Abdominal Operation

By Frigyes Karinthy

“To hell with him!” exploded the first assistant surgeon Vajda. He was as crimson as a schoolboy after a ticking off. Savagely he tore off his rubber gloves. “To hell with him! I wish he wouldn’t shout at me. I’m not a school boy.”

Telekes, the second assistant, slowly peeled off his gloves and held his hands under the faucet. He was smiling.

“Don’t be silly,” he said soothingly. “After all these years you start taking offence...? He’s been shouting for six years at you, at me, and he hasn’t eaten us yet. Besides, as you know very well, he’s especially fond of you....”

“I couldn’t care less. He can keep his fondness for his grandmother....”

“Now, now, keep your shirt on. Besides, he was right this time.... I hope you won’t mind my saying so, but you were really absent-minded today.... I meant to tell you myself that you kept holding the lamp under his nose instead of beaming it straight into the abdomen.”

“So what? Couldn’t he say so? Or just make a sign? Must he shout at me as if I were a servant? In front of all those old hens? And over a local-anaesthetic case, who could hear every word? There’s prestige for you! I’ve had it. I’m fed to the teeth.... If this is your idea of a thrill, carry on with him for a thousand years.... I’m not married to this clinic. I could have been running my own sanatorium long ago... I don’t give a damn for the great honour of being assistant to the celebrated surgeon. I’ll tell you where you can put the honour! It’s all very well for him. He’s not going to shout at me any more, because if he does—”

He broke off; Telekes had dug him in the ribs. For several minutes more he could not speak, wondering in dismay if the old man might not have overheard his last few words. The professor had entered quite soundlessly. Vajda stole a glance at the familiar, pleasantly rugged, gnarled face as it bent over the basin. The professor looked rather morose; apart from that, he showed no emotion. Nevertheless Vajda winced as he noticed that the old man was about to speak.

“Well, boys, we can call it a day.”

The sound of that rough gravelly voice at once quietened Vajda, and he was relieved by a curious soothing combination of reassurance and cockiness. So he hadn’t overheard anything, thank heaven. Good.... He’d better stop shouting at me, or I’ll—

“I am looking forward to these six days, you know,” the professor went on. “Not because of the congress itself.... having to look at all those stuffed shirts.... I suppose I’ll manage to stomach it somehow.... But at least I’ll get a chance to laze around in bed in the mornings.... and read a decent book for once....”

He leaned forward to wash his face, which was spattered with blood. At the same time he gave a grunt of pain. Both assistants turned to him.

“Goddamn!” he swore. “This thing’s not going to give me any peace, I can see that. I’ll just have to go through with it.”

They looked at him inquiringly, but the old man barked:

“What are you gaping at? As if you didn’t know I’ve got a hernia. You think I can’t see how you fellows snigger every time I grit my teeth while we work?”

They were flabbergasted; but the professor, paying no attention to them, continued.

“You won’t snigger any more, my bonny boys! I’ve had enough.”

For a second he seemed lost in thought; then, as if he had just made up his mind at that moment:

“I say! Won’t these six days come in useful!... The honourable Congress will do very well without my presence.... At least I won’t be wasting time. I’ll be able to read in bed all day. Why, it’ll be a wonderful chance to rest, too. On the fifth day, properly strapped, I’ll be dancing a tango.”

He became animated.

“And furthermore I’ll lie right here, in one of the private rooms. If anything goes really wrong Professor Stuffed-Shirt can always come in for a consultation.... Whew! By George, what a treat! Get Room Seven ready for me.”

His animation spread to his assistants. Telekes beamed.

“Whom do you have in mind, sir?” he said. “Professor Horkay, perhaps? He’d be the man, I should think. We could ring him up right away. He’d be at home now....”

The professor looked up abruptly. He made a ferocious grimace as if he really were going to slap one of their heads off.

“You must be daft! For me? Another professor?” he thundered. “That’s all I need! No honourable colleague is going to shove his paw into my belly! Not likely! I won’t give ’em that chance, not I. You’re mad, son.”

Telekes forgot to shut his mouth.

“But—in that case....”

“What case? What do you mean, case? Don’t keep wagging your head back and forth like a duck’s arse.... The creatures I’m surrounded with! Immediately start wagging this way and that! For the love of God! I certainly was blessed with you.... Believe me, I’d rather do it myself. I’ll have to put up with a couple of miserable chiropodists like you! But I’ll be keeping an eye on you, never fear.”

They stood transfixed, unable to say a word. Already the professor was issuing orders.

“Get cracking! Prepare the big operating room. Operating table in the centre. Call Hilda for injections.”

“I beg your pardon, Professor. But right now? Us two?”

“When then, for Christ’s sake? After dinner, when I have my belly full? I happened to skip breakfast this morning—so no purgative is needed.... Now listen, butcherboys. In half an hour I’ll be shaved, changed into pyjamas, and over in the blue room.... Meanwhile you’ll have a thorough wash and get the full hernia set sterilized.... Have Hilda mix fresh novocaine, since it’s a local job. Got it?.... Oh! I nearly forgot to tell you.... You’re not getting off too cheap.... I want a mirror, a big one. See? You’re to have it hung above the lamp, tilting it so as to bring it parallel with the head rest, where my mug will be. I’ll be watching the show in that mirror. I’m not going to have you butchers loafing on the job—you can give up hope of that.... Here’s your chance to show what you know.... Get cracking! It was nice meeting you. See you later, at the slaughter-house.”

And everything happened as in a strange dream.

When the professor showed up at the door of the operating-room half an hour later, wearing heliotrope pyjamas, the table stood at the centre of the room, with the mirror suspended above it. Dr. Hilda, the anaesthetist, was blithely filling up the hypodermic syringe; the two assistant surgeons, pale and agitated under white masks, were laying out the instruments without a word. They all but sprang to attention when the professor entered. Telekes was about to say something, but was promptly silenced by the old man.

“What! You call this lighting? Lower Number Three, confound it! You want to blind me so I can’t see a thing, eh!”

All three assistants began jumping about like soldiers. The professor threw off his dressing-gown. “Put up that head-rest! That’s right. Lower the legs.... Where do you expect me to park my behind? Can’t you see? Don’t touch me, or I’ll bite you!”

This last was addressed to Dr. Hilda, who had wanted to give him a hand as he clambered on to the imposing operating table. For a while he fidgeted on the table, chiefly concerned about the position of his head; then he launched forth once more.

“All right now. Let’s have the cloths. You will leave a space the width of two palms below the navel. Right there, chump! Don’t goggle. I marked the spot out for you! Did you think I’d leave that for you to do? I did it in the bathroom.... You’re not going to make a bigger cicatrix on me than is absolutely necessary.... You’re to make the incision precisely where the line starts. You will move all along it and make a cut right down to the scrotum. Come on, now, let’s have the iodine.... No, no, I want Hilda to do that.”

The syringe was shaking in Dr. Hilda’s hand. A roar brought her round.

“Lower, for God’s sake! You call that a stab? Plunge it deeper, you fool! How many times have I got to tell you to hold the needle straight? You’re supposed to plunge it into the weal, not next to it. Do you want to make me howl the way that old hag was doing yesterday? I can see very well you’re holding it over the wrong place!”

The two surgeons chuckled, but their teeth were chattering.

“You two had better stop laughing. I’ll see shortly whether you’re the tough lads you pretend to be.... That’ll do, Hilda, dear. I didn’t feel that fourth one.... Now for the iodine and the scalpel. Or rather.... Wait a minute. I want Vajda to do the iodizing.... Or no. Let Feri do the iodizing. Mr. Vajda will do the carving.”

Assistant surgeon Vajda started at the scornful overtone the word “mister” carried. But a curious sort of pride spread through him, and his face flushed.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Vajda. It’s you I am curious about, since you have a tendency to make light of these minor hernia cases. Now I’d like to feel on my own belly just how steady your hands are.... All right, Feri, that’ll do. Even iodine palls after a while. Look at Mr. Vajda. Isn’t he impatient! He just itches to start carving me up. This is the great day of reckoning he’s waited for so long! Right, eh?”

And the professor flashed a sidelong glance at the stunned sur geon. Holding the sterilized knife ready, Vajda approached the operating table.

“Well, I’m going to shut up for a while. I want to watch the mirror.... Now listen. Adhesive, cloth, a dozen frogs.... Second, weal, third iodine.... knife.... (Slanted incision).... Tampon before applying ligature. No dabbling with your finger as you usually do. Lift funiculus with your index. Understand? I’ll be seeing the rest. Ready? One, two, three, go!”

The knife ran swiftly along the abdominal wall. Already Telekes was mopping up blood; Hilda was getting the tweezers handy. For two minutes dead silence prevailed. There was hardly any fat beneath the professor’s swarthy, soldierly skin; the gleaming, silvery lobe surged into view through the gaping wound. It was odd, though, that the flabby fascia should have failed to be re vealed behind it. It would have to be lifted out before being tied up. H’mm. Odd that this fascia should fail to appear....

“Aha,” the patient sneered. “Aha!”

The surgeon’s hand twitched.

“Oh, you tumbled to it at last? Or did you? I was wondering.... Spring a little surprise on us and we go off in a swoon, eh? Well, perhaps you’d better go on searching for it. It must be somewhere about, mustn’t it? Well! Thank Heaven!.... Now we’ll have a little butchering, shall we. Resection can wait. Meantime, shred of gauze slips out of wound, and I get a haematoma the size of a water-melon....”

The surgeon turned purple.

“Well?.... Well?.... Whatever is to be done now, one wonders. Good gracious! Just what ought one to do? It would be nice if I told you. What? But you see, a surgeon who is such a stickler for his professional reputation—he ought to know.... And what if I don’t say a word? Eh? I am now a helpless patient. Can’t possibly prompt you, you know.... You just have to work out your own salvation!”

Beads stood on Vajda’s brow. He was straining to remember. Suddenly, it all came back to him. The fourth finger! He seized the prepared, ligatured stump with a forceps, lanced it, and tied it up. He sutured the muscle with a thick thread. The last stitch!

“Thank Heaven!” the patient nodded, with disdain.

Telekes took the threaded needles—three of them—from Dr. Hilda, and passed them on to Vajda. The latter placed two threads on the cloth and introduced the third into the wound.

“Right-hand side!” the professor bellowed. Vajda was puzzled; he got flustered and yanked the needle out.

“Jesus Christ! Now he’s yanked it out! I didn’t mean that, you fool. I meant the other ones! I’ve told you a thousand times over that you should place them on your right... if you want them with in easy reach for your left hand.... Why don’t you put them on top of your head? Or press them in your prayer-book? For Christ’s.... I certainly was blessed with you!”

Fortunately, the two sutures had now been completed; Telekes was handing Vajda the clasps, one by one. The ordeal would soon be over. Before it was ended, they had to endure one more outburst.

“Easy, damn you! You should do that slacker! What d’you mean, thrusting your paw into an abdominal wall that’s just been slit open, as if you were grabbing your gal? I certainly was blessed with you.... Are you finished? Thank you very much! You call that fifteen minutes? Of course, you boys thought I wouldn’t find time to look at the clock while this was going on.... Well, you might like to know it’s taken eighteen and a half minutes. Shame! What a disgrace! Come on, give us a sponge-down! Where’s János? They ought to have rolled up the stretcher by now. How long do you expect me to keep my legs raised? Apply some collodion, that’s all.”

Vajda, his face flushed, bustled about as the patient was transferred to the wheeled stretcher. He pushed the door open and rushed ahead.

Wrong again!

“You stay here, doctor,” said the professor, covered up to his chin. “I want Dr. Hilda to see me down to my room. I’ve seen enough of you two for the time being. You will be good enough to drop in on me just before inspection.”

But at the door, as the stretcher was wheeled past the stupefied first assistant, the professor turned his head to the side and stretched out his right hand from beneath the cover. As he spoke there was in his muffled voice a hidden smile, charged with the self-satisfied peace of a dressing-down successfully administered.

“Humph.... Now give us your paw.... I never fancied for a moment that I could entrust this to any Horkay. I’d sooner see it done by someone who’s at least learned the job from me.... You’ve done quite a good job. And that eighteen minutes—that’s not so bad, either.... Humph.... And if I let out a yell now and then.... why, you don’t want to take that seriously. After all, one’s got to use one’s lungs, hasn’t one? No one’s ever heard me bawl out anyone but people I’m fond of. Well, see you later.”

The assistant surgeon still felt the warmth of the old, bony hand in his palm, after the stretcher had disappeared around the corner of the corridor.

He turned around as if in a dream. Telekes was cheerfully pulling off his gloves. He was laughing heartily and shouting from across the room.

“What d’you say to that? Magnificent! Grand! A capital fellow, the old man. What! Has absolutely no equal in the world. I swear, my final exams at medical school were nothing to this for cold feet!”

Vajda stood by the instrument table, lost in thought; he was rummaging among the forceps. Telekes jabbered on excitedly.

“Well! And you? The ordeal he’s put you through! I could see the blue funk you were in. I saw that for two pins you’d have tossed the whole scrap-can in his face! He just caught you in the right mood! And the best of it is—I hope you realize that the operation wasn’t even indicated? He could have coasted along with that hernia without dressing for another ten years, couldn’t he? Did you ever suspect he had that? I didn’t. It’s just that the fit was on the old boy—I tell you, he’s got a screw loose, the old bastard. It’s fantastic! When all is said and done, though, I think we might be proud of this. It’s a unique case, I should think... What’s the matter? Have you gone dumb? Absent-minded again?”

Vajda was standing in the middle of the room, staring at his empty palm as if he were seeing it for the first time.

“Tell me,” he said suddenly, speaking in an odd, alien voice, and continuing to stare at his palm. “Wasn’t Capernaum the name of that town?”

“What town? Have you cracking up?”

“Where the Master.... appeared to His disciples and made Thomas, doubting Thomas, reach his finger into His side which had been pierced with a spear as a punishment for not believing that genius is a law unto itself?”

Translated by István Farkas

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Abdominal Operation,” translated by István Farkas, in The Kiss: 20th Century Hungarian Short Stories, selected by István Bart (Budapest: Corvina, 1997), pp. 72-79.

Note: I cannot verify whether the above is the same translation as:

“Abdominal Operation,” in Hungarian Short Stories, with an introduction by A. Alvarez (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 203ff. This anthology was also published as:

Twenty-Two Hungarian Short Stories, with an introduction by A. Alvarez. Budapest: Corvina, 1967.

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

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