My Father’s Library

Mátyás Dunajcsik
MY FATHER’S LIBRARY
Apám könyvtára

picture.nofWhen I’ve got my appointment as head of the institute in the Highlands, there was no doutbt that I’ll have to take my father’s library with myself. Not only because I was practically raised between these books – my parents had me relatively late, and by the time I arrived, the room of the spacious downtown apartment once destined to be the childrens’ room was already crowded by the sky-high, deep brown mahogany bookcases –, but also because clouds of war were already gathering, and you never knew when they would decide to proceed with the systematic bombardment of the capital.

Fortunately, the black market was still functioning impeccably; so after selling all my mother’s jewellery – after all, sooner or later one has to choose between the memories of one’s father and mother – I was able to hire two lorries of considerable size, and after a few days of packing and organising, we were ready to go up to the Highlands. Me in front, driving my wretched little Ford with all the meticulously sorted knick-knacks of thirtyfive years on the jump seat, the two lorries at the back: one carrying literature, the other history and psychiatry. Only after our arrival did I realize that I should be happy if I’ll be able to fit in my official quarters the reference books necessary for my work – and so it happened that my father’s library landed in the parlour and hallways of a highland lunatic asylum, stacked in the original, carefully locked bookcases.

Only I was aware of what lingered behind the sliding doors of the lockers, the keys of which I was constantly carrying in my pocket with a sort of talismanic reverence. The books of my father stood along the cordially green walls of the Institute like the signposts of a confidential map: I knew that the room of the night nurse is to be found behind the second door after the complete works of Gustave Flaubert, and that the archives of the Institute – what a coincidence – neighbour the bookcase containing the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past and the collected letters of Marcel Proust.

Trouble began when after a hasty exchange of declarations of war, the production lines of the nearby Sapientia Pharmaceutical Works were immediately converted to the production of mustard gas, leaving the complete mental health care system of the country without sedatives. Standing besides the bookcase of the great Russians, by the only telephone of the asylum complex, I asked the county superintendent how am I supposed to keep a hundred and fifty delusional lunatics and paranoids at bay by myself, but the drunken voice on the other side seemed to be inflexible.

– Just try to start a conversation. The papers are always full of praise about scientific advancement. And then there are nurses, too.

Nervous tension in the institute was building up by the day. The roaring hounds of madness were scratching at our gates. While the nurses in the basement kitchen were tracking troop movements with pellets of unused bread along front lines drawn in flour, several fights broke out among the unsedated patients upstairs. After his third fit of anger which destroyed two chickens from our livestock and the doors of a bookcase for German classics, Florian Berenszki, the once handsome wine merchant had to be contained in isolation ward, but there he refused to take any food; and banged his head against the door of his prison cell-like room so many times that on the third day we were afraid he’s going to kill himself.

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On the fourth day, when the radio announced that the bombing of the capital had began, and that the Central Library, where once my father proposed to my mother, had been burned down to the last index-card, I went to the desecrated locker of the German classics with tears in my eyes. I reached between the shards of the door for the Magic Mountain, and in a peaceful moment, when Florian Berenszki was lying on his bed dead tired from his fits, I quietly put the book beside his pillow. After that, no sound was heard for two entire days from the isolation room, only the content of the plates which we slid in under the door did vanish without a trace – but then, on the third day of his silence, Florian Berenszki emerged from his little room completely calm and healthy; although from then on, he consistently had himself called Hans Castorp.

From that day on, I began to be more attentive to the war coverage on the radio. After the ransacking of the French Cultural Institute, I took off the doors of the bookcase near the room of the night nurse, and the next day, we found two of our nymphomaniac patients thoroughly transformed, one into a perfect Emma Bovary, the other an accomplished Marquise de Merteuil; but to our greatest surprise, neither the signs of suicidal thoughts, nor the symptoms of smallpox appeared on them. As if they had been through it all during the process of reading, now they were sitting by the parlour windows like delicate and well-mannered ghosts on holiday. When my father’s first working place, the university’s Institute of Classical Philology was also damaged, it was a most natural thing for me to remove the padlocks of the ancient historians, and soon the whole antique section was walking among us, from Cicero up to Mucius Scaevola.

By the time that the capital was occupied, and the government has retreated to an unimportant Southern township, all the significant places of my father’s life had fallen to ashes under the constant fire. But on the other hand, in the institute, things started to settle: each morning, it was the greater part of European literature, that has settled to breakfast by the tables of the dining room, and even the nurses started to fancy reading – and I began to have a feeling that instead of living with a bunch of madmen in a godforsaken asylum, I really was living inside the head of my father, somewhere behind the high dome of his forehead and the whimsically arched eyebrows, which in his last months were almost completely distorted because of his cancer.

It was precisely six years, two months and a day that we lived like that, in the Highlands, among the books of my father. Then peace broke out; the production lines of the Sapientia Pharmaceutical Works were restored to their original function; and on a gloomy november morning, the first lorry arrived with the brand new sedatives, and the newly appointed, young and ambitious head of institute. Thus, there was nothing left for me to do than to walk down in the village, and find someone willing and able to transport one and a half dozen sky-high mahogany bookcases to the end of the world.

Translated by the author. The pictures are stills from the film
Opium – Diary of a Madwoman by János Szász (2007).

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