Lajos Parti Nagy - Oh, Those Chubby Genes
On the surface, the problem seems pretty minor. Three homeless drunks sit on a bench in front of the Soviet war memorial in Budapest's Liberty Square, watching television and sipping wine. Nobody really sees homeless people, or at least that's they way it seems; the police with their automatic weapons certainly haven't taken much notice of them. But then Henrietta Kis, her face battered thanks to some murky business the author introduces and then leaves hanging in the air, unexplained and curious, looks over at them.
She quietly drew a couple of deep breaths, then in a low whisper proceeded to ask her two equally quiet colleagues whether they didn’t happen to see something out of the ordinary over yonder? Though pale from the cold and engaged in sipping their by now lukewarm coffee, their dropped jaws were a dead give-away. Yeh, shit, they’d seen it too, except they thought . . . in short, that they’re not seeing what they’re seeing, that the snow had dazed their eyes. However, as things stand, it’s no daze they’re in, but a predicament.
And what's the predicament in question? Well, somehow the homeless people have grown incredible in size, and their bench along with it.
“Except, I beg to report, they’re the size of the embassy, more or less. Or the what’s-it-called, the National Bank . . . Sitting down, anyway . . . Yes, sitting down! You won’t believe this, but there’s this incredibly huge bench. It grew there, and it’s like totally proportionate to their size . . .”
The government at first considers that Kis has been on the bottle, again touching on that murky history of hers. But no, it's true; the homeless have grown into giants. They aren't too concerned and, as national and then international media catches wind of this sudden growth (with the potentially, naturally, of sparking conflict between the Americans and the Soviets (the media wonders - is this growth an unfortunately and unexpectedly public experiment involving a secret Soviet weapon?)), they quite happily admit that someone gave them the bottle of wine. It was a gift, and look at what it's done!
As the story escalates the narrative tone shifts, leaving aside the slangy, somewhat crude voice of Henrietta Kis to become a labyrinthine mess of bureaucratic linguistic trash, where a lot of words are uttered but nothing is really said, and then later to the somewhat drunken, free and uncaring attitude of the three homeless giants, who really don't seem all that concerned about their predicament. Of course, events take a rather delicate turn when one of the homeless people, Berci, needs to go to the toilet...
Not much before sunset, the homeless individual who went by the name of Hilda informed the Undersecretary of State in charge of the negotiations that if they won’t let Berci answer The Call, she’s gonna rip the Soviet war memorial out by the roots, and let’s just hope she won’t get the sudden urge to fling it at anybody. Or drop it on top of the television building, God forbid the eventuality. It’s their choice.
All the while, the three of them were drinking steadily, if with some slight bitterness, handsomely depleting the contents of the can, so despite the considerable risk, action had clearly to be taken before the suspects got drunk out of their skulls. By the time night fell, with the assistance of American experts, the crisis staff had lighted on a concrete plan of action.
Parti Nagy is clearly having a lot of fun with this story; it shows through the curious nonchalance with which the increasingly bizarre events are recounted. He recognises that even in a time of extreme oddity (and one that could very well lead to a crisis – who knows?), bureaucratic standards must be upheld, and that government officials generally aren't happy until every box is ticked. Oh, Those Chubby Genes takes great pleasure in highlighting the the inability of a paralysingly bureaucratic dictatorship government to deal with a situation that is remarkably out of the ordinary, which leads to some really quite wonderful sentences:
where he was briefed that except for the unusual incident, no unusual incident had occurred
And naturally, one of the first things the soldiers do is try to ascertain under which jurisdiction the handling of immensely grown drunken homeless people fall. One of the closing paragraphs is this wonderful gem, which exemplifies the bureaucrat's stunning ability to use a lot of words without managing to say a great deal.
On the six o’clock evening news the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior announced that the Plenary Action Committee meeting that was called together after the ascertainment and inquiry into the facts of the case decided in favor of the Peoples’ Stadium and its auxiliary institutions because it proved to be the only venue where the minimum required conditions for the detained individuals and the police charged with keeping the peace could be guaranteed, to wit, hot tea and water canons. She is further pleased to report to the public at large that everything went according to plan and without a hitch or unforeseen complications, except when they reached the Eastern Railway Station, the female detainee insisted on taking the train to the aqua park in Hajdúszoboszló, but after yet another exchange of views, she quickly changed her mind.
Parti Nagy's story is a great deal of fun, and it's prods and pokes at officialdom and the workings of government are sufficiently broad the humour can transfer to any government, not just a Communist Dictatorship. We've all experienced the endless loops and run-around techniques of government departments and officials inordinately proud of the small power they wield. Given the circumstances, what would your government do in a situation where three homeless people suddenly grew to immense size? Issue a press release, no doubt.
Oh, Those Chubby Genes by Lajos Parti Nagy is a short story from Words Without Borders' August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue include:
---Esterházy, Péter - Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World
---Háy, János - Lou's Last Letter to Feri's Wife
---Kornis, Mihály - The Toad Prince
---Lázár, Ervin - The China Doll
---Tar, Sándor - Slow Freight
Also of interest: Index of short stories under review