Excerpt from Forced Liberation
Cardinal Kollonich, after having relished to the fullest the fear of the man standing before him (who was just as much of a gentleman as he was, or rather ten or perhaps a hundred times so), gestured towards a chair in which Sándor Károlyi was, at last, permitted to sit down. The stooped man straightened himself and spoke. He wasn’t, indeed, as small as he had seemed when hunched over. And, like when water begins to boil in a metal pot, the bubbles jostling each other to the top the size of a trout’s eyes, the words spluttered and gurgled forth from this at the time still nameless man. His namelessness will not last long, however, since we will reveal, without further ado, that he was Miklós Liszkay.
What he said not only seemed credible but also painted him in a favorable light. That he, as his name demonstrated, was born in Italian Lisca, that he had studied in Sárospatak, from there gone as the alumnus of lord Andrássy to the Leiden university in Holland. When Lord Andrássy had had difficulties (that was, by now, quite some time ago), he had wanted neither to return home, because it is the servants that suffer when their masters stumble, nor to sponge off the other Hungarian students in Lugdunum, so he had settled in as a proofreader in the king’s publishing house. There he had made the acquaintance of a book vendor one of whose buyers had been the merchant Vilmos Farrington. Upon hearing Farrington’s favorable offer he had entered into his service without hesitation. (Proofreading was fine work, perhaps, but it was a meager and hard livelihood. And I was already wearing rags living off Lord Andrássy’s scholarship.) Farrington did most of his trade in rugs, though also of course in figs, raisins, and other such things, so he regularly spent part of the year in Smyrna, and me, well I know Smyrna like I know the palm of my own hand.
And he showed the palm of his hand! This little rise at the base of the thumb, that’s Pagos, or rather the hill named Hill. The arc formed by the thumb and the index finger, that’s the bay at Smyrna, stretching far inland. This little flap of skin at the edge, that’s the harbor. This wrinkle extending towards the index finger separates the Turkish part of the city from the Jewish part, one filthier than the other. Here, at the base of my middle finger, next to the rows of stalls at the bazaar, is the French Quarter. For some reason Muslims call all the Christians who come from the north Franks. It is they who live here. (To tell the truth, the streets of the French Quarter were also fairly grimy, at least on Miklós Liszkay’s palm.) This little callous, you see, this was the home of my master, Vilmos Farrington. Allegedly Homer was born in this house, the blind storyteller who invented the tale of Troy. What a shame that he never wrote an ending for us!
Be so kind as not to get impatient, now I will get to the point. The point here is the freckle between Pagos and the harbor, in reality a little closer to the harbor. This freckle is both the prison and the barracks of Smyrna. This is the most important thing in all of this. Coming from the French Quarter, if you don’t want to go by the warehouses and the harbor garrison, you can approach the prison by way of the Greek Quarter and the narrow streets running across the side of the hill of the upper city where the Armenians live. I haven’t even spoken about these two quarters at the base of my ring finger and little finger, though at least two thirds of the population of the city is either Greek or Armenian, definitely something one should know. As a curiosity I mention that the river Meles (here it is, if you please, this curvy blue line on my wrist), so behind the bend in the river Meles are the three sister-mountains. According to tradition they turned to stone, and the great Sophocles wrote a tragedy about them that, however, has been lost, what a shame. This here is the Two Brothers Mountain. One of its peaks is called the True Brother, the other the False Brother.
From this Sándor Károlyi finally understood (though he could have come to this realization sooner) that Liszkay was not dangling his hand out for nothing: one was supposed to put something in it. And not just one thaler, but rather two or preferably three or four. In the wake of Károlyi’s fruitful realization Liszkay stuffed the grimy ground-plan of Smyrna, together with the money, into his pocket.
Upon arriving in Smyrna with my master in the spring of this year, I met on several occasions a convict begging at the bazaar, a man for whom compatriots, Germans from the Rhine region, had agreed to guarantee bail so that he would be able to leave his cell for a few days to collect the price for his release. He had told me, furtively, that there was a Hungarian suffering in the dungeon who, being the only Hungarian and with no one to guarantee his bail, had not yet been able to come out a single time, though his father was an esteemed gentleman, and even if they were to ask forty-thousand thalers for his release, his relations would indubitably provide it. You must hurry now, this beggar-convict from the Rhineland told me, because the day after tomorrow the Pasha of Smyrna is going to send the convicts to the galleys, where your starved and weakened compatriot’s days are surely numbered. It is urgent that you free him if you want to save his life. In the meantime I (the German from the Rhineland) will, for a modest fee, pass on any messages with the greatest of caution.
I hurried to my master. With tears in my eyes I pleaded with him to free this poor man if indeed there was some legal way to do so. Farrington said we could try, if it was so important to me, but only through some intermediary, because if he, as an honest gentleman, were to ask in his own name in vain might he offer even as much as ten thousand thalers, they would not release the poor Hungarian. Even now one could find prisoners in that dungeon who could give five thousand thalers, the Pasha of Smyrna still wouldn’t release them. Though if he were to give just half as much to me for my efforts in his service, I tell you I would be perfectly satisfied!
(And across his face flitted an expression as if he were about to receive the sum he had just mentioned. Meanwhile he munched on a fig he had taken from a plate of which, until now, there has been no mention and, from now, there will be no mention. Tiny seeds spattered here and there.)
So I sought two old benefactors, Pentheusz Morovján in the Armenian part of the city and Március Kandavlisz in the Greek part. I happened to know that the wife of Ibrahim Pasha owed each of them rather large sums. Now my master instructed them as to what to say and when to keep quiet. So I went with them to the Pasha. Both the Greek and the Armenian told him that there was a Hungarian prisoner in the dungeon together with whom I served my master, who had raised us together since our childhood and who was killed in battle eleven years earlier by the Turks. The two of us had fallen into captivity as slaves. While I had managed, through begging, to purchase my freedom - indeed I even have a paper attesting to it, if you please - my companion was still a slave. Here in Smyrna luckily we had met. I love him like a brother and am willing to hand over all the money that I have, through tremendous effort, managed to scrape together over the past six years in exchange for his release.
Be so kind as to understand that of what you are hearing, noble Lord Lieutenant, not a word, not even a single word is true. This whole story was invented by my master Farrington (a very clever man). Morovján and Kandavlisz had to learn it word for word. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had a prayer of freeing the poor Hungarian captive. The Pasha asked me what this Hungarian prisoner’s name was and how he looked. I told him that he looked thusly and suchly and that his name was Ricard Herz, or rather, since we used his nickname, Dick Herz.
Do not be surprised, Lord Lieutenant: this is what had been planned. Because if I had said that the Hungarian prisoner was baron Pista Károlyi and that he had been a lieutenant colonel or whatever the hell he was in the legion of General Veterani, and that it is not I who is his brother but rather the Lord Lieutenant of the city of Szatmár, then the Lord Lieutenant would have had to give everything down to the shirt off his own back to get back his beloved brother.
Now no doubt your Honor is pondering how this swindling rag of a man (that would be me, according to your noble Lordship) could have known at that time that this Hungarian prisoner, who was languishing in the dungeon in Smyrna, was István Károlyi. This I knew because before we went to the Pasha I went to the dungeon and spoke with your worship’s brother. The Ober-Tömlitzer (that’s what they call the guard in the Smyrna dungeon) was a good friend. For a little money, some ten Rhenish forints , he let me in. He told us to speak as we pleased, he couldn’t understand Hungarian anyway. Or if he could he’d already forgotten. The poor Hungarian prisoner whispered his name into my ear, and that he was the elder son of László Károlyi. He told me that eleven years earlier he had taken part in the recapture of Buda and in the campaign in Szeged, and that during the Szeged campaign, while he was riding ahead in one of the battles at the town of Zenta, the enemy had encircled him. He had fought courageously, twisting and turning on his steed, and had succeeded in breaking free from the life threatening danger. He had plunged his dagger up to the hilt in the side of an older Turkish officer attacking him, but he had never had the chance to pull it out because his horse had stumbled on a corpse and he had lost his balance and, in the same moment, a spahi had thrust his lance into his chest so that he fell to the ground, dragging the old Turk with him. He even showed me the wound. It’s here, on the left side of his chest.
(Liszkay gestured to his own chest, though in vain, for there was no scarred-over lance wound to be seen on it. It was as smooth as the bacon of the Szilágy region. It was rather on his back that one could see the mark of some old lashing.) Happy fate, however, determined that the elderly Turk, whose life had the previous minute been extinguished, would save the life of your Honor’s brother, for as in their fall they embraced one another, the dead body absorbed the thrusts of the lance and the blows of the swords intended for the living body. In addition this was not just any dead body, but rather a leader, a great hero and a relative of the Pasha of Temesvár. So Jafar Pasha ordered that they take not only the body of the elderly Selim with them, but also the body of the Christian. Since in the body of István Károlyi there still lived a soul, if perhaps a soul already preparing for its next journey, your honor’s brother fell, both body and soul, into Turkish captivity.
Jafar Pasha, when he heard that the young Christian who had slain the gallant old Selim was still alive, immediately wanted to put him to the stake. But in the swampy region where they had made their camp there was not a single straight-growing tree that might be fashioned into a stake to be found. (The willows might at best be used to hang someone, but the Pasha didn’t want that.) In the end with great effort they found a pretty young ash tree that the good Lord had created to be carefully whittled and jammed from rectum to scapula through a writhing human body. Please be so kind as to pay attention, because had it differed but by a hair we might not be sitting here in the shadow of the cardinal’s scholarly books, and there would be no story about your brother’s escape from death, every bit as improbable as it is true.
Because the Good Lord, who I have just mentioned, contrived that there should be on this tree a bird’s nest full of peeping fledgeless nestlings. Jafar Pasha, for his part, took pity on them. He said that he would only punish those deserving of punishment, and thus spared the nestling birds, and since there wasn’t another such tree, he also spared your Honor’s brother.
This is what your noble Honor’s brother recounted. He might have told of other things too, but the Ober-Tömlizter, who until now had listened from behind the door, began to clear his throat loudly. So we had to finish the conversation or else I would have had to give another ten Rhenish forint. I told the poor prisoner that we should find an appropriate name for him, quickly, because as István Károlyi he would never be released from there. We need the name of someone who exists, a little, someone who has parents or other relatives in Hungary, but at the same time someone who is missing, someone who isn’t around and about whom it can’t be known for certain exactly what has become of him.
The Cardinal is right, I expressed myself clumsily. If I were more clever I too would write thick tomes like the ones lining the shelves here, and then I too would have at least one gold-gilded crest. Indeed it is quite impossible for one to exist a little. Either one exists or one doesn’t exist. That has to be decided once and for all.
Your noble Honor’s brother said to me, fine, in the hope of winning my freedom let me then be, for a time, Dick Hertz. I asked him why Dick Hertz? Well, because that was the name that had suddenly jumped to his mind. He was a drunken ne’er-do-well from Nyalábvár, who had run away and enlisted in the army, so said your Honor’s brother. Only the good Lord knows where or how he had perished, so I (your Honor’s brother) will take his name.
So I told Ibrahim Pasha that the prisoner’s name was Dick Hertz. To this the Pasha burst into laughter: if his name hurts, let his ransom hurt too. So, how much money do you have, tell me please! How many forint have you filched over these six years since you’ve been free? I told the Pasha that I had one-hundred-and-ten thalers, or maybe one-hundred-and-twenty. But I hadn’t stolen it, I had earned it with honest work, I had put it together dinar by dinar. By this time he was clutching his stomach with laughter. You are indeed a fool if you didn’t steal! And you are more of a fool if you did, but only one-hundred-and-ten or one-hundred-and-twenty! And you are the most foolish of all if you think that for one-hundred-and-ten-fillers I will bother to speak with you. Be gone from here, take care that I never even see you again!
His face was so full of rage that the blood in my veins went cold. But then Morovján Penfajsz said something to him in Armenian, something I didn’t understand, but it became clear that the Pasha was not truly angry, it was just his custom to behave so. Again the great Ibrahim turned to me. In vain did you entreat me, he said, this morning I had all the prisoners sent to the galley. This galley is now departing, this very minute, or perhaps it has already left. What do you want of me, that for your filthy little coins I should send a pinnace after it? Should I have it turned back on your behalf? It is written in the book of fate that your Dick Hertz will rot on the bench of a galley. I have not fulfilled your wish, be gone from here.
The great Pasha Ibrahim said this as if he himself could read from the book of fate, or as if it was he who with his own hand had scribbled its pages full. Though in this very moment there came an old shipman: this morning, when we inspected the galley, it came to our attention that some wood eating bug or worm or grub has chewed at the base of the main mast. From the outside one can see nothing, just a little white powder, like flour, but on the inside it might be like a sponge or a rotten tooth. The captain Mehmed Galériás and the helmsman Hasszán therefore ask, with the greatest deference, would it not be more fitting to delay the departure of the galley for one week while the main mast is replaced? Now then your noble Honor could have seen what it is like when Pasha Ibrahim is genuinely angered!
His eyes didn’t flash, nor did be shout, but rather his nose broadened a bit and his mouth became a little narrower. With this narrowed mouth he answered, quietly, that as quickly as these Christians drink a bottle of wine he would go to the harbor, and if the galley had not departed by then he would have captain Mehmed and helmsman Hasszán bound to the main mast for their negligence and with his own belt and his own two hands he would strangle them.
Then he did indeed have wine brought in and asked us if we would not like to take a swig. But if I see that you are dawdling to draw out the time then I will ram the glasses down your throats! And as we sipped the wine the great Ibrahim recounted something funny and strange. That in his youth he had had a beautiful wife with whom he had been in love until death had parted them. For she had born him two children, a boy and a girl, and during the birth of the girl she had died. Her he will never get back again, though in the children, one of whom grew prettier by the day, the other stronger, smarter, and braver, he might have found some consolation, but now he had lost his son too. The boy’s name was Ahmed, and two years earlier he had fallen captive at Lugos, where General Veterani, indeed, had perished, but where his soldiers had taken numerous Turkish prisoners. In vain had Pasha Ibrahim sent ransom, his son Ahmed had not been returned to him.
Indeed what was perhaps an even greater cause of grief was that he could find no solace in his daughter either, though a dearer possession was not to be found anywhere on earth. Kártigám was the girl’s name, and fourteen years earlier during the recapture of Budapest she had vanished. Your noble Honor asks how it was that Kártigám, who at the time was only seven or eight years old, came to be in Buda. It was simply that after the siege of Vienna the Pasha’s neck had begun to itch. When he had been called to Constantinople he could not have known what awaited him there, so he had sent his daughter, with the fitting escort and gifts, to Buda, and then was unable to bring her back. Since then he has no idea what has become of her. The Pasha asked me, Liszkay, will you give me back my daughter? You won’t, will you? Then neither will I give back your brother.
By then we had drunk the wine. The Pasha stood up and would have left for the harbor. Well, I thought, honorable Baron, or rather dear Pistika, let the good Lord help you now, because I, it seems, am unable to. In this moment there came another shipman, a younger man. The main mast, when they were about to begin spreading the sails, fell with tremendous cracking and crashing and struck dead nine men, among them captain Mehmed and helmsman Hasszan. Earlier your brother had escaped because the good Lord left standing a tree that human hands had wanted to fell. Now he escaped because God felled a timber that according to human calculations should have stood.
At this point the Pasha became a little alarmed. Perhaps we could have gotten back your worship’s brother immediately if we had been a little more bold. But Morovján and Kandavlisz were so terrified that they asked permission to leave (they were ashamed of themselves later). I thought that it would take at least a week to repair a boat like that, but it took less than three days. I don’t know how they did it, because no one was allowed to go near it, though I gave the Ober-Tömlitzer ten marks and he promised to take care of it, but then he didn’t. Then three days passed and the Ober-Tömlizter said that I should leave him in peace. The galley had been repaired, it was about to depart, so now there was indeed no escape.
But then what happened? There came a man, they called him Gillets or Gullets, and he gave me a stamped document. He was the Pasha’s scribe, and he had been given that name because he drained an enormous quantity of wine down his gullet, though that is forbidden for Mohammedans. So that no one should see when he drank, he went to Március Kandavlisz’s place to get drunk, and if indeed he got very drunk he sometimes even slept in Kandavlisz’s house. Well, as this wrangling over the galley and your Honor’s brother took place and Kandavlisz went home, every limb trembling, from the meeting with the Pasha, all of a sudden along comes this Gillets or Gullets and says: wine! Kandavlisz answered that he would bring the wine immediately, dear, kind Gullets, but tell me, do you believe that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world? To this Gillets or Gullets replied, how could I believe such a thing when for us Muslims, followers of the true faith, women can only be seen veiled.
Március Kandavlisz laughed out loud, because by then both of them were quite drunk. So, Gullets, if until now you’ve only seen women veiled, now this one time you can see a woman naked!
With that he took Gullets into his wife’s room and hid him behind an armoire. He withdrew to the lavatory to smoke. A little while later Márvius Kandavlisz’s wife arrived, suspecting nothing. She pottered around for a moment by the window, then drew in the curtain and let down her hair, which reached to the ground, and then actually began slowly to undress. She looked at herself in the mirror to see if she was still as beautiful as she had been at the same time yesterday.
It was fortunate that she paid attention only to her own beauty, because the doltish Gullets could hardly contain himself. The whole time he fidgeted and squirmed behind the armoire. Finally he sighed so heavily that it was impossible not to hear it. “Look here you wretch,” the woman said to him when she had dragged him out from behind the armoire, “you have two choices, take your pick. Either you free Dick Hertz (i.e. your Honor’s brother, István Károlyi) from the galley or you find yourself there beside him!” What could poor Gullets have done? “Fine,” he sighed, “I will write a letter freeing Dick Herz.” With that he took out his pen and began to write, gracefully and attentively, on the available parchment, stamping it three or four times. It was this document that he put into my hand, because he had left the blushing woman lying half unconscious, said his good-bye at the lavatory, from which thick clouds of pipe smoke still curled, and run to me which the precious paper.
We quickly got into a boat, because the galley had already left and was headed towards the center of the bay. We barely managed to catch up with it. But there was, alas, one thing that we hadn’t thought of, and that was that the Pasha himself was there on the deck of the ship. Of course he had been angry when the main mast had snapped. He had wanted to arrive with great ceremony at the island of Lesbos. That’s here next to Smyrna, barely spitting distance. (He even showed us just how far spitting distance is, and indeed Lesbos must be quite close to Smyrna.)
They had already sawed the irons from your Honor’s brother twice, but the Pasha reconsidered his decision and clamped him in irons a third time. Hours passed, and in the distance one could already make out the shores of Lesbos. Had we arrived there, I would never again have been able to free your Honor’s brother. I told the Pasha, stretching towards him my sack stuffed with coins, that on the island of Lesbos he will have no need of Dick Hertz, he should not be ridiculous. I saw in his eye that any minute now I would find myself clasped in irons beside your Honor’s brother. But then he just patted me on the back and, for the third time, had your brother’s irons removed. He brought him forth and had him served a glass of wine. In the end your honor’s brother had to give his word that never again would he fight against the Turks. And then we were free as birds.
Translated from the Hungarian by Thomas Cooper