Set in a sleepy village north of Budapest in 1968, this touching, unsettling novel paints a richly wrought portrait of mid-twentieth-century Hungary. The narrator is the ninth child of a family distinguished by its size, poverty, faith, and abundance of physical and psychological disabilities. His confusion is exacerbated by the strict, secretive Catholic household his parents keep in the face of a Communist system. These dual oppressions propel him toward an inevitable realization of his guilt and desire that speaks to his struggle with a fateful, seamless beauty.
About the Author
Ferenc Barnás (b. 1959) is an acclaimed Hungarian novelist whose books include Az élosködo (The Parasite) and Bagatell (Bagatelle). He is the recipient of two of Hungary’s highest literary honors: the Sándor Márai Prize (2001) and the Tibor Déry Prize (2006).
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By FERENC BARNÁS
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Chapter One LAST NIGHT I HAD A DREAM, AND IN IT I WAS BRAVE: THREE BOYS were coming toward me as I stood in a clearing. At first I didn't recognize them, but then I saw that it was Perec and his pals. The shortest one had a hatchet in his hand. I thought they wanted to do that again. Just how I took away the hatchet I do not know, but take it away I did, and then I did what I'd done in my other dream. It happened so fast that this time I didn't even see any blood, though they must have spilled a lot. Then I waited for the police. Two squad cars arrived, but without sirens. When the officers got out I turned to the side and saw, three or four yards away from me, two bodies floating in the water, facedown; the officers were already lifting the third boy out of the water. I thought we were by a river. But then I realized that I was standing by a lake. I wasn't scared. I was calm. I was glad I'd done what I'd done. The funny thing is, Perec's face looked normal, as if he'd just drowned. Though I didn't see the faces of the other two boys, for some reason I thought that theirs also looked exactly like the time they'd cornered me. But I'm sure, absolutely sure, that I did what I'd done in my other dream. When one of the policemen put a hand on my shoulder, the hatchet was still in my hand. Holding it felt good.
At four-thirty, when Papa leaves for work, I wake up. Papa still works for the state railway, but now he's at station headquarters in Rákoskeresztúr, where not long ago he accepted the post of watchman alongside his regular job. He's got to learn new trades, because once we're busy building the Big House, we really can't be spending all our time at home making devotional objects to sell to churches. Mama wakes up around five. I know this because she then goes right out to the street and asks someone for the exact time. She always does this when she's on morning shift. The first time the church up in Budapest organized a benefit drive for our family we didn't get a clock, and she can't be late for work at the pen factory in Szentendre. She was hired there not long ago for two shifts. With her having kids all the time, Mama never got a trade, which is why she's got to screw ballpoint pens together all day long. While she's getting ready I pretend to be asleep like the others. My head is under the pillow and my brother Teeter's foot is right by my face; I push it away, as at other times. Then I try getting back to sleep, but it doesn't work.
Nowadays we're living in the Little House, in Pomáz. Papa and my three big brothers built it with Mr. Miska directing the work, while we Little Ones stayed back at the Bombshell Villa along with all the girls and also Mama. The Bombshell Villa, where we used to live, is across the country on the Great Plain, in Debrecen. We called it the Bombshell Villa because it burnt to a crisp on account of a bomb in the Second War, but back in '??, in exchange for free rent, Papa fixed it all up, because back then he still had money from being in the army. It wasn't till later that the Communists kicked him out of their People's Army.
All of us were born in Debrecen. Mama always took a wooden cross with her to the baby- making clinic in that huge peaceful park called the Big Forest, just outside downtown. But Dr. Szilágyi said to her, "Mother dear, this won't do. Last time I almost got into trouble on account of that cross." Mama then spread her arms wide while this crying shot up from inside her, which maybe the others saw, too. Dr. Szilágyi saw it for sure.
Then she sat up on the baby- making bed and clutched that wooden cross tight as we came out, one by one.
I was the ninth.
The Little House has a room and a kitchen. Papa sleeps in the kitchen, the rest of us get the room. Papa has a bed in the corner by the stove, a bed all to himself. In the kitchen there's also a table and a chair. Our room has space enough for the three wooden single beds, an iron stove, and a big chest. We keep our clothes in there. We pushed the beds together to make one bed, or else we wouldn't all fit on them. We call it the triple bed. Even so, we've got to sleep crosswise; luckily we Little Ones, except me, aren't so big.
Back in the Bombshell Villa, where we had two rooms, sleeping was easier. Papa bought iron-frame beds at a big discount from the station headquarters in Debrecen, where he used to work, beds we could close up during the day. At night we opened them up. The two rooms were full of beds, which is not to mention the writing desk, the plastic-molding machine, the reed organ, the bookshelf, and the brown closet we Little Ones climbed inside whenever one of the Big Kids got a serious whipping. But we didn't bring those iron-frame beds with us when we moved across the country, to Pomáz. I was happiest about leaving them right where they were. It's best if I explain right away why this was so.
I must have been four. One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn't in the mood to mutilate frogs out in the yard with the others, I went into the inside room and began toying around with one of the iron- frame beds, because we usually left one by the molding machine when necessary to sit on while shaping plastic. Anyway, I was pushing the bed here and there, as strong as I could, and then I stuck my fingers between the clamps one after another to lock them up. My left thumb happened to be in the hole when one of my big brothers, Socks, appeared from out of the blue and jumped right on me on the bed. I didn't feel a thing, but I wailed away all the same. Mama ran in and yanked out my thumb. But it wasn't her who took me to the doctor. First my thumb was wrapped in a rag, and the rag was wrapped in newspaper, I have no idea why. And then Nanny-that's what we call my really big sister-took me to the station headquarters, and from there with Papa to the clinic. The doctor praised Nanny: "You're a clever one, my girl, you saved your little brother's thumb."
That was the first time I spent much time in a hospital.
Nanny and Tera wake up second fastest after Mama. They get ready almost right away, seeing as how, at least in winter, they leave on their day clothes at night. It's no use them warming each other under the blankets, that's not enough. Since being pulled out of the Franciscan School in Szentendre, Nanny and Tera have been going to work at the flax mill in Budapest. Papa arranged in no time for them to be pulled out of school. He said to the head priest, "Please understand, Father, that on the nine hundred forints a month we earn-if you can call what we get from those filthy Communists earning at all-we can't cover our expenses. And as you know, Father, we're still building our house." Nanny and Tera leave every morning not long after Mama.
There are only seven of us left on the bed. Priest-that's what we call my biggest big brother-takes up the most space, acting as if he's sleeping in a bed all to himself. It does no good kicking him, he won't budge an inch. He's special even in his sleep, which is not to mention that he always gets to sleep near Mama. And in the morning it's him we all listen to. He shows us how to make a toe rag to stick in our shoes to keep our feet from getting drenched in the snow and the slush. And, if need be, he tells us how to tuck our shirts into our sweatpants. If one of us Little Ones has a cold, he orders Socks or my other big brother, Rishi, to hand over his sweater for the day. Priest really likes speaking for others, but he doesn't let anyone touch his clothes. He's got a little box by the big chest that he can lock with a key. He's the only one of us who has denims; he got them when we were still living in Debrecen, none of us knows where from. At first Mama was bent on being a pianist, and later a nun, but then the Second War came along, so my Transylvanian grandparents quickly decided it would be best if they found an officer from the main part of Hungary to marry her, because then she could escape Transylvania. "Lieutenant, sir," Transylvanian Grandma told Papa before the wedding, "where Babe lives, there's just got to be a piano," and Papa promised he'd buy a steel-plated piano.
Priest is seventeen, and he for one can keep attending the Franciscan School. Mama secretly hopes he'll become a parish priest some day. Right through her having Tera, the littlest Big Girl, Mama was terribly disappointed at not managing to have a boy, since she was bent on having a priest. It did no good, her taking that wooden cross to the maternity ward every time, she kept having girls. First came Kláró, then Nanny, and finally Tera. But then Priest came along, after all. Dr. Szilágyi then figured he'd never meet up with Mama again. That's not what happened.
Lately we haven't been having breakfast in the Little House. Only at night do we light up the stove, to make tea and toast: we've got to save on coal, especially now that we have just four sacks left; luckily the weather's been mild the past few weeks. Papa says that back in Transylvania and other parts of the Carpathian Mountains during the war, the Russians kept the Hungarians on their toes so much that they had to sleep in freezing temperatures a long time and sometimes they didn't eat at all. "So don't you kids go being cream puff s, either!" He says that a lot. According to Papa, there's nothing more "perfidious" than someone being a cream puff. But if there's tea left from the night before, we drink it. Sometimes with sugar, sometimes without, depending on if we were able to buy any. We'll get a snack in school, anyway, for ten o'clock break. We're all paid up for day care at school, meaning we get watched over in the afternoon after lessons are over; it's twenty-four forints a month for each of us, which includes lunch plus an afternoon snack. In high school, Priest and Socks get only lunch.
Around quarter after seven we leave for school. We Little Ones usually go together because we all attend Elementary School Number Two. Benjamin is in first grade, Teeter is in second, Mara is in fourth, and I'm in third. Rishi is older, and for some reason he wound up in School Number One, which is near Meselia Hill; as for Socks, since last year he's been studying at the technical school in Békásmegyer, along the train line to Budapest. Once he finishes, he'll be an electrician. Our school is at the end of the village, not far from the old part of the village; from our house we have to walk at least a half hour, if not more. The local bus would get us up there fast, but we don't have money for that. When we go from door to door on Easter Monday sprinkling perfume on ladies we get some change, so we'll be able to buy bus tickets again for a while, just like our classmates from the new part of the village, who always take the bus.
In school we act as if we didn't know one another. True, Mara tries talking to us sometimes during breaks, but she's a girl, and besides, she's better at speaking than us. If we can, we avoid her, and if we meet up with her by chance, we get away from her really fast. When we have to form a line there's no avoiding her, so then we just say something or other.
My teacher is called Miss Vera. Her hair is dark brown, her voice is almost as beautiful as Mama's. Unlike Miss Magdi, who taught us in second grade, she doesn't take her socks off during class. Miss Magdi was always drying her socks on the iron stove. And when she did that, she put her feet right up on the table. "You know, kids," she'd say, "this is the only thing that does my hurting feet any good." She said that all the time, and then she gave these great big sighs. But it's not like the classroom got any smellier because of her socks. At least that's how it seemed to me. I didn't ask the others, though; even back in second grade I mostly didn't say a thing.
Miss Vera made me sit by Szabó We're the last ones in the row by the window. Szabó is really fat and smells funny, plus she's a girl. As soon as I wound up sitting next to her, she began staring at my fingers, since I sometimes forgot completely about my left hand. Once I realized what she was up to, I poked a pen into her hand. At first I thought the fat would come flowing right out of that hand, but nothing came out, her skin protected her.
Until our writing lesson, my mind is mainly on the snack we'll be getting for ten o'clock break, and the snack in the bag that Dunai brings with her every day. Dunai sits right in front of me, and sure enough, today she brought another roll packed with paprika-spiced salami. While we're reading the lesson out loud, the paprika smell hits my nose more and more. It's almost as though I'm at the butcher's, where I go once or twice a week. When this happens, I always wish salami had never been invented. If I didn't wake up so early every morning, I wouldn't smell smells as strongly as I do, and then maybe Szabó wouldn't have a smell, either. I don't know if she has a bathroom at home, and if she washes herself at all, but when I do forget about Dunai's snack, in no time I'm smelling what I do in the house of the man next door, who sometimes invites us over to watch soccer games on TV and says all the time meanwhile, "Where's the frog? Where's the frog?" But maybe the smell is coming from me, and I'm just blaming Szabó for it.
During the first break of the day I go to the john out in the schoolyard: a long outhouse with a bunch of stalls side by side and buckets of water. This is almost my favorite place to be. It's at least ten times as big as the outhouse we have at home. You can even walk around inside it. I don't mind it being smelly. It's just right. Whenever other kids come in, I pretend I'm about to pee. Sometimes I do that as many as six or seven times. That's where I inspect my belly, too, but only if I'm alone. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out a lot. My classmates think I'm skinny. But I've grown a whole lot: I'm almost as big as Rishi, though he's thirteen and I'm just nine. When I'm all dressed up, my whole body does look bony, I must admit; except my belly, which is fat and which I keep sucked in all the time. True, probably it'll never grow as big as Szabó's belly, but the other day I had a dream in which all her fat flowed straight into me.
During our writing lesson I begin getting dizzy. It's a good feeling, as if I'm sitting there on the bench and I'm not, all at the same time. My right hand is shaking a little, the letters are reeling. When Miss Vera reaches over to me, she tells me to write straight. I try. Miss Vera always smells good. I wish I could ask her how she does it.
After our ten o'clock snack I feel a whole lot better. Pretty soon I'm in a better mood and also better at solving problems. When I say I'm in a better mood, I mean that I start becoming more like the others, except of course that I hardly say a word. Luckily I hardly ever have to read out loud alone. Miss Vera lets me get out of it; besides, this way I don't hold back the others. It was different with Miss Magdi. She kept calling on me over and over again to start reading aloud, saying, "You'll see how good it will go." Except it didn't go good; when I finally got a sound out after being quiet for I don't know how long, she'd laugh along with the others because no matter how much she wanted to, she couldn't keep herself from laughing. The worst thing of all was that Peto always read well when he came after me; but only then, because when he came before me, he often stayed all quiet for up to thirty seconds, but then he began all the same and got stuck almost every time, except no one laughed at him.
Whenever I sat there unable to get a word out I often kept repeating to myself, "Miss Magdi, why shouldn't you be able to dry your socks on the stove? Why shouldn't you be able to dry your socks on the stove? We do it at home that way, too. We do it at home that way, too, we do, we do, we do."
Now that I'm starting to be more like the other kids during our reading lesson, so I think, all at once it crosses my mind that it might just go good at last. And I really do get some syllables out just like they should sound, though I'm still gasping for air. At least Miss Vera can think I'm making progress.
Excerpted from The Ninth by FERENC BARNÁS Copyright © 2006 by Ferenc Barnás. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents Author's Acknowledgments....................vii