“Because I’m curious, I suppose,” replied Laszlo Darvasi, one of the most prolific contemporary writers in Hungary, when asked what drives him to explore nearly all forms of literary creation. “It’s a matter of character. I like traveling in the literary world, I like trying new things, even though I also know where my loyalties lie.”
Darvasi writes columns, (“It’s livelihood,” he explains), novels (“the great journeys, the adventures, the getting lost and the returning home”), drama (“curiosity”), children’s fiction (“love”), but he remained loyal to short stories, which he compares to lightning bolts. “Handbook for Dog Owners” is precisely that type of thunder bolt: unexpected, powerful, clear and illuminating, electrifying. He finds and invents in the mundane the grotesque and the absurd, and serves it with his distinct human touch. The heart-rending misery of his characters evoke a smile, but also breaks the reader’s heart and reminds us of the fragility and the finite condition of existence, and our dependency upon each other.
Translated by: Mark Baczoni
He tore open the door, swearing, the dog pressed to his lap. He walked up and down and eventually calmed himself. He propped the dog in its place beside the desk. He poured out some water into a little dish, scattered dog food in another, and knelt down to examine the dog’s wounds. That damned mutt had torn into the silky black skin in several places. The dog’s side had burst and you could see the stuffing. His eyes glimmered so sadly it was as if the pain and humiliation had brought him to life.
“There, there,” he said, stroking the dog’s head. “I’ll sew it up and it’ll be good as new, you’ll see. But not right now. Tomorrow. I’ll bring in a needle and thread.”
That’s when he realised he didn’t have a home any more.
He stood, hesitated, and put on the brown smock he wore for work. He took some gauze from the first aid box in the office and tied it round the dog. That would do for the moment. He sat down at his desk and gazed at the gaps on the bookshelves, the spines of the books, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a tidy.
He’d moved in here, and as such, it was better to keep things neat.
He had no home – he’d been living here a while now.
This was now his home.
It all started a few months ago, or maybe it had been a year already, when his pay had failed to come. He waited patiently for two weeks and then made his way over to Headquarters, where they told him it was most likely some sort of administrative error, and that they would take care of it, naturally. Not to worry, it would be rectified. That’s what they said, rectified. As he skipped down the marble steps at Headquarters, he got to wondering how administrative errors happen.
Does someone forget to take some papers from one office to another?
Do they fail to press a button?
Or sign a document?
He waited another week, but since there was still no sign of his pay on his account, he went back to Headquarters, where this time they told him it wasn’t simply an administrative error.
He’d thought as much, he nodded.
He added that he hadn’t seen the maintenance budget for the library on his account either, and not only could he not buy any more books, but that the funds to cover the heating, the cleaning, or anything else to do with the maintenance of the library were far from, hmm, being in place.
They told him there was a restructuring in place, and at every level, no less.
“What kind of restructuring, and what do you mean, levels?” he wondered aloud; for, he thought, you could restructure level by level, but restructuring every level at once seemed impossible to him. It could only lead to chaos and helplessness. As he stared into the bureaucrat woman’s face before him, she told him that from now on the system would work according to new rules.
Would he still be paid under these new rules? He asked. The woman looked like someone expecting a little more understanding, under the circumstances, and then replied that he’d have to wait his turn, for many other colleagues were in similarly regrettable circumstances; that it was inevitable with the introduction of a new system, but that not everyone moaned so much, not everyone came into her office expecting pity or trying to pick a fight.
“I’m not trying to pick a fight at all,” he said and almost blushed.
“Well thank God for that, it was beginning to look like it,” she nodded.
“Yes, but that’s all right. We understand your concern, naturally.”
He said nothing. Who was this ‘we’? He wondered. Was he not one of them, then?
“We’ll let you know,” said the woman and closed her file.
“About when to expect my pay?”
“That too. And the new system as well. I can’t promise any more right now.”
“And…when will you be letting me know?”
“Soon. Thank you for coming in. Oh, and another thing. Do you believe in God?”
He was altogether dumbfounded.
“I don’t understand.”
“We’d like to know.”
“Don’t be shy, you can tell me. Yes or no?” she smiled.
He left Headquarters without another word and never went back. He suspected now that the system would not help him at all. After that, they seemed to forget all about him. There was still heat and light in the library. Water came out of the taps, and there were no more bills, nor service charges for the building to pay. He occasionally found some newspapers or magazines in his letterbox, though they came somewhat quixotically and it was impossible to tell which he could count on receiving regularly. He had nothing left to live off. He had used up his meagre savings.
He sold a few things from the flat – the clock, his great grandmother’s brass mortar, a painted stool with tulips on it, plates, the set of cutlery they’d never used, his wife’s clothes. He thought he’d take a book or two he’d never cared for anyway (thought they were popular, that is when people still came to borrow books from him at all) down to the local little second-hand shop. But the books he could easily sell soon ran out, and he hadn’t the heart to touch the classics. And in any case, the second-hand book dealer wouldn’t have wanted them anyway, sitting there caressing the rings of the little blue stamps in the books he brought him.
“We’re weeding some things out,” he said.
“I thought you did that already a few months ago.”
“Do you want them or not?”
“Who should I make the invoice out to?”
“The library, of course.”
After all, he reflected as he walked home, this too must be part of the new system. He wasn’t the only one being weeded out, he had no doubt about that; and he could comfort himself with the thought that they’d forgotten all about him in the process, perhaps for ever, and he’d finally have some peace. It would turn out somehow or other in the end.
He sold his flat for half its worth, or at least very cheap, but it was a buyer’s market just then and besides it was urgent, he was practically going hungry. So he let the two-and-a-half rooms slip through his fingers at half price, the place his wife had died. He kept only the couch, the television and the radio. These he brought into the library, and from then on, that’s where he lived.
He lived in the library; what else could he do? It was all part of the new system.
It had all been calm until today. But then something awful had happened.
On rainy days when he still had the flat, when the streets were all covered in slush, he’d bring the dog in on his arm. Later he no longer had to bring him in at all, for they lived in the library and though the dog wasn’t actually alive, he’d had him so carefully and so nicely stuffed that he really couldn’t have asked for more. Back when there had still been readers, a few had even patted him, while others were frightened; he would laugh and say, there’s nothing to be afraid of, Burkus wouldn’t hurt a fly. Sometimes he’d take the dog out into the park in front of the library and prop him next to a bush or on the thick green lawn, just as if he’d been taking him for a walk or a wee. Sometimes, he’d even lay him down in the grass – Burkus was rolling around, rubbing his back on the ground – Burkus was having a whale of a time. He had a little ball he’d roll over to the dog; then he’d walk over, walk back, and throw the ball again. So they played. Oh yes, Burkus had liked to play when he was alive.
This was just what he was doing when it happened; he’d just put the ball, sticky from the autumn grass, back in his pocket, and turned away for a moment. It was a moment too long. That little white beast had come and knocked Burkus right over. He was only half his size, but he was tearing into him, biting him frenziedly. A little way away a woman stood looking on. She didn’t so much as move. She had long grey hair, a white mac, and high laced boots. She held the little monster’s lead in her hand. And then he too lost his head, ran over to the dog and gave it such a kick that it went simply flying, the lead tensing in the woman’s hand. The dog landed among the dead leaves, twitched a little, and was still. The woman looked at her dog and turned slowly towards him. Her face betrayed not a trace of emotion. He reached down, scooped up Burkus and ran back to the library. He didn’t look back. It was at the entrance that the rage really hit him. When he had finally calmed down and, putting the first aid box back in its place, was thinking about his life, there was a knock.
The woman stood at the threshold, her dog held in her arms, her white macintosh covered in blood. She slowly came into the library lobby, stopping before his desk. She looked at Burkus, who was no longer alive. Her dog was no longer alive, either.
“I’ve called the police, by the way,” she said in a colourless voice, her voice being the same shade as her hair. The little dog’s blood glittered ruby under her nails. The police? That was pretty exciting – as far as he could remember, a policeman had never set foot inside the library; a fireman or a neighbourhood watchman at most, uniformed and in an official capacity, and then there were those two soldiers that time, but they’d just wandered in, polite but a little drunk. But a policeman? His books had never seen the like.
“Won’t you sit down?” he said, pushing over a chair.
The woman sat down. There was a knock a moment later and before he could say “come in”, the policeman had entered.
“Did someone call the police?” asked the beefy, blond, heavily freckled policeman.
“Hello,” they both replied.
There was a silence. The policeman looked them over, but for the moment didn’t say anything. He looked at his bandaged dog and then the woman’s lapdog, dripping blood.
“He killed my dog,” she said softly in her bland, colourless voice, as if she were telling him the rain had stopped.
“It was self-defence,” he said.
“That thing attacked you?” the policeman asked, staring at the dead lapdog in wonder.
“It attacked my dog. Without any provocation. He’s not even alive, you see,” he explained. The policeman thought about that, went over to the shelf and dragged his index finger along the spines of the books, like a child dragging a stick across iron railings. He made a face.
“If it was dead anyway…I mean if your dog was already deceased, how could you kick another dog to death in self-defence? Especially a lapdog?”
“I only kicked him once.”
“Is that true?” the policeman turned to the woman.
“Yes, just once. One big kick,” she replied.
They were silent; the woman sniffling. Blood was still dripping from her dog.
“The dog, my dog, is an important member of the family,” he said. “That is, he was.”
“That’s what they all say, I’ve heard it all before. But a dead dog is still a dead dog.” You could tell the policeman didn’t care for the situation at all. Wasting time with something like this.
Meanwhile it all came pouring out of him. He was almost beside himself.
“Burkus he was, that is, his name’s still Burkus. He was with me back then. The day my wife died, at home. There was absolutely no sign that there was anything the matter with her, that there was anything brewing; it was an embolism, could’ve happened to anyone. I found her when we got home that night. She was lying on the kitchen floor. She’d beaten six eggs. Exactly six. The gas was on as well. Sorry, you don’t need to know that. But the dog, Burkus, was so restless all day, and at the very moment my wife most likely died, he started whining. He was almost impossible to handle; I had to take him out into the courtyard, because back then… back then we still had readers. Burkus was whining in the courtyard and I knew there was something wrong. And then I found my other half… my wife in the kitchen. But that isn’t what I wanted to say. What I meant to say was, what if I’d loved my wife? If I’d felt she really was the one for me? If I hadn’t felt some strange, involuntary relief come over me when I saw her twisted corpse on the kitchen floor?”
He fell silent, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. God, he was talking a lot!
“Our life together wasn’t good at all. Somehow, we didn’t…match. There were no arguments, no rows, but somehow it wasn’t any good. It wasn’t good for her, either. At the funeral, I wondered what it would have been like if I’d loved her, if we’d been good together. It occurred to me that Burkus would still have whined when she died. If I’d loved my wife and not felt relief when she died, but consuming grief, he would still have scratched away at my ankle, whining, trying to tell me there was something wrong. I owed him so much. He was a good dog. Always ready for anything good. None of it was down to him. You understand? When he died, I had him stuffed by a really outstanding craftsman who used to come here to read.”
The woman stood up, sat back down.
“That’s no reason to kill another being!” she said, a little more loudly. “I want to press charges. Cruelty to animals,” she said, looking at the policeman. He nodded and produced his notebook. They had to give their names and other particulars. When the woman said her name, something suddenly occurred to him. He went over to the loans book and started leafing through it excitedly.
“You,” he said, lifting his gaze to the woman, “are overdue with a book!”
The woman blushed, and this seemed to bring her alive. It was as if her hair, too, had gained some colour.
“Yes, you’re right, I am,” she said softly.
“You took it out two years ago, two years ago this month. The Dog Lover’s Handbook. You never returned it. The loan period was two weeks. I sent you three reminders. But you didn’t lift so much as a finger.”
He never raised his voice, but laid out the charges in a slow and measured tone.
“Do you have any idea of the size of fine I’ll have to issue? With interest it’ll run to tens of thousands of forints.”
“I…I wanted to bring it back,” the woman entreated. The policeman looked from one to the other. His mouth was agape. “Fuck me,” he muttered to himself.
“But you didn’t.”
“Why?” he felt powerful again somehow, his confidence was returning. Shame he was wearing this smock. Then again, maybe not. The smock was a sign of his official status.
“Because…because…” the woman glanced at the dog in her lap. “Pincsi tore it to pieces. I’d been meaning to bring it back for some time, but I left it on the carpet by accident and…and along came Pincsi.”
The policeman was rubbing his face in his palms, like someone trying to wake himself from some impossible dream.
“All right, you’d better sort this out among yourselves, then,” he said hoarsely.
“We will, constable,” he nodded.
“I’ll be going then,” nodded the policeman, glancing at the woman.
“Fine,” she said. “Go ahead, that’s all right.”
“Goodbye,” said the policeman and left.
They stayed behind with the two dead dogs, one of them still bloody. But it wasn’t bleeding any more. The woman was distracted; she was the one who had suffered irreparable harm, yet here she was, the accused.
The librarian got to thinking.
“Look, I know it’s really very hard to fill a gap like this. I’m sorry, I truly am. Let’s forget about the fine. Or at least, I’m willing to forget about it. It’s not important. Why don’t you leave…leave…Pincsi here. I’ll have him stuffed too, I’ll make sure they do a good job. When he’s ready, you can take him home. Or you could leave him here. They’ll get along fine with Burkus and you can come whenever you want…to see him. Or just remember.”
The woman stood hesitantly up and laid Pincsi down in front of Burkus. Burkus seemed to be staring at the lapdog.
“Very well then,” she said.
“Have him stuffed, and I’ll come from time to time.”
So the librarian had Pincsi stuffed, and he was just as lifelike as Burkus. She really did come and see him, and knocked again a few days later; her coming soon became a habit – she stayed longer and longer. While she was there, she’d water the plants, sweep up, dust the books or unwrap and serve some chopped liver sandwiches she’d made at home. Then one day while they were looking at the dogs and reminiscing, the librarian touched her on the shoulder.
“Bertha, Bertha, it’s just as if this were a cemetery! Let’s take them for a walk.”
So they took Burkus and Pincsi out into the snow-covered park, beside the bushes, and stood them in the snow. While they installed and arranged the animals, a pack of crows played frenziedly among the leaves of the evergreen ivy.
Children squealed and threw handfuls of snow. A snow-plough went noisily back and forth before the library, and now he threw the ball to Pincsi too.
“Good dog, Pincsi!”
Then they went back in to warm up. The woman put on some tea and they stood the dogs beside the radiator to dry their legs. Pincsi’s stomach was soaking.
They sat, looking at the dogs, remembering. It was all so very nice. A little puddle grew under Pincsi’s belly, capturing the light of the electric bulb. And as he took Bertha’s hand, it occurred to the librarians that he would have taken The Dog Lover’s Handbook to the second hand book dealer long ago.
It’s one he would have bought for sure.
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