APRIL 10, 2020
THE HUNGARIAN SCHOLAR Zsuzsa Hetényi first fell in love with Russian literature at the age of 12. At age 17 she was so enthralled by Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry that, as soon as she finished it, she read it all over again, through the night, trying to work out how it cast its elusive spell. She continued to search for its secrets in the Odessa of the 1970s. Recent events have inspired her to look back on those days, when she suddenly found herself in the midst of a quarantine. Below is my translation of her account.
In addition to her monograph on the biblical, mythical, and messianic motifs of Babel’s Red Cavalry (1991), her book-length study of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels (2015), and her In a Maelstrom: A History of Russian-Jewish Prose (2000; English trans. 2008), Hetényi has also been a prolific translator herself. Beginning in 1986 with a samizdat version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, she has rendered a wide range of works from Russian into Hungarian, including Babel’s 1920 Diary, Vladimir Voinovich’s Private Ivan Chonkin, prose by Daniil Kharms and Joseph Brodsky, and the novels Mary and Glory by Nabokov, along with many of his stories. Still very much in love with Russian literature, Hetényi is currently retranslating Nabokov’s Pnin. And sewing antivirus protection masks.
The highest point, or rather the lowest circle, was the snake. As I’ve started in medias res, I’ll reveal the ending, too: in the end, of course, we divorced.
It makes a difference whether you call it Odessa or Adyessa. I pronounced it Adyessa, Russian style. I’d come here two years earlier, looking for the traces, the smell, the aura of a writer I wanted to write my thesis on, because I was still a teenager when I fell in love with him. There was no trace of the writer anywhere. Babel’s Moldavanka was blanketed in dust, gap-toothed and in ruins.
We university students had come here for a month to practice our Russian. In the girls’ dorm there were four beds and soon three boys, too. My own bedfellow turned out to have TB. As well as the all-enveloping filth, I blamed alcohol and malnutrition. I invited him to Hungary for the summer. We outwitted the Soviet authorities with a shotgun wedding and now I’d come back with a year’s scholarship to write up my thesis. The plan was for me to wrest him from the Soviets’ clutches by the end of the year, when he got his degree.
The Helsinki Accords had been signed three weeks earlier, on August 1, 1975. We cut out the article about it in the party daily Népszabadság. In one section we underlined the words about “family reunification” and boldly holding aloft his TB certificate began to do the rounds of the Soviet authorities. Having TB excused him from the draft as well as the compulsory five years’ teaching in the countryside after graduation.
In the Brezhnev years, Abroad was regarded as a very distant, dangerous, and hostile continent. Men were not allowed out of the country to join their spouses at all, and women only very rarely. In the towns outside the capital, they were even more terrified of taking such decisions. Or sometimes it might be easier to slip out of the country. Everything depended on luck and timing. In the provinces, they were uninformed. Everything and everyone was unpredictable, that was the essence of Soviet administration.
What we couldn’t have predicted, however, was that a week after my arrival in August, even before the academic year began, my digestive tract would give up the ghost. Unimaginable substances began to come out of me, from my own body. I was in absolute agony. My fellow students warned me not to go to a doctor because I’d be carted off to hospital, they said, because of the cholera. It was the first time I’d heard this word outside the context of the Middle Ages. When in our 21st century, my Odessa odyssey once came up in company, I was repeatedly asked, with some annoyance: what do you mean by chorela? I do have something of a lisp, but I can generally compensate it. It’s an illness, I explained tersely. I don’t know whether they understood it in the end; I didn’t go into it over dinner.
News of the diarrhea reached the staff of the dorm, and I was sent for an examination by a doctor. Reluctantly and with an uneasy feeling, I went, armed with the necessary papers. The horror of the threat of being hospitalized was greatly magnified by the thorough background knowledge I had gained from Russian literature. Bent double, I stared at the paving in the crowded A&E, trying in vain to push the feverish images of Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” out of my mind and replace them with the grotesque hospital scenes in Elem Klimov’s pioneer camp film Welcome, or No Trespassing. In the end, the images I managed to conjure up were of my beloved pediatricians, who after ritually washing their hands would leave their wonderful bulging leather briefcases with their shiny locks by my bed while they had coffee with my mother in the living room. I trusted blindly in every doctor, because they all saw in me the granddaughter of my famous doctor-grandfather. Esteem was alloyed with love as they filled me, initially, with crude antibiotics and, later, with contraceptives that could ruin one’s liver.
In A&E in Odessa I lied a little, pretending I’d only come for medication. I begged them not to hospitalize me but all they were interested in was my stools, which I naïvely and dutifully provided. The verdict came a few days later: a white vehicle with its curtains drawn came to fetch me. The paramedics descended on the students’ hostel with enormous tankers and proceeded to spray everything with foul-smelling disinfectant. Especially our eight-square-meter dorm, where we were, exceptionally, allowed to live as a couple, again thanks to the TB. This was the only room not frequented by cockroaches. They’d not yet got used to the smell of Hungarian soaps and detergent. We stopped up the gaps with strips of newspaper. Still, we were next door to the communal toilets, where three doorless alcoves served the needs of the 120 or so girls on our floor. You weren’t allowed to drop paper into the hole between the two raised footholds, but the basket was only emptied when it was filled to overflowing and there was nowhere to walk. As you crouched down, you had the opportunity to observe the cockroaches’ lively social life even in broad daylight, and nearer to the iron basket their eating habits as well.
It was barely three years earlier that I’d seen a cockroach for the first time in my life, at a friend’s in the best part of the Újlipótváros district: it was the first thing I saw after a sleepless night. I hesitated for a long time about mentioning it, but in the end I did. A dismissive wave of the hand: roaches, from the sewers, they flee in daylight.
The Odessa cockroaches don’t flee in daylight. They’re the color of rust, oval in shape, and have quite long whiskers, or rather antennae. The increasingly frequent and extensive periods I spent crouching above the hole obliged me to enter into a rather intimate relationship with them. I had to force myself to create a definitive distance between us. I had to learn to blur my vision and observe them nonchalantly, ensuring only that they didn’t climb up my legs. Maintaining this mental distance, however, sapped my strength, so that as I crouched down low, my circulation eventually ground to a halt. Unfortunately, quite soon, even a semi-crouching position became impossible. Hours spent in the library hadn’t provided adequate training for this.
Because of the curtained windows, after a while I couldn’t keep track of the route taken by the ramshackle, juddering, and stinking ambulance, but we didn’t go too far. The vehicle turned into the hospital courtyard. The green iron gate, the height of two people and with spikes along the top, slammed shut behind us with a resounding clang. I was in quarantine.
The administration was at sixes and sevens because I was a foreigner. After some toing and froing, I was put in a room with four beds, where the only other occupant was a girl. I hardly noticed when my clothes were taken away. Instead of my pajamas, I was given a nightgown made of a tattered bed sheet. Nothing mattered except the distance to the toilet: would I make it without fainting? They brought me a handful of Russian Ftalazol tablets and a glass of water. The tap water I’d been avoiding precisely because of the danger of infection. The city’s water supply was contaminated, thanks to the open sewers built when the city was founded in 1794. Ever since Catherine the Great’s time rats and the above-mentioned hordes of cockroaches have been scuttling about in broad daylight, and cholera has surfaced every summer like clockwork. Soviet quarantine was accompanied by a news quarantine. At the time of the most serious outbreak, in 1970, those preparing to holiday here were allowed in without further ado, but not allowed out. There were rumors of sudden deaths and escapes. Ever since they have been watching like hawks for cholera-suspect elements and rounding them up in a flash.
I asked for tea, and I suffered. My roommate was more cheerful, she was getting ready, as she put it, to exit. She was occasionally sent small packages of food, handed in by the family at the gate, together with a small financial consideration. When she was gone, they wanted to give me the leftovers. There was borscht, roast chicken, bitochki, homemade pickles, pirogi, preserved mushrooms, and a few other items that seemed quite amazing amid the general shortage of food, but I resisted, because I was terrified of the pain that came immediately after I had anything to eat, and because I wanted to get out of quarantine.
Left alone on the ward, I saw human beings only when I staggered to the toilet. As soon as I was a bit steadier on my feet, I began to look for a shower. In some surprise, they directed me to the basement. I hoped to find something better than what they had at the hall of residence. There the showers were in a wooden hut down the stairs and across the courtyard, with just a filthy plank laid sideways. From the blackened walls there projected six showerheads, or rather, with one exception, rusted pipes.
I couldn’t locate it in the hospital basement, I couldn’t find even the light switch. I dragged myself back and armed with better information, pulled myself together, and set off again in the afternoon. Under the thick pipes running above my head my steps echoed dully in the deserted half-light of the low subterranean passageways. In the twisting labyrinth, a single pale bulb illuminated palely two rotten, warped wooden doors that perhaps hinted at shower cubicles. I opened one door, and a few seconds later slowly, quietly, and very carefully closed it. On the concrete floor, a coiled snake was beginning to slowly rouse itself. I fled with the utmost care. My desensitization routine over the previous days helped me to stay alert and treat the slithering creature as a distant object. Numb and robot-like, I clambered upstairs, where I reported the situation to the nurses. They expressed surprise: it was not an area they frequented and were unacquainted with the water snake.
Gradually, being confined to the cell started becoming oppressive. I began to venture out into the corridor and get to know people. It was here that I discovered my recovery would be quicker if I was given a Hungarian drug, Enteroseptol. But one could only get this for a bribe, but I had no money on me. I set off for the doctors’ rooms, intending to look them in the eye and explain that Enteroseptol comes from my homeland and that meant I had a right to have it. There’s little of it around, they said without further explanation. For decades, as long as it was available, I traveled everywhere with a box of Enteroseptol in my luggage. In Hungary, you could get it over the counter.
After talking to people in the corridors, I asked to be transferred to a public ward. I thought I would descend to the people, like the narodniks in the old days. I ended up in a ward with eight beds, where there were six of us, and from then on I ate at the corridor tables with the others. I don’t recall my roommates’ occupations, but the two loud women who shouted to each other from opposite ends of the ward day and night I can imagine as having been caretakers of housing blocks, boarding-school matrons, or fishwives.
I discovered that this ward was reserved for those suffering from dysentery and that the cholera patients were in the other wing. From this I deduced that I didn’t have cholera, but I was never actually told this. I had to provide a stool sample every day. The back of the toilet had a shelf where you had to put your daily discharge in a little glass container bearing your name. Since that time any kind of excretum is for me an obvious, organic part of my identity, on the same level as my name. Corpus sum, nihil a me alienum puto. Three days of negative results and you could leave.
One night there was an almighty noise and we all ran out. On the bench in the corridor much fuss was being made of a woman who was retching copiously. “Get her stomach pumped out, she’s a chemist, swallowed poison in the lab by mistake,” the doctor gabbled, looking round helplessly. There were no other doctors, and only one nurse. It turned out they didn’t know how to do it. I recall the details only vaguely. Amid the sudden decision-taking and communal desire to help I ended up with the task of holding a bucketful of water quite high up to ensure that according to the laws of nature the water should flow into the woman and from there be spewed back. Afterward I asked the nurse why she couldn’t help. Because this is a lunatic asylum, she said coolly, and her specialty was lunatics. Every summer they send the insane patients home, to make room for the cholera folk. Then in the autumn the insane can return.
I’d been there for two weeks when late one night a young girl was brought into our ward, in absolute agony. Lena was 14. Exhausted, between the groans and screams that accompanied her spasms, she tried to snatch some sleep, but couldn’t because the fishwife and the caretaker insisted on continuing to shout their conversation over her. My reproachful glare made no difference. In the end, I had to ask them to quiet down or go out into the corridor. They were momentarily struck dumb, looked daggers at me, then began to howl. “Out you go, into the corridor, this very minute! Obvious you weren’t brought up by the Komsomol! That you didn’t get a communist education! Insolent foreigner! The Soviet Union feeds the entire socialist camp! And the Arabs too! That’s why we’re starving here! No room for you in a Soviet hospital! Parasite!” They approached my bed with threatening looks, tore off my blanket, and swept my belongings from the bedside table. I went outside before they beat me up. I spent the night flat out on the tabletop, feeling like Pushkin’s fellows in Siberian exile. Giving up the narodnik ideal of going down among the people, I began feverishly to hatch plans for getting out of there. My narodnik mood later returned, in part, when I spent time with a very grateful Lena, giving her enthusiastic lectures on Russian literature. Nonetheless, my plans for escape were taking shape.
It was always news when anyone’s stools came back negative. I determined to take advantage of this. The next day in the toilet I sought out the container of the happy owner of a negative sample and with a little wooden spatula transferred part of its contents into the glass container that bore my name. I repeated this the next day. On the third day, however, the owner of the sample was allowed home and I needed a fresh one, but no one was celebrating. Details of the samples were noted down in a book, and I hovered around the table, trying to take a peek into it. But it was no use, I couldn’t identify anyone suitable from the list. On the morning of day three, I reported that I hadn’t had any stools that morning but would return if I did during the day. Meanwhile, I coolly began to pack my things, and when the afternoon shift took over, went out into the lobby and told the doctor coming on shift that I was going home that day. He looked in the book but couldn’t find the report on the third set of stools. I said I’d been told it was there. But there’s no final report. I expressed considerable surprise. I don’t recall how, but by the evening I had my papers and my clothes as well.
Nor can I remember how I got a message to my husband. Perhaps someone was able to ring the hall of residence. One time I’d been able to send a message out over the fence, too, wrapped around a stone, and we’d also shouted to each other through the fence. And I seem to recall that once we even managed to speak at the gate, in return for greasing a palm or two, but it was a damp September day and I was freezing in my tattered blanket. Somehow, I’m not sure how, I managed to get him to pick me up by taxi and take me home. I could barely take a step. The message to Budapest asking for some Enteroseptol had gone off two weeks earlier. Usually, we maintained a news blackout with my parents. This was not difficult because letters were invariably late or lost. In any case, in line with the unwritten rules of the family’s news blackout, we never told each other about problems while were away. As the other party couldn’t do anything to help anyway, why make each other worry? In the spring, I had a hint in one of the letters that my mother had some slight illness and perhaps some minor operation was on the cards … I’ve never been the worrying kind, but just then, as it happened to be my birthday, I had a panicky feeling that my mother might die before I got home.
The quarantine meant that I enrolled very late and was told to report to a senior lecturer. I got very tired as I waited to see her, but eventually had a chance to explain that my thesis topic was Isaac Babel. No such Soviet writer, she informed me, and her darkling brow showed that she meant this seriously. And in vain did I hunt in the city library’s catalog, too: I found only one card, for a book published in 1926. I wrote the title out on a request slip and handed it in. The librarian looked at me in horror, leapt up, and asked me where I found it. I took her over to the catalog. She ripped the catalog card out of the drawer and tore it in two. We don’t have such a book, she said.
During the year I had the scholarship I didn’t recover, just vegetated. I read the lengthy required reading lying on the bed in the dorm. I had to make careful preparations for every trip, whether it was to the library or a lecture. I continued to lose weight. The potatoes and apples I needed for my diet were in very short supply. In the nearest market, which was nonetheless a long walk away, these cost three rubles a kilo: my grant was 80, my husband’s 40. Occasionally kindhearted acquaintances would invite us for lunch, but this wasn’t straightforward either: they couldn’t understand why I was on a permanent diet and, especially, why I didn’t drink, since vodka was a cure for every ill.
That October there was a great deal of rain, followed by a sudden drop in temperature. The streets were covered in sheet ice and the transporting of goods ground to a halt. Weighed down by the ice, the electricity cables snapped, water pipes broke, and we spent days living in the dark and without refrigeration and water. There was no point slipping and sliding over to the baker on the corner, the shop was empty. I remembered there were two other bakers. In the third, I suddenly spotted a sack under one of the shelves. What’s in that, I asked. Biscuits, the woman said. I bought five kilos of biscuits. That was how we survived the ice age.
The 25th congress of the CPSU was held in February 1976 and on this occasion, here and there, some goods were thrown into the market. Thrown quite literally: a table would be set up in front of a shop with a set of scales, and eventually a salesperson surfaced. What were they selling? Knowing they had the upper hand, they were tight-lipped. Tension mounted, until finally the goods arrived. These often had nothing to do with what kind of shop it was. Whatever they happened to be given. A queue would form as soon as a table appeared in a doorway. Once I managed to get in the queue at lightning speed. I couldn’t believe it myself, never in my life had I been number two in a queue. I mean a Soviet queue. They had beef, big, bony, kilo-sized chunks of beef, with layers of thick, yellow, frozen fat. I hadn’t seen meat since I left home, six months earlier. We were standing in line. Suddenly the man behind me pushed me aside and closed tightly up to number one in the queue. “That’s my place!” I shouted. He shrugged and turned away in disgust. I wanted to get in behind him but the next along quickly closed ranks, and I tried the third … I looked down the line. Hostile or indifferent looks, with the majority craning their necks toward the far side of the beef-seller.
Since then I have often recalled how one part of me saw what the other part was doing, the part that wasn’t me. I went at the two men and tried to push them out of the line. They shoved me back and I fell, landing on the edge of the pavement. At my husband’s feet, who said not a word. We went home. That is, to the dorm.
Since I wasn’t getting any better, a urologist we happened to know arranged an X-ray in a provincial hospital. I arrived at the ramshackle district hospital with an empty gut, starving, having taken a long-distance bus. Inside and out, the hospital bore the signs of every war it had been through. I was given an enema as I lay on a bare, sticky gynecological chair. I set off with it along an endless corridor. An English toilet, the like of which I hadn’t seen for a long time, stood at the furthermost end of a gigantic, empty, barn-like room without a door. I managed to make it that far by concentrating on the yellowish-black pattern of the chipped paving. Tarkovsky’s Stalker was shot in a building of this kind.
Two weeks before going home in the summer, we went on a trip. Suspicious peasants sat in front of their houses strung along the street, following us with lengthy stares. Slut, they said loudly. Toward dark we had to cross a marshy field. Take care, they said, watch your step, it’s full of snakes. I was suddenly panic-stricken that I’d get a deadly bite from a snake here and never get home. I was all of 38 kilos, but I did get home.
Only much later did I come across the priceless sentence of Sholem Aleichem’s with which Tevye the milkman closes his bitter letter: “Do you know what, reb Sholem Aleichem? Let’s talk about something more cheerful. What news of the cholera in Odessa?”
Translated by Peter Sherwood
Zsuzsa Hetényi is an accomplished Hungarian scholar and translator of Russian literature. She is professor of Russian at the University of Budapest (ELTE) and holds a degree of Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Peter Sherwood taught Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) until 2007. From 2008 until his retirement in 2014 he was László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Working alone or together with his wife, Julia Sherwood, he has published many book-length translations from Hungarian and Slovak.