Frigyes Karinthy

The House on fire

One of my worst nightmares.

It was that I lived in an old street, on the ground-floor of a four-storey tenement house, as a lodger, of course. Suddenly, without any warning, as happens in dreams, a great commotion broke out in the yard—suffocating smoke, windows flung up, running steps on the stairs.

“Fire! Fire!”

I leaned out of the window—the top of the house was blazing in huge red flames spaced symmetrically all along the eaves, as if a methodical arsonist had moved along the length of the roof, measuring rod in hand, to make sure it spread everywhere. The windows on the other hand revealed panic-stricken people scurrying to and fro like frightened squirrels and pouring down in a disordered band. On the corbel projecting from the façade a man with upraised arms was holding forth with dramatic nobility, heart-stirring emotion ringing in his voice, a convincing persuasion glowing in his ardent features, while down below in the street a crowd of people had come running and drunken with frenzy, cheered and yelled their agreement with the speaker. My heart also swelled with a strange elation and I hallooed “Hear! Hear!” into the sky. It was only then that I began to listen to what the speaker was in fact saying, and I became aware, with some surprise, that, sputtering and gesturing, he went on repeating, dizzyingly, faster and faster―

“Oh, do you know the muffin man,
the muffin man, the muffin man. . .”

For a moment I was puzzled, then, subsiding, I said to myself, “Of course, you idiot, when a house is on fire the first thing to do is telephone for the muffin man, to stop the water curdling in the pipes.” Now I began to listen more intelligently.

Long hoses were lowered from the fifth floor by red-uniformed firemen, and after considerable difficulties with the huge pumps they finally began to play the hoses full force on to the street. I was then sitting at a table in a coffee-house, opposite an old schoolfellow of mine, Bányai, who was reading the paper. When I asked him why the firemen wore red he replied negligently that it was a matter of biological adaptation, to allow them to pass unnoticed among the flames. I saw the importance of this on the spot, and felt ashamed of my ignorance.

‘The fire-reds’, as they were called in my dream—the expression made just as good sense as ‘board and lodging’— the fire-reds in the meantime had got down to work systematically and this had the reassuring effect of orderliness and purpose. They lined up in the street, then, at a signal, produced small cases from their pockets. A hoarse command was heard: the fire-reds turned the cases right way up—clicks of copper, snapping of springs. Long, narrow ladders came sliding out of the cases, and one by one were propped against the windows. Nimbly they climbed to them—another command, and the fire-reds began to shut the swinging wide-open windows with the same mechanical and identical movement, choking in the smoke that was coiling out from the dark holes of the rooms. In some places force had to be applied, as the man or woman standing at the window did not want the window shut on him or her. These people were poked back into the room, or failing any other way, the window-panes were simply pushed shut on them: a head or leg or arm got caught and, turning blue, dangled over the street. Apart from this, however, order prevailed, and all the windows were successfully shut in a matter of minutes, only a few thin spirals of smoke seeping out through the cracks. Bányai, who was now Superintendent, was seated behind a desk writing something at terrific speed. He looked up, nodded once or twice and reported with pleasure to the Mayor that no one would be able to leave the house, all apertures having been sealed off. There was consequently every hope that the operation in progress would be a perfect success. A tall, clean-shaven man with sardonic eyes stood in front of me and explained that all was in order, it was something that had to be done, since by sealing everything off a high temperature was being generated in the house, which made the walls completely dry and fireproof—so that when the fire reached the first floor the fountain could be turned on, whereupon the whole place would freeze and you could take it to pieces. I tried to interrupt him several times but no sound came from my throat, only my lips moved. In the meantime, as the fire reached the third floor, the closed window-panes started to explode one after another, with loud pops from the melting glass. At that moment an agonizing spasm convulsed my brain as I remembered that my little son was still upstairs in the new flat we had moved into a few days previously, where the whitewashing of the walls had just been completed. I made a fresh effort to interrupt him, my eyeballs bursting, but no sound came from me, until in the end all I could manage was to stammer, in a thin, wheezing, far-off, child’s voice: “whitewash” and gape distressfully into his face to see if he understood me. Then various things began to happen.

His face flushed, he seized my hand and whispered to me in an excited jabber that there was no mistake, the clandestine Whitewash Party had been formed in secret and as I knew about it anyway he would take me to the secret meeting, but I must promise not to mention it to anyone, and least of all to reporters.

A liveried janitor opened the secret door and we entered the blazing house through a long corridor. I was surprised not to smell smoke anywhere on the winding stairs and along the interminable corridors. But Bányai—for it was he—explained to me that the rooms of the executive committee were hermitally (I think he wanted to say hermetically) sealed off to ensure that nothing disturbed the meeting. Office doors followed in a line, each numbered and ticketed: “Central Fire Detection and Auditing Department”, “Doctor Cole, Chief Firebrand”, “Council for Ash-Holes”, “Embers Utilization and Distribution Board”, “Sub-Committee for Unified Fire Control”, “Cindermakers’ Annals”. Then quite a long row of inscriptions such as: “Fire-Extinguishing Centre”, “Presidential Office of the Fire-Extinguishing Operations Agency”, “Internal Distributors of Fire-Extinguishing Materials” “External Lime Examination and Control Commission”.

The manager greeted me with a wealth of ebullient gestures, went on shaking my hand quite a while and expressed his pleasure in meeting me. He then conducted me to the workshop producing fire-fighting equipment. Here there was the din of machinery and a suffocating smell of oil. A grimy mechanic at an elaborate machine was explaining something; all I could make out from his words was that they had been developing the machine for years and that when completed the equipment would enable the flames to be painted green, which would mean a considerable saving, as the firemen’s old green uniforms could be used at fires. Another machine drove an oil retort designed to extract the water by heat from oil stored-in a house on fire, which could then be put to good use in the pumps.

I was next taken to the High Commission.

The chairman rang his bell continuously, not desisting when I was introduced. He motioned me desultorily to sit down somewhere and put forward my proposal when it came to the Lime Commission's report. There were two speakers on the platform engaged in a long and heated debate. Down in the auditorium a couple of fire-reds were in conversation, glancing with a bored air at the speakers from time to time. A tall, sparely built man read aloud from a file of documents, which, it appeared, established that the building had been set on fire by a spark blown deliberately from the house next door. Putting the papers down he raised his voice and asserted that the Cortex delegation was not responsible for the incident, so help him God. The other speaker then addressed the meeting demanding with vehemence that witnesses be heard who would testify to the perpetrators. Then it was put to the vote, to decide whether the cigarette the spark had come from was filter-tipped or unfilter-tipped. The filter Party moved a motion declaring the two incompatible. A subcommittee was set up and the students of the biological laboratory were notified of the result of the vote so as to allow them time to make all the proper preparations for the inauguration ceremony of a new bridge planned for the following week.

It was then, for the second time, that terror paralysed my heart: I remembered the room on the third floor. I shouted hoarsely and inarticulately, gasping for breath. I was forcibly held down from both sides, but the chairman, in the belief I wanted to speak, demanded silence. I rose and leaned forward: the Sergeant-at-Arms stuck a stamp on my hand, punched my ear-lobe, threaded it, made a knot on the thread and handed the other end to the chairman, who took it between his teeth and gave me to understand that I could now address the meeting. Excruciating minutes followed; I felt in my anguish that I was trying to ask permission to go up to the third floor, but instead discovered to my dismay that I was gobbling something louder and louder, after each sentence singing the refrain: “For Lord Teddy / rode a tandem / with his granddam, / his steady.” I was acting it out too, swaying from the waist as if dancing. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that even if I did not express myself very clearly my graceful movements might convince the chairman that I was a poor man deserving a better lot and so I might be allowed to go upstairs. My tears fell heavily and pattered monotonously onto my hands.

An acrimonious debate then ensued, many of the participants supporting my case. The house, someone insisted, must be rebuilt, and on quite different foundations too. Permanent pillars were needed; those on the first floor were not altogether rotten but they would have to be sawn in two and connected into the chimneys for the gas to escape there in an emergency. Others violently contested this, saying that two complete households could not be evicted simply for this purpose, no, nothing needed altering there at all, but on the other hand the hall doors would have to be papered so that in the event of a possible conflagration, which was in any event to be expected, it was not the stove that caught fire first. The measure would save a lot of trouble, he said. There was, incidentally, a great outcry against stoves in general, many of those present protesting with passion that they were the cause of all evils since that was where fires started first. Stoves were for putting ice in, and iceboxes for making fires in: such a course would redress the balance so ardently sought. A gentleman with a tawny beard pleaded in a tremulous falsetto, “Please, gentlemen, just this once, just this once do not lose your heads. For God’s sake, don’t let us be rash like those maniacs who yell for water at the first leap of the flames; let us preserve our calm and sit tight like men, let us quietly take thought and weight the future in order to work out a unified, foolproof and expedient plan, thrashed out to the last detail, to extinguish the fire. Keep calm, gentlemen, keep calm, it would be a terrible mistake to act rashly at this juncture!”

For the third time the image of the blazing room on the third floor flashed through my mind; I felt as if stunned by a stupefying blow on the temple. I seemed to hear the sucking sound of the cold water as it rushed into the cellar. The rotten planks of the flooded floors snapped. From a great distance, from beyond the walls, a long-drawn cry mounted into the sky, a wordless, mute, unchanging voice. My little son’s voice, ever more urgently:

“Daddy! Daddy!”

I was amazed that the voice I heard was cheerful, laughing rather than terrified. With a tremendous effort I inflated my lungs, banging my fists into my ribs to force out a shout. Stepping across the tangled cobweb of the disintegrating dream pictures, my last sensation was some queer pang of remorse for my cowardly and sly escape by waking up and leaving them in the blazing, crackling hell of the dream, which would come tumbling over their heads the moment I slunk away from it.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “The House on fire” (Az égő ház), translated by László András T., in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 54-60.

Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

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:
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Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

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