The latest installment in Music & Literature's monthly fiction series is a hypnotic piece by the Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and who has lived in Lisbon, Berlin, Minneapolis, and Boston even as she established herself in film studies and in the art world. She now teaches in the American Studies department of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. This complex background informs the many layers of her "Keep in Touch," a text that proves Bán's extraordinary stylistic versatility, as well as her uncanny ability to perfectly render in precise prose the strange peregrinations of memory and meditation.
What happens between a butterfly’s two wingbeats?
What happens in that flickering space that separates one film frame from the next?
Dad, what does the wind do when it’s not blowing? Are you listening?
Silent film frames are running in a sepia, underwater world. Who are these, where do they come from?
Thousands of people are dancing, shaking their bodies to an inaudible music, an immortal dance without end.
They come toward the camera, undulating, writhing, some dressed as women, others as Coke bottles, there come the baianas, the women from Bahia, dancers with hula hoops, transvestites, clowns, scores of harlequins crying for their Colombinas, blacks with powdered wigs, dancers from samba schools, opalescently familiar faces,
there comes a dog with a ruff, hat and sunglasses,
there come the sujos, the dirty ones, in makeshift costumes that are not costumes at all, but they themselves, unbuttoned shirts, undulating bare bellies and breasts; taking short, shuffling steps, they come toward the vanished drumbeat,
samba, sambinha, ai meu Deus,
and there comes Eduardo (Dado, to me), “will you dance with me?” he utters my name in that other language and I, being someone else in that other language, answer him, but no, this was later, much later.
Carnival on another planet, on a sunken continent; if you look it up on the map it’s where it should be, but if you touch it, it slips away beneath your fingers and vanishes among the film frames’ syncopated gaps: a fleet-footed lizard. The revelers come one by one, if I didn’t know where we are,
(here on my way to school, I stepped on a stone)
I’d take it for a danse macabre;
I see them, and the man behind the camera sees them too; I even know his name.
I see it, now, and he sees it, then—an 8-mm reel bridge.
Then a curious thing happens, as if it were a film defect, or perhaps the novice cameraman had twice used the same reel of film, two settings, a city and a countryside, one copied over the other, the sequences slipping together
like a snake
along a liana.
Is this supposed to be some parable
delivered in a fatherly style? No, it’s the play of chance rather, in the style of the man with the camera—his wide- and far-reaching humor now a museum exhibit.
So I see a metropolis buzzing with traffic, robust shark-tailed cars from the depths of the fifties, skyscrapers, bustling crowds—whites, blacks, browns, the image fills with color, the world is a faded Kodachrome film—shops, advertisements,
Café do Brasil,
and all of a sudden, this can’t be an accident, only
walks like this, a queen, I know her: among, above, behind, beyond the images of the city I see my mother in Capri pants
she rests her hand coyly on her hips and stands, rocking side to side,
we are on a coffee plantation in a big city, or in a big city on a coffee plantation, the situation is unclear, only one thing is beyond doubt,
it’s my mother there, who else could it be,
throwing the coffee beans in the air from the flat wicker basket, laughing, obviously in hope of a brighter future.
And since she had put an entire ocean between herself and the noxious past, perhaps she did indeed have reason to hope; why should she not have believed that it was enough to flee to a distant continent, and the past
swish, was wiped clean.
That it’s not so cannot be seen in the film: that realization would come much later.
Let’s restrict ourselves to the visible, for all the rest is just butterfly flab.
Cut back to the almost suspiciously perfect representation of memory, to the processed time we receive as an unhoped-for present.
The film reels discovered at the bottom of a drawer are playing in front of my wide-open eyes like the carriers of some belated farewell letter. After having memorized the thousands of stills preserved in boxes, albums, and on slides, how could I have imagined that I’d need to master a brand-new discipline: the metaphysics of motion?
Who would have thought that the effect of the image
assembled from fragments,
bits and pieces
and forever missing parts, might not come near that of the moment when my thirty-something mother with a white handbag and red pearls
is suddenly set in motion,
wiping all previous stills clean, overwriting them so that this sequence becomes the only repository of truth. Seeing it, everything is reinterpreted:
my father’s gaze, my grandmother’s chin, the hushed, hissing sentences, the silencing, the sins, the fits of asthma, spits in the bowl, the rainy autumn afternoons, the X-rays of old, the swallowed curses, the spilled black ink, the snowy nights, the homecoming.
One single sequence is sufficient to make me understand something for which hundreds of photographs were not enough. Because, although I see in the picture (one of my favorites) my mother coming down a dusty country road, aged twenty-something, headed toward the camera (toward whom?), coming from the market with my grandmother, the already-full basket between the two of them, and although I see the way she holds her head, the way she throws back her head and shoulders like a supermodel on a Paris catwalk,
and think I understand,
but in fact cannot know what I understand, and whether there is any truth to it, for it is only my imagination that fills in the gaps.
But the sequence is saturated, compacted knowledge; it has a beginning, middle and end, there is exposition and development, there is deployment of troops and reversals of fortune, there is fate and its unrecognizable nature, together with this fact’s weighty recognition,
there is everything, as in life, even the sounds and smells are there, for they are visible to those who see.
In the picture, we take for granted the fact of time consumed, of mortality; in a film frame the same touches us to the quick,
like a sudden, premature death. While the photograph is a work of mourning completed, the film is unassimilated, gaping absence, a wound reopened again and again.
Because if she moves she must be alive.
Hey people, cars are running up the trees, the world has never seen the likes of this!
But my mother is climbing a ladder, ever higher, her goal is the top of the coffee tree, but behind it,
she reaches another peak, the roof of a skyscraper,
the advertisement on the roof trumpets with huge letters, buy one of these, it urges you, and everything will shine brightly, even the memory we will become in thirty to forty years.
And then at once, behold, the author!, the cameraman in the frame (and hanging on his belly, woe is me,
that I sold in a moment of madness, to my great shame, thinking that if my father is gone it should be gone too, let’s bury it with him like a horse with its master, but the master had already been buried
while this thing was still around my neck
like some damning evidence, let’s get rid of it immediately before they lay the blame on me, so there I went to a consignment shop, nothing could stop me, not even the fact that the consignee,
an elderly expert,
raised his eyebrows ever so slightly like one about to say, if he didn’t bite his tongue, are you sure, young lady, are you sure you’d like to sell this? because there are some who would kill for it and most certainly do kill, if indeed they come across one,
but then he changed his mind and said nothing, accepted it without a word, happily, and I nudged the colored filters in his direction, take these too, my man, so there’s nothing left, they won’t be able to pin it on me, I had no father, no mother, I’m as innocent as undeveloped film),
with an untucked, short-sleeved shirt, an outshirt as he would say, tropical dad with a stay-at-home heart,
he loved crisp, chilly winters and pork trotters.
Suddenly there are gigantic trees, a road in between, a textbook example of linear perspective,
the end of the wall vanishes in a pointed arch in the background of the image, and in the foreground,
like Mrs. Gulliver with her baby in the land of giants,
small but determined,
my mother and I are walking in the direction of the foreshortening,
the vanishing point
or the future, and if this is true, then I know where parallels meet, Farkas Bolyai tried in vain to protect his little boy János saying, Beware, son, of the issue of parallels as of loose women, no need to go that far, dear Bolyai,
after all, there is nothing devilish about them: look, they meet,
on the very spot I’m standing on.
Then cut: now the camera is the future, we get the same with a different point of view,
we are coming hand in hand, I like a two-year-old- accessory though my mother needs no accessories in the least, her beauty self-contained like a blazing summer afternoon.
But look, I seem to have an accessory too, girls in the tropics ripen early, I clutch something that hangs on a string, you cannot see its other end from here, only that I wouldn’t take one step without it, it is obviously important, moreover: indispensable, and as we come closer I can see it, the child ahead of her time,
I have a cell phone, puppies,
I’m holding a plastic telephone, the receiver dangles on a string.
Then an interlude— seemingly unimportant—follows, but I know what I know:
Mrs. Gulliver crouches by me and with a ravishing, graceful smile tries to convince me to have a conversation with her, as it were, on the phone. The set is in her hand, she is holding the receiver to my ear, but no, I’m not in the mood, I’m looking left and right, confused,
now that the safety object has been taken from my hand I’ve become uncertain,
what would we talk about, we never do, I’m no good at small talk at all, I’m jealous of the party monsters, the silver-tongued heroes who can talk and talk for hours with anybody about anything,
projecting the image
that they feel grand, that they are the stars of visits, celebrations, soirées and parties,
look at me, what a conversation I’m having! Look at me, how I’m the life of the party!,
even as I’m standing, dumb, staring at those who swim by me, like some rare species of fish in an aquarium;
in a word, what should the topic be, dear Mrs. Gulliver: why we can never talk with each other? that by the time I learn you’ll forget, or simply, you don’t want to anymore, that although you speak all the languages on earth, you cannot speak with me in any of them? that I have two mother tongues, the one I got from you, the other
from my babá (pronounced bah-bah),
my pitch-black nanny, but still I lack
tongue? that although we do exchange words, we never talk about essentials?
that you never tell me what you lived through, that “you know that mommy’s nerves are delicate”?
the fuck I know, I don’t know anything, you are silent and you expect speech from me in exchange, what happened at school?, nothing, you can bet on it, nothing at all; in the real world there is only give-and-take, missy, that’s how it goes, and so it should have been between us two, if ever;
pardon me, but
what on earth should we speak about now on the telephone?
Instead I look aside, embarrassed, and clap my hands, and if you called me now I would look away, embarrassed and by the time I could stutter out what I wanted to ask, the time would run out and the connection would be broken.
Mrs. Gulliver gives my phone back with an awkward smile, from now on I can do whatever I want with it.
I am walking down the road, this time alone—a truly sugary little symbol—toddling with swaying, slightly insecure steps, you can see that walking is still a challenge, and my only support is the telephone,
keep in touch.
Then suddenly the other support appears, the live one, Mrs. Gulliver steps behind the camera now, but in front of it is Gulliver himself; he, too, crouches, all 250 pounds of him, and together we are studying something very interesting on the ground, then hup, he hoists me up and starts walking, and in his arms I’m waving back at the world’s most beautiful cameraman with newfound courage, grinning from ear to ear:
I’ll do anything, so long as I don’t have to talk.
Mr. and Mrs. Gulliver: fiftyish Turkish pasha with his young lady of the harem. As we walk, you can see that with his spare hand (I’m in the other) my father is swinging my mother’s handbag
—yet another symbol! a little much, no?—
a reversal of roles, father is the mother, and my out-of-the-frame mother behind the camera playing the role of the father; both in a lifelike way—just like in life.
Father lifts me up like some trophy, this is the hard-earned prize he got for outwitting the war and surviving what he had survived.
Then a new game follows: father gives us the handbag, so now I am toddling down the rocky road with two accessories; the handbag is almost bigger than me, this is a role I still have to grow into, but playing a woman after my mother,
is not going to be smooth, an entrance in the vein of Garbo,
you might say,
is not quite a piece of cake—
who is the director here, let me strangle him quick.
No time for brooding, another exciting scene follows:
I am trotting up and down in a tiger-striped slip, the two other characters in the scene are Maria José,
her starched, glaring white
uniform nicely contrasts with her ebony
skin, and to counterbalance it, oversize butterfly-shaped sunglasses are perched on her nose
like in a fairy tale;
the other character on screen is Garbo,
or let it be Ava Gardner,
their colors are better matched, and even their names find a certain harmony: Éva, Ava.
First, Ava plays with me, she catches me when I step off the grass and gently sets me back, so that I know my place, but now José Maria takes the lead role, the maryjoseph, we start walking, she is showing me the steps,
we mark the walking, this is how soldiers walk,
in the background Ava is sitting on the grass,
she smiles and waves, that’s it, go, my duckling, go, I’ll cheer for you from afar (thanks, mom),
Ava starts walking toward the camera, she is approaching in dark shorts and a white sleeveless blouse, looking directly into the lens,
flirtatiousness, your name is Ava,
her hair is cropped short like a boy’s, as she would never wear it later on,
then she is sitting at a garden table in the same shorts, checking her make-up
as she would always do later on,
we must not go around with smudged make-up, for in the end they might see who is there beneath, I alone saw it many years later when she was sick, when, having been forced to leave it all behind, the sun, the sea, the colors, the far from sad tropics, she was
in the gray old homeland again,
the ones who destined her for the gas had drained all the air from her, I have seen her face without makeup between two asthma fits and wished I had never seen it, not at this price,
give me the Revlon, the Chanel instead.
Cut, Ava in a light two-piece suit, jacket thrown over her shoulder, sashays like at a ball below the gigantic trees; all of a sudden, hup,
she throws her handbag in the air
like an agile performer, and triumphantly catches it with one hand, to standing ovation.
We plunge headlong into another element, splashing water, a swimming pool:
Gulliver the one-time water polo player (and one-time father) displays his skills, which are not inconsiderable.
Water is the most uncertain element, we hear Goethe’s affectation, but it’s clear his dad was no water polo player, at most an Erlkönig, small wonder. Therefore I disprove.
Water, I will allow that much, can be of different sorts, but if
a) father teaches you, and
b) you grew up by the ocean,
it can definitely be safe, inviting, and what is more, loving.
I have studied water from start to finish, there is no part of the subject that could give me trouble, even with an überscheiss exam committee:
should we encounter a sea wave, we dive, right under the crest when it is visibly curling;
should we encounter a whirlpool, we let it suck us in right down, for only afterward will it release us;
should we encounter a waterfall, we take a deep breath, jump feet forward, legs and arms pressed to our body and joined together, then when we hit the water surface we immediately start swimming against the current, upstream like a salmon—
you can see there’s no use for pressing hard; you can safely, softly release that A,
like a fart finally escaping.
So Gulliver, all 250 pounds of him, gets up on the diving board, carefully prepares for take-off, then splashes into the water wonderfully like a seagull, and shows off the style known as the crawl, scoring full points without any water polo ball.
Then he turns like the greatest of the great, because in those days the pool in Esztergom had been so short that the whole team had become masters at turning, how to turn disadvantage to advantage had been his forte, and this technique he later developed to such a degree that from my father’s lips fat was beautiful, and so do I in turn proliferate until I too am made of fat, and my favorite is
To expand upon our unit on physical education, suddenly Ava appears in a park
or playground maybe,
she demonstrates a couple of easier exercises first on the uneven bars, then on the rings—see the school pictures of the little champion gymnast!, what a sportive family, I mutter fidgeting, I don’t seem to fit in too well, although I certainly have football in my bones, because a kid born by the water will step in if called, no matter if she’s a girl, because when the team lacks one player who gives a shit,
futebol necesse est.
So, a little bit of intimate gymnastics, a bit of intimate mother gymnastics—
only for you, my friend, aber nicht vor dem Kind.
But the Kind, as seen later, is not at all uninformed in the complex issues of intimacy. A picture is taken of her in the company of a slick dark-skinned, black-haired beau, bien accompagnée, they are roughly the same age, I’d say around two.
The Kind is walking her rounds in a white bonnet and in the irresistible tiger-striped model, see above. Joãozinho, Chiquinho, Pedrinho
or whatever he’s called (who could remember the names of all the suitors)
can’t in fact resist, he is ceaselessly pursuing the woman of his dreams, schlepping her up and down,
teaching her how to clap her hands,
then suddenly, overcome by so much desire—“I’m losing control!”—blows a kiss on the Kind’s fatty paw, my dearest diary, I would write that evening, today I had my first hand-kiss, it was not unpleasant at all, it’s only that it took me a tad by surprise and one can say the publicity it received was on the verge of tastelessness, the latter circumstance being altogether deplorable, so in the future I’ll make sure nothing of the sort happens
(memo: sue dad).
Even later I’ll forever look for this chivalrous quality, that smooth mouth, that laughter, the shiny, oily skin, the voracious love-making and after, this dubitable lust, the abdominal punch, the tropics in winter, the insistent hunch.
but, alas, in vain—no man would ever touch that. I’ll very likely have to start looking elsewhere, the Kind sighs—and so she did.
But that would happen out of the frame.
The wing of an airplane is seen, with propellers, its purr is absorbed by the celestial cotton candy. Below the gulf of Guanabara, if you didn’t know yet where we are, the crescent of Copacabana can be seen clearly, although I have to mention: the one flying above it
has no inkling of where the great Jorge Amado dwelled. I’m not kidding you: lo and behold, the Sugar Cane, the cableway is busying itself (as a decent carioca, a Rio native, would never do), down below there is the Dois Irmãos, the two twin cliffs, and finally my favorite, the Dedo de Deus, God’s Finger, a giant index finger forever poking at heaven, reminding all the people of the shore that your sea, sun and bossa nova are all right,
but don’t forget the point, my darlings,
and they, you have to give it to them, do not forget, so out of gratitude the Christ on top of the mountain guards them with his extended arms.
Then we are below on the shore, in the film the sky is turning pinkish-red like a blood-soaked head bandage;
light is pulsating, attempting to overcome chemistry.
Here the cobblestone patterns are telling (but the pilot cannot see that paving stone), like some Braille the small black-and-white cobblestones proclaim the street names to those who can read: a wave pattern,
the drive along the Copacabana beach, and the name of our street,
Atlantic Street, as the song goes, if I walk down you, I’ll surely end up in Atlantis.
Volleyballs and kisses fly by, the waves run to the bathers’ feet like overzealous puppies.
In the burnt-out film afternoon Ava suddenly enters from the right, like a stranger, she crosses in front of the camera unsmiling, according to the stage directions, I am just passing by like a Rio native, but this little woman from Budapest cannot dupe me, I can see all too well where she comes from, it’s only she who would like to finally forget—
And perhaps she succeeded, for the time being.
as they say in our parts. God willing.
A snake is crawling in the grass slowly, stealthily, the camera follows it, we are in the garden of unknown acquaintances,
perhaps this is the garden of the Finzi-Continis,
or perhaps the snake was another segment but now they are intertwined in the renewed narrative
(like an apprehensive archivist, I had the film reels transferred to video as they came, in that random order, smoothly, no cheating),
huge scarlet flowers are arrayed in the garden in front of a lost estate, a summer house, we are at somebody’s fazenda, this is quite apparent, as is the fact that they are indeed close friends. Like a heroine from a fairy tale, Ava pats one of the red flowers standing at attention, which thankfully bends toward her and whispers something in her ear, at this Ava smiles, then skillfully sliding down on a tiny slide
—not like Gulliver who gets stuck and laughs—
starts riding a seesaw with her lady friend,
carefree vacationing. All this, according to the film, unsuspecting and unmindful of anything, because in the meantime the snake is curling up slowly, threateningly, and the ghostly music that cannot be heard here can easily be recalled from memory. The snake’s long shadow on the lawn,
as Emily would say elsewhere, at another time,
but just as at her place, here too the snake and its shadow are a warning: darkness is about to pass,
and soon the darkness.
Tropics on tropics, hand in hand, death on a hunch.
Matter is huffing and puffing again, the image pulls itself together for the final breakthrough, the fibers, threads are running, the fabric becomes visible from wear, here decomposition is made a spectacle: don’t look if you’re afraid,
if you’re afraid, you needn’t look: this is film forensics.
Light is pulsating, quivering like a wounded boar, but nothing can be seen,
then a flash, or no, not yet, it is swallowed back instantly, the stammering continues, although I can feel that it’s on the tip of its tongue, in a second a kickoff will follow, it is panting and groaning, then gives a loud grunt and suddenly, like a big bang or cosmic orgasm,
into a breakwater.
Again and again it charges, like one who cannot get enough, it has flooded the pavement now, everything is covered in splashing salt seawater.
The cars are driving by like all this is natural.
In the background the Sugar Cane again like a quote now cliché, only here it is to be taken literally: this is the place of origin, the locus classicus—everything else is plagiarism or dream.
But enough, let’s get to the subject, that is,
now one or two years older, that is, around four, I am strutting in cherry-red pants by maryjoseph’s side who is duly wearing her white uniform as she ought to, am I right,
Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier
to the ones who were listening of course,
gigantic waves in the background, but we don’t care, just as the Hortobágy peasant does not stand in wonderment every single day in front of the nine-arched bridge
(I indeed never climbed the Sugar Cane, no local in their right minds would do such a thing, why should they, it’s there anyway, only twenty-seven years later like a tourist in my own village did I line up to my greatest shame among the Japanese and Americans, Mata Hari incognito, heaven forbid an acquaintance spot me!).
So, cherry-red pants and snow-white shirt, a light summer trainer, for as the Oscar Wilde of Budapest once said grudgingly with the yellow star on his gray tweed jacket,
the disharmony of colors is the death of elegance,
but I can proudly report that nothing like that stains the family chronicle, only now, in the most recent chapter do the shabby flowers of evil show here and there
(but this, you understand, is confidential).
Maryjoseph lets go of my hand, for if the camera is calling go we must, and now already with self-confident, high-stepped gait, but with a startlingly careworn face I am approaching the goal, the lens, little problem baby.
I keep coming, coming, then at once
fills the whole frame, what on earth can be weighing down a four-year-old’s heart, what suspicious presentiment or paralyzed nightmare can cause that in the middle of a cherry, white and sea-blue composition
she should discharge the browns of anxiety?
A flickering space in the film (but it can be frozen anytime) and I am walking out in a hurry, out to the out-of-frame moment.
Needless to say, my suspicion was later proven true. Why give it another try? First impressions never lie.
And the rest is butterfly flab.
Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa and Zsófia Bán.
Our grateful acknowledgement to Adam Z. Levy for his assistance.
Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1957 and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. A fiction writer, essayist, and critic, she made her fiction debut in 2007 with her much-acclaimed short-story collection Night School: A Reader for Adults. The title story of her next collection, "When There Were Only Animals," was included in Best European Fiction 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American literature and visual studies at Eötvös Loránd University.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in the Department of English at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania, and has translated numerous English-language authors into Hungarian.