György Konrád - Jeremiah's Terrible Tale
Jeremiah is ninety-nine, close to a hundred, but still his feet wish to wander. He has returned to Budapest with the intention of whiling away his days engaged in small pursuits and quiet afternoons spent relaxing, but his permanent stay swiftly becomes momentary as “he felt an urge to travel around the world one last time.” And then off he goes, again, walking where he will, hoping the angel come to collect his immortal soul from his mortal body will become confused to find him, again, not at home, and for a time he will be forgotten, his life limitless and stretching into infinity.
György Konrád's short story, Jeremiah's Terrible Tale, begins thus and proceeds accordingly, dabbling in quasi-religious (and increasingly Jewish) imagery in an effort to explain the last fadings moments of an ordinary man's life. Jeremiah wishes to escape his death, not out of spite but a strange sense of camaraderie with God, as though the two are engaged in a great cosmic joke, with the punch-line being Jeremiah's death or his avoidance of it – and Jeremiah likes to laugh. For all that, his wanderings (which are glossed over to the point where it is unclear where geographically he is located, where in the world he has gotten himself to, and how) become relentlessly spiritualised, at one stage ending up on the Messiah's Stairs:
Jeremiah walked over to the Messiah's Stairs. Those arriving from infinity as well as those proceeding toward it must climb these steps, all three hundred and sixty of them, between walls and fences that press in close on both sides. There isn't much room on the narrow staircase, so the messiah will have to make it up all by himself. The long climb will certainly exhaust him.
Konrád mixes religion with farce, and blends the story of Jeremiah with the messiah until it is unclear if they are the same person or different. Jeremiah waits for the messiah, but at the same time he eats the meal cooked for him, walks down the paths prepared for him, and knows much about the celestial responsibilities that lay upon the messiah's shoulders. Konrád separates the two sufficiently that we surely cannot believe Jeremiah is a returned Jesus, but, at the same time, the ambiguity breeds confusion, which is made suddenly greater by the intrusion of the Rabbi Ariel, whose biography completes the story.
The sudden shift from Jeremiah's wandering to Ariel's life story is a jarring one from which the story does not recover. Again, the religious imagery is heavy, and again the flow of the story stutters as it tries and fails to gain momentum. Jeremiah is forgotten and the Rabbi Ariel, who was a brief aside in Jeremiah's life, takes the undeserved centre stage. Ariel's story ends with a question, and we wonder if Jeremiah was in fact not the messiah but the Wandering Jew.
The remarkably fluid language of the story is not enough to lift it from the undeniable weight of its metaphors. Konrád writes with a view toward Jewish mythology and religious understanding, which is fine as far as it goes, but it in effect blocks out a great many readers who are not Jewish and have little or no familiarity with the esoteric aspects of the religion. There is a sense while reading that many of the references are adding immense depth to the story from a Jewish perspective, but from a perspective that is ignorant to these allusions there is little to gain.
Jeremiah is interesting, and the idea of a man who refuses to die and wanders the world growing older in an attempt to avoid the angel's taking him away has merit, but Konrád shifts the story on to a plane where the casual reader cannot follow. One wonders if this story, which is taken from the Best European Fiction 2010, is really the best example of his work to the unfamiliar reader. It is the first work of his I have read, and while the strength of the writing has aided in retaining my curiosity, I am forced to wonder if, like a number of Isaac Bashevis Singer's works (though not, it must be stressed, all), if the extreme Jewishness of the writing will make much of what he writes impenetrable to a layman.
Jeremiah's Terrible Tale by György Konrád is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, include:
---Belgium: Toussaint, Jean-Phillipe - Zidane's Melancholy
---Bosnian: Štiks, Igor - At the Sarajevo Market
---Bulgarian: Gospodinov, Georgi - And All Turned Moon
---Croatian: Ušumović, Neven – Vereš
---Danish: Aidt, Naja Marie - Bulbjerg
---Estonian: Viiding, Elo - Foreign Women
---French: Montalbetti, Christine - Hotel Komaba Eminence (With Haruki Murakami)
---Icelandic: Bragi, Steinar - The Sky Over Thingvellir
---Italian: Mozzi, Guilio - Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Database of Translation of Hungarian Literature
György Konrád's website
Hungarian Literature Online
Hungarian Book Foundation
Hungarian's Translators' House
Könyves Blog (Hungarian)
Literatura Hungara Online (Spanish)
The Hungarian Quarterly