To Err Is Divineby Agota Bozai
A bestseller in Hungary and Germany, a sharp and delightful social satire that pits the relentless pursuit of wealth against the fickleness of life in a capitalist culture.
Anna Levay, a widow, is a secondary-school teacher in a small resort city who is close to retirement. One evening after her bath, Anna discovers a strange light floating about her head. It is a… See more details below
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A bestseller in Hungary and Germany, a sharp and delightful social satire that pits the relentless pursuit of wealth against the fickleness of life in a capitalist culture.
Anna Levay, a widow, is a secondary-school teacher in a small resort city who is close to retirement. One evening after her bath, Anna discovers a strange light floating about her head. It is a halo, like that of a saint, but Anna is not a particularly good or religious person; she is, in fact, an atheist. She sets about trying to conceal her halo, but soon realizes that only the truly innocent, small children and animals, can see it. But the concurrent power to heal and produce miracles is visible to a less exclusive audience, and once the greedy mayor and physician of the town discover Anna's new gifts, they set about using her to their advantage: they build a luxury health resort and line their pockets. çgota Bozai's novel, first published in Hungarian in 1998, is a stunning portrait of a world disposed to depravity in the pursuit of wealth, and of the marginalization of a person of conscience, or at least conscientiousness, in a rapaciously capitalistic society.
Author Biography: çgota Bozai has worked as a freelance journalist for Hungarian radio and television. Her first novel, Persian Divan, was published in Budapest in 1997.
- Counterpoint Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 7.76(w) x 10.48(h) x 0.92(d)
Read an Excerpt
My name is Anna L�vay, n�e Kuncz. I was born on the first of September, 1937. My mother was Fruzsina Major; my father was Tiham�r Kuncz, killed in the war. There were six of us children: four girls -- �va, Kati, Zsuzsa, and I -- and two boys -- Laci, who lives in our parents' house, and Pista, who was killed last year in an automobile accident. I married in September 1956 and have been a widow since December 1 of that year. I have a son, P�ter, who turned forty this year. He is a university lecturer in America. I completed my teacher certification in Budapest and have taught Hungarian language and literature in high school, sometimes art history as well. I also have a degree in library science, but I lost my job as a librarian when I was dismissed so that the position could be given to the principal's mistress. I teach twenty-nine class hours per week, two hundred seventeen students in seven classes. Today is Wednesday, the twenty-ninth of October. I don't teach tomorrow until the second period, so I can arrive as late as a quarter to nine, room 12c. We are reading Kafka; my notes and class materials are in the teachers' closet, on the second shelf, to the right, in a green cardboard loose-leaf notebook. It has been lying there since last year. Before I take it down from the shelf I will dust it off, so as to avoid getting gray specks on the white coat that I wear over my clothes at school to protect them from chalk dust. First, I have to test Tibi Gr�n (what a dope that boy is!), whom in any case I cannot allow to fail the school year, since his father is a member of the municipal council and in charge of finances. That would only hurt the school. If I get everything ready on time, before the warning bell, I will have a cup of coffee in the teachers' room. If I buy some rolls in the morning, I had better be sure to keep twenty-five forints in change, which is the amount I have to put into the empty American salted peanuts tin next to the thermos bottle; the coins always clang loudly. The coffee is terrible. I could just as well make coffee at home, but it is too great an expense for me alone; my old coffeepot makes two cups, and there is only one of me. I do not drink so much coffee in any case; it would be a waste, and warmed up later, it loses its flavor; I would just throw it out, and I must be careful with money. So I drink coffee at school; what is important now is that before I go to sleep I must set the alarm clock, eight o'clock will do. Today, I can read till midnight. I am sure that it will disappear. Good Lord, why has this happened to me?
Not quite two hours earlier she had turned on the taps, first the hot, then the cold, even though she had learned that it is safer to do it the other way round. But she had become accustomed to doing it her way. Before she ran the cold water into the bathtub she poured some bath salts and bubble bath directly on the spot where the stream of water would hit, so as to maximize the quantity of foam. For a long time she used to consider bubble bath a waste of money, until her colleague, a physics teacher, explained to her that foam is a heat insulator; by preventing the water's warmth from escaping it allows one to stay longer and more cost -- effectively in the tub. She always poured out exactly one capful, of the cheapest sort. On the shelf was a bottle of American bubble bath that her son had sent five years ago at Christmas, along with other small presents and an airline ticket, together with a letter: "Dear Mother, don't delay. Come! How I long to see you!" And since then, he wrote only at Christmas.
At Christmas and on her birthday and on her son's birthday, too, she indulged in the American bubble bath. But today was a normal day: not a weekend, not a holiday, no famous person's birthday; it was just another ordinary twenty-four hours like many, many others. She screwed on the cap to the bath salts and noisily set down the bottle on the glass shelf that was attached to the tile wall with a cord and two anchor bolts -- a shelf that she carefully wiped down every other week. Then she took off her hand-knitted sweater, the good old wool skirt that once was white but now was gray from many washings, and the nylon slip -- fifteen years old at least, but in those days they made things to last; you buy something today and it falls apart in no time -- and rolled down her pantyhose, carefully, lest they should tear; the prices they charge these days for a simple pair of pantyhose. But the cuticle of her right index finger, despite a careful manicure and the application of hand cream, was rougher than it might have been; blame it on chalk dust. But whatever the cause, a stitch in the fabric tore, and the stocking began to run with destructive abandon.
She quickly reached for the bottle of clear nail polish lying on the shelf below the mirror, with the result that the plastic cup in which she kept her toothbrush tumbled down. The toothbrush landed in the tub, but that was of small import. The run must be stopped as quickly as possible. Later, when she was through with her bath, she would put on her warm bathrobe and sit on the arm of the sofa in the room where her son had once slept; that was where the light was best. She would put on her glasses and use thread rescued from pantyhose that were beyond repair to mend the run so that even a trained eye would hardly have noticed it. And what if someone did? If only someone would notice! It must be at least ten years since anyone had looked at those shriveled legs. But her mother had always said, "A tear, not a patch, brings shame." The young people today no longer value things. Their attitude is that it is better to spend than mend. The young woman next door, for example, throws away things every other day that could easily be repaired. They don't value what they have, and then they complain that they don't earn enough money. She applied a drop of nail polish to the end of the run, carefully laid the pantyhose on the washing machine, and took off her brassiere. Her breasts had long since become slack, and she had recently noticed the first wrinkles in them. She had feared that it was cancer, but her physician, an old acquaintance -- they had spent quite a bit of time together at the university in Budapest -- had reassured her; it was just the natural aging process, though that was hardly a comfort. Nor had she noticed that she had put on weight until the remarks of old acquaintances had led her to divine that her figure had changed. More and more frequently she was greeted with, "My, you appear to be in full bloom!" or "You've become quite well-rounded!" and when she finally stepped on the scale, she discovered that she had gained fifteen kilos that she would be happy to lose.
She opened the door of the automatic washing machine and threw in the brassiere. Every day she put on a clean one, for she had a tendency to sweat, and she hated to think that she might be emitting body odor, which to her was such an intimate matter, practically as if one were going about naked. It had been five years since the last traces of menopause had departed. With a swift motion she pulled her underdrawers down to her knees. She did not allow them to drop all the way down, because the floor, which she washed every other day, she considered unclean. She removed her left leg first, then the right, while holding on to the edge of the bathtub to avoid becoming dizzy. The underpants quickly went the way of the brassiere. She had bought them, as she had the brassiere, from the Chinese merchant, ridiculous what it would have cost in another store. To be sure, they were of poor quality, but if treated with care, they would last a long time, and anyhow, where else could you get ones like these, with extended legs whose elastic didn't cut into your thigh.
She turned off the cold-water tap, checked the temperature -- it was just right -- and plopped into the water. When the waves subsided, she reached for the remote control that lay on the edge of the sink and switched on the television. The large screen of the apparatus, which stood in the anteroom, could be viewed easily from here. She waited for the movie to begin. The commercials were still running their course. It was the same on the other channel. She didn't switch to any further channels; they were of no interest, and there was nothing else she wanted to watch. So as not to miss the beginning of the film she switched back to the first channel. The commercials were still playing. All they show, she thought, is nice girls and women whose common characteristic is their ability to attract a man: By using the advertised product they become beautiful, alluring, or seductive, or else, if they have already won their matrimonial campaign, they spoil their husbands with the whitest shirts and underwear, the tastiest dishes, and the dazzlingest cleanliness. That is how it is.
Advertisements are one thing, real life something else altogether. Where do you see a commercial message to the effect that most housewives do not always prepare healthy and glamorous meals and do not always consume the "right" products because they cannot afford them, and they have, and wear, articles of clothing that are stained because the stains won't come out, and even if they did, that one might have better things to do with one's time. After all, most housewives are capable of wearing a dress that might have a spot on it; perhaps they don't have the washday product that could rinse it away, or they haven't the energy to do daily battle with the household chaos, even if the cleansing agent with the euphonious name were as good as advertised. And what's more, their homes are not always sterile, and they manage just fine with the odd bacterium or speck of dust. Perhaps they console themselves by citing Freud, who said that behind an exaggerated mania for cleanliness lies a repressed, unsatisfied sexual longing.
Thus did the teacher philosophize to herself. Then she heard the theme music announcing the beginning of the film, to which she now turned her attention. Years ago, in the mid or late sixties, she had seen this film at the cinema, with whom, she no longer remembered, perhaps with a man, perhaps with a female colleague, it no longer mattered; the theater had been dark and cold -- so cold that you couldn't even remove your overcoat.
The bath water was warm; the foam retained the heat; in the course of the film, and it was a long one, she had to replenish the hot water only once. During the less-interesting parts she amused herself by scooping up a rainbow of soap bubbles from the layer of foam, trying to lift them out of the water without breaking them. Sometimes, she squeezed some foam between her hands, formed a thin film of the soapy suspension between her thumb and forefinger, and attempted to blow bubbles. Occasionally, she met with success. She thought of her childhood playmates; who among them was still alive, she wondered, and what did they look like now?
She lay her head on a towel on the edge of the tub and drank the chamomile tea that she had prepared; it would soothe her strained vocal cords. She had gathered the chamomile herself during the summer vacation, elderberries and blueberries, too. In two weeks it would be time to gather rosehips. A neighbor woman had once told her that her kitchen looked like a witch's pantry, and she didn't dare to mention that she had also put up wild mushrooms in oil for the winter. The film came to an end, the foam was dwindling as the next wave of commercials began. Not wanting to run more hot water, Anna L�vay slid deeper into the tub and soaked her hair. She rubbed it thoroughly with egg-yolk shampoo until she had worked up a thick lather, and then began to slide even deeper into the water to rinse off the suds. That was when she noticed it.
It was as though her head had grown. Her careful calculation of distance, refined over many years, was now inadequate for the necessary submersion maneuver. Yet she did not feel that she had bumped against the tub. It felt rather as if she had grown a hump on her foam-bedecked head. She corrected the motion, rinsed her hair, quickly soaped herself under her arms and on her neck, chest, and stomach; then she knelt in the tub and let the long-handled brush play across her back, then carefully washed the most hidden part of her body, just as the gynecologist had recommended her, from the front towards the back. Finally, she stood up, washed her legs, quickly showered with cold water, and stepped, dripping wet, onto the soft bathroom carpet. She reached for the towel to dry her hair. The hump was still there. Energetically, she rubbed her body dry with a linen towel from her trousseau, just as her mother had always dried her when she was a girl. Then she went to the steamed-up mirror, but the more she wiped it, the more blurred the image appeared. She took the hair dryer, switched it to high, and blew at the mirror until she could see herself.
It is a climacteric delusion, she thought, or perhaps only an optical illusion.
It was only recently that the eye doctor had increased the strength of her glasses by a full diopter, and she was not yet used to them. She suspected that what she was witnessing amounted to nothing more than an anomaly of refraction. She quickly dried her hair, lifting up a few strands at a time with the nylon brush and blowing warm air over them. She felt a mild resistance as she turned the brush in her hair, and she was unable to bring the hair dryer closer than twenty centimeters to her head. Perhaps, she thought, I am suffering from a loss of muscle tone, or simply weakness in the arms, or more likely both at once, for such are the wages of old age.
Her hair was almost dry. She was working on the strands at the very top of her head when she observed the purple brush handle disappearing -- and the black nylon bristles as well -- as if behind a column of light, but then it must be a reflection, but from where? She threw on her bathrobe and hurried into the bedroom, to assure herself under better light that her eyes were deceiving her, that it was really only an optical illusion.
But her eyes were not deceiving her; it was not an optical illusion. She put on her bifocals, the cheapest kind, distributed by the National Health Service. First, she looked at it with the top half of the lens, the part for distance viewing, and then with the bottom half, which were her reading lenses.
There was no doubt. It was there. A halo.
At the nape of her neck, just a bit above, began the edge of the circle, it rose above her ears and the top of her head; the degree of luminosity was indeterminate, but it glowed with an even light.
Impossible, she thought; there is no such thing; I do not believe it; these are the first symptoms of insanity. And as proof against madness she recited aloud her personal attributes and her program for the next day: "My name is Anna L�vay, n�e Kuncz. I was born on the first of September, 1937�." She was relieved that she could perform the recitation in a logical and organized manner, and this calmed her down somewhat. Perhaps she should ask her neighbor whether she could see what she herself saw, but she dismissed this thought at once, for it dawned on her that she would thereby precipitate an avalanche of gossip. But what, on the other hand, if she went on some pretext, to borrow some mustard, for example? She could act as if she hadn't noticed anything, and if the neighbor mentioned it, she could feign surprise. But it was already past ten o'clock, and there were only young married couples on her floor; by now they had put their children to bed and were occupied with each other.
She pulled on her flannel nightgown. She had to unbutton one more button than usual, but she got into it without difficulty. Then she buttoned it up to the neck, set back the heat to fifteen degrees, night temperature. Gas was expensive, and given her tiny salary she could count herself lucky that she could supplement her income by taking on private students, which paid the utility bills so she wouldn't have to freeze to death, which is what had happened three years ago to a pensioned colleague of hers. She turned down the featherbed. It had been part of her trousseau, and all these years she had treated it with loving care, never taking it out before All Saints' Day. But this year all signs pointed to a cold winter, and so she had allowed herself this luxury. She sat down on the edge of the bed. To pray? No, not that exactly, although the featherbed reminded her of her mother, and how every evening she would hear her prayers.
My eyes, dear Lord, begin to close,But then times had changed, and praying before bed was no longer permitted, and in school you had better not even think of mentioning prayer.
While you keep watch and never doze;
O Father, guard me while I sleep,
My parents, brothers, sisters keep
From harm throughout the dark of night.
Until the morning sun so bright
Turns down to us his smiling face;
Then joyfully we all embrace.
Carefully, she raised her legs onto the bed, one after the other. To protect her spine, she supported herself on her elbows; she then reached for the switch on the reading lamp on her night table, and picked up A Hunger Artist. She was looking forward to her bedtime reading; it was not just that she was planning on discussing the story in her lecture the next day; she liked Kafka, and in any case, she could not sleep without reading. It is a habit of intellectuals, she thought. She took the volume and sank back into the pillows. A moment later, she was sitting bolt upright. The halo, extending above her head, had hit the pillow first, sending a sharp shooting pain into her scalp at the point of attachment.
She went to the mirror, but without switching on the light in the anteroom, for she simply hadn't the energy to go the other door, and so she looked upon the apparition in the shadowy half-light of the room. An attempt to touch the halo met with stiff resistance, as if she had tried to grasp a magnet of like polarity while wearing a magnetized steel gauntlet. She couldn't bring her hand closer than ten centimeters.
The halo was warm. Not knowing what else to do, she went over to the medicine cabinet, took out the digital thermometer that she had received as a present from the last class for which had been the form-master, and held it as close to the halo as she could. If it is a hallucination, she thought, this instrument will prove it; after all, I can still see; my eyes won't lie. After half a minute she looked hopefully at the liquid crystal display. The thermometer showed forty-three and one-half degrees Celsius, way above body temperature. No longer in any condition to separate fact from fancy, but nonetheless making use of her reasoning ability, she observed that such a temperature was not hot enough to start a fire; she could return safely to bed, in the hope that it would disappear by morning; one should act as if nothing had happened; it simply will not do to let oneself be driven crazy. A person who lives alone can easily lose contact with reality; it would be best not to think about it.
She repeated the ritual of lying down, but this time she stuffed a small, hard pillow behind her neck, just big enough that the discomfort could be comfortably tolerated. She read until midnight and then switched off the reading lamp.
She could not fall asleep; the room was too bright, and the snow-white embroidered cotton pillow intensified the light. She turned on the lamp again, walked quickly to the bathroom, and grabbed a dark-brown bath towel, which she placed under her head; then she spread a blanket over the featherbed, the one with the ugly tiger stripes that her sisters had given her so that she could cover her feet when later, after her retirement, she would sit in her rocking chair among her lovingly cared-for house plants and knit in the sitting room next to the balcony window that didn't close properly.
She lay down again. Again, she turned out the lamp. It was still too bright. She got up and put on her sunglasses, which reduced the glare of light but pinched her uncomfortably behind her ears, so that it was a long time before she was able to fall asleep.
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