In today’s Translation Tuesday, Gabi Csutak captures the conflicting emotions that funerals often produce. Her young narrator, soaked in rain and mud at a relative’s burial, muses on the absurdity of death and the rituals surrounding it.
The ground had been sodden for days when they took Grandad’s coffin out to the cemetery beyond the bridge. All the relatives marched behind it in single file between the graves where the ground had become a muddy stream. Uncle Árpi went in front, of course, and set the pace, like he did on every family hike. He had rolled up his trousers with care and pinned them in place with clothes pegs, like cyclists do, so that his yellow boots could lead the way. Dad set off eagerly after him, but the soles of his shoes were so smooth that he slipped all over the place. He kept trying different cross-country skiing manoeuvres to stop himself from falling or crashing into anything. But from time to time his own trouser legs tripped him up. The fabric reached the ground and had soaked up the mud in a manner of minutes, almost up to his knees. He clutched at Aunt Zsóka from time to time, then pushed himself off again. She was the most secure point, her stiletto heels drilling deep into the earth with every step, but every time she freed herself from the mud again it was touch and go whether she would need to proceed barefoot. You could see the sole of her foot straining, arching improbably under her laddered tights. She lifted her shoe out with her toes, then once again sank into the mud.
I was also taking slower and slower steps. My shoes were turning into shapeless weights from the steady plastering of sticky sludge. I looked like a wobbly man toy, or like the scruffy trees that were lying on their sides with their shapeless roots wrapped in plastic bags at the entrance to the cemetery waiting to be planted out once the rain stopped.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if I really was planted out on that bare hillside to gaze for years at the gravestones, at the flowers that looked dusty even in the rain and the uneasy, retouched faces in the ornate picture frames. I would watch Emma Gonner’s and Rose Bush’s relatives, and the relatives of those who didn’t have even that kind of name, all we knew of them being that they ended up as someone’s mother or father, husband or wife. Perhaps I would find out why someone had put breadsticks in one of the concrete vases that are wired to the gravestones.
Grandma was the only one floating above the procession with a straight back and clean shoes. She was being carried, like the statue of Mary on a Feast Day, by two overgrown cousins of mine. Like Mary, she swayed and nodded, as if, at any moment, she was going to flip over onto her head. I could picture it already, how her thin legs would waggle skywards and how her black hat would fly into the mud along with her blonde hair. She would look as if she had suddenly gone bald because she always wore a yellow swimming cap under the wig she wore on special occasions.
We knew we had got to the grave when we saw the two men standing next to it in death’s-head T-shirts, spade in hand and with plastic bags on their heads. The water in it stood knee high. We were on the very edge of the cemetery, and you could see a good long way beyond. The ploughed fields started here, now dissolved into a sea of mud, and the concrete road which led to the pig farm.
Instead of a priest, Uncle Árpi said a few words, but he made his voice tremble as if he were in a pulpit. That trembling made everything go clumpy in my stomach, and my lungs got heavier like a sponge dipped in water. I held my breath, because the muscles in my diaphragm had begun to spasm. Along with the compressed air, they were preparing to eject the ever more intensively pulsing silt from my insides: the shapeless, soaked shoes, my Dad turned into Chaplin, Grandma’s swimming cap, Aunt Zsóka’s foot, the silly names, the rocker gravediggers, the clothes pegs on my uncle’s trouser legs. I tried to think about something else. I tried counting in my head with my eyes closed, but it was no good, something was straining to pull me apart, and those little sticks, those impossible breadsticks were tickling my throat. And there was Uncle Árpi, going on and on about some husband, some father, some grandfather, some friend, some colleague, some person who none of us knew.
When he stopped at last, all we could hear under the black umbrellas was the rain. They took Grandma over to the heap of earth next to the grave and put a toy spade in her hand. The irrepressible laughter burst out of me just at the moment when the clod of mud splashed into the rainwater collected in the hole.
Gabi Csutak (b. 1977) grew up in Cluj-Napoca and Satu Mare, Romania. She has studied philosophy, aesthetics and playwriting and won first place in litera.hu’s short story writing competition in 2014. Her stories have appeared in prestigious Hungarian literary magazines such as Élet és irodalom and Műút, and her first volume of short stories, Csendélet sárkánnyal (Still Life With a Dragon) was published in 2017. In 2018, Csutak represented Hungary in the European First Novel Festival. She has been awarded Visegrad Fund and Estonian writer’s grants.
Anna Bentley has lived in Budapest since 2000 and began translating Hungarian literature in 2015. Her translation of Ervin Lázár’s well-loved children’s book Arnica, the Duck Princess will be published by Pushkin Children’s Press in 2019. In June she graduated with ’outstanding’ from the Literary Translation Program at the Balassi Institute, Budapest, for which she translated four stories by György Dragomán. Several of her prose and poetry translations have appeared in the online journal Hungarian Literature Online. Her translation of an excerpt from Natália Szeifert’s latest novel About Sedatives was included in this year’s collection of translations published by the Hungarian Translators’ House. She is currently translating 20th Century Women’s Literature: The Hungarian Case by Anna Menyhért to be published by Brill.
Read more translations on the Asymptote blog: