THE LASZLO & LASZLO CHRONICLES
(45 SHORT STORIES COVERING 100 YEARS)
BY ANDRES LASZLO SR & JR
The Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles are collected from two sources. 1. My father's collection of short stories, first published as Solo el Paisaje Cambia in 1952, and in French 2015: Tout Passe... and 2. Stories out of my own life, several taken from either my yet to be published adventure-series The Caspian Connection or from my book on drug policy: The Drug Problem. The tally comes to 45 stories (22/23) and 233,000 words. You will find that both my father and I have led adventurous and - at least when one did not appear to be on one's way to starve to death, become tiger-snack, or executed by General Noriega's narcotraffickers - quite entertaining lives. Many of these stories read like treatments/scenarios, something that should make them interesting to producers. The texts have been structured (and Senior’s adapted) so as to provide 100 years of continuity with an introductory biographic paragraph to every story. VIDEO
As I started to adapt my father’s short stories - while, turning them into English - I soon got to the point where I started to think: Why don’t I come up with 20 or so short stories of my own so as to match his, and to produce The Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles, covering 100 years? As I found no reason not to do so, that’s precisely what I did. The Chronicles are available also in French and Spanish, and presumably soon also in Swedish.
You will find that there are actually three story-tellers: 1) My father, whom I have translated and adapted, 2.) Myself, with my own stories and 3) Chicch Kadune, a tiger, of whom I will be the mouthpiece. I will introduce our stories not only chronologically but also "biographically," something that will force you to get to know Senior, myself and Chicch Kadune quite intimately.
As to Senior’s tales, I do not know how true they are to reality – I met him only twenty or so times after the age of six – but there are no doubts that he had an adventurous life and that most of his stories are at least inspired by true events. As to my, they are mainly pretty true, even though I admit not to know what went on inside the mind of the tiger. When I occasionally have manipulated Senior’s texts, I have done so with no other intention than to make them: (i) More entertaining, (ii) Better suited to contemporary readers and (iii) More attractive for producers. Below you will find an introduction to my own life as an adventurer, as well as two short stories: one by me and one by Senior.
24. HOW IT ALL STARTED
By Andres Laszlo Jr.
1955 - 1989 I am Andres Laszlo Jr.: Andres Ulf Laszlo, to be more precise, where Ulf means “wolf” in one of my native tongues. I say “one of,” because I was brought up by a mother who spoke to me in Swedish, a father who would speak to me only in French and a nanny who knew only Spanish. Of course, I became confused and the worst student in my first five schools, and as I later went from “idiot” to (maybe) fastest student in the world, of course, I went totally bonkers, something that this text no doubt will confirm. It is my voice that will dominate this second part of The Laszlo & Laszlo Chronicles, because not only do I have my own stories, but also, I will be the mouthpiece of Chicch Kadune, the tiger. My father, you already know everything about, so let me get this first short story started by giving some background to the other storytellers – Chicch Kadune and myself – starting with the tiger. This, my first short story, is in fact “an introduction camouflaged as a mélange of very short stories”; please show leniency in judging my attempt to deceive you into believing that you are reading one single short story rather than several very short.
_ _ _
Chicch Kadune, or “Screamer” is your second storyteller in this the second part of the chronicles, but since tigers cannot write, I have volunteered to become his mouthpiece. Chicch Kadune is not just any tiger, but one who is very fond of mankind, though unfortunately in the wrong way. The tiger-parts of my short stories are borrowed from my presently (2017) unpublished adventure series: The Caspian Connection. In it, I have been inspired by my own experiences to illustrate how the hero - Karli, the son of the Norse God Odin, but who knows not the identity of his illustrious “real father” – grows through his adventures, partly through his interactions with tigers. One particular tiger, one by the name of Chicch Kadune, which in the local lingo means “the little whiner”/Screamer plays a central role in this growth process.
Chicch Kadune’s prominent part in my stories has its origin in: (i) My childhood fascination by big felines in general (and maybe from once being intimidated by one), (ii) My stupid and most regrettable resolution to kill myself a man-eating tiger as part of my A-T-T/all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project, (iii) A silly belief that I was being stalked by a tiger while camping in Swat Valley in Pakistan, (iv) My meeting with, and hunting with, Tahawar Ali Khan, (v) The fascination that came from reading and assisting in the editing of Mister Khan’s book Man-Eaters of Sundarbans, (vi) The fact that I accidentally, and quite unwittingly, found myself in the Sundarbans forest in the very same area where Mister Khan had had his experiences several decades earlier, (vii) That a woodcutter had been killed in a small village next to Hiron Point Forest Station just before I arrived, and the fact that the upset villagers wanted somebody – any idiot foolish enough to take on the job – to “sit by” the dead man’s body in order to shoot the tiger in case it returned during the next day & (viii) My own experience of actually not knowing my own mind: not knowing whether I was honest to myself as I, when given the opportunity to hunt the man-eating tiger that I once so had longed to hunt, said to myself; “No, it would not be a good thing, because I do not have the right to kill an animal that is threatened by extinction, multiple man-eaters or not,” or whether I was simply trying to come up with some explanation to camouflage that I was not “man enough” to stand by my word.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind my readers that although you might empathize with Chicch Kadune – whom I henceforth will normally refer to by means of the much less endearing Screamer – you should try to curb your enthusiasm. Because, even though it is only natural that you should feel some degree of sympathy and understanding for this tiger, he really is not a very nice example of his species. Consuming human beings simply isn’t nice, and it’s actually so un-nice that not even being wounded and an endangered species should suffice to justify such behavior, especially not when habitual. It is, therefore, my most sincere hope - actually, I expect it of you as my reader - that in the final showdown, as he and I meet, tiger against man, you shall root for me, rather than him.
ME/ANDRES LASZLO Jr.
1977. Luck and great teachers had allowed me to finish high school and university in a total time of 18 months, something that in my own eyes made me pretty amazing, especially as I, up until that point, hadn’t shown any signs of intellectual precociousness. Thus, as a young and arrogant student, believing myself God’s gift to humanity, I felt obliged to go in search of something useful to devote my charmed life to.
As I, after some rather time-consuming useful-things-to-do-(re)searching, actually managed to find something that I figured was worthy of my attention, I gave up on “becoming rich” – the popular alternative, and a way to influence the world only once one, usually in one’s grey hair and more often than not corrupted by the process, has figured out how best to do it – so as instead to become a researcher. My field was drug policy, and it was only because I could find nothing sufficiently white/good to fight for, that I settled for something to fight against:
The legal situation regarding narcotic drugs is the closest to black/bad/evil that I can find, and thus I shall make it my goal in life to fight against it.
To be more precise, what I figured was worthy of my attention was, and still is, that drug illegality is bad; not that drug illegality is bad because drugs are good – drugs, at least presently illegal drugs on average, probably aren’t, at least not to several of its present users – but because what follows from drug illegality is so very much worse than what would follow from an approach that focused on liberalization, legalization, demand reduction, information and harm reduction.
I begged for support from every source imaginable, but to no avail, and eventually, I ran out of options. However, before giving up, I hit on the suspicion that drug illegality could well be but one of several – or, quite possibly, many – bad ways in which we organize ourselves. In my mind the concept of “dysfunctional discourses” was born; I had found my things in life, and the conviction that drug illegality is bad together with the concept of dysfunctional discourses have traveled along with me ever since, through my adventures.
Unfortunately, though there could be many dysfunctional discourses, the only thing I really knew anything about was drug policy. However, as this was a subject on which I could not make my voice heard, I realized that I most definitely was in no position to “tell the world” about my much more general suspicion that we often organize ourselves in ways - and according to rules, that we, if we had realized what we were doing, probably would not have chosen to organize ourselves according to – that were dysfunctional.
Okay, as I’m not “person enough” to tell the world about my suspicions, let’s have a go at becoming such a person, I reasoned. I used up my entire student grants savings (I had financed most of my time at university by diving for golf balls), borrowed some money from Mom and joined a crew intent on sailing around the world: the first step in my A-T-T/all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project. I expected to get a bit more social and to see several new countries.
However, this first of my A-T-T projects - my sail-around-the-world-enterprise - ended pretty soon. In Malaga a crewmember, a little girl whom I thought liked me, told me something like; “Andres, you might be big and strong but you have to sleep like everybody else, and one night when you do, I will kill you.” Of course I told the other two crewmembers that the little girl with no stake in the boat was way out of line and that she should be asked to leave a.s.a.p. And, of course I told them that I - a major stakeholder, who knew virtually nothing about sailing, was arrogant to the point of unsupportability and got seasick to the point of becoming totally useless by simply imagining a wave – should be kept on board. The next morning I left, and my official story is: The lassie probably fancied me, and the guys probably put her up to it. I was later told that the boat, uninsured, had sunk in Manila harbor during a storm.
Though a severe insult – as well as a financial catastrophe and a great shock to my self-image - this experience, had some very real silver linings in that it thought me one very important lesson, and it did it on two different levels. On a philosophic level it taught me that much - too much, I believe - is getting acquirable by means of money and moneyfication consequently from this point onwards became an ever more important explanatory variable in my thinking about drug illegality’s and other discourses’ dysfunctionality. And, on an existential level – yes, I know, I am distinguishing the philosophical from the existential, but that wasn’t intentional, and I don’t really mean to do this – the experience taught me that one has better make a few bob before one sets out on an A-T-T/all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project, so that’s what I decided to do. Actually, one of Mrs. Thatcher’s quotes-writers later would put it quite well:
“No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
My grandfather died, leaving Mom a few coronas, and again I borrowed, but rather than using it for a new round-the-world attempt, this time I called a friend who worked at the Swedish version of Sotheby’s/Christies’ Auctions, asking her; “Charlotte, how do I make some serious money?” She and her husband-to-be got me into art glass from Orrefors. This was a good thing because Orrefors art glass, between the World Wars, is the only thing the Swedes have ever been undisputedly best at when it comes to the arts and crafts, at least since the time of the Vikings. I bought, sold, exhibited and learned; then I created a great collection whereupon I wrote a coffee-table book on the subject and got famous. I was now able to sell much of my “middle-of-the-road stuff” at high prices, and I got rich as well. I put the money in the bank and set up my all-those-things list:
3y at Oxford, B.A. Philosophy, B.A. Writing, English as written language, “OALD” and “Modern Thought” by heart, Athlete, Shoot man-eating tiger (an absolutely disgusting resolution - sorry), Surf Pipeline, 200 countries and act James Bond.
Next, I spent 20 years ticking off, and failing to tick off, the list-items. As to acting James Bond (as you probably know), I failed; as I asked for an audition they sent me a membership application for the 007 fan club, and if they at all reacted to my request it was probably by laughing. And, as to the 200 countries, I’ve failed in that too, and even with the most immoral counting imaginable, I can claim no more than 189. However, as to the rest of my list - apart from shooting the man-eating tiger, maybe – it’s all ticked off. And, it has been in the process of this “ticking off” that most of the experiences and inspirations for my short stories have been acquired, especially as a consequence of me traveling all these countries and - extremely stupidly but yet unbelievably rewardingly, as I got away with it - thinking myself more or less immortal.
I really have had the privilege of leading an inc apparently charmed life, and – apart from having had the good fortune of not meeting anyone “not of woman born” – there have been ingredients such as:
- In the city of Cannes, when I was only a little more than one year of age, the world’s most attractive woman (in my opinion), allegedly put me in her lap, ruffled my hair, and said I was adorable.
- From the third worst student in the school and grossly overweight I became (possibly) the fastest student in the world and “model material” (I’m a bit too tall) in 18 months.
- At bridge, I got myself as a partner the world’s (possibly, in my opinion) best player, after having played only a few years.
- At Henley, the world’s (possibly, in my opinion) greatest athlete and my physical idol came over to introduce himself because of nothing other than my looks, “Hi, my name is Steve.”
- I believe myself to have been evicted from New College (Oxford) by the world’s greatest genius (possibly, in my opinion); “It seems the professor didn’t appreciate the way you manhandled him at the deanery.”
- I believe myself to have tipped the balance in the 1995 track and field meet between Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale (causing Oxford-Cambridge to lose).
- I have been looked at as if I were the Antichrist by one that allegedly – and, I believe, sort of officially – is God’s representative on earth.
- I have probably escaped “death by a tiger while indulging in amorous activities” only because I had stopped smoking a few months earlier.
- I’ve escaped settling down to an ordinary life - assuming she would have married me, which is by no means certain - only because my fiancé told me she had looked at the moon when she hadn’t.
These are all remarkable and perfectly true events (though I must admit that I do not recall meeting Ms. Monroe), and the fact that I will not try to construct any short stories around these events – except the professor, whom I believe had me evicted - I hope shall somewhat compensate for the fact that I sometimes have embellished other stories.
It is not necessarily the case that I have fought a tiger in the river Ganges, there might never have been an Alexandra quite as I have described her, my first Sahara tale might not ever become the Nobel-Prize-quality text I sort of might have claimed it one day might become, I might not exactly know what went on in the tiger’s mind and the order of events might not always be what I allege it to be.
However, I can tell you totally honestly is that I have had a lot of fun, and that one reason why I have had that, is Tahawar Ali Khan, to whom – together with Lotta/Knut who made me rich and my antique-dealing ex-friend who got me thinking by telling me that I was becoming a crook - I dedicate this collection of short stories. I wish I had gotten my Swedish publishers to take Mr. Khan’s Man-Eaters of Sundarbans on board, just as I wish they’d pay me the money they still owe me.
1979. For as long as I can remember I have had a love-hate relation to money and its puppet-master: capitalism. I love it not only for all the amazing things that it makes buyable but also because it is capable of making intrinsically lazy mankind rise up so as to do/produce all sorts of useful and amazing thoughts, services and things. However, I hate it not only because it makes respectable or admired people out of all sorts of lowlifes, but also because it tends to replace whatever otherwise would have been foremost in our minds. This replacement, together with other mechanisms makes what should be a tool into an aim, and as a “now foremost thing” money is becoming an ever more common denominator for human wants. This, quite deplorable, puts us on track to a world where everything - yes, quite possibly quite literally everything - can be had for money. Such a world, in my opinion, is not always a good one, as some discourses – such as the amorous, academic, athletic, and scientific – should not always necessarily be totally shaped by monetary mechanisms/consideration.
Maybe it was along suchlike terms that I thought as I deplored that in order to finance my own A-T-T/all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project I would have to make some money. Or, maybe I was simply annoyed because I realized that a period of hard work (or much luck) in all likelihood lay ahead of me.
I have never really been the employee-type, so when my mother lent me 3,000 dollars’ worth of Swedish “coronas”, I called an old roommate from university who now worked at “Bukowski Auctions” - the Swedish version of “Sotheby’s” or “Christies” - asking her, ‘Lotta, how do I get rich quick?’
‘I figure you should invest in ‘the 30s’ and my fiancé Knut figures you should try Swedish glass.’
The first 10,000 Swedish coronas I spent acquiring extremely exquisite, valuable and covetable Swedish arts and crafts artifacts from the 1930s and 40s - mainly from car-booth sales, antique fairs and minor auctions - most of it in the form of glass and ceramics designed by outstanding and often world-renowned Swedish artists. This stuff, if bought in traditional antique shops, would have cost an ordinary buyer well above 100,000 Swedish coronas. Having managed to buy it so cheap, I realized that not only had I become an antique expert in less than a month, but in addition to that I had become antique-buyer of unsurpassable quality. In a way it seems strange, I thought, but then I did become the world’s fastest student too for no apparent reason as well… I rented a lorry, booked Helena S at “Auktionsverket” in Stockholm and arrived with well over 100 cubic feet of “treasure.” Helena’s lovely face turned a pale green. Makes perfect sense, I thought, It cannot be every day that she is presented with finds such as these… Yet, as I was totally realistic about the situation, I understood that I would get no 100,000 Swedish coronas; I would probably have to be happy with whatever I got above 50,000.
I got 5,000.
Even if this made me incredibly disappointed – I remember developing some quite elaborate conspiracy theories about how the people in our capital tried impoverishing us Southerners – this would turn out quite okay. Because, even if momentarily tremendously dejected, this loss – in competition with the loss I suffered in consequence of being kicked off the boat – was probably my best ever. I realized that quality rather than quantity would have to be the key word in my future antique enterprises, at least as long as I didn’t want to become an “antique bum”: we Swedes call it skröfsare which is a great word but unfortunately one that has no good translation. As a skröfsare one would have to make one’s livelihood out of car-booth sales and small fairs; something that, though it can be great fun, normally won’t make one rich in the blink of an eye.
In order to understand “quality,” I went through foreign auction catalogs, looking for Swedish stuff sold abroad - mainly in London, New York, Chicago, Monaco, Geneva, and Paris – for good prices. One of the things I found was a glass-type called “Graal” - with subcategories such as “thin Graal,” thick Graal,” “Ariel” and “Ravenna” from an outstanding Swedish glassworks called Orrefors - that had been paid well in Switzerland and later in America. If I remember correctly the Swiss auctioneers were “Christie’s” and the American were “Wright’s” in Chicago; this was all around the year 1984.
THE GLASS SHOP
1984. With these pieces from the auction catalogues still in my memory I was visiting my dentist in the southern Swedish town of Trelleborg, and on my way there – through the window of a china shop, specializing in art glass - I spotted a fair-sized vase, internally decorated with air pockets and profiles in blue and black. I figured I recognized the vase from one of my auction catalogs. But, how could a piece that sells on auction end up in a shop selling new stuff? For a while I considered canceling the dentist – my personality/character is such that I need very little reason to cancel a dentist appointment – but for once I showed some moral rectitude, and I had that root canal treatment.
On my way back I again looked through the window; the piece was still there, and this time I felt virtually certain that this was the same (sort of) piece like the one depicted in the Wright’s auction catalog. I returned to Malmö, looked in the catalog, the pieces indeed did seem very similar, and I swiftly returned to the Trelleborg.
So, there I stood, in front of the shop window, glancing at the vase from a somewhat acute angle, so as not to be detected. I cannot really explain why, but had a police officer – or anyone, actually – said ‘Hello there!’ I would probably have had a heart attack. Actually I felt so criminal that I didn’t even dare to bring the catalog into the shop, so instead, I hid it outside. However, before doing so, I had made certain that I knew the catalog text by heart.
I approach the vase in sort of a roundabout way – apparently showing interest in other objects: my father had explained that technique to me – while trying to look innocent. Then, as I finally lifted the piece off its shelf, I nearly dropped it, as I hadn’t imagined it to be as heavy as it was. The motifs were identical, as was the height, and both were attributed to somebody by the name “Ingeborg Lundin” at Orrefors Glassworks. The serial numbers weren’t identical, yet they were “close enough,” but that was where the similarities ended. Because, whereas the vase I held in my hands was priced at $110, the one in the catalog had been sold for $3,300.
At the time I was really more of an economist than the businessman that my education suggested me to be – and, I even figured myself to be quite a reasonable such – so naturally, I realized that something had to be wrong. One cannot buy stuff in shops selling new things and then sell them on for thirty times the price at auction! The world - the market forces… the law of supply and demand - simply doesn’t allow such things to happen, I reasoned. My incomprehension must have been reflected in my facial expression, although misinterpreted because as the shopkeeper approached, he was ready to negotiate.
‘I know, it’s a bit steep, but what about hundred?’
My jaw must have dropped.
‘Ok, ok, I can see it from your point of view; ninety, but that’s as low as I can go.’
It turned out that the vase had an auction value similar to that in the catalog, and I had tasted blood. Antiques! This is so much fun, and despite that initial “low-quality hiccup” I am obviously great at it!
Even though I, at this stage, hadn’t really done anything de jure criminal, I most certainly felt like a crook. To buy something for a dollar and then sell it on for thirty, according to my own instinctual morality, is a crime; it is thus despicable, independent of whether it is a crime in the eyes of the law or not. However, it was also a lot of fun.
Of course, I started to travel across the country in order to buy Ariel, Graal, Ravenna, and Kraka: the stuff from Orrefors that had sold well abroad. However, soon I realized that there were others who had started to do the same thing, so in order to make as much hay as possible - and realizing that the sun, though pretty hot, probably wouldn’t shine for very long - I came up with an alternative approach. It was a two-step approach with a first step that demanded that I even officially left the straight-and-narrow, so as to become a criminal for real. If I would get charged for this and imprisoned, if you enjoy my writings, please visit me and bring South African Cabernet Sauvignon mixed with a drop of Merlot and some Iberian pata negra ham.
BECOMING A CRIMINAL
1984. Malmö Train Station, a little past 10 pm, and it’s a weekday. Two inebriated gentlemen in their late twenties or early thirties are hanging over, and sort of clinging on to, the rack from which are suspended the thirty or so catalogs that list the telephone numbers of virtually everybody - and, in the yellow pages, every business, including art-glass-dealers - in the country of Sweden. As one of the drunkards seemed to be about to throw up over my intended means to riches, I decided to intervene.
‘Hey! You! Drunkards! Why don’t you go make a nuisance of yourself somewhere else?’ I suggested, feeling no particular urge to be overly pleasant. I was twice the men’s size, HIV from blood contact wasn’t an issue as nobody knew of HIV and I was sober. Also, I was in a bit of a hurry as I figured that the station probably would close down around midnight. And, in addition, there was the somewhat unwelcome presence of the law, in uniform.
The men left, and I went over to the rack where I pretended to be looking for a number in one of the catalogs. I then pretended - pretending, as telephoning at the time was pretty expensive in Sweden - to be calling from one of the adjacent payphones. I had soon figured out the routine of the two patrolling policemen and their seriously aggressive-looking German Shepherd; six to six and a half minutes between visits. So, when they passed the next time I again shooed away the drunkards, who had now returned to the racks, and I attacked the first catalog, ripping out the relevant yellow pages: China shops, Gift shops, Art glass, etc.
I had successfully managed to vandalize three catalogs, all pertaining to the government of Sweden, before the patrolling officers, right on cue, reappeared. They looked around, sternly eying up the drunkards - who immediately had taken an intense and totally unwarranted interest in my doings – before continuing.
Everything continued according to plan until I was getting into the first catalogs of the rack’s second half. At this time, one of the drunkards approaches me, ‘Excuse me Sir, but you wouldn't by any chance be willing to part with 50 cents so that I could buy a cup of coffee?’
‘Go jump in the canal!’
‘What about 10 cents?’
Three catalogs later - as I, apparently the paradigm of innocence, pretended to be contemplating the departure times of the last trains for Lund - the drunkard with an urge for coffee approached one of the officers.
‘And what do you want?’
‘I don’t want to bother you in any way, Sir… I only wanted to know whether it is all right to rip pages out of the telephone catalogs over there.’
‘Are you mad or something? Of course, it isn’t. If you do that we’ll lock you up.’
‘No… No, I would never do such a thing. You see the reason why I am asking…’
At this point, I arrived at the conclusion that it might well be in my own best interest to intervene, and I turned to the drunkard, ‘Why don’t you just buy yourself your own catalog?’
‘Well… Actually… Yes, that’s not a bad idea.’
‘Good. I am glad I could be of assistance.’
‘But they are so expensive.’
‘So you understand my problem?’
‘Ten cents, maybe, for a second hand one.’
‘Fifty cents then?’
‘So… How much would one cost?’
‘Don’t you think two fifty would be enough?’
‘Well, if that’s the price, then maybe you would allow me to help you with that.’
‘Why that is awfully kind of you, Sir.’
The officers shook their heads in incomprehension as I with extreme reluctance handed over the fiver, thus adding bribery and corruption to my form, before returning to vandalizing our government’s property.
Then, as only one rip-off session remained, the other drunkard – who meanwhile had exited the station, presumably in order to throw up outside – had arrived at the conclusion that he too wanted a catalog of his own.
I showed off my true qualities as an economist by refusing to pay a fiver for what today probably would have become enough to buy myself a Tesla Roadster.
1984. The following week a significant part of the Swedish shops representing Orrefors Glassworks, selling its products to the public, received a telephone call similar to the one below:
‘Hi, my name is Andres.’
‘Hi Andres, how can I help you?’
Henceforth I shall leave out the dialogue-part pertaining to the shop attendant, because, though it sometimes did vary in form, it did not do so in essence, at least not from my point of view.
‘When I visited your shop – or maybe it was some shop close to yours, the other week - I think I saw some heavy, colored and quite pricey pieces of art glass from Orrefors; could that have been in your shop?’
‘Fish, looking as if swimming around inside an aquarium you say, and how many of those do you have?’
‘But didn’t you have something with air bubbles sort of inside the glass as well?’
‘Could it possibly be a gondolier or maybe a bullfighter?’
‘Profiles, I see, didn’t you have something else expensive as well?’
‘A big green apple for $90; no, that sounds a bit too steep – I’d much rather buy a small one from Tom Jones – but didn’t you have something with blue squares in it?’
‘Does it by any chance say “Ravenna” in the base?’
‘I see, so what if I bought both aquarium-vases, the yellow faces-vase, the little blue “thunder-bowl,” the little thingy with blue squares and the blue-red bullfighter… How much would that be in total?’
‘Oh my god! That’s way too much! You wouldn’t by any chance be prepared to let me have it for $450?’
‘Of course, I shall wait for the shop-owner to call back.’
Yes, I know, investing in a second telephone line would have given a positive return-on-investment.
‘That’s still very expensive; you wouldn’t accept $480 by any chance?’
‘You are wringing the very last cent out of me - I can see that you have done this before and that you’re a real professional – I give up. Please send it to Andres Laszlo, Ängelholmsgatan 4B in Malmö…’
I admit, this was not nice – my actions could even (again) have been criminal, sort of defrauding the poor shop-owners – and that week of telephoning most definitely turned me into a lesser person than I had been at its start. And, if I today had been presented to myself “Andres Laszlo Jr. anno 1984”, I feel convinced (at least I hope so) that I would have had no desire whatsoever to get on friendly terms with him.
Yet, I cannot deny that it also often was great fun: It was fun when a shopkeeper called back the next day; ‘Actually, I and my father, my grandfather even, have taken some pieces home from the shop. Some of these might date back to the 1930s, but then, of course, we wouldn’t ask as much for these as for the new ones.’
It was fun to bamboozle back my money from Kalle V: exactly the same amount as he had bamboozled out of me. ‘Have you by any chance read Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less?’ he asked. Actually, I had, though the similarities didn’t strike me until he asked me.
It was fun to sell seven pieces I had purchased for an average price of $90/each to an American dealer for $5,000, and then suddenly ‘remember’; ‘Actually, I have a friend who might have some pieces too, so if you don’t mind waiting here for an hour…’ I then first rushed to the bank to change the dollars into Swedish coronas before continuing to the post office. Now - with enough local currency to collect my ordered but unpaid-for pieces – I collected and unwrapped them. Next, I returned to the by this time quite irritated dealer (yet, I had left him with a bottle of Scotch), ‘But I am afraid this will set you back $30,000.’
It was fun when Lars P at Orrefors said, ‘So it was you! Bloody hell! We didn’t understand a thing; that old stuff had remained unsold in the shops sometimes since the 60s. Then, during one single week, every dealer in the country joined up so as to block our switchboard, asking for more: they were like bloody mad.’ Actually, hearing him say that was so much fun that I forgave him for having me rummage through the entire Orrefors art glass storage facilities in search for good pieces and then – rather than selling them to me, as I had expected – saying “thank you.” I feel there is a strong possibility that he took them home.
It was fun when I sold my not-so-good-glass at Thomas H’s “Duka Gallery” in Malmö for (in today’s money $2,000,000), even if it still irks me that I forgot to deduce my purchasing cost before we split the revenue 50/50.
It was nice when one of “the Pauls” from “50/50” in New York flew over to sell me three pieces for $30,000, but I felt slightly awkward when someone outbid me for the $50,000 piece that I was offered me a month or so later.
It was fun to talk glass with Birgitta C, how shared my enthusiasm not only for Orrefors but also for Flygsfors’ “Coquille glass,” even if light-beer was all she would serve. It was fun even if both of us – even though we both had good intentions and didn’t realize what we were doing – had contributed to causing artificially high prices, something that the market arguably hasn’t come to terms with even today. And, and this is important, I was wrong when I in my book Svenskt Konstglas recommended the investor to buy “the best of the best” of Orrefors; at least I have been wrong until now. Please accept my apologies; I was so in the middle of the action that I simply didn’t understand that I myself was contributing to the corruption of the market forces.
It was fun when my desire to put together a world class Orrefors collection, during the 1980s, turned into an obsession; as I tried to challenge the biggest actor on the market. Of course, I failed – she was a billionaire, and I was a pauper, at least relatively speaking – but I still managed to put together some seriously good stuff. However, I felt sad the day that I realized that I would probably never be able to afford to donate my collection to Moderna Museet and maybe get that “Andres Laszlo Jr. Collection” room named after me; something I believe my father would have approved of and appreciated.
1990. I am the sort of person who likes to understand as much as possible about the world around me and about what I am doing. Consequently, at least initially, I tried to understand enough about Swedish art glass to be able to forecast future demand and thus to be able to amass enough money to set out on my A-T-T project. However, I soon realized that forecasting wasn’t as easy as I had imagined, because either I wasn’t clever enough, or the market, not ‘forecastable’ enough; I never even considered the possibility that Birgitta C and people like myself could have something to do with this “hard-to-forecast-situation.”
Why had “best-in-the-world Ariel vases” from 1939 and outstanding engraved Bacchus Bowls from the 1920s well into the 1970s being sold for no more than a couple of hundred dollars? Why had vulgar but yet wonderfully 50ish world-class Coquille glass from Flygsfors at the same time been priced in tens of cents and not even dollars?
Something was obviously wrong, and as I didn’t understand what it was, I wrote a book about it, attempting not only to understand but also to correct some obvious wrongs. By means of my book Svenskt Konstglas I tried to tell “the Swede” that Orrefors art glass from the time between the wars had been the best in the world and that Flygsfors’ Coquille was super cool. However, just as with my drug policy ideas: nobody took much interest. However, the book sold well, I became famous, and as “Doctor Glass” I could sell my middle-of-the-range-stuff at outrageous prices. I was good at what I was doing, I was capable of ripping people off left right and center, I was rolling in dough, and I had totally forgotten why I had sat out to make all this money.
I am pretty sure it was a Saturday morning.
‘Hi Andres, I just wanted to give back your keys. Please return your keys to my place and my storage.’
‘Your arrogance I can live with, but you are becoming a bloody crook; the way you deceived my friend… I don’t want to have any further dealings with you. Go to hell!’
Yes, that helped, thank you, and for that, I dedicate this collection not only to Tahawar and Lotta/Knut but also to you, Anders.
I had achieved what I had set out to achieve, and this was obviously the perfect point for me to cash in my chips: no girlfriend, no family, ideas that nobody presently wanted to listen to and all the money in the world. However, it wasn’t as easy as it ought to have been. I had become pretty good at Orrefors and Swedish art glass in general, I was an appreciated speaker and to leave all that for a life of uncertainty and adventure – a life where more likely than not someone sooner or later would try to kill, or at least harm me – felt sort of weird. I realize that this must sound strange to many, but my decision to do what I had planned to do from the very beginning was a very hard one to take, and I remember crying for an entire night from nothing but Kierkegaardian angst, real down-to-earth fear, and self-pity.
I have done many things that I believe that you, if I had elaborated upon them, would have reflected “Amazing!”, “Fantastic!” or something similar. However, in my own mind, this was the most difficult of them all. Yet, though it was hard - it involved not only lots of tears, but also some other things that I will never admit to – I eventually took the decision, and today there is nothing that I am more proud of. So, out I went on my A-T-T/all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project, and that’s where most of my stories henceforth will be taken from, especially the tiger-related stories.
As I started on my A-T-T-project my total country-tally – I had decided to cheat to the extreme as soon as I realized that I had promised myself to travel 200 countries on a planet that housed less than 200 – stood at 37. Against this background, the first thing I decided to do – apart from notching up a dozen or so new countries – was to get a taste of adventure, just like Senior had gotten half a century earlier.
40. THE SELFISH GENIUS
A Short Story by Andres Laszlo Jr.
1995. ‘What to do next?’ There is no better place in this world in which to answer that question than Oxford. I had traveled 125 countries, at least the last 30 without giving as much as a thought to tigers, and I believe that most of my greed had washed away by the time I took up residency at New College in Oxford. Though I might still have been slightly selfish, I do not think that my friends generally thought of me as particularly arrogant. Because in Oxford, I had come to understand that I was not the only genius around. Not only had I understood that there were others geniuses; some of them much more insightful and knowledgeable than myself, but also that here in Oxford knowledge and understanding were things that still - at least in some colleges and some of the time - were appreciated in themselves; that there really were some things that still remained to be captured by “moneyfication.”
_ _ _
As a young student back in Sweden, I had been pretty unusual. Studying like a maniac, and doing whatever my teachers told me to do from the age of seven had earned me grades enough to leave no more than two of my fellow students in my wake, one beaten only by the narrowest of margins, and both bragging about never having opened a school book; I finished 9th grade the third worst student of my school, despite (I believe) studying harder than most. I was also the fattest guy in school, and because of my arrogance and selfish behavior a frontrunner for “least liked,” had there been such a competition. For some reasons - maybe the main one being that I knew my mother to be clever and that the literary world at the time acknowledged my father as an important writer – I didn’t give up on myself, at least not intellectually. I had read stuff written by these chaps called Mendel and Darwin that I figured sounded really smart and what they had to say seemed to suggest that traits somehow were inherited. To this, I added a bit of what a Greek guy had to say about how to reason cleverly:
- A person with two clever parents can’t be a total idiot; I am a person with two clever parents: thus I cannot be a total idiot //.
However, against this stood another syllogism:
- You will be bad at school either if you are an idiot or if you do not study, I do study: thus I must be an idiot //.
I was confused. Having tried the job market, I decided that it was not for me, and a couple of years later I returned to academia, wangling my way back thanks to a distant relative who lectured at the University of Lund; thank you Nils.
At university, things changed dramatically, and though I failed my first exam, 18 official months of rather leisurely studies later (in all honesty the true time was closer to 19 months) I found myself not only with a B.A. but also with a high-school diploma - thank you Göran - all with good grades. Though I had no way of proving it, I thought myself the fastest student in the world and thus also the best and the cleverest of geniuses. Also, during this time, I lost 50 kilos, going from being the fattest guy around, to looking okay and dating the hottest chick in town. Hi, Annette. Of course, I went totally bonkers. I got convinced that I was God’s gift to humanity, and, believing myself such a gift, I immediately sat about looking for what it was that He/She had sent me here to do.
Looking for something good enough to devote the rest of one’s life too might seem a pleasant enough activity. However, once one really and truly: 1) accepts this as one’s duty and 2) mean “the rest of one’s life,” it can easily incline one to take on a I’ve-better-make-darn-sure-this-really-is-the-thing attitude, at least that’s what the situation did to me. Looking at the world through such a better-make-darn-sure mindset, will, unless one is both willing and capable of taking a leap-of-faith, tend to darken most of what one previously has perceived of as white/good. Again, at least that’s what it did to me.
I failed abysmally in finding something good enough to devote my life to. The best I initially found was “Thinking for oneself,” which is a pretty worthless activity without a bit of knowledge and “Doing what one thinks is right,” which sounds all right but could well make heroes out of people such as Adolf Hitler. These “best stuff” simply seemed not-good-enough. A sceptic mindset seemed a really good thing, as did studying with the purpose of not only learning but also understanding but not even these seemed sufficiently close to “white” for me to devote my life to, especially as I realized the amount of literature I would have to plough through; I read very slow, and I have great problems concentrating unless the text is very concentrated.
So instead I turned my existential question around; If I cannot find something good enough to devote my life to fight for, maybe I can find something bad enough to devote my genius to fight against. Though I figure I cast my net pretty wide, I found nothing more “bad/black” than drug illegality. However, though indeed bad, it is a discourse that nevertheless has a few pretty bright spots (like some illegalization enthusiasts having good intentions, some would-have-been users desisting from use because of drugs’ illegal status or high prices and drugs probably rather soon being promoted if legalized). Yet, despite these and some other bright spots, I figured that its overall darkness pushed drug illegality closer to black than the lightest stuff I had found – stuff such as skepticism and studying to understand – had been to white; so I stuck with it. Also, drug illegality from the very beginning seemed to suggest some form of propensity of society to organize itself dysfunctional. This was something that, if true, in its essence could be even (much) closer to 100% black than drug illegality itself. I have found my thing; rather than going in pursuit of selfish goals such as riches I shall devote my genius to fight the insanity of drug illegality! Nobody shall ever call me a selfish genius!
I have never taken much interest in illegal drugs myself, and, generally speaking I am not particularly fond of neither the drugs themselves, the users who take them, the dealers/racketeers who push them, the politicians who illegalize them, the drug policy researchers that promote illegality, the police that claim they are on the verge of solving “the drug problem” or those who take advantage of drug’s illegal status in other ways. Actually, if I had to pick one of the actors on the drug market to invite for dinner, it would probably be a drug lord, because although in a way morally despicable, at least such tend to have some intelligence, an entrepreneurial spirit and some interesting stories to tell.
As to legal drugs, I definitely did not like the part(s) of myself that once allowed me to get so obese I had to be operated upon or to smoke 60 cigarettes/day. I could see why our demand for these two mass-murderers, together with alcohol, ought to be centrally manipulated. However, I figured that drugs had always been there and that they probably always would, at least in its wider sense as something that, generally speaking, is: (i) enjoyable, (ii) good for us (or at least not all that bad) if taken in moderation and (iii) bad for us if too heavily indulged in.
Therefore, rather than in the drug market participants themselves, my interest turned towards what follows in consequence of drug illegalization.
Some of us no doubt do refrain from taking illegal drugs because we are either law-abiding citizens, fearful of the legal system’s retribution or because of the increased prices that illegalization brings about: arguably white/good spots on this otherwise dark discourse. I say “dark” because, though often more difficult to see, illegalization and the higher prices it causes, brings about a whole lot of bad stuff. This often hard-to-see bad stuff was so black that even when mixed with the “white stuff” mentioned above, it took drug illegalization closer to totally black than anything else I had found. However, the unfortunate fact that the white stuff was much easier for the layman to see, meant that drug illegalization's dysfunctionality wasn’t all that easy to detect, something that explained why “nobody” else had seen it and also made the challenge all the more alluring. If I’m so special, I ought to be able to make the world realize that drug illegality is a dysfunctional discourse, I thought.
However, Sweden and the 1990s was not a good place/time to put forward such thoughts and my academic supervisors, the UN in Vienna and the head of our own national police – Hans H, the same man who had headed the search for Olof Palme’s murderer – all earnestly dissuaded me from any attempts to corroborate my suspicions. The impossibility of getting finance, my disinclination to subordinate myself to average-intelligence professors, and concerns over my personal safety all caused me to put my project on the back burner. Dear Hans H, if at least you had understood what I had said.
So what does one do when one is convinced that one is sent to do a particular thing, yet finds that nobody is willing to listen? I decided to on A-T-T/all-those-things a man should have done project, so that if one day the fundamentals changed, I would be ready once more to pick up the drug-illegality-gauntlet.
The first opportunity to do something that sounded like an A-T-T thing that presented itself was to sail around the world, so that’s the project into which I put my energy and what little money I had. All went well until we were about to leave Malaga for the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. That’s when a little girl called Raily told me something like; ‘Andre, you might be big and strong, but you need to sleep like everybody else, and one night when you do, I will kill you.’ Nobody stood up for my right to live, I left, and eventually the boat was said to have sunk in bad weather in Manila harbor. Berra; the port authorities in Manila has no record of our boat sinking; could it be that you owe me some money?
I was broke, humiliated and disgusted with myself, but at least I had come away alive and with the lesson that if one wants to do A-T-T one has better get some dough before setting out to do them.
I have, ever since a fresher at university, harbored a love-hate relation to money and capitalism – they make us lazy buggers do fantastic things, but they also turn us into lesser and easier-to-harness beings – but I would obviously have to put the hate part aside, at least for a while. My grandfather died, and my mother gave me 30,000 Swedish Coronas to get rich with. I called an old housemate from university, working at a Swedish auction house; ‘Hi Lotta, I’ve got 30,000 and need to get rich quick.’ She told me; ‘Try Swedish art glass from the 1930s, my boyfriend seems dead certain, that’ll be the next big thing.’
A bit of studying thought me that Orrefors art glass from in-between the wars was one of only two things – the other was wood and silver stuff from Viking times – we Swedes had ever been undoubtedly best in the world at. Some further investigation suggested that (apart from “Orrefors”), “Ariel” and “Graal” were key words. A few American auction catalogs outlined what one ought to look for in particular and a stroll past a china shop taught me that much suchlike stuff had remained unsold in the shops for decades. Thus, in the shops that I was thinking of as selling only new stuff, I could by what made it into quality auctions overseas, and an auction-test told me that “20 times” wasn’t an unrealistic profit margin. Managing to purchase maybe a fourth of all suchlike art-glass remaining in Swedish shops gave me a sizable stock, writing a book about Swedish art glass made me famous and using this fame to sell the lesser part of my stock made me rich way beyond my needs. Thank you, Lotta W and Knut K. And, thank you Thomas H for selling much of it.
Having solved the financing problem, I put together my A-T-T list: Making English my written language, three years at Oxford or Cambridge, surf Pipeline, proper education, becoming an athlete, 200 countries, learning the formats of writing and shooting a man-eating tiger were all among the ten (or twelve) things I promised I’d do my best to get done. However, there was still a month’s worth of study to be finished before I had completed the mandatory course part of my Ph.D., which was something I wanted finished before departing on my project; Theory of Science was the title of the course. I had the most fascinating month of lectures I’ve ever had; my interest for philosophy was awoken, and I added “a B.A. worth of philosophy” to my list, taking away “surviving in the wild.” Thank you, Jan H both for the course and for suggesting that I’d opt for Oxford.
I arrived at Oxford with mainly three resolutions in mind: staying the three years I had resolved to stay, getting the knowledge/understanding corresponding to a B.A. in philosophy and becoming an athlete. Also, I figured I’d start to work on the much more demanding projects of (i) Making English my written language (I started by setting out to learn every word in Oxford Advance Learner’s Dictionary) and (ii) To become educated (I started by learning [though I, of course, didn’t always understand] every [that I could at least somehow relate to] concept in Modern Thought).
I arrived at the Sub-faculty of Philosophy at 10 Merton St. a good month before term started (Jan H’s fault). The only chap in office was Harvey Brown (I had never heard of him), who asked an elderly professor called Richard Harré (I had never heard of him) to set me up as an academic visitor and arrange a pigeon hole for me. The only letter I received in that pigeon hole before the start of term was an invitation to attend the funeral of a deceased old professor called Karl Popper (I had never heard of him either). Thank you, Harvey.
Actually, I met Richard Harré again, as I figured a seminar on moral philosophy sounded interesting. As (i) My interest in philosophy had been awoken, (ii) I figured myself for all “practical purposes” being postdoc and (iii) My English in my own opinion was excellent, I figured that professor Harré’s seminar ought to be the perfect place for me to start. I understood a few “and,” “but,” “if” and “then” but that was pretty much it, and I returned to OALD and decided to stay away from philosophical seminars at least for Michaelmas.
Actually - as to each new lecturer I had to say; ‘Excuse me Professor/Mister (those at All Soul’s didn’t like to be called professors), my name is Andres Laszlo Jr., I am a visiting academic from the University of Lund, do you mind if I sit in?’ – the way I said it, my pronunciation, soon became an issue. My mother, who is an English teacher, had taught me to speak proper Oxford English (though my friends called it snotty-nosed-irritating-brat-English) and though I never got a ‘no’, to ask a humble question pronounced thus, I soon realized, wasn’t a very good idea. Therefore I believe that I could be unique in the sense that I could well be the only academic ever to have lost his Oxford English at Oxford.
Though both my self-esteem and my genius had taken a knock from sitting in on my benefactor’s seminar, on my third year in Oxford I managed to get even with him; attending Richard Harré’s seminar; at least this time I understood most of what he was saying.
After the University of Lund – not counting a short stay at UCI in Irvine, that really should have been Berkeley and that really only served to cause my break-up with Farida - Oxford thus became my next academic port of call. I had a ball. I did philosophy, I rowed, I did Shakespeare, I threw the discus, I did quantum stuff, I did ballroom dancing, I met three of the most covetable women I have ever encountered and I met people who allowed their thinking to take them to wherever logic, reasoning and a desire to do good, rather than personal gain, suggested: Real People! Wow! Although I turned the three gorgeous girls down – I was getting there, but Farida’s shadow still kept me from serious involvements – at the time I would have said that it was the best time of my life, and I spent three years there, staying with whatever college volunteered to put me up, from St. Anne’s to All Soul’s. One of my favorite colleges was New College; they let me have a room first on campus and then in what used to be the dean’s house.
One of those Real People I met at Oxford was John (I cannot swear that this really was his name and his surname I definitely have forgotten); he was an interesting American chap, and he too stayed at the deanery. He took an interest in my unusual intellectual past, and he had some interesting things to say about my “retarded-to-genius” metamorphosis. Actually, that was nothing but what was to be expected, because he was taking his Ph.D. in biogenetics and was in Oxford to see his English supervisor. His supervisor was a famous chap and a senior fellow at New College and John suggested that this supervisor could be interested in my sudden metamorphosis and that he might want to have a chat with me; ‘Even though you obviously are as stupid today as when you were the third worst in your school, you still managed to fool the system, and that must count for something.’ John had a sarcastic streak and kept accusing me of being selfish by engaging in my A-T-T project rather than pursuing a ‘proper’ academic career. Then he added, ‘I must warn you; my supervisor is a little unusual, and unless I manage to convince him that you’re not here to kill him he won’t see you.’ I assumed that John probably wasn’t all that serious.
I was looking forward to my chat with John’s supervisor. A genetics genius sounded exactly the right person to explain my metamorphosis; Maybe I can get some mental phenomena or at least a gene named after me.
The next day John had news for me.
‘Sorry, he doesn’t want to see you, let alone talk to you.’
‘He’s not the sort of person who gives reasons without a good reason.’
As I was about to leave the deanery so as to pop over to the college later that same week the door was opened from the outside and a not very big gentleman in what seemed his early fifties looked me up and down. In horror, I read his mind. I was being classified: animal, mammal, etc. all the way down to species; and, to be particular, to the subspecies “possibly aggressive mesomorph.”
From the very moment that I first realized that I could be nothing less than God’s gift to humanity, I had always harbored a sense of intellectual superiority or at least equality in relation to my fellow human beings. I mean, after all, we can’t all be God’s gifts, can we?
This gentleman - I assumed it had to be John’s afraid-of-people-and-not-interested-in-fantastic-me supervisor - was not to be dismissed as such a not-God’s-gift; he exuded an intellectual power that I had never come across before, and that simply could not be dismissed. However, and much worse, I could feel that I had been dismissed. I had been dismissed and categorized as a mesomorph. No way I was about to stand back and let this little bugger through the door first! However, the little bugger - though I was twice his size and he apparently scared – appeared to have no intention of letting me through first either, and thus it all ended up with that we squeezed past one another, not without what must have been some discomfort on the good professor’s part. I cannot recall who got through the doorframe first, it might well have been a dead heat, but I do recall that I inhaled deeply, leaned forward and sort of flexed my chest muscles so as to make sure that my opponent’s passage didn’t get unduly comfortable.
Later the same day, as I came to check my pigeonhole at New College, I was greeted by the head porter.
‘Mr. Laszlo, I am afraid we will no longer be able to house you.’
‘But it has been a true pleasure to have you staying with us.’
‘Does this have anything to do with John’s supervisor?’
‘You mean you are asking whether our college’s most esteemed professor didn’t enjoy being manhandling in the deanery yesterday? No, of course that has nothing to do with it; we simply need the accommodation for another visiting fellow. Though, considering your relative body masses, don’t you figure your behavior was a wee bit uncalled for, selfish even?’
‘If anyone is selfish, it’s that esteemed professor of yours.’
‘Mr. Laszlo, are you trying to be funny?’
‘And I wasn’t manhandling him.’
‘So if you would kindly vacate the premises by four o’clock, and please do not forget to return the keys.’
Fifty minutes or so later, standing by my lovely Alfa Romeo Spider 2.0, with all my belongings – well, at least all the belongings I had brought to, and acquired in, Oxford - I felt unfairly treated. I felt absolutely certain that the genetics professor was behind this. I figured that however famous; he hadn’t behaved as well as he ought to because the decent thing would have been at least to have spoken to me first, rather than using his position to evict me. I considered protesting, but this was Oxford, and here I was a lowly visiting academic whereas this glorified midget apparently was one of New College’s most famous residents. Thus – as this place’s survival-rules no doubt defined him as the fittest of us – I figured there was little to be won from protesting. And, after all, it was true that I had made it a little difficult for the man to make it through the door, and as he actually had opened it first…
I took down the roof of my car, and I started loading it, Where shall I sleep tonight? That’s when I noticed that during that night - I think, or maybe I simply hadn’t noticed earlier – my lovely car had been bombarded by a large number of chestnuts from above, causing a dozen or so indentations. Watching John coming out through the darn door to say goodbye it struck me that this hadn’t been the best few hours of my life.
‘What on earth have you done to my supervisor?’
‘Nothing… He wanted to get in, and I wanted to get out and we… we compromised.’
‘And that’s all?’
‘Maybe I made myself a little bigger than I am.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘He seemed so bloody arrogant.’
‘As if he thought himself twice as smart as I am.’
‘He’s smart, but he’s not twice as smart as you.’
‘He’s about a million times smarter than you will ever be, or I for that matter.’
‘Was this because he didn’t want to see you?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Well I think he thinks so,’
‘Whatever he thinks of himself, or of what I did, getting me evicted is not fair.’
‘I warned you that he is a bit unusual; he actually believes people are out to kill him.’
‘Because a lot of people would love to see him dead; he’ll probably go down in history as the most famous atheist of the twentieth century.’
John explained that his supervisor had presented the world with some new ideas that had upset a lot of people and that he now preferred to lead a secluded existence, at least when not on a lecturing tour.
‘That’s why he isn’t too keen on meeting new people.’
‘Yes, especially big strong guys that look as if they could wring his neck if they felt like it.’
I suppose I could see things his supervisor’s way, but that didn’t make things much easier. Where do I sleep tonight?
Being evicted didn’t really bother me all that much because the term was coming to a close and the girl in whose company I had spent the last few nights appreciated me for the genius I am and never accused me of being anything even close to selfish.
It was time for me to go traveling – the 200-hundred-countries part of my all-those-things project could not be neglected just because I was having a ball in Oxford and I had anyhow made a point out of changing habitat between terms – so I would have had to look for new accommodations upon returning even if I hadn’t been evicted. I don’t remember where this particular travel took me, presumably to some new country or countries, but five years or so later, the 29th of January of 1998 to be precise, I found myself in Calcutta, and by now I had started to write on a fictionalized work, where tigers played a prominent part. I had met a seriously interesting chap up in Lahore ten years or so earlier – Hyatt Faruki – who had written a book about man-eating tigers he had hunted: Man-Eaters of Sundarbans.
As to myself, I had started the fictional part of my writing career by writing about the adventures of Odin’s son, as he walks the earth in present time. The son, Karli Nobel, doesn’t know that he’s special and as the writer, I had made it my job to put challenges in the poor man’s path, and thus to make him grow until he could live up to his father’s expectations. One good way of making him grow, I figured, was to match him against a man-eating tiger that was partly real, partly created by yours truly: Chicch Kadune.
Hyatt had once promised to take me hunting a man-eater if I got his book published in Swedish or in English, and I had indeed taken his book to my publishers, who, after unfortunately having decided that it was politically too incorrect, nearly as unfortunately, had sent it back to Hyatt. I was in Calcutta partly in order to gather information about the man-eating tigers of nearby Sundarbans, so as to be able to give my readers a feeling of authenticity in regard to my character’s interactions with this most frightening of felines.
One of the ways in which I tried to gather this information was to gate-crash the Calcutta Press Club – ‘Is there anyone here who knows anything about man-eating tigers?’ – which was how I met Kunal Sengupta, who has remained my friend ever since, Thank you Kunal for all your assistance. Another good way to authenticate my tiger-texts would be to get hold of Hyatt’s book: Man-Eaters of Sundarbans and, quite conveniently, “The Calcutta Book Fair” was just about to open.
Calcutta turned out to be India’s literary center, and as I arrived the book fair’s main event was just about to begin. There were book signings, hot Bollywood actresses, guest speakers and much more. I had arrived with some new acquaintances from the press club, and we were all making for the main event; a famous writer that I had read quite a lot about.
There were cameras and journalists everywhere – Indian, English, American, French, etc. – and I only managed to get close to the podium because of my size and the company I was in.
Indians are generally pretty short, and even if there were a lot of foreign press, my 196 centimeters and 130 kilos did make me stand out and maybe that’s why the famous speaker noticed me.
This time the famous genius that had had me evicted from the deanery - John’s famous, selfish and fearful supervisor - looked at me in such horror that it seemed as if he feared his inning was about to come to an end.
In an attempt to have just a wee bit of fun with the selfish genius, I gave him the sort of threatening look that I assumed he would have expected from a contract killer, but I never got the pleasure of seeing his reaction, because at that moment our eyeball-to-eyeball was interrupted by a loudspeaker.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm applaud to welcome Professor Richard Dawkins from New College, Oxford.’
A Short Story by Andres Laszlo Sr.
4. MY FRIEND IN THE PHOTO
1935. As so often will be the case, I am unable to attach an exact year to this story, but by now it seems pretty clear that Senior is proficient at what was to become his first “real” profession: directing theatre, and as for the first time he takes on the part of “I”, I have chosen to believe that this “I” really is Senior himself and that the experience at least in part is real. Previous to this I believe that he had worked as a critic, an actor and as a stage manager, so I’d say it couldn’t have been much earlier than 1935 (when he was 25). I also know that he did manage his father’s traveling thespian society for a while, maybe he even owned it, and I would not be surprised to find that I have half-brothers and sisters from this time. However, here it seems as if he works as a director-for-hire; maybe it is from the time just before he took over/started to run Maximilian's company. Actually, he sounds a bit older than 25, but as he left Hungary 1938, it cannot have been much later either. Considering the time, the place and our family background, the vampire bit must have come quite natural to Senior who (born “von Keller”) must have had as ancestors all sorts of allegedly undead or at least nocturnal creatures. Actually, oral tradition has it that we (the von Kellers) are related to the Draculas. My father would always work well into the early mornings and arise late, something that I - as a child, and fascinated by vampires – remember extrapolating into theories that displeased my mother, especially as my father did nothing whatsoever to discourage me.
_ _ _
A year or so before the outbreak of the Second World War, I was staying in Nové Zámky in Czechoslovakia, whose “Magyar” provinces at the time had formed several Hungarian-speaking theater companies. Here the owner of one such recently formed company had invited me to stage Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s mystery play Jedermann, a production that later would be performed across much of Europe. Opening night was quickly approaching, and as I had undertaken to have the play rehearsed and ready in less than a week from now, time was in short supply.
It was the night after a pre-dress-rehearsal performance, and I was just finishing off a cigarette in my office when someone quietly and somewhat indecisively knocked at my door. Considering the apparent lack of assertiveness, it seemed strange to me when, without waiting for an answer, a tall and scrawny man appeared before me, wrapped in a large cape and flaunting a Lavalliere necktie. Despite his young age – he could have been no more than in his mid-twenties – his eyes were deeply sunken, with large bags hanging beneath them. His shoulders were as narrow as they were hunched and in his bony hands, with fingers that looked like an eagle’s claws, he held several manuscripts.
“I could have sworn that you didn’t recognize me,” were the first words to pass over his thin, bloodless lips, and he said them sort of like a greeting; a greeting that coincided with that I, once I had done up my trousers, turned around to face him.
“My name is Salgó, Bandi Salgó, son of the Salgó of the Golden Mills,” he said – theatrically exaggerating his every gesture, as if he wanted to make sure I understood that what he was telling me was great news indeed - all while pointedly looking at the chair in front of my desk.
Before I had had the time to offer him a seat he had sat himself down in front of me, and if I remember correctly, I apologized for being so unprepared.
However, the man did not seem offended, and he went on to congratulate me on what he was certain would become a great success, repeatedly insisting that the performance had provided him with the greatest artistic pleasure he had ever experienced. He also had come in order to renew the friendship between us. It took him very little time to “remind me” that his father had once worked in my father’s theater company; something that he swiftly corroborated by means of an old photo of our fathers together with the two of us as young children on the steps of a bandstand in some public park. True to tradition, he explained that he had, just as I, followed in his father’s footsteps and just as I had become a theater director he had become an actor. However, with a sad countenance he also informed me that; “Although I may be traversing villages across the country with a small company of which I’m the leading man, I am doing this more in the carriage of Talia, than in that of Good Luck.”
He told me with no feigned modesty whatsoever that he had a great talent that one day doubtlessly would get deployed in the services of some great theater company in Budapest. But he also confessed to me, with the most ruthless self-criticism imaginable, that he was no master in the art of self-promotion, and that in addition, he lacked the means to represent himself effectively, a fact that he admitted only very reluctantly as he considered this a most shameful shortcoming.
Slowly, and not at all without further detours, did my old photo-friend approach the true motive for his visit. He invited me to where his company was giving a performance in three days’ time: a small town in the Cárpatos Minor in which he would be playing Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. He begged me to come and see him perform, and then, assuming that I liked what I saw, to help him find work in Budapest, since, and I quote, “It would be as easy for you as to lift your little finger.”
Such a trip wouldn’t have been particularly beneficial to me, because in addition to getting tired from the journey and the experience I would be losing time that could have been well spent fiddling with the details of my own play; changes to be made, reviews to be considered, critics to be smarmed, actors to be managed, an understudy-structure to be developed, local dignitaries to invite, etc. When I explained that unfortunately, it would be completely impossible for me to attend his performance, I had thought that this would put a swift end to the matter. However, it was soon clear that I had severely underestimated the resistance and perseverance that my photo-friend was capable of putting up and I couldn't help but wonder why he hadn’t used these powers of persuasion to talk himself into a better company.
He spared no detail in describing and elaborating on, all the delights that would befall upon me as a consequence of spending a day in the village. He talked of the rooster’s crow, the fresh air, the lovely scenery and the homemade bread; he even promised to arrange for me a plate of bear stew. Once he’d gotten past the delights of homemade moonshine and the firm and thin-wasted girls of the village, I had already realized that further resistance would be in vain. What seemed like an authentic tear shone in his left eye as I promised that I would come, and, to finish it all off, he confessed that the performance was being held in my honour, and that the only reason why he hadn’t told me this earlier, was that he didn’t want to put any form of inappropriate pressure on me.
In the afternoon of the agreed day, a miserable-looking old Tatra came along to pick me up at my hotel. It was already late autumn, and everywhere nature was starting to yawn, preparing itself for its winter slumber. We climbed up towards and eventually onto, and then along, the mountain highway, at every turn setting off legions of crows.
“We should get ready for a harsh winter,” my driver explained, pointing at some young tree branches - many of which had already been nibbled off by rabbits or hares - giving the trees a sad appearance.
We then spotted two deer frolicking about in a clearing, as carefree as if they knew that the season was over, yet nothing about the oncoming winter. They didn’t stop playing even as we passed by them, a behavior that my driver took that as an excuse to start complaining about the local wildlife. He complained about the foxes that without any good reason would prefer chickens to rats or crows; about the wild boars that would dig up the roots of young trees and newly sown plants; about the deer that were too fast and clever to be trapped, and about the wolves who bit and killed and whose bodies more often than not seemed inhabited by even more malicious creatures. He then gave me a fright as he suddenly swerved off the highway and straight into Mother Nature, for no obvious reason taking a detour into the forest, dangerously maneuvering the vehicle through the trees. He later explained that he had done so, because he had seen an owl in the forests and didn’t dare to drive straight past it, as doing so would have brought about something that, though he couldn’t exactly remember what, yet was quite terrible; he figured it probably had something to do with the wolves or even with vampires. It was only then that I recalled that we were crossing into the land of lore and that to these mountain-dwellers and where superstition was an integral part of everyday life. I hope my alleged ancestry won’t be an issue.
As it was getting darker, the car’s driver stopped criticizing the forest and its inhabitants, and instead, he tried to entertain me with tales of the supernatural: miraculous events, wolf-men, ghosts, the living dead, goblins and evil spirits. The stories about these monsters - the least terrifying of which seemed to be the ones that drank the blood of horses or cows when the moon was full or under the cover of stormy nights – did not fail to entertain me, especially as my companion seemed to judge these creatures with much more leniency and respect than, for instance, rabbits or deer. I, however, prudently kept my opinions to myself, and as we finally arrived at the village, I got out of the car with my left foot first, obeying my companion’s expert advice.
Mr. Salgó was waiting for me together with the gentleman who had the highest authority in these parts of the mountains: the walking-stick manufacturer in whose car I had made the journey. My first task, therefore, became to pay a visit to his factory that gave work to some thirty or so machine operators, and thus was the most important source of employment in the region. We were then presented with some “first-press” moonshine as an aperitif in his office before we set off for the theater. On the way, Mr. Salgó apologized for not having accompanied me on my journey. He explained that he had been rehearsing day and night in anticipation of his big moment, all for no other reason than that he didn’t want to make a fool out of himself in front of me. He then asked me to elaborate on the word ‘vermoulu,’ a word used in the script: he wanted to know what it really meant and on how it ought to be pronounced.
Before he left to get into costume, he dropped, quite intentionally, a little piece of paper: the slip with ‘vermoulu’ written on it in wide, childish writing. He then put his foot on top of it before swiftly picking it up and putting it back into his pocket. I looked at him, momentarily perplexed, but then I understood – or, remembered, rather – and an explanation was no longer required. Local thespian superstition obliged every actor to stamp on a piece of fallen paper before taking to the stage, as failing to do so would condemn oneself to a disastrous performance. “I’m not one bit superstitious,” he assured me, laughing; “You can ask anybody. We could all do excellently well without all this medieval foolishness; behavior behooving country folk for whom it’s their main source of entertainment. Hopefully, we shall see each other during the interval,” he added, and with that, he left.
The performance was being held in the large function room of the local hotel’s restaurant, at one end of which a makeshift stage had been built on top of a large number of empty barrels. On top of it all, in the right-hand corner, there was a small padded bench. This was the only on-stage seating there was, and it had been built in honor of the theater’s main patron, the walking-stick manufacturer, and myself. The bench creaked ominously as the patron - dressed in tails, with a beautiful white autumnal rose in his buttonhole, together with myself - sat himself down on it.
After the high-pitched sound of a horn, the stage manager, dressed in an old combat jacket, lowered the wicks of the room’s two large gas lamps. Then, as the horn sounded a second time, the man - now holding an enormous torch apparently designed to light much bigger things - began to light the candles that made up the stage lighting. He then left the stage, and as the horn was blown for the third time, he raised the curtain.
The peculiar arrangement of the audience’s seating surprised me, because instead of the usual parallel straight or arched rows, the layout of the seats was in the shape of a half-sun, with the seats emanating from the centre of the stage in a way that, viewed from the prompter’s box, formed “rays” that spread out in straight lines into the large room. I had been puzzling over what could be the reason behind this peculiar arrangement for a while when the patron noticed and told me in a hushed voice, “In a village as small as this one, costs can only be recovered if one can count on selling tickets to all of the local so-called ‘intellectuals’, something that becomes even more important when the women of the village, as on this occasion, boycott a production.
The walking-stick manufacturer’s explanation had left me with two obvious questions, and as I answered, “Yes?” I didn’t really know which he was about to answer.
“Well you see, generally speaking, the patrons are more than happy to support whatever cultural events that are being offered: happy to promise beforehand to attend one, two, or even several, performances. But for such a generous patron to sit in the second or third row… They simply wouldn’t. So this is our way of creating eight front rows. You know how we countryfolks are. Good people, most of us, very traditional, but, how should I put it? A bit too worried about appearance and about our own importance.”
The applause at the raising of the curtain cued the entrance of Mr. Salgó. With his painter’s costume, and in spite of his English pipe, he looked more like a Persian poet than the Norwegian painter that he was supposed to be. However, he soon made us forget about his somewhat inappropriate costume, and after his first few lines, I had no doubt whatsoever that my friend in the photo knew how to use his voice and that he indeed was the excellent actor that he had claimed to be. However, it was soon equally obvious that the talent and quality that surrounded him in the form of his fellow actors did little to get the best out of him. Yet, the man’s talent and potential – mainly dampened but also in some ways enhanced by his dismal fellow artists – was great, close to extraordinary.
It was unpleasant, the way that every actor was performing, not for the audience, but for me personally; they had learned their lines for me, for me they had ironed their best clothes, and because of me they were wearing more make-up than they otherwise would have. It was at me – Mr.-all-powerful-from-Budapest, the man whom they presumably had been told with one finger, could get them a one-way ticket to the good life - that they directed their every line.
During these reflections of mine, the performance continued. Under our bench, in a seat right next to and below the stage, what looked like a local landowner was smoking his pipe. The man, who didn’t seem to enjoy himself one bit, had placed his large hat in front of him on the edge of the stage where Oswald was now with great enthusiasm and energy describing his sorrows to his mother, and I noticed that he was finding it difficult to move according to the choreography, because of the landowner’s greasy and quite appalling hat.
After a while, I realized that the plot of the play had been altered. Because of my visit they, of course, had wanted to make sure of a full house despite of the women’s boycott. And, in order to guarantee that, I assumed that they had gone in search for some ruse to attract not only the cultured patrons and intellectuals but also some of the superstitious villagers. This they had undoubtedly succeeded to do in part by means of the play’s seductive title – Ghosts. And, though I undoubtedly was their main target, they, of course, didn’t want to let their audience down. And, since the drama titled Ghosts didn’t actually contain a single one of the ghosts that the audience no doubt had come to see, the members of the theatre company were now obviously doing their utmost to compensate for this by adding mystery through every means imaginable, including some pretty low scams and subterfuges: coloured lamps, wolf-howls, bat shadows, off-stage death rattles and claps of thunder.
Let me give a short summary of Ghosts, Ibsen’s masterpiece: A young man returns home to his widowed mother, and he then in a very short space of time, falls victim to two nervous breakdowns. Deeply saddened, his mother suspects that her son has gone mad; a reasonable suspicion, it might have seemed at the time, as his father had syphilis. In front of her son, she then dangles the possibility that the country air might cure him, and that the likelihood of this would be further improved if he accepted sexual abstinence, something to be achieved by him sharing a bed with his sister. Oswald accepts these conditions and asks his mother that should she see that madness overcomes him, she shall kill him with a poison that he obliges her to carry at all times. It is a play about the sins of the father being visited upon the son, and it is obvious that Ibsen believed that the disease was inherited rather than transmitted. As in the times of Ibsen, the name of the father’s illness wasn’t to be spoken on stage the author cleverly uses the word vermoulu. Ghosts is a play very much about taboo subjects: religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia.
A wave of applause greeted the artist, who made his bow, took what could best be described as a “mid-session curtain call” and then accompanied us to the hotel’s wine cellar, where we all had what the walking-stick manufacturer referred to as a ‘cardiac tonic.'
In the second act, Mr. Salgó continued to give the audience goose bumps in more or less every scene and as we finally got to the last part of the drama, there was no reason whatsoever for the audience not to be more than happy with what it had witnessed, at least not from the star performer. The end - in Oswald’s great scene, as in any well put-together theatrical work - took us through the dramatic conclusion of the piece.
Oswald was sitting in the living room together with his mother. They had been awake and talking all night when the mother realizes that by now there should be enough light outside and as their lamp thus is superfluous she turns it off. She heads to the window and opens the curtains whereupon the morning light floods the room, violently startling Oswald, who slowly focuses his gaze and entire being on this deluge of light. Then, after what seems like a never-ending silence, he lets his lower lip hang down - stupidly, insanely, letting there be no doubt that he indeed is mad - and he turns to his mother, “I want the sun, mother. The sun. The sun.
This actually is, and in a way ought to be, the last line of the play - apart from where the mother acts out the promised poisoning of her son - at least in the play as Ibsen figured it ought to be performed.
However, Mr. Salgó was not ready to allow a few missing lines to make his performance a lesser experience than he figured it ought to be. Mr. Salgó was giving us his all, clearly showing us that he was not of a time but for all ages. He was proving that he was a man of action, improvisation, and good taste; that he was a man together with whom one did not get one’s money’s worth, but much more. He was no media-enhanced snowman-actor ready to melt when the heat got up, nor was he acting dishonestly like the Yankees that camouflaged their lack of talent with what at best could be called stage presence, declaring their love with their hands in their pockets, or eliminating armies of gangsters with no more than a handgun, alone while chewing gum in their mouths. No, he was most certainly nothing like that. Rather, he was showing us how one should get lost in a scene without losing it. First, he began to gasp most prudently then he made the unmistakable sounds of a death rattle; the exaggerated look in his eyes and the movements of his body made it appear as if he genuinely was doing a St. Vitus dance. In his movements, he skilfully combined the symptoms of epilepsy, rabies and strychnine poisoning. He thus extended this great dramatic scene for several long minutes, countless times repeating the words “mother” and “sun”; words that he hadn’t dared change, probably only because he figured I might get offended.
I don’t know how long he was in this repetitive and convulsive state, but the man with the disgusting hat who sat just below us appeared to grow increasingly impatient, and after throwing some angry glances – first encouraging and later accusing - at the stage manager, who was preparing to lower the curtain, he decided that he had had enough. The landowner made a few grunts, got up, put on his hat most furiously and left, bumping into, if not deliberately kicking, several chairs on his way out. And thus concluded the performance and I have to say, in defense of the audience, that nobody seemed happy or even entertained by the big-hatted man’s last-minute intervention. And, what’s more, some even hushed the rude perpetrator of the disturbance.
We went down to congratulate Mr. Salgó in his dressing room, where I assured him that in spite of the somewhat unorthodox prolongation of the ending I had enjoyed what I had witnessed and in front of several witnesses I promised that I would indeed try to get him an audition in Budapest. A little later, glowing with delight, Mr. Salgó accompanied us to the dining room.
As not a single woman was present at the dinner gathering I was placed as the head of the table that had been assembled by the pushing together of several smaller ones, as if for a banquet. At my side was placed the main sponsor, the walking-stick manufacturer, who was deploring the lack of female attendance, something that, he admitted, indirectly accounted for the emphasizing of the supernatural. The manufacturer then informed me that though my visit, of course, had caused a virtual revolution amongst the women of the village, other things hadn’t panned out as expected.
The sophisticated women - who, though in a clear minority, constituted the main part of the village’s social elite - was an audience that normally was more than happy to attend, though only as long as the subject matter wasn’t too risqué. This subject matter was pretty risqué, and that was unfortunately not the only problem, because my past had caught up with me, even out here in the middle of nowhere. I was born Andres Laszlo von Keller, and according to some rumours, probably nothing more than malicious slander, the von Kellers allegedly had some grand-, grand-, grand- something, that had married into a well-known and disliked line of vampires. Thus, when my presence had been added to the equation, the women had decided to give the “first night” a miss.
The gypsy orchestra started to play a Strauss waltz as a stew made from smoked wild boar was served. Next to each dinner guest, carved chalices made out of deer’s antlers were spreading the intoxicating aroma of moonshine so exquisite that it seemed certain to put both heart and stomach in the best agreement imaginable.
The witty pharmacist had started to enchant the table by telling entertaining stories, and the orchestra had lowered the volume so that their music, rather than to stand out, formed an integral and pleasing part of the meal.
The battered veal was brought out next, and I soon received the bear stew that I had been promised, after which followed several other dishes. As this region produces no wine, at least no wine worth mentioning, each dish was accompanied by 80% or 90% proof spirits, and with the combined effects of the ingredients described above, the dinner was turning itself into something more than just a meal: a wonderfully harmonic interaction of smells, sounds, moonshine vapours, aromas and witticisms, all against the delightful and harmonizing background music of the gypsy orchestra.
The owner of the windmill modestly recited some of his own poetry, and the young parish priest announced that in a recently-received letter, he had been credibly informed that the father-in-law of one of his cousins in Prague had a friend in a high place who had made some rather compromising-sounding verbal commitments in reference to the village’s long-held ambition of getting its own railway station.
With a smile of complicity on his lips, the pharmacist came around to inform me that he had been reliably informed that shortly we were to become witnesses to a hilarious joke, as some unidentified prankster had put mercury salt in the gypsy orchestras’ drinks. I looked towards the stage, which mirage-like seemed to be floating in the haze of tobacco smoke, and I noticed that some of the musicians indeed had started to look a little pale. At the table, everyone pretended not to be watching, even though they were obviously all keenly waiting for events to unfold. The ingenious author of this hilarious prank - who of course was very well aware of the consequences of dispensing a laxative such as mercury salt in large doses - with great pomp turned to the orchestra and requested that a Liszt rhapsody known for its particularly long duration be performed.
It didn’t take us long to realize that his time studying pharmacy at the university hadn’t been wasted. The second violin’s face was already covered in sweat, and after only a few more minutes the man quite un-dramatically left the ensemble. The face of the third violin, a man of a naturally pale complexion, soon started to take on a greenish tint and as he was ever more convulsively squeezing his lips together, he was going ever more out of tune. The first violin, which was also the conductor of the orchestra, threw the third violin some furious glances; it seemed the conductor didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Shortly thereafter, giving up the battle, the third violin ran out of the room, a bit like a limping rabbit, leaving behind both his instrument and his dignity. So then there were only three: the first violin, the timpanist, and the double bass that, apparently undaunted, set themselves to get to the end of the piece, apparently having no idea of how difficult a task this would prove to be. The timpanist was next; more and more frequently he began to hit the frame rather than the skins, and soon he started to squeeze his legs and other parts of his anatomy together so hard and in such a strenuous manner that it became both painful and contagious to behold, and several of the guests felt that they too had to leave the table. The poor timpanist kept looking at his shoes as if he already knew the inevitable outcome of what was happening; it was as if he had realized that it was now only a question of time.
Meanwhile, and in consequence, the rhapsody had started to sound ever more like a gathering of sexually excited cats, and this enchanting masterpiece was indeed being deformed into something close to unrecognizable. This continued deterioration culminated with the timpanist’s collapse onto the floor, all while the first violin, helplessly scrunched up his nose until it seemed to sort of blind him. Maybe it actually did, because something did cause him to start poking his one remaining functioning colleague in his face with his bow. Meanwhile, the timpanist had broken into tears – the pain variety rather than the lachrymose - and he was now crawling towards the exit, accompanied by the merciless laughter of the guests. The stubborn leader of the orchestra - as he finally must have realized what was happening and that he would not be able to see the rhapsody through to its end - tried to save some face. He put down his violin with a determined gesture, and although it was obvious that he had to muster all of his strength and willpower, applauded by the audience, he managed to walk upright all the way to the door.
Only the double bass player made it to the end of the piece, apparently without having a clue as to what had caused the strange behavior displayed by his fellow musicians. Then, as I would later be told - despite his advanced age, the man must have been well past seventy - for the very first time in his life, he had become the orchestra’s soloist. In order to congratulate him, the guests invited him for drinks at the table, but only to discover that the man didn’t like alcohol. However, the old man did defend his colleagues bravely, explaining that he precisely knew what must have caused his colleagues’ sudden illness. Their cook hadn’t made the sign of the cross before cutting the loaf of bread for breakfast, and if that wasn’t the cause, then it surely must be that the aforementioned cook had kept a piece of that very same bread in his pocket in order to poison the neighbour’s cat that was sneaking out of the area where it was supposed to stay in order to kill the cook’s young chicks under cover of night.
By now – the smoke was so thick that it prevented one from seeing what was going on at the other side of the table, and even the walls and the tablecloth seemed to be seeping alcohol - I felt I’d had enough fun. I was tired, and I wanted to get back to Nové Zámky and my own play. They tried to persuade me to stay the night, but seeing my determination, they eventually got me a driver. Mr. Salgó, who was in an overwhelmingly good mood, waved me goodbye. He had offered to come along and was now assuring me of his eternal gratitude, again and again repeating and writing down addresses on which I should be able to contact him if I wanted him to come to Budapest. I could sense that he was quite happy when I declined his offer to accompany me back to Nové Zámky.
The driver, who was not at all thrilled about the night-time journey ahead of us, had a wolf’s foot dangling from his rear mirror, and he explained that he considered it a much better talisman than the traditional rabbit’s foot, especially when dealing with the undead, with whom we might very well find ourselves interacting, unless we postponed our journey until the next morning. Then, in order to fortify himself, as a moral tonic, he took a large swig from a bottle of denatured alcohol, which – quite logically, because of its low price - was the only drink that poor people could afford. And with that, we set off into the night and onto what was to become a pleasantly uneventful return journey.
After the premier and some additional performances of Jedermann, all very well received, I temporarily left the play into the competent hands of the company’s owner, whereupon I continued to Vienna where I evaluated and eventually purchased the production rights to two newly written comedies. I then returned for several more performances of Jedermann in Czechoslovakia, again all very well received, and it thus took quite some time before I found myself back in Budapest.
True to my word, I spoke about Mr. Salgó to several directors of theater companies, and eventually, I did find one who expressed interest and declared himself prepared to meet with him. I sent a letter informing Salgó of this to the address - or the addresses, rather – that he had provided me with, asking that he’d come and see me in the week before Christmas. At the same time, I informed him about the theater director, the details of the recommendation I had provided for him and the texts he should learn. I was surprised when he didn’t respond to my letters, and as I figured that he probably hadn’t received them, I wrote to the remaining addresses, the less likely ones, and for a long time I kept expecting him to show up – he didn’t.
It was at the beginning of spring when, in relation to something completely unrelated to Mr. Salgó’s failure to show up, I visited an old cafe-cum-restaurant that also served as a thespian recruitment office and a club for provincial actors that were trying to make it in Budapest. It was here that I found an itinerant actor who knew what had become of my friend in the photograph and the reasons for his absence and silence.
During the course of a night’s partying - I figured it was in all likelihood the very same night of partying as the one I had partly witnessed – some strange events had taken place. An educated gentleman that was also one of the patrons – the itinerant actor that was telling me this, believed that the man was a pharmacist - had thought up a hilarious joke. The man had declared that he would buy a casket of moonshine for the actors if someone among them was prepared to pay a visit to the nearby cemetery and steal a cross. The man that was telling me this believed that it could quite possibly have been said in the hope that this well-nigh impossible task would put an end to the partying and thus to further expenses for the patrons. However, the man obviously hadn’t taken Mr. Salgó’s presence into consideration, or, if he had, he hadn’t known that the man wasn’t one bit superstitious. The celebrated young actor, who allegedly in all likelihood soon was to make his début in one of Budapest’s leading theatres, had offered himself to perform the task, and Mr. Salgó hadn’t flinch an eyelid when told that he would have to take down and bring back not any old cross, but a cross from atop one of the tombs.
As he returned - carrying a cross that every villager recognized as it was “special” – he was greeted with amazement, veneration, eulogies, and fear of retribution from those being dug down in the graveyard, especially retribution from those who dwelled inside the ancestral tomb from which this cross had been taken. Even more especially, they feared retribution from the founder of the ancestral tomb. This was a man who allegedly had failed to die properly – or, hadn’t been properly executed, rather – and who was said still to visit the cemetery and the area surrounding it during the hours when the sun was down. However, all thoughts of such nocturnal creatures soon seemed gone, and nothing but cheers of joy could be heard as the opening of the promised barrel of moonshine was announced.
The party had thus continued and as a result, renewed, and improved intoxication had followed, whilst - disrespected, unacknowledged, forgotten even, yet menacingly and quite possibly ready to wreak vengeance upon the living – the cross lay abandoned on the alcohol-soaked tablecloth. The main patron – the walking-stick manufacturer who according to my informant had felt quite uneasy by its presence, and, probably pretty remorseful and unhappy about not only the pharmacist’s prank but also Mr. Salgó’s choice of tomb - offered to pay for one last round if someone would return the cross to wherefrom it had been removed.
Mr. Salgó had calmly finished off his drink and got ready to fulfill his obligation as the only truly non-superstitious among them. He swept his large cape around himself, hoisted the cross onto his shoulder, and so, although now no longer totally steady on his feet, he once more set off for the graveyard. The rest continued drinking for a while, even if by now most of them had to do so with both their stomachs and the rest of their senses starting to rebel. Though soon most of them had left, yet a few stayed behind, waiting for the return of their hero. However, it didn’t take them very long to get bored and leave; they would later all explain that they had assumed that Mr. Salgó had gone straight to bed after complying with his task. He hadn’t. Instead, he had been found early the next day when the priest was taking his daily morning stroll through the cemetery.
He had been found lying stretched out right next to the grave – or, mausoleum, rather - from which he had taken the cross. Mr. Salgó’s bloodless face had shown the sort of surprise that faces often take on right after those carrying them have encountered something they did not believe they would encounter.
“Bloodless you said?”
“And how did he die?”
“While fulfilling his undertaking – as he was putting the cross back from where he had dislodged it, once he had finished – the edge of his cape must have gotten caught and stretched from behind.”
“Someone pulled him off the tomb?”
“That would be one explanation.”
“Was he assaulted?”
“There was no wound, and there was nothing taken or broken.”
“No of course not; I’m just joking.”
I bought the man another glass of wine, thanked him, promised to try to find him some form of employment and made ready to leave. But then, just as I was about to open the door I was halted, “But you know what, some say the other one had,” said the man who had told me about Mr. Salgó’s fate, “but others say his body was so contorted that it was impossible to say.”
“Puncture marks, on his neck.”
“And who’s ‘the other one’?”
“The driver; they found him the day after the play; it seems he had driven of the road while returning someone related to the Draculas that had been watching the performance; someone that would had promised to fix Mr. Salgó…