Danilo Kis



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Danilo Kis

"Pescanik/ Hourglass" (1972) is narrated through a series of incoherent narrative devices. Kis circles around the story in different ways, as if he didn't have the courage to tell it straight and fully. The story takes place a few months after a horrible massacre of Jews during World War II in Novi Sad. The protagonist, whose name (Eduard) we learn only on the last page of the novel, travels to that town and three days later he is interrogated about his trip. The interrogation works as a flashback that slowly reveals the story of his life: that he was in a labor camp of some kind, that he was in a mental asylum, that he is dealing with a Kafka-esque railroad administration, that his sisters mistreat him, that his house collapsed and he found a new one. But the investigation goes beyond the facts and, by taking all sorts of pointless detours, unearths much more than just his biography. The interrogation often sounds parodistic in its grotesque excess of insignificant details. The questions and answers reveal a shallow mediocre man who doesn't seem to appreciate the significance of the historical catastrophe taking place around him (World War II), despite the fact that almost every page talks about someone being killed of killed himself. The rapid-fire questions from an unnamed interrogator are inspired by Episode 17 of James Joyce's "Ulysses". Another side of the story is narrated via the diary of a madman, written in the first person by the same Eduard and frequently addresses to his sisters. An unnamed persecutor is gathering evidence about him, and he himself is providing evidence about himself in his diary, and we can see that he is telling the truth, or at least telling the same story.

The protagonist has begun to write during a snow storm. Looking outside the window, he sees a woman arriving on a sleigh and pushing an envelope under his door. The room's wallpaper has a recurring motif: a woman who arrives in a sleigh. Two women wearing nightgowns cross the room. A man with a cane approaches the chaffeur of a car that has just arrived. The protagonist walks around the room lit only by an oil lamp.

The book then become excerpts of the "diary of a madman", narrated in first person. The madman tells us that he invented a flying machine, and indulges in a few fragmentary meditations.

Then the book becomes a criminal investigation, narrated through the questions that the interrogator is asking. The investigation is about a letter that E.S., a Jewish civil servant in a Hungarian-speaking province of Yugoslavia, has written to his family, to his five sisters and his brother. The questions of the interrogation are often silly, revealing trivial details about Hordon the butcher. We get a description of E.S. through the eyes of a dog. Some questions are about a nightmare about vicious dogs that E.S. had and his own Freudian interpretation of the dream, which is followed by the discovery of pig blood on the newspaper, caused by the fact that his wife used it to wrap meat purchased from the butcher. E.S. and his family traveled in a sleigh to Hungary, escorted by a coachman called Martin.

The notes of the madman continue with the revelation that Newton discovered the law of gravity while observing his shit while squatting under an apple tree, that he is a Jew who is pregnant (with death), that the brain of a Jewish surgeon murdered by Hungarian fascists lay in the snow, etc. These notes are written to his sister.

The criminal investigation resumes with a further list of questions. E.S. is now introduced as a retired railroad inspector who was found dead with his wife and two children at their home, died of cold and hunger. A relative, the widow of businessman Ignac Boroska (later we learn this is his sister Netty), claims that E.S. was going crazy, in fact refused her help (although we are told that her help consisted in a criminal scam that would have landed E.S. in jail). We are transported back in time when (in March 1942) E.S. was on board a train headed for Novi Sad (the site of a massacre of Jews by Hungarian fascists in January 1942) and the scene is described in extreme detail, even going beyond what can be observed (e.g., not only the description of a fellow passenger who is a recent war widow, but even the imagined report of her husband's death in battle, and the imagined lust of another passenger for this widow, arousing jealousy in E.S.). When he arrives at Novi Sad, E.S. takes a cab to his apartment, meaning to pay his overdue rent to his landlady Meszaros, and then goes to meet his friend Gavanski, with whom he plays chess till late night, as he has been doing for three years. They even keep the score of all the chess games they have played in those three years. Gavanski is worried about his daughter, who wants to marry a traveling salesman. Then we see a long list of names, all the people that both Gavanski and E.S. know, among whom Maxim Freud (the surgeon whose brain laid in the snow after his murder), several people who committed suicide, several people who were murdered, etc. They also discuss the war, the defeat of France, the Novi Sad massacre, the fall of Singapore, etc. E.S. is pessimistic about the future of humankind, Gavinski is optimistic. E.S. sleeps at Gavanski's place and has a nightmare. He actually enjoys dreaming. His three days in Novi Sad are summarized in the letter to his sister. He omitted his meetings with a railroad office and his meeting with a priest. He returns to his apartment (the Meszaros apartment) to retrieve whatever is left and ship it to Agnes Fischer, but the whole decrepit building collapses. E.S. survives miraculously and imagines what his obituary would have been had he been killed by the collapse: he imagines himself as the founder of the muromancy, the science of reading the future in the stains of the walls. In his pocket is a letter from the mental asylum: deemed incapable of taking care of himself, they released him in 1940 upon condition that his wife took responsibility. We also learn that E.S. was born in 1889, i.e. that he is 53 years old. When the workers clean up the rubble of the building, they found a document that shows the building was built exactly when E.S. was born. Then we read a long list of people who sent telegrams of condolences for the death of E.S., including his brother and his sisters, and we learn that E.S. had chosen a n unorthodox funeral mixing Jewish rabbinical lamentations with Christian liturgical chants and Islamic wailing. Since E.S. did not die in the house collapse, this must be hypothetical (had he died....) Then we read the funeral oration delivered for a railroad inspector who committed suicide one year earlier. And we read what famous intellectuals (Kafka, Marx, Freud and Proust) would have said if E.S. had died. E.S. suspected that this was an attempted murder against him by the nazis and interpreted his survival as a good omen that the war would end with the defeat of the nazis. This is all narrated via questions and answers, 70 pages of them.

Then we return to the diary of the madman, who writes to someone demanding that this someone stops the daughter and a man called George (the name of E.S.'s nephew) from selling the house where the madman was born.

Then we get some "travel scenes" that actually feel like scenes from a nightmare: first a man is working in what appears to be a labor camp, surveilled by an armed guard, then he is in a candlelit room, and then a man with a cane walks away with a child.

The "notes of a madman" are definitely by E.S. He tells us that he has returned to his village and lives with his wife and children. He is haunted by a split personality disorder and fears that his other self is himself after death.

Then another lengthy interrogation begins with "I received the summons..." and ends with the same sentences of the beginning: an infinite loop. Answering the questions of the interrogator, E.S. explains that he visited Samuel Mayer, a schoolmate he had not seen in 30 years. He and his family (wife and two children) are living with his sister and her son Gyula/ George. He also explains his visit to Agnes Fischer, the widow of his former business partner David, who killed himself. And he explains the visit to Gavanski, whose 24-year-old daughter is engaged to a traveling salesman. He also explained that during his trip to Novi Sad he visited the railroad administration offices and spoke to his friend Andrija Laufer. Most of the railroad engineers of his time were killed or have disappeared and one hanged himself inside a refrigerator. E.S. is the sole surviving of the engineers group. Asked why the Meszaros apartment collapsed, he blames the rats that infested the basement. He has come back from Novi Sad just three days earlier. Then the interrogation resumes from the questions about the Mayers with the exact same sentences

E.S. obviously dislikes and distrusts his sister Netty and her children George and Maria who have burned the forest to which he was entitled. He daydreams of killing all three of them, and imagines how the press would relate this triple homicide to his hospitalization in a mental asylum (which we learn took place in 1932). The interrogator asks E.S. to summarize the novel "Parade in the Harem" that E.S. wrote during his hospitalization. We also learn that E.S. tried to kill himself in the mental asylum.

The "travel scenes" resume with the man in the labor camp, harassed by brutal guards. This time we get some explanation: he and others were forced to build an embankment. The guards beat him and broke his glasses and his denture. He then went to hide in a cellar (presumably the candlelit room).

The interrogation (that takes place two days after his trip to Novi Sad to retrieve his remaining furniture) resumes and he is asked for details about the family's business. His grandfather entered into a business agreement with the firm of a Jakob Weiss that entitled the latter to burn the family's forest, and this agreement was renewed by E.S.' sisters without asking for his approval. Weiss' business went brankrupt and the family's forests were burned down. The only one who made money out of this deal was another businessman, Jakob Rosenberg, now reduced on a wheelchair, living with his wife Szilvia, his maid Rosa and his gardener Boris. During his trip to Novi Sad, E.S. borrowed some money from Jakob Rosenberg.

Upon returning home, E.S. found that his family had fled the apartment in a hurry after the visit of a police officer. They had been hiding in the forest and returned home frightened.

We learn that E.S. wants to go to Hungary's capital Budapest to plead that his pension be reinstated: it has been reduced. He is a retired railroad inspector.

Most of the witnesses of E.S.' story either committed suicide or were killed.

E.S. arrives in Budapest but then takes a train for an unknown destination, The criminal investigation concludes with a lengthy and pointless description of a lithograph acquired by E.S. on the stages of man. The diary of the madman concludes with his will to be cremated.

The last chapter is a letter that E.S. writes to his sister Olga at the end of this adventure, a reply to a letter that Olga sent him (presumably the letter left under his door at the beginning of the novel). He tells her that he will write a horror novel titled "Hourglass" about how he has been treated by his relatives, and proceeds to detail how his sister Netty and her children Gyula/ George and Maria (named Rebecca before she converted to Christianity) humiliated him and his family when they were living in their house. He also tells Olga how his house collapsed on him as soon as he had finished packing his belonging, how the police came looking for him and his family, scared, hid in the woods for one night, He has found a new apartment and he has been summoned again by the railroad administration. He tells her that he has something important to tell her but the novel ends. And this is where we learn his name because he signs the letter "Eduard".


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