Runner

Yvette Bíró

Photograph by Sherman Ong


Blessing in the Entryway


The much-awaited official document giving her leave to leave finally arrived. She was sent on her way by a passport that requested her, or rather made it possible for her, to depart, a passport which wasn't even filled out properly; the necessary corrections required further legwork on her part. But at least it wasn't the kind of travel paper which said "Not Valid for Reentry" and which some of her dissident friends were the first to receive. In any case, the time had come to make preparations for her departure. Not that this would take much effort; Marion, as always, wanted to travel super light. Still, there were a couple of things she needed to attend to.

For instance, she decided to buy a new suitcase. She had had it with those clunky and unmistakably shabby suitcases that exuded East European gracelessness. Now that she was about to leave on a long journey, she had good reason to feel—as she would almost certainly be living out of a suitcase—that her portable home should have a certain flair. Actually, she thought in terms of a smart set of luggage in varying sizes, each of them bearing the same mark of distinction.

It was a futile endeavor. The giveaway mark was there, all right, as she discovered while picking through the merchandise in one of the city's fancy-leather goods shops, identified only by an austere number—but what kind of style did it give away, good God! Why were the large ones so ungainly and the little ones so puny? A "family" of suitcases was of course out of the question; you were lucky if you found two pieces that halfway matched. Seeing her disappointment, the withered salesladies unpleasantly shrugged their shoulders. "This is what we have," they said with an undertone of nastiness. "If you don't like any of them, well..." and throwing up their hands, they murmured a hasty good-bye and retreated to their corner to resume what had to have been a dreary conversation.

After several such forays Marion grew tired. Finally, she went to the nearest neighborhood luggage store and bought the first plastic suitcase she found, made in the German Democratic Republic. Its handle cut into her hand, its four-way lock was more trouble than it was worth, but at least it was red, a robust ruby red. It would accompany her for many years like a faithful animal; whenever it appeared on airport carousels, a herald with tales to tell, its familiar clumsiness grinned at her from a distance.

"Marion, darling," a friend said to her, who always had her welfare at heart and was also concerned about her worldly possessions. "What about the books, the enormous amount of books you have here?"

Conceding her unconcern with a smile, she returned the question with a pronounced cluelessness: "That's right, what will happen to all these books?" And quickly followed up with: "I don't know... I haven't thought about it. Perhaps everybody can choose something, anybody who comes up here, depending on their mood and taste... I'm all for an open door policy," she added jokingly. "The inmates can walk in and out freely, no bars, no locks—everyone can carry away what they please.

In the shadow of bookshelves, under the amiable pretense of browsing and selecting, her living room came alive again. Those jailed after 1956 told their hair-raising prison stories with unremitting loquaciousness, while the young ones, somewhat ill at ease but without ever challenging them, listened. At most they would betray their naïveté by asking the veterans silly questions. "Sitting on death row, how could one possibly read? And what?" they inquired. "How the Steel Was Tempered perhaps? Or The House of the Dead?" The younger ones could follow neither the old-timers' erstwhile fervid dedication nor their present sneering accommodation.

Uncle Gyuri was leafing through a newspaper, and all of a sudden he burst out laughing. With enormous pleasure and a mischievous, wicked glint in his eyes; with many years of Russian wartime captivity and six years of homeland prison behind him, and with the jolliness of unfailingly regular alcohol consumption, he read out loud a slogan he had just come across in the paper: "Collect Refuse Oil!" He couldn't wait to share the image of people running after cars with little cans, trying hard to catch those miserable, spent drops of oil.

One of the younger friends, who put in well-documented prison years with Uncle Gyuri, urged the others to get to work on a new project. He himself plunged into an organizational whirl—he couldn't help it; it was in his blood. From the youth movement he had brought the sense of order and iron discipline demanded by the organization. His lean, boyish body, prone to stomach trouble, was tautened by the task at hand; his sallow face, the back of his neck, neatly trimmed, showed signs of nervous concentration, as though he were executing an all-important battle plan. In short, he was in his element.

He began sorting the books, putting them in alphabetical order, and insisting that borrowers as well as keepers should fill out slips of paper, as they would in a real library.

Gently, Marion kept repeating: "It's not important, really," but to no avail.

When she does return one day, she thought, and will need this or that book, whoever used it will surely give it back.

It wasn't important to her, it really wasn't.

But there had to be order. The rest of the group followed with a certain awe their friend's zealous attempts to create it.

Who could have thought that this model of unyielding tenacity would one day end it all by hanging himself in his bathroom?



Farewell parties became routine. Ever since spring, members of their little circle began leaving the country, one after another. In the complex dialectic of tightening and loosening the reins of power, a novel type of political procedure was introduced. Instead of being imprisoned, which led to protests in the West, dissidents were simply sent packing. Good bye and good riddance—let them try to make it in places where they have always longed to be, and where they count on being received with open arms. This was now the authorities' attitude, having hit upon what seemed like a wise new strategy. We'll see what happens, they mused. At the very least, these characters will stop being a nuisance, which will mean fewer headaches about negative fallout, both here and abroad, and less need for reprisals.

So members of the underground theater company, forced out of their own apartment, upped and left. And so did sociologists who dared to be critical of Marxism. And slightly famous philosophers and small groups of avant-garde artists who'd already experimented here and there. Seeing them off at the airport in large numbers and being photographed by plainclothes men could be fun. Along with awkward embraces and tears, the stay-at-homes could also enjoy the exclusivity of exclusion.



In many cases they headed for the airport after all-night parties, piling into their own broken-down car or in a borrowed jalopy. There was something liberating and defiantly boisterous about these outings. Anxiety over their uncertain future heightened the departees' anticipation. Instead of "Partir, c'est mourir un peu," they kept saying to one another: "Partir, c'est courir, sourire, jouir – pas mourir.

Every season has its own rhythm, every clique its own way of handling things. Marion departed alone, in the fall, and wanted neither a farewell party nor an escort to the airport. With exactly five dollars in her pocket, she was hoping that at her destination a meeting previously arranged with a not very close friend will take place, and this less than close friend will drive her into town.

Packing had been quick and unsentimental. All she put in that ugly red suitcase were a few practical articles of clothing. Her once beautiful Italian shoes and other, finer stuff she left on the top shelf of her closet. No mementos, no diaries, letters, cherished objects, and above all, no pictures. She felt she had to be radical about this, merciless, so to avoid the awkwardness of choosing and the sadness of parting, she decided not to take anything with a private history. Only the most essential made it into her suitcase: the manuscript of a study (rendered officially classified), her little red Olivetti typewriter, sweaters and pants for everyday wear. She had no coat, only a well-worn leather jacket, but she was heading for the Mediterranean region anyway. Winter never had any attraction for her. She didn't care for heavy and warm things; all her clothes were simple, easy to wear.

Sitting on the floor, she took stock: "I'm leaving everything here: the Meissen china that came as a gift, the much-liked coffee cups, the espresso machine, the iron. I will not lock up anything, not even private papers and documents. The person who will live in the apartment should feel at home. When I come back – who knows when, why, and if at all – I'll see if the same system is still in place, and if its rules still apply."



She didn't invite anyone for a final farewell. Her feeling was that since the house was under surveillance, everyone had to decide for themselves whether they cared to get on the list of the watched and the snooped-after. But whoever showed up would be warmly welcomed, for one more glass of wine, one more embrace. And the faithful ones did come—students and old sweethearts and colleagues eager to be up on the latest. After the odd silence of recent months, her home's once lively, pungent atmosphere seemed to return. They came to take one last dip in the uncommon effervescence of marginality. And they brought gifts too: from her seminar group she got a silver bracelet, an admirer gave her a pair of leather thongs and a good-luck die. Her "children", as well as her former students, were the most thoughtful. They took the Godspeed and the separation seriously. As they did the very different and cozy spirit of the years they spent together.

The phone rang. To escape the noise and the commotion, and to hear who was on the line, she had to withdraw to the bathroom. Her red telephone was kept in a straw basket and like a purring kitten it was used to these quick get-aways. Marion held many telephone conversations of vital importance while sitting on the edge of the bathtub, in the stillness refracted by the gleaming wall tiles. Could this be the last one?

It was Father. In a brisk, abrupt, almost crackling voice, he asked:

"When are you setting out, child?"

"Early. The plane leaves at eight, but I have to be at the airport before seven. Why?"

"Come by in the morning; I want to see you."

When a request or a command is this simple, there is no way to respond to it. Marion remained silent for a moment, though her common sense would have liked to object: it would have to be early in the morning, 6 am, she'll be in a rush. What is more, a long and difficult farewell would be an unnecessary emotional strain on both of them. Besides, they had already said their good-byes that afternoon. But she could hear in the voice the strength of his wish, and gave in.

"Fine, I'll be there. I am taking a taxi to the airport, only András will be with me. We'll stop at the house. I'll give you a ring before we leave. But as I said, it will be early, six o'clock, is that all right?"

"Just come, child."

The alarm clock rang at five-fifteen. Marion had not gone to bed, she just leaned back on the red couch in her clothes, while her friend, András, slept in the bed. It was September, and genuine Indian summer during the day, but in the early morning chill and haze, autumn had already announced its arrival. Soon it will be here in earnest, bringing rain and wind, but it won't find her here any more...

They drove over to Father's house where he was already waiting. A brief consultation ensued: should András get out of the cab? But then Marion decided he shouldn't. The two men didn't know each other. Years had gone by and they never met; the old man refused to acknowledge his existence. András was a married man and Father could not see his daughter being in an illicit relationship. So she left her friend in the taxi and walked alone to the house.

The two of them stood in the street in the early morning emptiness. They could hear the taxi meter ticking away. The old man, though unshaven, looked neat as always. Clean shirt, tie, and on his head, the inevitable gray hat.

Then he turned to Marion, grasped her hand and started leading her. "Come, child, come."

Marion didn't know what he wanted, but the old man drew her with him. They were already at the entrance, but Father kept pulling her inside. It crossed her mind that maybe he was trying to take her up one more time to the flat. They got only as far as the dim entryway. There he had his daughter stand in front of him, placed his two hands on her head, reaching up because she was taller, and right next to the smelly, overflowing trashcans, in front of the "altar" of refuse bins, he hurriedly recited the blessing.

Marion bowed her head, submitting to her father's magisterial benediction. Before embracing him she quickly kissed his hand.

"Now go," the old man said. And turned his head, not wanting to look at her. "Go," he repeated, "you may go, you have to hurry."

Slowly she began walking to the taxi. She didn't turn back either, but got into the car. For a long while she said nothing. Then she passed her hand over her head and startled almost, whispered to herself:

"He blessed me. My dear... poor father blessed me."

translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders



Read translator’s note

Yvette Bíró is an internationally known film critic, theoretician and scenarist. Her books on the aesthetics of motion picture, Turbulance and Flow in Film (2008), To Dress a Nude (1998), Profane Mythology (1992), etc., have been widely translated. In Hungary she was the founder and editor-in-chief of Filmkultúra (1965-1973), the journal of the democratic opposition. She is Professor Emeritus at New York University's Graduate Film School, and has also taught at Berkeley, Stanford, the Sorbonne and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Futó ("Runner"), published in Budapest in April of this year, is her first novel.

Ivan Sanders teaches Hungarian literature and film at Columbia University. He has translated works by such major modern and contemporary Hungarian writers as Milán Füst, Péter Nádas and George Konrád. He has also published extensively on twentieth-century Central European writers and literature, and most recently on Viennese and Budapest operetta.


What is remarkable about Yvette Bíró's new novel Runner is that, while it's rooted in the experiences of a Jewish-born Central European intellectual not unlike the author, it is not an autobiographical narrative, or even a conventional novel. Rather, it is an extraordinarily sharp though fragmented evocation of episodes from the life of a woman named Marion whose meditations and relentless self-interrogation are as intellectually stirring as the vividly rendered recollections. Beautifully written, the book is at once lyrical and unsparing, touching on historical upheavals and private traumas, but it is also a somber reflection on the difficulties of recapturing, indeed recalling, the past. Runner was published by Magvető Könyvkiadó in Budapest in April, 2011, and has already received rave reviews.

"[The novel's] subtle yet unrelenting purposefulness, combined with a richness of life experience, intrigues and astounds like a classic realist novel." (András Forgách)

"The incredible precision and clarity of the text, when one looks back on it, gives food for thought for a lifetime..." (László F. Földényi)