Sándor Tar - Slow Freight
Little boys love their fathers. It goes without saying, really, but it's true, even when it shouldn't be. Some fathers deserve the love and others do not. István Balog loves his son in his own way, which is to say his love shows itself in a manner the boy cannot easily recognise. Balog and his son wander about Hungary paying their way by virtue of Balog's accordion playing, which is passable, and the sad and sorry stories he tells concerning his crippled leg and the fortunes of himself and his son, which are excellent. Balog is a born liar, one of those prodigious talents who garnish every tale with the ridiculous and the sublime while somehow managing to remain convincing thanks to the unshakable resolve they hold for their own exaggerated stories.
Balog had to show his scars. See? See here? For two whole days he lived with my heart. This is where they took it out, and we were both hooked up to it. At other times he showed his back. The boy couldn't breathe. This is where they inserted a tube from him into my lung, so he shouldn't suffocate. Also, his knee. Believe it or not, he's got my knee. He doesn't know because I signed a paper saying I wouldn't tell him.
The father and son in Sándor Tar's Slow Freight aren't homeless, and they aren't even that poor, really (the father has a pension), but their life has taken an itinerant turn. Balog's son desperately wants his father to be strong and assertive, a man of action and power, and is often either thinking or mentioning his schoolmate Tibi Kárász, who teases him in the classroom and makes fun of Balog. But Balog is a man of a different sort - he dislikes that his leg was mutilated, but he's made the best of his life, and he enjoys how everything has turned out, mostly. And he loves walking and talking with his son, that much is clear. A good deal of the story is their conversations, told in unmarked paragraphs:
If I don't sing along, it hasn't got the same effect, isn't that right, Dad?
Why do you say that?
The bearded man on our way here, he said it. The man that gave you the hundred forints.
He didn't. He just made like he did.
We shouldn't have sung for him, is that it, Dad.
The singing wasn't for him, Son. It was for everybody.
There's no telling beforehand, is there?
You said there's no telling beforehand what's inside people.
No, there's no telling beforehand.
Are we beggars, Dad?
No, Son. We're artists.
Which is true as far as it goes, but the distinction is not clear to Balog's son. We have the impression that Balog loves these journeys because he is with his son and able to impart what wisdom he has to a captive audience. He can tell his stories, give advice and offer suggestions, and his son, who looks to him for everything, has to listen. For the type of man who can't keep his mouth shut, a young son is the greatest gift of all, but an older son? Not so much, for they start to notice the lies.
And this is how the son sees him, though he wishes it wasn't so:
At school the other children called his father the paddler, because when he walked, he moved his arms and hands as if he were paddling a boat. They also said he's a good-for-nothing, stoking coal for the sun.
Balog's son agrees reluctantly with this assessment. What he really wants is for his father to fight Tibi Kárász's father, and the reason he wants that to happen is because he needs more than just stories and lies from Balog. He needs assertive power.
Things come to a head following a series of ridiculously overblown stories concerning how Balog's leg came to be injured, when a group of unsavoury types harass the two, and Balog can't do a thing. Disillusionment sets in as the son realises his father won't ever be strong in the way he wishes.
An echo of this disappointment occurs early in the story when Balog remembers his wife, who said to him after his injury:
I'm sorry. But I can't take it any more. I always had a thing about cripples. I can't help it. It turns my stomach. I feel sorry for you. But I can't help it. What am I supposed to do? I can't lie down next to you. How could I? I can't expect you to understand. I did the best I could. But I can't.
And what's a man to do about that? When she asks him if it seems as if she is leaving in his time of need, he responds:
So what if you did?
Is that what you think?
What's most interesting about this story is Tar's empathetic and uncritical observations concerning the father. The point-of-view wavers between an omniscient narrator and a narrator rather closely aligned with the son, which provides us with a great deal of the son's thoughts and less of Balog's (though we have some). What we see is a man who has been dealt a bad hand and has plenty of personality flaws to boot, but he loves his son, though not the way his son wants, and his life as an itinerant accordion player is, the whole, pleasant. He's a man, in other words, with the necessary contradictions, flaws and positives that all men (and women) possess.
The ending is rather sad, but it fits, and that's enough. Slow Freight hinges on the relationship between Balog and his son, and when that threatens to shatter, there's nowhere for the story, or Balog, to go. In all, this is a sad, sweet, funny story that, amongst its stories, lies, antics and conversations, highlights well the difficulty of the father-son relationship.
Slow Freight by Sándor Tar 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
---Parti Nagy, Lajos - Oh, Those Chubby Genes
Also of interest: Index of short stories under review