"Now there are all sorts
of red moustaches. Most of them are angry, malevolent, neglected
emblems of manhood, unworthy of grooming, if for no other reason than
their colour. But this red moustache happened to be one out of a
hundred, the red moustache that radiated good humour, cheer,
satisfaction and joie de vivre, as if under that moustache the corners
of the mouth were elevated into a permanent smile. This red moustache
had earned the right to grow full, to be twirled to a point and often
caressed like some faithful hound."
Reviewed by Mira Mattar
Gyula Krúdy's Life is a Dream
opens Penguin's Central European Classics series; a ten title
collection of short stories, memoirs, essays, philosophy and novels,
featuring Ota Pavel and Czesław Miłosz and ending in a glorious snarl
with Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters.
The series was launched in May 2010 with the aim to reconfigure these
literatures as more than the work of dispossessed and oppressed central
Europeans but as major players in world literature. In Krúdy's playful
collection (nine short stories and one novella) a world of food, drink,
life, death and love magically emerge from 1920s Budapest.
Krúdy's well known Last Cigar at the Grey Arabian
opens the collection; a colonel has to shoot a journalist who has
publicly insulted the Casino – an exclusive member's club – in a duel.
In an attempt to identify with the poor writer, the colonel, who like
most of Krúdy's finely drawn characters is hungry, drops in to the Grey
Arabian - an out of the way tavern frequented by hearse drivers. Eager
not to be recognised in so down-and-out a place the pompous colonel
disguises himself as a mere civilian and eats and drinks what he thinks
a penniless journalist might choose for his potentially last meal. But
the clue is of course in the title, and as the colonel lights an
expensive cigar we realise what has been hinted at since the beginning
of this darkly comic tale of comeuppance.
Still enjoying this fairy-tale-like justice we are led straight into the second story, The Journalist and Death
which mirrors the previous story. Krúdy structures it with verve and
wit, encouraging the reader to root for the journalist who – on what he
presumes is his last day but we know is not – treats himself to a fine
meal and the afternoon off work. Simple details such as the
journalist's borrowed hat and umbrella-cane – to make him look more
gentlemanly - deftly bring the character to life. One cannot help but
think Krúdy, who made his living "by his pen" from an early age and
consequently drank, gambled and generally misspent his money, is
cheering for the underdog – the indispensable and oddly lucky writer.
is as obsessed by the characters that visit and work in taverns and
bars as he is by the food. He tells us everything, from the cut of the
meat to the way the bone is sucked by the meticulous customer and the
precise taste of beer as it is swallowed. Seemingly Fridolin "gawky,
ageing waiter" from The Waiter's Nightmare
is also haunted by such themes, even as takes his afternoon nap. He
enters a terrifying dreamscape where bodiless overcoats gorge
themselves on offal and a monstrous customer orders everything on the
menu for lunch while dispensing dream wisdom to the waiter about food,
life and how to progress as a waiter. Revealing himself to be an
undertaker the dream character proclaims "only what we eat is truly
ours, because once we're in the coffin we won't be served any more
Similar ideas of control, transience and appetite return in Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office
where a dyspeptic editor regretting his order in a tavern, recalls the
idea that "only what we eat is truly ours" and promptly orders himself
a second lunch – a meat plate he sees another diner eating. Concerned
about the poetry in the latest issue of his Budapest weekly, he becomes
entranced by a diner dismantling and sucking at the bones of his meal.
The editor, like Krúdy's other characters, is not simply greedy or
grotesque, he sees poetry in food more than anywhere else. Food is
described with an almost obscene passion as it seems to be the only
thing one can really possess. Life is short and Krúdy's fickle women
are not to be trusted.
The Landlady, or the Bewitched Guests
for example features a landlady who uses her feminine wiles to cajole
four male customers into trampling her cabbages for her. In return she
indulges their loneliness and flirts, "the landlady stared at him with
wide-eyed docility that implied she would remember each word for the
rest of her life". Gender roles are simple to say the least, with women
often as manipulative and destructive, but this is to be expected from
literature of this time from almost anywhere and if we were to dismiss
the text on this failing we would also have to cast aside the majority
of our worldwide literary heritage. Furthermore, Krúdy's men are far
However, what Krúdy lacks in some areas he more than makes up for by the sheer power of his imagination: The Apostle of Heavenly Scents
focuses on an unexpected guest with an otherworldly sense of smell and
a nose which keeps changing appearance. It is a witty and disorienting
study of sensuality and the undeniable link between food and sex.
This fine collection ends fittingly on The Ejected Patron,
who is thrown out of every establishment because he cannot pay his
bill. But strangely, we are rooting for poor Mr Draggle; he knows the
finest things in life but unfortunately the rest of the world is
unwilling to play along.
The translator, John Bakti seems to
have captured the energy of the original text, Krúdy's syntactical
quirks and fantastically long meandering descriptions retain the unique
style of the original. The simple language within these exciting
structures allows Krúdy's power for creating characters with a few
choice details and masterful strokes to come across with great energy.
There is a fairy-tale logic to these stories, where strange
juxtapositions and bizarre intensities make up a world full of desire,
limitation, depravity and worst of all – luck.