(One) Who Is Not

Excerpts from the novel

András Forgách

Photograph by Sherman Ong


A monk was making heavy weather of laying a fire, making heavy weather to the point that he burnt his hand and cried out in pain.

"What's happened?" Chan Chu enquired.

"I burnt my hand."

"So I saw," said Chan Chu. "But what happened?"

Who is the greater?

Two monks were disputing who was the greater Master — Zen Fen or Chan Chu? It so happened that Zen Fen was staying in monastery as a guest of Chan Chu. Zen Fen was asleep, and Chan Chu, overhearing the two disputants, grabbed them by the arm and led them to the slumbering Zen Fen's place of repose.

"As you can see, he really is the greater," he said. 

Asked for lodgings

Three monks asked for lodgings in a mountain monastery, but Chan Chu, without so much as glancing out to the front of the monastery where the three wayfarers were kicking their heels, barefoot and chilled, on the frozen ground, sent out word that they could not come in. It needs to be appreciated that Chan Chu's authority rested on the sheer force of his word. Had the three wayfarers wished, they could safely have gone in, safely taken no notice of Chan Chu's message, seeing as it had no binding force. Yet after a brief consultation they disconsolately turned round and, heads bowed, set off up the muddy mountain path. 

"But why? Why could they not come in?" one young monk asked Chan Chu.

"Why do they go around barefooted in this mud and cold?" retorted Chan Chu. Then, taking the questioner by the hand, Chan Chu led him outside the monastery, unlaced both his sandals, placed them in the mud before the young monk, and said,

"You can still catch up with them."

The sandal

Chan Chu once, rarely for him, flew into a fit of temper and flung his sandal at a monk just entering his room for reasons that were unbeknownst to him, whereupon the latter bowed, said thank you, and retired. 

"Where is he going?" Chan Chu wondered to himself and shouted out, "Come back here!"

The monk returned directly. When he was again standing in the doorway to the cell Chan Chu flung the other sandal at him with all his might. This time the monk remained motionless.

"Excuse me," said Chan Chu after a brief silence, with visible relief. Then, because the monk was still standing there:

"That was all I wanted to say."

The monk remained motionless.

Chan Chu exclaimed,

"I've no more sandals!"


It is said that in his childhood Chan Chu would sometimes stand at the bank of a brook because he wished to reverse the water flow by merely looking at it. On one occasion when somebody happened to be passing by and asked him what he was doing, Chan Chu ran off in tears. For at that very moment: he had allegedly managed to halt the water's flow, with branches, leaves and oars coming to a standstill on the foaming water's surface. He himself never said a single word to anyone about the incident. But his fellow monks often witnessed how, in the course of a stroll, hands clasped behind his back, his gaze would be engrossed in the ripples of the river that ran beside the monastery. One of them insisted that on one occasion, before his very own eyes, the current had indeed turned back, but since somebody had at that moment called over to Chan Chu from the far bank, the river, with a horrendous thundering - since its two flows were in collision - had after all set off again towards the sea.

Some believe this, some do not. 


"I was incapable of calmly intoning the prayer right to the end because I felt a sudden need to meditate, and I could not meditate properly because I felt a sudden need to drink tea, and I could not drink tea properly because I felt a sudden need to open the window, and I could not open the window properly because I felt a sudden need to light up on a cigar, and I could not calmly light up a cigar because I felt a sudden need to write this all down, and I could not write this all down properly, because first I had to think it through," Chan Chu thought, but he was unable to think it through properly. 

The leading article

A newspaper solicited a leading article from Chan Chu. His first thought was not to take it on, but in the end he took it on all the same. Then he refused after all but later allowed himself to be persuaded. In the end, he forgot to write it, but no one made any demand for it. He took that very badly, however.


On one occasion a dangerous robber and killer asked Chan Chu for refuge. He swore blind that he was a reformed character, all he wanted was to live, just live; he strewed ashes over his head, sobbed, prostrated himself before Chan Chu, and ate dust. He was a nondescript little fellow; it was hard to credit what terrible crimes were burdening his conscience.

Chan Chu, against the warnings and advice of many as well as his own well-concealed misgivings, granted him refuge but never exchanged a single word with him. And by the time it came to the attention of the Magistracy exactly what kind of uninvited guest was lodging at Chan Chu's monastery, notwithstanding the fact that Chan Chu was held in particularly high esteem in the Eastern Emperor's eyes and considering that the Emperor was far away, whereas the infamous criminal was in their direct vicinity, the Magistracy swooped down on the monastery with a squad of gendarmes. The gendarmes combed the entire monastery for him, but the robber seemed to have vanished into thin air. All he had done, however, was have himself cropped like the other monks, and when the lieutenant, who had his very strong suspicions nonetheless, stared lengthily at his face from close up, he did not so much as bat an eyelid. The Magistracy's men took leave of the monastery amidst much cursing and vituperation. They promised they would be back, but they never did come back again.

Later on it became necessary for them to get rid of the robber, because he had been stealing.

When a disciple asked Chan Chu how the whole business might have been averted, Chan Chu responded in this way:

"It is time someone denounced you too to the Magistracy for your obnoxious incorruptness."

Chan Chu's Master. III.

Chan Chu never spoke about his Master. He did have a Master, everyone knew about him, but they were unacquainted with his name. Whenever those of his disciples who were unable to make peace with this mystery began to pester him about it nonetheless, Chan Chu always responded with the same parable:

"On the Lenin Boulevard it happened that the university student and the young film director struck up a conversation with two Gypsy girls. Prior to that, the university student - to the film director's undisguised displeasure - had gone into a butcher's shop and, standing by the counter, eaten a bratwurst with mustard. The film director had been thinking that it would have been far more preferable to go to a hotel restaurant but, for some reason, had left that opinion unaired, and in any case he was glad to accompany the university student - and the university student to accompany him - on his perambulations far and wide across the city. The two Gypsy girls stridently, barely disguising their lust (stridently and vividly, shouting out and singing and full-throated giggling in the late-afternoon light by the arcades of the 24-hour store) had accosted them with ebullient joy, and since it so happened that lurking in the university student's pocket was the key to an empty apartment - whither he was making ready to repair with the film director, with two bottles of cheap red wine in their pockets, in order to read up together through the night the rather abstruse texts of a German philosopher - the idea of taking the two Gypsy girls to an empty flat had formulated itself as a definite intention in the film director's mind, an idea from which the university student recoiled in horror. At the apartment they ate some macaroni, with glutinous ketchup, and sat down to apply themselves to studying the weighty German philosopher, which they only broke off around dawn, since the university student's head was sagging correspondingly. When he awoke later that morning, he found the film director on the minuscule balcony, the text of the weighty German philosopher in his lap, the dawn housing-estate before him, the two empty bottles beside him, rocking on the absent apartment-owner's rocking-chair, the rheum of lack of sleep oozing from his dark eyes as he gazed with a broad smile at the university student, who, having fallen asleep fully dressed, was disheveled, his shirt creased and adrift.

"We ought to have brought the Gypsy girls," he said in a gratingly nasal voice, "I think that's what we should have done."

The way the utterance sounded was: now if we had been real philosophers... The university student pretended not to have heard. At the halt, when they had disembarked from the tram (this was the previous evening), there was seated, shivering, an elderly lady, a transparent plastic hood tethered to her flattened noddle to ward off spring showers, the handbag of artificial leather attached to her arm trembling, brown worsted stockings wrinkled podgily over her thick ankles, her shoes tiny as a cat's paws or an infant's tootsies. Shivering, she cast about furtive looks from behind her steamed-up, rain-spattered spectacles, beneath the marbled wrinkles of the plastic hood, and when the university student and the film director got to where she caught the latter's eye. 

"The poor dear's freezing," the film director remarked absent-mindedly and hoarsely with a slight sostenuto, in a tone of infinite pity. The university student also stole a glance at the old dear. She had hunched up and now looked even smaller than she had before.

"Dry tree-leaf in the wind," Chan Chu added after a little pause.

translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson

Budapest: Magvetœ Könyvkiadó. 1999.

Read the original in Hungarian

Read translator’s note

András Forgách was born in Budapest on 18 July 1952. He started working life as a dramaturg in the provincial city of Kecskemét (1976–1978) before taking similar posts in Budapest at the People's Theatre in (1978–1980), the National Theatre (1980–1984), the New Theatre and Chamber Theatre (1995–1997). Apart from writing several plays for theatre and screenplays, he has also had considerable success as a translator from English (for example, Shakespeare's King Lear, Marlowe's Edward II, and several plays by Joe Orton), German (Kleist's letters, Wedekind's Lulu, Musil novellas), and French (Jean Genet). As a writer, he wrote his first novel, Aki nincs ((The One) Who Is Not), in 1999, followed by Zehuze in 2007.

Tim Wilkinson (b. 1947) grew up in Sheffield, England, but spent his adult life in and around London as well as on continental Europe. These destinations included Hungary (1970–1973), where he also married his first and still present wife. Apart from published translations of a series of substantial works by distinguished Hungarian historians, he has also worked on a fairly wide selection of Hungarian literary memoirs and prose works by contemporary masters, and has translated most of the fictional works by Imre Kertész: Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, and Detective Story for Random House, and, more recently, The Pathseeker, The Union Jack, and Dossier K. for Melville House. Fatelessness was awarded the forty-third Annual PEN Club/Book of the Month Translation Prize for 2005.

András Forgách's first novel did not appear until the eve of his 50th birthday, following some three decades working mainly in the theatre. Having observed so directly how best to make an entrance, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to take the strikingly original approach of writing down a string of rather short, Zen Budddhist-style anecdotes about Chan Chu, the head of a monastery situated somewhere in the imagination, and used those as a point of departure to digress gradually into a growing series of quite separate anecdotes, short stories and even novellas, all in the third-person extracts about a university student and 'young man' or other undefined characters (including an 'old man' who is clearly the father), which appear to be at least semi-autobiographical. In the selection of extracts presented here the transition point is reflected specifically in the piece entitled "Chan Chu's Master. III" with which it closes. As that strand is teased out, it is clear that from the narrator's standpoint that this is serving a cathartic-therapeutic purpose, with the two approaches still being held to the end (Story 100 of Part 5):

Chan Chu never spoke about his Master. He did have a Master, everyone knew about him, but they were unacquainted with his name. Whenever those of his disciples who were unable to make peace with this mystery began to pester him about it nonetheless, Chan Chu always responded with the same parable:

The young man stood before the door of the housing estate apartment, holding in his hand the lock that he had just bought in the shop, and he recalled the salesman's words: it's really simple, you see, so simple you need nothing else for it other than a screwdriver.

The housing estate apartment before whose door he was standing resembled a furniture store rather than a real apartment...

He twisted the screwdriver quite adroitly.

He surprised even himself.

Till now he had considered himself to be awfully inept.

Till now he had considered himself not to be.

He tested the lock and solitarily, like a little boy waiting in the playground for chums who are not going to come now, he loafed about a while longer in the stairway, in which the light had extinguished.

End of the Book