since they need me,
I will only have to ask and they will relieve me of my duties and give
me access to a piano in a quiet part of the barracks during that time.
Or will they? As things stand, my hands are so hardened with manipulating
shovels and pickaxes that they are better suited to driving a tank than
playing a piano. Yet, despite all that has been imposed on them, there
is nothing they would enjoy more. Ten days would perhaps be sufficient
to loosen them up so as to be able to put together a few pieces buried
deep in my memory. Liszt’s Second or Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody,
for instance – though as far as the latter is concerned, "You’re
letting yourself in for it," my conscience whispered. "To
start with we must be more modest, Cziffra, my friend. You can’t get
through the final pages of the Sixth Rhapsody with fingers and
wrists in that condition. It is just not possible to play multiple octaves
with finger joints more used to repairing military equipment than to
high precision virtuosity. You’d need ten months’ practice, not twelve,
and even then…"
had reached a point where I was sick of the whole idea and lay in the
dark on my awful camp bed brooding. I came to the conclusion that I
was exaggerating the difficulties. "It’s my grief at losing such
a priceless treasure that’s making me feel like this. Come on, I’ll
go and see the Camp Commander," I said to myself, still half asleep,
"and if he really needs me he’s bound to give me a permit letting
me off training for ten days before his great cultural evening. If he
can find me some sort of piano as far away as possible form the noise
of the barracks, I will have at least eight hours a day to get back
at least some of my former suppleness and a fraction of my skill and
prepare the Second Hungarian Rhapsody and perhaps even work out
a few improvisations on a local folksong."
of good resolutions, I slept until dawn, at which point and to its great
delight my sense of smell was alerted to the presence of a bowl of bacon
soup, piping hot and full of pieces of excellent meat, which the Camp
Commander had had especially made and brought me by his orderly. A nice
thought. The fellow certainly knew what he was about. He knew that the
way to a soldier’s mind was via his stomach. This was yet another of
many such experiences and I delightedly got down to my Gargantuan breakfast
more convinced than ever of the truth of the old adage that any form
of happiness beyond one’s grasp is but a lure. The prospect of other
meals like this increased my determination to transform myself into
a concert pianist, at least for a while. That particular evening, the
piano, the butt of my resentment if ever there was one, was more a means
of filling my stomach than of helping men to understand the language
of the gods. My mental equilibrium was restored, which was what mattered
most considering the extent to which my sensibility had deteriorated
over the past three years.
no ‘non-aggressive close combat training with use of blanks’ for today.
At crack of dawn I asked for and was granted an interview with the Major
General, the highest-ranking officer in the camp. He was an educated
man, a music lover and an amateur pianist (yet another!). I told him
I had decided to take part in the great ‘socio-cultural event’, as he
liked to call it. With a broad smile, he handed me a paper exempting
me from all duties for a fortnight, which could be prolonged if necessary.
He confirmed that some time during the day a piano would ‘appear’ for
my exclusive use. "I don’t know where we’ll find one but we will,"
he said, scratching his head pensively. "I’ll set my best scouts
on the job. It shouldn’t pose any major problems; we’re near a fairly
large town after all, aren’t we?" he asked, obviously trying to
convince himself rather than reassure me. I nodded approvingly and said
it was not for me to doubt his word. He burst out laughing, shook me
by the hand and dismissed me. I returned to the yard, certain there
would be no sign of a piano for at least three days. But the Major General
was a very efficient man. In the course of the morning he had the houses
in the nearby village searched and, after much discussion, managed to
take possession of (sorry, ‘borrow’) a piano almost as old and dilapidated
as its owner, a retired schoolmistress. So it was that shortly before
midday a young soldier ran up to me, his face glowing with pride and
pleasure at being the first to bring me the good news:
M-Major wants you to know that he’s found it," he stammered, standing
rigidly to attention. "Found what?" I replied gruffly. "Why,
the little chest, that’s to say… cupboard," he said hesitantly.
"What’s that?" I asked in astonishment. "Yes, a little
cupboard that you tap to make music. Sorry, I don’t know the word for
it. It’s the first time I’ve seen one." I chased him off, red with
anger, shouting, "Get out of here, you stupid clod!"
God!" I thought, astounded, "to think that in a country which
produced Liszt and Bartók there are still people who’ve never
seen a piano in their lives! There’ll be a fine lot at the Major General’s
social-cultural evening! Even after his military service that poor fellow
is as oafish as the day he was born. Fancy confusing an upright piano
with a chest! How daft can you get? I’ll really have to set to if I’m
to restore the reputation of my cupboard in the eyes of that twit and
others of his ilk," I said to myself resignedly as I went off to
take a look at the amazing chest which makes music – when you bang on
did not have to look far. In one corner of the yard, six hefty soldiers
looked as if they were scrimmaging for a ball. They sweated like oxen
as they heaved the poor old upright in all directions. The instrument
would have looked well in a brothel. It was smothered in gilded bronze
Muses, their languid arms and thighs wrapped around it, and looked as
if it had been got up for a carnival parade.
six privates saw to it that the removal was suitably staged, grunting
like beasts of burden and swearing at the lascivious dream maidens enfolding
the absurd coffer. They tottered under their burden as far as the ex-gymnasium
where we were billeted. Just for a laugh, a few conscripts with nothing
better to do followed closely behind. I thanked the perspiring privates
and chucked the skivers out, having no wish to hear their army-style
jokes. I wanted to be alone at this moment which I had looked forward
to – and feared – for so long. During all those endless years of war,
whether on manoeuvres or capering on horseback, crouching behind the
porthole of a tank, stagnating down a mine or in a concentration camp,
I had often felt an almost sensual desire to touch, caress or simply
place my hands on a keyboard, no matter what its condition. At last
I had achieved my ambition. There in front of me like a mirage the angelic
vision of the chest-which-plays-when-you-bang-it stared at me defiantly.
My hands trembled like those of an addict in need of a fix as I raised
the varnished lid, which had been cunningly tempting me like Pandora’s
Box. One glance at the keys was enough to bring me down to earth again.
A good third were depressed and it was quite impossible to restore them
to the position intended by the maker of this daft allegory on wheels.
This was worrying and I hurried to unbolt some of the Muses and take
a look inside. What I found made me think of the young booby I had dared,
in my anger, to call an ignorant peasant. He had been all too right.
Though the piano looked seductive enough from the outside, it really
was no more than a chest containing the story of my life.
looked on the rubble of my career, the ruins of my former ambitions,
through a mess of hammers and tangled, broken strings beneath a sounding
board which was split down the middle.
it’s all for the best," I thought, looking at my hands as calloused
as any old soldier’s, all blistered and cracked, not to speak of the
scar across one palm, the result of a knife stroke during close combat
training. Miraculously, the deep gash had not had any serious consequences.
There was a striking similarity between the state of my hands and that
of the piano. Horses for courses. I cussedly turned up my nose at the
obstacle ahead. Sick and tired of all the disappointments in my life,
I remained glued to my chair for a while and then, rising to my feet,
stood there motionless.
that was the historic meeting with the object on which all my resentment
was focussed. Like a robot, I fitted the cream-coloured Muses back on
their stands and, thoroughly dejected, left the scene of my shattered
illusions like a sleepwalker and took refuge in my hut. I sat on the
edge of my camp bed not knowing where to hide my callous-covered paws
and took a perverse pleasure in analysing my conflicting feelings. The
cave-dwelling Tommy with his knotty fingers and ape-like habits was
beginning to weary of sharing his body with the hyper-sensitive one-man
band. Though cordially detesting one another from the depths of the
same heart, each a projection of the other’s alter ego, they
were both past masters in the art of humiliating me. I was tired of
the tyranny of two old blimps who could only follow orders and took
turns at greedily lapping up the other’s venom. The bumbling monologues
addressed to the musician with his head in the clouds by the randy soldier,
and vice versa, left me giddy. I decided I had had enough of agonizing
and prepared to go and tell the Commandant that the old honky-tonk he
had requisitioned would make excellent fuel for a barbecue or would,
if he preferred, make a silk farm.
was no other solution to the problem of the artistic doldrums in which
I and the troops were becalmed. The incident was a sign from above that
my activities as a dream-maker were over. The Major was of a very different
opinion. His lynx-like eye had already spotted that his toadies were
somewhat lacking in common sense. He took the view that culture was
what remained when all else had been forgotten. For a start, the unfortunate
crew which had dared bring back the ‘canteen-on-wheels crawling with
women in filthy postures’ was confined to barracks for a week. He then
selected twelve worthy warriors who, judging from their CVs, were not
the sort to confuse a cottage organ with a German concert grand. I went
back downstairs feeling quite sprightly at regaining my freedom and
was halted in my tracks by the stentorian voice of the Camp Commander
bellowing in the yard: "This time, try not to come back with a
kneading trough encrusted with bronze tarts before checking it’s a proper
grand piano in working order! I want you back dead or alive with the
squeeze-box by curfew! On your way!"
more, some vindictive shark had decided on my fate before I had had
so much as time to ready myself. Because of a nonsensical piece of bravado
on my part, I was obliged to keep my promise to transform my carter’s
paws into a musician’s hands within ten days. There was no putting a
spoke in the wheels of the diabolical machine I had set in motion.
evening, at the agreed time, the lorry rolled up and a squadron of temporary
Salvationists heaved out a stylish grand piano of manageable proportions.
They seized hold of it and bore it triumphantly into the room, setting
it beside the antiquated, mortally wounded instrument the Muses were
still ostentatiously embracing. This time I simply looked the instrument
over casually as if it had been an ox cart. To my amazement there was
not a gaiter button missing, to quote the group wit.
all slipped away, leaving me agonizing. By now it was late. Even so,
I wanted to get down to work straight away. But how to avoid disturbing
all my fellow soldiers sleeping the sleep of the just, dreaming of those
bronze beauties? I knew plenty of makeshift tricks for muffling the
sound of a tank engine going flat out, but to do that to a piano there
and then without any tools right in the middle of a barracks full of
men peacefully sleeping… The shifts of the nonchalant goddesses gave
me an idea. I knew the Captain often used to take a tumble with the
Colonel’s chambermaid. I crept into his room and commandeered a long,
dainty shawl and a pair of chamois leather gloves: he must have caught
the habit from the Germans as there were an incredible quantity: lambskin,
suede, pigskin. The gent certainly looked after his mitts.
my booty, I went back to the piano, dismounted the keyboard and slipped
the shawl beneath the strings in line with the hammers then put everything
back into place. In this way, I had at my disposal a muting device,
rough and ready to be sure but effective for all the keys as it did
not prevent the hammers striking them. In this way I could play at any
time of the day or night without being heard or disturbing anyone. The
ultimate refinement was that I could just hear sufficiently to know
what I was doing. Since then I have often used this rather primitive
method, always with success.
that chore was over, I put on the chamois gloves and began playing cascades
of scales. I hoped to be able to dispense with them by the end of the
week so that my hands would have full control of the keyboard. I spent
some time sizing up the extent of the damage to them and their weak
points. I virtually had to start all over again from the beginning.
distant church clock sounding four brought me back down to earth. So
sleepy I could barely stand, I shut the piano lid and groped my way
back to the ‘isba’ to get an hour or two’s sleep before first bugle
call. I slept fitfully until dawn, pursued by a nightmare in which I
was battling against a sea monster, a sort of gluey, transparent octopus
that I attempted to wrestle with. I was in such a sweat that my batman
had to massage me with his well-practised slaps. In accordance with
a prior agreement between the Camp Commander, who understood all us
heroes who had lost touch with their libidos, and myself, I was exempted
from all duties and training from then on. Knowing what I was in for
over the coming ten days, I wished I could have invited him to dinner
like Don Giovanni inviting the statue of the Commendatore he had killed.
Meanwhile, to get over the restless night which had nearly cost me my
food and drink, I went off to the kitchen to restore myself with a large
bowl of hot stew full of bacon and runner beans. After this I returned
to the gym to continue, or rather re-start, my crash course.
from half-hour breaks for meals, I did nothing else. Not even eight
to ten hours of daily practice could satisfy me. Often, once dinner
was over, I put my muting device in position and continued to mortify
my fingers. At first, I always wore gloves. I worked exclusively on
‘technique’: every type of scale, thirds, octaves and leaps. It seemed
wiser not to start on complex pieces until speed and accuracy had been
fully mastered. It was not that I felt no urge to press ahead: like
anyone else, I inwardly wished I knew it all already, but I was also
the first five days accorded me went by. Whether discouraged by a blunder
or encouraged by success, I made my hands labour like convicts. Some
times a few pals, intrigued by my fanatical zeal, came quietly into
the room ,leaned against the wall and dreamily watched the harsh training
of my ten slaves. A few lads, full of common sense, and aghast that
anyone should drive himself so hard, profited from the odd short pause
to make me the timid offer of a drink from a flask concealed in a uniform
pocket: "Chief, you’d do better to take a swig than make yourself
ill," they whispered. "Just a drop and you’ll have wings on
was precisely what I did not want. I know they thought I was like the
madman banging his head with a hammer just to see how much better he
felt when he stopped. Perhaps there was something of that about it.
I never worked in gloves when they were there or they would have thought
me unfit for service. I drove away the temptations of the bottle (far
from unattractive under normal circumstances), shaking my head and getting
on with my practice for the grand Battalion celebrations, while the
bacchic revellers crept outside to slake their thirst wit a draught
strong enough to have fuelled an Air Force plane. Aside from such occasional
visits, I was able to work undisturbed.
barfly pals spread the news of the David versus Goliath combat round
the village. As for the inhabitants, "They watched new stars arise
from the ocean depths to an unknown sky," to quote Heredia. They
really did think of my deeds as a tour de force worthy of respect
if only for the effort involved. I was getting along nicely. My hands
were in good condition once more. They were subjected to hours of disciplinary
torture – like telling the beads of an endless rosary – and this had
almost entirely restored that sixth sense which increases an interpreter’s
sensitivity, as it does the receptiveness of an audience. Mastery of
the instrument was mine once again – something only those who have never
experienced it can look upon with hypocritical incredulity. To give
an example, I invented a very good exercise to test the autonomy of
my hands: I superimposed the American and Russian national anthems,
each in its own key. As one is in triple time and the other in quadruple,
harmonisation was rather complicated with each hand playing a different
melody. Perhaps that is why the two countries have never been able to
fall into step.
main part of the programme I had in mind was based on patriotic songs
intermingled with folksongs and dances, all played as if by a mob of
volunteers disguised as innocent maidens. There were also a few sketches
richly seasoned with rustic wit, full of very obvious misunderstandings,
relating in a very corny style the endless misfortunes of a soldier
surrounded by enemy troops searching for his battalion.
great day was approaching. Our barracks were beginning to look like
a fairy tale garrison run by operetta soldiers doing their best to transform
their quarters into a casino. Some of them helped things along by working
from dawn till dusk cutting out fancy paper garlands which the dummies,
hastily retrained as lace-makers, transformed into paper lanterns. As
a final touch, they set their dainty fingers to painting them, with
an expression of beatitude like monks engaged in illuminating manuscripts.
squadron, reputed for its initiative, was ‘delegated to outdoor work
with a view to conveyance’ – in the broadest sense of the term. It was
better not to ask too many questions about the articles ‘under conveyance’,
whether they had been obtained by the might of the sword or, as was
more likely, looted, appropriated, pilfered or, to put it bluntly, swiped.
Once the invading forces had passed, the Liberation army, according
to the principle of the biter bit, became more or less tacitly tolerated
by the authorities, who had other things to do than spend their time
checking up on the morality of soldiers a little over-zealous in their
‘requisitioning’. The piano I was using had probably belonged to one
of those families which had been deported and sent to the gas chambers
as soon as Hungary was forced into the position of ally of her former
benevolent protector. There was, alas, no lack of abandoned homes full
of easily removable objects. In short, our battalion, a close ally of
the Red Army’s and as popular as it was independent, quivered to the
cultural cry of, "Halt! Who goes there?" However, no-one had
as yet been authorized to take over the physical training room where,
protected by special orders, I barricaded myself to put the final touches
to my Herculean labours. Forty-eight hours before the Great Day, the
valiant task force invaded the place jubilantly, cleaning and polishing
everything in their path until the last bar of soap was used up, at
which moment the exhausted saurians scuttled away from the battlefield,
by now transformed into a recreation hall. The results were amazing:
the rotting boards shone like a ballroom floor and were, in the opinion
of the Commandant, decidedly cleaner than the canteen cutlery. The little
windows shone so brightly that the intertwined rays of the spring sunshine
caused young flies in search of a cool spot to shelter to fly smack
into them. The more experienced knew where the missing panes were.
I put the finishing touches to my transformation from a beggarly François
Villon to an Omar Kayam, a new choir of angels arrived with orders to
sandpaper a freshly cleaned section of wall over which spread the tentacles
of a huge Swastika. They set to with all the perseverance of the Danaides.
A square-shaped patch in the centre of the hated emblem was all that
remained of the spot where the once obligatory official portrait had
hung. It had no doubt depicted Admiral Horthy, the ruler of Hungary,
congratulating a certain Austrian colonel with the wind in his sails
after signing their notorious agreement.
celebrations were due to take place the next day. After two hours’ hard
work, the gravediggers of outmoded ideologies had come to the conclusion
they would need three days to make the place presentable. Desperate
ills call for desperate remedies. After consorting with his mates, one
off them went off, returning with a roll of blood-red tinfoil. He unrolled
it on the floor and cut out a star slightly larger than the faint traces
of the Swastika. His accomplices carefully stapled the new emblem over
the now-despised old one. The brains behind the operation went off yet
again, returning proudly with a portrait of the new arbiter of peace
who, with his benevolent smile, was to dictate at Yalta a whole new
distribution of power. I gazed perplexedly at the allegory of the joint
rule of the new era. By force of circumstance, I had borne both emblems
on my tank turrets and my lapels and my enthusiasm for the new decoration
was muted almost to the point of indifference. What significance could
this new emblem have for my life? The naturalist Buffon has written
that the warbler symbolizes fickleness just as the turtledove symbolizes
fidelity. Did this signal the dawn of a new life or was it no more than
a trademark, merely bringing a change of shape and colour to my Witches’
Sabbath of an existence?
The preparatory stage of my training was nearly over. To the greater
joy of my at long last free hands, I had stopped mortifying them with
Dervish-like exercises two days before. For the moment, I was restricting
myself to Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody and the outline of
improvisations on a popular tune which, I hoped, would provide a firework
display at the appropriate moment. While the lads, good tummies that
they were, put the final touches to their decorations, I slowly and
resignedly shut the piano lid and watched them. The situation was urgent.
Yet another team of strongmen, with a trace of alcohol-induced squint
in their eyes, was waiting to carry the instrument off to its makeshift
platform. The podium was a good example of Darwin’s theory that nothing
is lost or created, only transformed – even in politics. Despite the
weight of the piano, the resourceful fellows who had constructed this
masterpiece had found nothing better to support it than the metal pieces
of the proud Swastika adorning the hall not long before and which had
been recuperated form the dump. There stood the platform, on the ruins
of the former household god and beneath the enigmatic gaze of his successor,
and from it I was to try and make the village folk forget that they
had already had more than enough of both.
fateful hour of my gala concert was fixed for ten o’clock the following
morning. I was off duty so I decided to walk round the town as a reward
for my ten days’ solitary confinement. I had to get out of my head the
absurd idea that having served under the banner of Charybdis I was now
under Scylla’s. It was a lovely day. The inhabitants were solemnly taking
their daily stroll along the main street. I stared in amazement: it
was like a vast floral float with the people dressed all in their finery,
including many in multicoloured costumes.
in all truly rural villages where the people live off the land, no-one
paid any attention to city fashions. For the elderly they were too modernistic,
for the young too costly. So everyone dressed according to what suited
their age or situation. The girls had put on their organdie dresses
and wore wooden clogs or even went bare-footed. They wore a few wild
flowers in their hair rather than patchouli. The more mischievous
made the young regimental priest blush scarlet by heaving deep sighs
of longing every time they passed him. Men of the older generation proudly
wore the old Hussars’ uniform. It was an extraordinary one: despite
its distant Turkish origins, it was still very popular and carried considerable
prestige. It consisted of a brightly coloured frogged jacket, richly
decorated with gold trimmings, with trousers and sometimes even silver-spurred
boots to match. Compared with these splendid uniforms, real collector’s
items worn by toy soldiers, we looked as though we were dressed in second-rate
mercenaries’ rags. The women had eyes only for them. Even when it came
to pleasing the eye, we were fighting the wrong war.
ten days of enforced isolation, I drank in this multi-coloured procession
bathed in the spring air. To complete the illusion of being transported
back in time, there were even a few implacable old ladies who, disdaining
all this fancy, were ostentatiously decked out in traditional folk dress
with its innumerable petticoats, while on their white chignons they
wore a variety of local coifs of heavily starched lace. Seated on the
stone benches along the street or near the thatched-roofed washhouse,
they chatted quietly to the old men with their great handlebar or pointed
moustaches, preened specially fir the occasion.
good it was just to be able to stroll along with nothing in particular
on one’s mind. I breathed in the scents of spring, wafted on the playful
breeze from the woods and fields round about. All of a sudden, I found
myself surrounded by a gaggle of beauties: "Here’s the drill sergeant
who’s killing off our boyfriends!" laughed one. "No, it isn’t,"
said another nymph, He’s a musician. He’s the one-man-band. I know him
– he’s all right." "People say you know just how to handle
it," added another lily-of-the-fields, a tow-haired blond. "Is
it true you’re going to give us a little something tomorrow?" "Give
you what, sweetie?" I quipped, sensing she was a bit of a tease.
"A piano with only three legs," the pretty girl replied, adding
sympathetically, "The battalion could have found something a bit
less shaky, couldn’t it?" "Even the greatest beauty in the
world can only give what she’s got," I replied learnedly, trying
hard to remain serious, as became my new role as ‘man of the moment’.
"I’m looking forward to it just the same," replied the pert
charmer, looking me over admiringly as if I had been a prize bull at
an agricultural show. "You don’t often see an instructor in close-combat
fighting change into an ivory-tickling dandy in his spare time, do you
shrieked with laughter. I found the voices of these flighty huntresses
soothing and, with all the wisdom of my twenty-odd years, declared that,
deep down, the heart of this bloodthirsty mercenary was brimming over
with noble feelings reserved for lovely washer-girls and shepherdesses.
Darkness was falling. Regretfully, I was going to have to leave this
pretty bunch of primroses with their forget-me-not-blue and sea-green
eyes, and bodices more enticing than any service medal.
I left, I realized that the village people were virtually all interrelated
since, from great-great-grandfather down to the tiniest baby, they referred
to each other as cousin, uncle, etc., etc.. In short, this great rural
family had dressed up to the nines for the sole pleasure of holding
a dress rehearsal for the next day’s festivities. I said goodnight to
my by now unconditional admirers and went very grandly back to barracks,
where a great plate of oat flakes, which was supposed to be my dinner,
was awaiting me. Bucephalus himself would have found it difficult to
digest that lot. The orderly on duty – the one I used to instruct in
crawling through puddles – clicked his heels at my approach with all
the respect due to one returning from the hunt bearing Hitler’s hide
in the form of a bedside rug.
tomorrow’s the great day, chief," he said, standing rigidly to
attention. I nodded solemnly, looking up at the sky like all great generals.
* * * * * * * * * *
was five o’clock. The day looked like being a sunny one. I should have
gone back to sleep or at least taken advantage of my last day of VIP
treatment to laze in bed but four years of patriotic wanderings had
rid my system of such decadent bourgeois habits.
got up, washed quickly and hurried down to the canteen, where my pal
the cook, who had a degree in maths, was already waiting for me with
a huge plateful of salt pork. All that was needed to help it down was
a few lentils. This great admirer of Newton, as well as of units, had
an unfortunate habit of pouring huge quantities of salt and pepper into
our grub while his thoughts were engaged on quadratic equations. He
had as much enthusiasm for his saucepans as I for the innards of my
tank when it needed a repair. In the course of our morning chats, he
discovered I was a musician and, since he was a little batty, claimed
we were kindred spirits since the same laws governed sound and mathematics.
On this day of days, what weighty arguments could I oppose to such reasoning?
with my mouth full, I reminded him that the Emperor Claudius had been
transported in all haste to the Senate by litter so that its members
could decree without delay that life would be pointless if salt bacon
did not exist. Stimulated by our discussion, I went off for a walk simply
for the pleasure of not hearing that wretched bugle braying.
walked on over hill and meadow for a good two hours. It was a glorious
day. The countryside was so beautiful: the blue forget-me-nots were
opening, the rising sun tinted the primroses mauve and a whole mass
of wild flowers with long graceful stems were overflowing with heady
sap so that it was hard to believe that just a few weeks previously
whole divisions had been trampling this ground, fighting for it inch
by inch. I felt relaxed and carefree.
was lost in thought as though praying at some great pagan altar. When
after some time I remembered the concert, the sun was high in the sky.
I had to get back if I was not to be late. Far off in the distance,
people all in their best were beginning to leave their houses. Young
and old alike seemed very excited. I was soon to find out why.
pushed my way through the crowd, slipped into the hall and went behind
a curtain made out of tattered sacks which had contained the regiment’s
potato stocks. They now served as wings where the artists tried to control
their stage fright by going over their lines and feeble jokes. The local
bright spark was the worst affected of all. Normally a loudmouth, he
was slumped in a corner, teeth chattering at the idea of having to welcome
the locals in dialect on behalf of the regiment.
all talk ceased. The Commanding Officer entered in full regalia with
half a pound of sparkling medals hastily pinned on his chest. "He
really must be in the soup to have got himself up like a Christmas tree
so quickly," the man next to me whispered. Our dear, crestfallen
chief must have felt like the Pope would have done had he learned that
god was arriving in ten minutes to dine with him.
Dear friends!" he said, trying to control his tremulous voice,
"The Generalissimo of the Hungarian Army together with a Marshal
of the Soviet General Staff and their retinue, on a tour of inspection,
have just telegraphed a message announcing their wish to honour our
cultural event with their presence. I’m counting on you," he concluded,
more dead than alive, standing to attention with corpse-like rigidity.
news spread like wildfire and made the artists even more nervous. Indeed,
they would sooner have flirted with some jungle beauty than gone onstage.
Other soldiers and officers, eager to be in the know, crowded backstage
where we were already packed tight and could have done without their
presence. There was no longer any question of starting on time: we had
to wait for our illustrious guests. To fill in the time, certain kindly
souls went round jollying up those among the artists who looked as if
they might faint at the sight of so many glittering decorations.
for me, a young officer (blast him!) felt it his duty to ‘keep my morale
up’, as he put it. I could not remember ever meeting him before whereas
he claimed to have known me for years from reading all about the incredible
story of my entry into the Franz Liszt Academy, which had made headlines
at the time. In typical officer’s jargon, he made a long speech about
excessive nervous tension draining an artist’s concentration, plus other
similar queer ideas, until the tense atmosphere started to affect me.
He punctuated his Ciceronian oratory with double swigs from a largish
bottle kept in his pocket and went on chatting blithely about paralysing
stage fright. After I had refused his offer several times, this devil’s
disciple started to expatiate on the worst thing that could happen to
a pianist: a memory lapse. After half an hour of this, I realized to
my dismay that I had been drained of every drop of self-confidence.
When this dratted lieutenant held out his bottle to me for the umpteenth
time, his hand ever-shakier, I gave in and with my own trembling hand
took a couple of reluctant sips. It was a mature walnut brandy at least
ten years old and of exceptional quality. He asked me what I thought
of it and reverently concurred, confessing with tears in his eyes that
the delicate ‘bouquet’ of this essence was nothing less than the distillation
of his dear mother’s soul. It would profane her memory to refuse this
nectar. He took back the object of his worship, held it up like the
holy sacrament and made a further loving sacrifice to his mother’s soul.
I did not wish to appear boorish and offend such filial devotion and
so took yet another dram. This time my paralysing anxiety evaporated
and a soothing warmth spread over me. From time to time I looked impassively
through a hole in the curtain: the hall was full. We were only waiting
for the High Priests so that the junketings could begin. Meanwhile,
my lieutenant friend kept urging more of the anti-stage fright potion
on me: "Nothing better to help you face a crowd," he said
with a rumble and a burp.
blissfully unaware, I was knocking back walnut liqueur like mother’s
milk. By the time a speech welcoming our guests and singing the praises
of our victory was over, my apparent Olympian calm was more a case of
comatose sleep than loss of faculties. If only I had drunk just that
much less, a last-minute return to consciousness, aided by fear, might
have burnt up the excess alcohol in my system and restored some of my
vitality. I was not drunk but my body was rigid and my eyelids were
drooping. To crown it all, I was aware that though I could still walk
straight the will to go onstage had evaporated. I stood staring ahead,
sluggish and complacent. By then, both my back-slapping benefactor and
I were downing, rather more often than just praising, the quintessence
of his mother’s soul. Luckily, this did not continue too long. My benefactor,
who had been paying homage since daybreak, suddenly dashed out at a
speed I would have believed him capable of. Knocking over chairs and
plunging through scenery, he staggered to the exit, sounding like a
boiler on the point of exploding. That is where filial piety gets you,
I thought, nodding sagely.
euphoric lieutenant’s hassle with the props was perfectly visible to
the audience, which reacted with a mixture of hilarity and indignation.
A few zealous corporals blasted them with ‘shhs’ which I must have been
alone in thinking it sounded like a distant murmur. My thoughts were
becoming more and more muddled. I was on the point of going into hibernation
once and for all when I became vaguely aware that someone was pulling
me along and forcing me onstage before a vague mass whose indistinct
murmur barely attained my nirvana.
impetus or other carried my rigid legs along. I looked out over the
stalls, managing somehow or other to conceal my somnolence. I stood
quite still in the middle of the little platform staring blankly at
the packed audience. Just below, in the first row, shone a line of glittering
epaulettes while an assortment of jutting chests sparkled with myriad
medals. I felt as welcome as a dog on a putting green. A shout would
have gone unnoticed, yet I felt the rustle of silence round me like
a shroud. Then my mind went quite blank, apart fro the odd hallucination.
Quite despite myself, I found I was sitting on the stool. Before me
was a huge black piano with an immaculately white keyboard dotted with
little patches of shiny black shadow grinning at me.
arms hung inert like a disjointed puppet’s and seemed to weigh a ton.
Besides which my fingers had grown so numb that they barely seemed to
belong to me. At that precise moment an electric shock ran through my
clouded brain. As I looked down, I realized that those generals with
their distinguished phizzes and those peasant girls all dressed up in
their operetta flounced skirts were my audience waiting for me to play
something for them. I was quite incapable of concentrating on my hands
to coordinate the complex movements and tried desperately to recall
a mere fraction of the countless warhorses my brain and fingers had
struggled so hard to master. I was obliged to concede that all that
remained of those hours of self-communing and painstaking preparation
was a pile of rubble. All I could do was finish off my recital – and
I mean finish off. I did manage to disinter Liszt’s Second Hungarian
Rhapsody from my memory. How I did it remains a mystery to this
this odd performance, I left the podium in a daze. True, I did not stagger
off, rather I moved like a sleepwalker. I do not even remember taking
the customary bow. As soon as I had started, I had had the uneasy feeling
that my playing was unspeakably awful. I could not say, though, to what
extent such a mixed audience was aware of the desperate struggle being
fought against my inner void. What exactly is ‘quality’? For me, being
qualified means being apt. On that dread day I failed lamentably on
both counts at one and the same time. Even the little circle of rustic
dilettantes had realized it. Of all the performances that morning, mine
was received with, or rather penalized by, the feeblest applause. I
was not sufficiently intoxicated for it to be evident why my hands had
lost the power to convey the magic which is normally one of the most
notable features of my playing. I had taken such pains to restore it
to its former level and now it had sunk lower than ever, if that was
possible, and for such a ludicrous reason, depriving the audience of
the spell that coherent playing might have cast over them. My last public
concert had been at least five years ago and was no more than a faint
memory. Most of what had happened in the meantime had put my original
goal even further from my grasp. And this was the result of my first
attempt to rise from the ashes!
far as I can remember, the festivities ended round one o’clock in the
afternoon. The audience dispersed and we were free till evening. As
for me, as soon as my tribulations were over I hurried away from the
jolly clique of celebrated nonentities and went straight to bed. I slept
deeply, unperturbed by dreams, right through to the following morning.
When I awoke, the events of the previous day came back to me with astonishing
vividness. I was overcome with shame. I ruminated over my dishonour
and humiliation with a feeling of opprobrium under which good lost its
lustre and evil its ugliness. I broke down and wept unashamedly. For
having put up with too much abuse, as well as for all my errors. Then
there was the loneliness, my loneliness, the ghost of solitude that
I had stoically been pretending to ignore over the past four years.
So far I had managed to a greater or lesser extent to beware of underhand
attacks on my only companion during this barren period of my life. From
now on, this elemental power could dispose of me as it thought fit:
I was throwing in the towel.
all this time, the patrol was searching for me everywhere. I was discovered
in my room lying in a faint on the floor with my arms outstretched.
Later, when I had recovered somewhat, I began to worry about the sentiments
of my superiors towards their drill sergeant. It turned out that no-one
had noticed anything abnormal about my conduct.
Camp Commander asked to see me but not even he, with his considerably
broader intellectual horizons, made the slightest insinuation about
my buffoonery. Perfectly straight-faced, he handed me a new list of
warmongering exercises to be tried out on the trainees. In short, no
disciplinary action was taken over my blunder. I got away with it, as
they say. Time passed and the festivities were soon a distant memory
– for everyone except me.
of the fiasco gnawed at me inwardly like an agonizing wound and for
years to come haunted my days and, worse, my nights. In fact, it took
me a good twenty years of irreproachable professional life to forget
it. No other ointment could have healed the wound and effaced the deep
for want of a better scapegoat, I took my bitter feelings out on those
around me. I gave free rein to my baser instincts and soon became a
regular slave driver. On the pretext of training the recruits, I took
great pleasure in exhausting, breaking and martyrising them and even
physically abusing the unfortunate recruits Fate threw in my path. I
treated them arrogantly and harshly. Such an attitude was not healthy:
I hated everything and everybody – and it goes without saying that the
feeling was reciprocated. As my despotic cruelty worsened, my friends
melted away. Cursing me under their breath, my subordinates gritted
their teeth and crawled, ran and jumped without let-up and at dizzying
speed. It was all the same to me. Their antipathy was, if anything,
a relief. My superiors were not in the least bothered about my sadistic
methods so long as the rebellious shirkers were transformed into disciplined
cannon fodder without a hitch and, believe you me, there was never a
word of protest.
the time spent drilling a love of the fatherland into my brothers, I
spent my nights walking till dawn, trying to rid myself of ‘that’ obsession.
Those sleepless nights spent out of doors redoubled my severity, which
had long lost its ability to surprise, the following day.
succession of events enabled me to rid myself of the shadow haunting
me. The war was nearing its end. Hungary was free of Nazi Germany’s
unwelcome friendship. Certain economic deals had been imposed on us
in addition to political protection, by no means to our advantage. The
Great Reich was to have lasted a thousand years, so that when it collapsed,
a new period of inflation set in. Certain cabarets in the neighbouring
village opened up again as far as possible, in view of the curfew still
in force, only to be invaded by local tipplers, who engaged in a little
barter while waiting for the currency to become more stable so as to
be able to quench their endless thirst. I longed to join them to avoid
being alone with myself and organized my rake’s progress accordingly.
I did shift work, as they say.
day from dawn till dusk I yelled myself hoarse and reduced the joints
and cartilages of my underlings to jelly. Once dinner was over, I went
off to a bar to drink my fill. It was the sort of place where, during
the week, the distinguished clientele enjoyed a hearty punch-up at closing
time. On the whole, they were a pious lot: they rarely broke the rule
of not using knives, except after High Mass on Sunday night. I sometimes
joined in their jousting in honour of the knife, the secret emblem of
‘Angel Court’. It was as good a way as any of passing the time. Once
the circus games were over, it was rare if some kind soul did not invite
me in to join him in a final drink, though I hardly needed one. "We
can’t just part like this," my host for the evening would say.
I accepted gratefully, for although the bars closed at ten I did not
have to be back until midnight and nothing in the world would have made
me go back to quarters before I was certain I could at least knock back
a liqueur. True, I only slept from midnight till four o’clock: quite
enough for me to recuperate. After which I got up and went and did a
few menial tasks for one or other of the early risers in the village,
such as the blacksmith, until first bugle call. That was how I earned
a little money to help me see my existence through rose-coloured spectacles
turned into months and I sank deeper and deeper into a life of drunkenness
and violence. I was, not for the first time, wading through a swamp
and losing touch with myself. My new acquaintances had a strong influence
on me: I fought, swore and got drunk with all and sundry. I found the
company of these knights of decadence soothing. Just as I was about
to sink without trace in a fury of self-destruction, the postal system
started up again by fits and starts. Little by little, all my fellow
soldiers got news of their families. I was staggering back one night,
stinking of wine, after getting into a scrap with a braggart of a farmer
I had had to chuck into a slurry pit to stop him altering my features
with the aid of a broken bottle, when I found an envelope on my camp
bed. I sobered up immediately on recognizing my wife’s handwriting.
Even so, when about to pick it up, my hands hesitated for some time
as though it was no concern of theirs before eagerly grabbing the letter.
was addressed to a certain "György Cziffra, pianist".