It is difficult to say or write the words.
Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí is dead.
Perhaps only those of you who are fortunate enough to be Hungarian will know him. Perhaps, even, only those of you who have seen the black chimneys of Eöstvöt and breathed the city’s bitter air. Perhaps only those who have visited the terraced grey-brick house on Mogyoró Street in which Brno-Hálavyí was born and died.
Or it may be that, after all, none of us truly knew him.
But we know his work.
Or perhaps, in fact, we do not know his work.
Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí came into the world in December 1912. As a boy, he was fascinated by nature, by the world around him. He would spend hours foraging in the storm-gutters for drowned birds. His father, an engineer, would bring him home curious rocks, brightly coloured pebbles, chunks of rare minerals. ‘You must be careful with those, little Ignaz,’ his father would say to the inquisitive boy, ‘for, if you lose them, I will give you a good hiding.’
There were few other children living in industrial Eöstvöt at that time. Ignaz was schooled at the home of Father Florian, a retired Orthodox priest who taught him to recite ‘The Story of Prince Árgirus’ in Greek and beat him with a length of hose. Ignaz was a good scholar. He was resilient. He endured. Happiness would find him.
Eva Selymes was the dark-eyed daughter of a soap merchant. When Ignaz met her in nineteen thirty-one, she was seventeen, a budding actress, beautiful in spite of her lame left leg, the flower of the Eöstvöt stage. Ignaz – a shy big-nosed boy shivering nightly at the stage-door – courted her with glazed pastries and poems he copied from books.
It is known that for many years they exchanged letters. This is all that is known. In nineteen thirty-seven, Selymes the soap-merchant discovered Ignaz’s letters tied with a ribbon beneath Eva’s bed. He flushed them into the city sewer, and forbade her to write again to her big-nosed lover. In nineteen thirty-nine, Eva died from water-borne cholera. Ignaz burned her letters.
In nineteen forty-five, with the artillery of the Third Ukrainian Front darkening the skies over Eöstvöt, Ignaz, in the candlelit loft of his parents’ home, took up a pen, unscrewed the cap from a bottle of ink, spread a sheet of white foolscap upon a desktop, and began to write.
Why does the writer write? As well ask why the fire burns, why the wheel turns, why time goes by.
Az Ókory. ‘The Ancient’. Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí’s greatest novel. Of such a book, what can a man say?
Miklós Bánat – the name would translate as ‘Grief’, if anyone were to translate it – is a miller’s apprentice in the fictional Hungarian village of Nógrád. When Miklós is a boy, his father, a cruel, proud man, is killed in a mining accident. To support his mother, Miklós must work hard at the mill. He grows bent-backed from the labour and wheezy from the dust. The flour turns his black hair white. The miller – a kindly soul – takes pity: you are a young man, Miklós, he says, and yet you stoop and cough like an ancient. I have heard what the boys in the village call you. No, cries Miklós. Yes: Nagypapa Miklós they call you, nods the miller. ‘Grandpa Miklós’.
You will mill no more, Miklós, says the miller. I will sell my flour to you cheaply, and you will be a baker. So Miklós becomes a baker. He grows to be a man. His back straightens, he no longer coughs, he combs out the flour from his hair. He marries a beautiful lame girl whom he woos with glazed pastries. And then, when the trumpet sounds, he goes to war.
He fights, Miklós, at Mărăşti, and Doberdó, and Komarów, and he fights with valour, though he loses an eye at Doberdó. But in the war Miklós sees only futily and woe. Over the battlefield he grieves; in the dressing-stations and field hospitals he mourns. And though he is gone only a year he returns to Nógrád an old man once again. His beautiful wife does not know him, and when he tries to explain, she laughs, and calls him hunchback, and knock-knee, and white-beard. She goes off to marry a wealthy engineer. And the townspeople point at Miklós in the street and call out: Nagypapa Miklós.
Miklós, for all his wisdom, is friendless, and weeps. Winter comes to Nógrád. The snow falls. And the novel ends.
And now I, Miklós Bánat, Miklós the miller’s apprentice, Miklós the baker, Miklós the soldier, Nagypapa Miklós, one-eyed Michael Grief, stand before you and say: Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí is dead.
Perhaps you don’t know him. Even if you are a Hungarian, even if you did visit black-chimneyed Eöstvöt, even if you called for black tea or a glass of pálinka at the little house on Mogyoró Street, you wouldn’t have known him. And would you have known the work, ‘The Ancient’, Az Ókory, Ignaz’s greatest novel? Would you the blazes. It was never translated into English. What’s more, it was never published in Hungarian. And for why? Simply because it was no damned good. It was declined by seven publishers and now it sits tied with string in the loft of the house of Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí’s long-dead parents.
Who mourns its author? I mourn him.
It was not a good book. Ignaz was not a good writer, he had no gift. Look at me, for instance: I am a thin character, very thin. Tiresome, also. And my wife? Barely plausible. You should hear our dialogue. It is stilted and unrealistic.
My opinions are trite and misguided. My emotions are sentimental. In chapter fifty-eight Ignaz forgets which of my eyes is missing. I should cry, with the monster made by Frankenstein, ‘Accursed creator! Hateful day when I received life!’.
But I do not. I stand here in mourning, and my mourning is sincere.
Ignaz Brno-Hálavyí made a man. Let people say that, if they have nothing else to say. Ignaz made me. So though he made no money (he worked all his life in an Eöstvöt steel mill), and though he loved no woman (save one, in vain), and though his book is the most awful swill (so said the gentleman at Kolszvar and Son) –
Let it be said, if nothing else be said, that he lived a long life, and that he made a man. And that for god’s sake he was a man. Even though now he swings from a rope knotted around a roofbeam. Even so, let these things be said.
The Miller's Tale was read by Paul Clarke at the Liars' League Fact & Fiction event on Tuesday 8 March 2011 at the Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London.
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer. He lives in Leeds and at the moment is a bit obsessed with Hungarians. He's had odds and ends published here and there and hopes one day to provoke an emotion in his agent other than grave and profound disappointment.
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, after sacrificing his degree on the altar of Theatre. He has a fondness for grotesques, villains and all-round bad guys – theatre credits include Berkoff’s Decadence (with Sally Phillips), Moon in The Real Inspector Hound, and title roles in Vlad the Impaler, Macbeth, and Pericles – a rare outing as a good guy.