Frigyes Karinthy

Loneliness

After many years, on an autumn day, my father arrived in the old city, looking for me.

He came from far away, from the north, where he had been seen in various places, in different guises, and no one knew that he was one and the same person. They say he appeared somewhere in Paris with his long grey beard and his old ulster, saying he was a salesman, representing some large firm and collecting orders. He made an appointment but he didn’t turn up; many years later he was seen in The Hague, in the library, deep in old papers, gentle and sad. Then, from Norway he wrote to a relation who had, however, died by then. The letter travelled back and forth for some months until it was finally mislaid somewhere. There was vague talk of him founding some dubious philosophical society or other in Uppsala—a hundred-page long memorandum of his was lying at the Academy for years, in which he described some discovery (I do not know where he found it) which had been sought by scholars for centuries.

And now he was looking for me. To those who met him on this day, he related a long and circumstantial story about how he had come from an unknown Norwegian town because he had something very important to tell me; he had discovered something, or realized something of immense significance to me. A few heard him out, very politely, but as they neither knew me nor understood what it was all about, they murmured a few generalities and went away.

Noisy crowds and cars were jostling in the streets, new types of vehicles. The tower-high, narrow houses had their metal lifts shooting up and down, crammed full of people. Above him, the trams rattled on grey overhead rails. A roaring wind rose, the sky grew dark, and a weighty aeroplane, the size of a battle-ship, rushed to earth in a whirring maelstrom.

For a while he trudged among the houses. Whenever someone chanced to look at him, he smiled encouragingly and adjusted his glasses in the hope they would speak to him, and he could talk. Once he opened his mouth and stopped: he thought they’d spoken to him. But no; a man had called out from his shop to a boy running past. My father coughed and walked on.

In the afternoon he called at the police station, and explained his case at great length in the registry. They listened patiently to the end, and they leafed through a lot of their files. But there were difficulties about the dates: my father blushed, and clasping the air with uncertain fingers he blinked and looked towards the ceiling.

“I’m not quite sure of the date, really.. .” he said, “it was perhaps between twenty and thirty.”

But they knew nothing about me, and they sent him on to the town hall, where perhaps they might.

Unfortunately at the town hall it all went more quickly. They simply pushed aside the yellowing foreign documents which he had spread out on the desk with much care and self-importance.

“What is the person’s full name?”

My father was taken aback, then he quickly said: “His name was the same as mine.”

They opened an old volume. “The name is here all right. But the dates do not fit, Dad. Perhaps we’d get further with your birth certificate. When were you born?”

My father began a long explanation, but nothing emerged from it. They grew impatient.

“The name of your father and mother?”

And now he was in trouble. Startled, my father stared ahead, with a confused smile and rubbed his forehead. They looked at him in astonishment.

“Have you forgotten?”

Frightened, my father started to feel his pockets with tremulous fingers. “You see, sir, it’s like this...”

But they were looking at him with suspicion by now.

“Come back some other time, we are very busy now,” someone curtly told him.

“Yes, sir, tomorrow,” he said obediently, and slowly, lost in thought, he started down the stairs. Halfway down, he stopped suddenly, looked up, hesitated and clicked his fingers.

“Of course; I’ve got it,” he said, half aloud.

He turned and slowly started to go back, he went back all the way to the door, but there he lost his courage again: he shifted from foot to foot for some minutes, fingering his white beard; then he shrugged and finally he left the building.

Later, he rang the bell of a block of flats and asked the porter whether he might look through a list of old tenants. For half an hour he sat in the narrow cubicle, turning the pages—at last he stood up, and regretfully admitted that he couldn't find anything. But he did not go: it seemed that he would have liked to chat with the porter a little.

“It is most surprising. . .” he said, “I know for certain that he used to live here... I have something terribly important to tell him... I have come a very long way... from Norway...”

“We know nothing about that, sir,” said the porter.

“Never mind,” my father said quickly, with a reassuring smile, “I’ll find him sooner or later. Goodbye. Don’t worry about anything, my friend. You are still young.”

Then he went to one of the large cafés, where they had music. He sat down at the side, by a small round table and ordered a yoghurt. He gave a friendly, encouraging look to the waiter.

“Haven’t I met you before somewhere?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” replied the waiter.

“But I am sure I know you. Your face is very familiar. I am quite sure I have seen you somewhere.”

“Yes sir, coming, sir,” the waiter called to another table, and hurried away.

My father looked around, and inspected the people sitting near him. There were two pretty women with a soldier of some kind. The soldier was telling a story with a sly twinkle in his eye, and now and again the women would laugh out aloud. My father listened, without understanding any of it, but when one of the women, leaning back in laughter, chanced to look towards him, his warm, friendly smile was intended to show that it was a really good joke, well worth the laugh, and that the soldier was a deserving, kind, clever and witty man. But immediately her smile froze and she quickly turned her head away.

Then the orchestra started to play, and a performer in a dress suit stepped forward on the stage and sang. My father took off his glasses to listen. He did not understand the song, but he nodded his approval all the same, and when it was over, he said a loud and enthusiastic “Bravo!”

But he stopped at once and looked about in some confusion, as no one took up his applause. People were chatting and not listening. His eyes met the woman’s again, and he smiled again, to signal that he had liked the song very much. He thought that if he could manage to speak to this woman, he could explain that she was very like his wife—but then he remembered that he would be unable to give her name, should they ask him.

He paid, put on his coat and took his stick. At the entrance, he hesitated and stopped. He turned back, and went over to the singer who had just sung.

“Excuse me,” he said, smiling, “but could you possibly tell me who wrote that song?”

The other looked at him, uncomprehending. At last, he said, “I don't know.”

“I thought it might have been my son.”

And, when the other did not answer, he went on: “You see, my son used to write songs, too, and I thought that perhaps... It is a very nice song, anyway. And your performance was very nice, too. Excuse me.”

Outside, they were beginning to light the lamps. It occurred to him now that he might meet me in the street. So he walked quite slowly, and looked carefully at everybody. He remembered quite clearly that I wore a broad tie, striped in black, and a black velour hat. If nothing else, he should recognize me by the scar on my forehead: he stopped, and felt the scar on his forehead. He caught sight of his face mirrored in a shopwindow and he smiled:

“Of course,” he said, “I should know him anywhere by this missing tooth—he had lost that tooth by then . . .”

He came to the river, where the barges with their tarred barrels were steaming by the quay. He crossed the bridge, and went on among the houses for a while until there were just empty lots. These too passed and were followed by the meadows and well-hoed slopes.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he urged himself, “fresh air does you good.”

He cut across a field, clambered down the hillside until a wide landscape opened up in front of him, with the white highway winding further, further along.

He started off along the road, but by now he felt that there was nothing ahead of him, only the distant trees and the line of the horizon edging the cloddish world; only the bends of the long road and past each bend, the same clods and the same wheeltracks, and past that, no towns or villages which he would know, or where he would be known. He turned back and wondered whether he should go on, but the image of the old city had disappeared behind the greying hills. He realized he could not go back there; it was growing dark, they might even be going to bed. New, unknown villages would follow, alien faces, even perhaps a strange tongue. And if they stopped him and asked him questions once more, how could he answer? “No, no,” he murmured angrily, “I’ve had enough of that,” and he decided to turn off from the highway at the first path which crossed it.

It was almost dark by the time he reached it: it was a narrow, wet, squelching lane, rising gently to the mountains. Only the hushed soughing told him that it was a forest; the impenetrable blackness was increasing as the mountain now cut off the narrow piece of sky which was still lowering, cold and unfriendly, over him. He trod carefully lest he should stumble, holding out his walking-stick in front of him. Then, the stick knocked against something. He stretched out his other hand and ran it along regular, evenly spaced posts. Half by eye and half by touch he realized that he had reached some kind of a fence. Behind the fence, the weeds of a neglected garden, and past that, the wall of a low-built cottage shimmered in the darkness.

“Aha,” he said, nodding.

He felt his way to the gate in the fence and he even discovered a handle. He gave it a hard shake, but it did not give.

“Hey, he called, and listened. Then he shouted out louder: “Hello!”

The wind blew across the garden, something creaked, perhaps the well-handle or a branch. A window slammed with a hard bang and then reopened slowly with a groaning creak. Then silence fell again. He waited a little longer, in case something should move. Finally, he stretched his stick forward and started off again.

That was the last house which came his way.

Behind it, there were only trees and shrubs, and under the trees the sticky, boggy, damp loam. The ground was still rising. He stepped slowly, until he reached the crest of the mountain. By now, a pale light was beginning to appear as the moon rose, and the melancholy landscape stretched far, far into the clouds.

Then he stopped, and looked around. First, he took off his hat and wiped his brow. Carefully he placed the hat on a stone, and took a few more steps. Now he began to undress, slowly, patiently. He folded his coat tidily, and lovingly spread it over a small shrub, to keep it warm. With his waistcoat, he lined the hollow of a gnarled tree; he undid his tie very slowly, and looked around, hesitating as to whom to give it. A few feet away a tall, slim poplar stood in silence.

“There,” he said, as he wound it round its trunk. “So, what else is there?”

With great care he placed his glasses on the ground. He wrapped his watch in two broad leaves and laid it in the grass.

Then he lay down. The rich earth squelched gently under his back; tall blades of grass swayed on either side. A bush was sleeping to his right. He stretched out his thin, long arms.

“Any good?” he asked, drowsily, “is it any good to a root or a branch? Take it, use it up, if you can.”

He tore off his arm with one hand and threw it as far as he could. The arm flew creaking and rattling through the air and stuck into the soil where it fell, stiff and upright, the fingers wide open. He gave a heave and threw off the other one. It fell into the top of a tree, and grasping it, disappeared among its leaves. He gave a deep, long yawn.

I shall leave my feet here, he mused, the earth is good and rich, it’s easy to strike a root by the time spring comes. With a little luck this hawthorn here could seed and I shall do my best. By next year, I might be growing from the earth and bearing fruit.

Once more he opened his eyes, looked up at the sky, and saw the twinkling fire of the star. He smiled and nodded to it.

“I shall do it five more times, at most,” he remarked to the star, counting as he breathed. “I am sorry, I’ve had enough. For a long time you made me believe that I wanted all this, not you. For too long have I believed it, that I needed it and not you. And now that not even you want it any more, let me end it, too.”

Twice more, he drew his breath, and then he stopped his heart, like a wanderer stopping when he’s tired. Then there was only the twinkling star, and the round, cloudy shapes circling in distant space.


SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Loneliness” (A magány), translated by Mari Kuttna, 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. 122-128.


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:
Select Bibliography

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

Alireteje: Offsite:

Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo

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