Sunday, 31 July 2016

From Miklós Vajda's Portrait of my Mother in an American Frame

From the first page of Miklós Vajda's Portrait of my Mother in an American Frame, a translation in progress.

She stands in the kitchen, in a kitchen, not our kitchen, not the old kitchen, not any of our old kitchens, but her own kitchen, an unfamiliar one, not mine, and she cooks, stirs something. She is cooking for me. That's another new thing, a strange thing. But there she stands, repeating anything I want, anywhere, whatever I happen to want most, at the time I want it. I am here: she is not. And there are things I do want. But even if I didn't want them she would carry on coming and going, doing this and that, entering my head, calling me, talking, listening, now in delight, now in pain, thinking of me or looking at me, ringing me, asking me things, writing to me as if she were alive. I am insatiable: I am interested in all that is not me, in what is private, in affairs before me and after me, in her existence as distinct from mine, and I try to fit the jigsaw together, but nowadays, whatever she is doing - and I can't do anything about this - is always, invariably done for me, because of me, to me, with me or on my behalf - or rather, of course, for me.

At this very moment I want her to stand there, in that kitchen, stirring away. Let's have her cooking one of those dishes she learned abroad, let her make make a caper sauce to go with that sizzling grilled steak. But I often have her repeat a great many other things too: for example, I have recently taken to observing her secretly from the bed as she slowly removes her make-up at the antique dressing table with the great gilded antique Venetian mirror hanging over it, looking into the antique silver-framed standing mirror before her, going about her task in a business-like manner, applying cream with balls of cotton wool, her hands working in a circular motion, efficiently, always in exactly the same way, pulling faces if need be, puffing out a cheek, rubbing her skin then smearing it with, among other things, a liquid she refers to as her 'energizing mixture' which dries immediately so she looks like a white-faced clown. Then she wipes it off and I fall asleep again. The room is covered in mirrors, each of the six doors of the built-in wardrobe has a mirror-panel right down to the bottom. My bed is there in her bedroom: my own bedroom is being used by the German Fräulein. Sometimes I wake late at night just as she enters from the shower, wearing her yellow silk dressing gown and I hear her as she applies creams and lotions for the night before going to bed, as she moves around, gets comfortable, clears her throat and gives a great yawn before falling sound asleep, her mouth open, contented, breathing loudly exactly the way I catch myself doing nowadays. Or I am watching her at eleven in the morning, as she steps into a car, fully made-up, elegantly dressed, wearing hat and gloves and high-heeled shoes, as she throws back the fashionable half-veil, pulls out of the garage, turns in the drive, takes the left-hand lane - the traffic is still driving on the left - and sets off from our Sas-hegy apartment in what is now Hegyalja Street, into the city centre to execute her various commissions before meeting her friends in the recently opened Mignon Café - the first of its kind in Hungary - or at the Gerbeaud where she might go on to meet my father who sometimes strolls over from his office to talk over their plans for the next day or whatever else is on their minds.. Then they come home together to eat. Or I see her in Márianosztra, or possibly, later, in Kalocsa, at the end of the monthly interrogation, led away by a guard armed with a machine-gun, out of the hall that is divided in half by rolls of barbed wire, leaving through double steel doors, overlooked by enormous portraits of Stalin and Rákosi, and I catch a glimpse of her as she is shepherded away in a procession of prisoners and guards, and she freezes for a moment, conscious perhaps of me looking at her, to look back over her shoulder, sensing me standing there, staring at her. The guard's flat cap is covering half her face but her half-closed eyes, her shrug, her faint smile and her suspiciously lively expression tell me more than she has said in fifteen minutes to the flat-capped guard....

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