Image credit: Cameron York, "Simon Learns to Swim"

For quite a long time I was under the impression that some people were born to grandmothers, and others to mothers, one way or another. As far as I was concerned, I had reason to believe that my lot in life was to have a grandmother. I lived with her in a blue house, and it seemed to me that she had it in her power to make my hair grow and produce milk.

Later on, as I gradually became aware of other people and children, I realized that somehow we were not like them. To be precise, we were each in turn more or less alike to them, because Aunt Lidi was just as wrinkly as Nanna, and I looked like any other child at my nursery school, but these kids had actual mothers and fathers. Then I found out that I’ve never had a father and my mother had passed away. Nanna said this without any look of love in her eyes, tightening her jaw as if she didn’t want to let this piece of information out of her mouth. Because of this I have always thought that I may have a role to play in other people dying. Nanna was very fond of cemeteries and funerals. We had a habit of watching funerals through a crack in the fence. Of course, our heads would stick out a little, but who cared, what mattered was the long undulating line of mourners, all dressed in black. Black gypsies, black trumpets, black legs on horseback. All spinning around when glimpsed through the wheel-shaped opening of the fence. On occasions like this, Nanna seemed to cheer up a bit, since other people died too, not just my mother, Ilike.

My mother was a strong woman. I have a photo of her. I was already a grown-up when I first laid hands on it. I was so grown-up and had done so much forgetting that I wasn’t sure whether I should allow this picture to become my mother. Because there was no prior image of her alive in me. So I let this be the one. She was strong because she operated barriers at level crossings. This is what she did for a living. As soon as she’d hear the train horn, she’d swiftly lower the barrier. She’d inch forward from the railwaymen’s cottage, lower the barrier, stand still, wait for the train to whizz past, and lift the barrier again. I can’t figure out whether she enjoyed her job or not. The photo doesn’t give that away.

She had a husband and two children. The man was a brawler, the children cry-babies, although the photo doesn’t give this away either. They are not holding on to one another like those who abound in love.

But my mother did fall in love with someone in the end, someone who just showed up on a train, out of the blue, and crossed the rail tracks. Like that, he was gone. And like that, I was born.

Then she packed herself and me into a small sad suitcase, and returned to Nanna’s, to die. She left behind the brawls with the brawler, the crying of her cry-babies, the lifting of the barrier, and took only me with her. She put me down in the blue house at dusk.

Nanna looked at me like she always did from then on, with an anger that cast an aura of shame around me and singled me out with the mark of evil, so to this day I can never figure out whether I’ll ever be of use to anyone. The blue house didn’t really have a side; I mean the crack in the wall was bigger than the side itself, so she pulled the bed over to fill the gap. Yet the flame of the lantern reminded us only every now and then that the outdoors were drawing close to us.


At times I wanted to say something but didn’t know whether I was right: whenever I glanced at the pansies toeing the line in their tin pots, I wasn’t sure whether it was that my head was lowering to theirs, or theirs lifting up to mine. They would pat me on the nose with their large, plate-shaped heads, my braids basically made for mopping up their sorrow. And I would let them caress my skin. I had no experience of anything more wonderful than these flowers.

I didn’t know in what way things were supposed to be right either: I had no idea how long Nanna’s hair was. I have never seen it let down, so at times I imagined that she just had a nest or a heap of dry leaves pinned to her head. My other thought was that yes, she did have wild hair, and while she was asleep, hair-pulling beetles would gather on Nanna’s head to mess her hair up, slide up and down on it until it was sleek, buff it with their fingernails, and wrap it around their waists while dancing. By the end of the dance they would have wrapped this entire mass of hair back onto her head, in perfect plaits and with a flourish. These were the sorts of things going on inside my head, and a lot of time passed before I found out that such things can actually be uttered and shared. I would never think of such things when I was with other children though, but carried my thoughts around with me at all times, so I could summon them up whenever I found myself alone.


Back in the days when I had braids, grandma would dress me in my lace collar mourning dress despite the shivering cold, undo my braids and let my hair down, and place me by my mother’s grave every blessed All Saints Day. No trace of other people anywhere; just us, mother’s grave and the chrysanthemums propagating under a blanket. There we were, waiting for commiseration. But then it would happen: people presented themselves indeed, as if they had a duty to exercise pity. At dusk, when my grandma’s eyes looked suitably red after a whole day of rubbing and I could be taken for a proper orphan, photographers would appear too. They’d set the distance, the angles, both on the marble surfaces and on us. Those pictures invariably capture me on the go, with a look of defiance on my face.


There were other places too, some I can barely see in my mind’s eye. One such place was the corner: I should remember it a lot better, because Nanna made me stand there still to serve my punishment. Besides punishment, the corner was also the place where the wrinkle-causing anger would have its home—Nanna’s that is. Whenever she made me stand in the corner, these frown lines would suddenly develop on her face and meander like worms. The walls were decorated with foam flowers gazing up towards the attic. They were not delicate but my finger—especially if tracing them over and over with care—would tint the wall, my dress, my tongue, until an earlier flower emerged from under the coats of paint, one I hadn’t seen in a very long while. The wall, as well as my eyes, were pounding, and the sorcery within me urged the secluded flowers to spring up faster and faster.

The other place was a really great viewing spot. From the bench I’d keep watch over the opposite end of the room, until the bird on the wall-hanging would appear to lift its wing or head a touch, whichever of the two I was after. Sooner or later I’d be reduced to tears from excessive blinking, and I was afraid that my eyes might end up stuck in this position, and the bird, the cupboard and everything else would be set in motion forever. The trees depicted on the wall-hanging would stand proud next to one another, and if I tilted my head back a little and then forward, they’d blur together into a big brown blot. So I kept nodding until my neck hurt. These were my favourite pastimes.

The church was such a place, too, the largest of all. It was spacious and commanded a fine view. (It was always dark in the blue house, and most of the time I was made to sit still, so that nothing would get damaged, I wouldn’t get enfolded in pitch blackness, and nothing would fall apart.) By and large, I had to kill time until Nanna finished talking to God. I’d keep myself busy staring at the saints with hollow pupils on the walls until I was able to catch sight of my own eyes in their place. This made me happy and excited every time. Whenever I could be sure of not being noticed, I scratched their bare outlines and tickled their feet, hoping that, they, at least, would get a kick out of it.

Jó ideig úgy hittem, vannak, akik nagyanyától születnek, vannak, akik anyától, innen vagy onnan. Magamról azt, hogy nekem csak nagyanyám van, vele élek a kék házban, tőle nő a hajam és ő csinálja a tejet.

Amikor kezdtem embereket, gyermekeket látni, úgy tűnt, mi valahogy nem olyanok vagyunk, mint ők. Azaz, külön-külön olyanok, mert Lidi néni is ráncos volt, mint mamó, meg én is olyan voltam, mint bármelyik ovis, de nekik anyjaik, meg apjaik voltak. Aztán megtudtam, hogy apám nincs, anyám meghalt. S ezt mamó úgy mondta, mintha nem akarná kiengedni a szájából, szorítósan s nem szeretett a szeme. Mindig azt gondoltam ettől, hogy egy kicsit valami közöm lehet ahhoz, hogy meghalnak az emberek. Mamó nagyon szerette a temetőket, meg a temetéseket. A temetéseket egy kerítésléc lyukán át néztük, persze kilógtunk a deszka mögül, de kit érdekelt, ha rezgett a hosszú emberek sora, bennük a fekete. Fekete cigányok, fekete trombita, fekete lábak a lovakon. Mind forogtak ott a léclyuk kerekében. Ilyenkor mamó kicsit boldog volt, hogy más is meghal, nemcsak Ilike, aki az én anyám.

Az én anyám erős volt. Van egy fényképem róla. Egészen felnőtt voltam, amikor a kezembe került. Már annyira nagy voltam és nagy volt bennem a felejtés, hogy nem is tudtam, engedjem-e, hogy ez a kép legyen az anyám. Mert semmi kép nem élt bennem. Ezért hát hagytam. Erős volt, mert emelgette a sorompókat. Ezt dolgozta. Erősen tekerte fel, ha jelzett a vonat. Egy kicsi vasutas házból ilyenkor előerősködött, tekert, megállt, a vonat továbbment, tekert. Nem tudom, szerette-e ezt csinálni. A képen nem látszik.


Volt férje, két gyermeke. A bácsi verekedős volt, a gyermekek sírósak. Ez sem látszik a képen. Nem fogják egymást, úgy, mint akikben sok a szeretet.

Anyám végül mégis szeretni kezdett valakit, aki csak jött egy vonaton, átment a síneken. Úgy ment tova. Úgy lettem én.


Akkor berakta magát meg engem egy kicsi szomorú kofferbe, s hazament anyám mamóhoz meghalni. Hagyta a verekedős verekedését, a sírósai sírását, a tekerést, csak engem vitt, letett a kék házban, sötétedett benne.

Mamó nézett rám, ahogyan később is, mindig, valami gyalázatot fújt körém a dühe, valami rossznak a jelét pökte rám, hogy mai napig ne tudjam, jó lehetek-e valakinek még. A kék háznak nem volt oldala, azaz nagyobb volt a lyuk, mint az oldal, odahúzta az ágyat, az betömte. Csak néha mutatta a lámpásban lebbenő láng, hogy közénk jött a kint.



Volt olyan, hogy mondani akartam valamit és nem tudtam, hogy hogy igaz: ha a pléhedényekben sorakozó árvácskákra néztem, sosem tudtam, vajon, az én fejem megy le hozzájuk, vagy az ő fejük fel, hozzám. A nagy tányérfejükkel érték az orromat, akár kanalazhattam volna copfjaimmal a bánatukat. És velük simogattam magam. Semmi olyat nem tudtam, ami még olyan jó lenne, mint az a virág.

Arról sem tudtam, hogy hogyan igaz: mekkora haja van mamónak, sosem láttam lobogtatni, ezért néha elképzeltem, hogy csak úgy oda van tűzve egy fészek vagy gereblyélt szárazság a fejére. A másik gondolatom az volt, hogy igen, lobogtatós haja van, s míg alszik, fejéhez gyűlnek valami hajhuziga-bogarak, akiknek az a dolguk, hogy a mamó haját szétszórják, csicsonkázzanak rajta, míg sima lesz, fényezzék a körmükkel, tekerjék derekukra, míg táncolnak. A tánc végére föltekerik-kanyarítják az egész hajasságot a fejére, megfont csíkokban. Ilyeneket játszottam a fejemben, sok idő telt el, amíg megtudtam, ezek ki- és elmondhatóak. Amikor gyermekek voltak mellettem, sosem gondolkoztam ilyeneken, csak magamban vittem, hogy bármikor elővehessem, ha senki nincs mellettem.



Amikor copfjaim voltak, nagyanyám rám húzta a csipkegallérú gyászköntöst, kibontotta, szétrázta a copfokat rajta, s a vacogtató reggel ellenére is kiállított anyám sírja elé minden áldott novemberek első napján. Emberek még sehol, csak mi, anyám sírja, a pokrócban keltetett krizantém. Vártuk, hogy sajnáljanak. Aztán lett minden: járultak a népek, mintha lerónivaló sajnáljaik lennének. Szürkületkor, mikor nagyanyám szemei kellőképpen dörzsöltet mutattak, magam meg árvát, fényképész is termett, beállította a távokat, szögeket márványon és rajtunk. Azokon a képeken azóta is a lábam elmenőben, a szememben valami dac.



Voltak még helyek, már nehezen látom őket. Az egyik ilyen helyet, amelyiknél mamó megállított – mert ott tartotta a büntetést – megjegyezhettem volna jobban: a szobasarok volt. A büntetésen kívül ott lakott még a ránciga s a ráncok mérge, mamóból. Ha sarokba állított, tudod, elindultak az arcán a vonalak s úgy kanyarogtak, mint a giliszták. A falon valami habos virágok nézték a padlást, fölfele, nem voltak finomak, de az ujjamtól – ha sokat írt utánuk, vonalukon csúszva – átszíneződött a fal, a ruhám, a nyelvem, míg előjött a festék alól egy régi virág, amit már régek óta nem láttam. Dobogott a fal, a szemem, a varázslás akarta bennem, hogy gyorsabban és még gyorsabban nőjenek a bentrekesztett virágok

A másik hely olyan volt, ahonnan lehetett nézni. Nézni a padról át a szembenre, addig, míg a falvédőn picit emelt a madár szárnyán, vagy fején, ahogy akartam. Előbb-utóbb kijöttek a könnyeim a hunyorgástól, s féltem is, hogy úgy marad egyszer a szemem és örökre mozogni fog a madár, a szekrény, a minden.

Még fák voltak a falvédőn, álltak egymás mellett, s ha kicsit arrébb mozdítottam a fejem, majd gyorsan vissza, összefolytak egy nagy, barna tócsává. És így bólogattam, míg fájás ment a nyakamba. Ezeket játszottam.

A templom is hely volt, a legnagyobb hely, lehetett férni benne nagyon és látni is szépen.(A kék házban sötét volt és leginkább csak ülnöm szabadott, hogy el ne romoljon semmi, bele ne hasadjak abba a kövér sötétbe, szét ne hulljanak a tárgyak benne.)
Várnom kellett, amíg mamó beszélget az Istennel, néztem-néztem a kifúrt szemű szenteket a falon, s boldog voltam, amikor az én szememet megtaláltam a helyén. Ha nem vették észre, vakargattam a vaksi rajzolásokat, a talpukat csiklintottam, hátha jobb úgy nekik.

Translator's Note

Mamó/Nanna is not a children’s book, but a sensitive novella about childhood and a meditation of sorts on children’s rights. A grown-up adopts the voice of a pre-teen girl to take us on a journey into a universe of disappointment and lovelessness. Raised by her stern grandmother, following the death of her mother, this unnamed girl is suddenly confronted with the hostile, insular and joyless world of the adults. As a coping mechanism she seeks refuge in the magical world of play, in an irreverent attitude to language, and in taking pleasure in small things. She asks herself a multitude of questions, each more absurd and surreal than the last, ranging from whether it is possible to love anything other than cemeteries and funerals, or whether the pictures of saints in churches enjoy their soles being tickled and whether this makes them any happier. Ultimately, the book addresses the possibility of forgetting and of getting away from formative memories.

The book is a perfect example of innovative fiction that effortlessly reconfigures autobiographical writing. Presented in a candid and episodic style, laced with unconventional turns of phrase rooted in the boundless imagination of children, Máté’s novella takes pleasure in the potential of language as an ultimate route for coping and survival. Thus, the protagonist’s style replicates her oppositional stance, and instead of trying to sound like everyone else of her generation, she carves out a niche of her own. Translating this uniqueness, without the risk of sounding unfamiliar with English idiom, has been a major challenge, but it is essential to the protagonist’s voice. The meandering of words has a magical quality for the protagonist, who seeks refuge in them in the face of loss, loneliness, and a shabby existence. As reviewer János Laczfi pointed out, this book has long had its place reserved in Hungarian literary history, and it should find its niche in the English-speaking world too, due to its universal appeal to youthful curiosity, contestation and desire for discovery. Likened to Romain Gary’s Life Before Us, due to their shared focus on orphanhood and a child’s relationship with a distant adult, Máté’s book offers a fresh take on magical realism, and braids naivety with seriousness, entertainment with social analysis, and authenticity with universally valid observations. Máté’s protagonist, though less fortunate than most potential readers, emerges as a quasi-mythical figure with infinite riches, and a role model that many of us harbouring an inner child can immediately identify with.

Jozefina Komporaly


In the Classroom