Zsuzsa Bank The Swimmer

ISBN 13: 9780151009329

The Swimmer

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9780151009329: The Swimmer

Hungary, 1956. Without a word, Katalin leaves her family and sets out for the West. Her husband, Kalman, abandons the family farm and begins a long and circuitous journey through Hungary with his two young children, Kata and Isti. Staying briefly with distant relatives in unfamiliar cities and villages, Kalman keeps his family on the move and shuns anything resembling a home or a steady life. As their father sinks into depression, Kata and her brother create their own imaginary universe: Kata invents relationships with the people they meet during their long journey while Isti converses with the world around him-houses, stones, snow, skies. It is only in rare moments, on riverbanks and lakeshores where Kata and Isti swim with their father, that they experience a semblance of calm and happiness. Moments that feel as if life is just beginning for them . . .

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Zsuzsa Bánk is the recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships and has already achieved great success in Europe with this, her first novel. She lives in Frankfurt.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Toward the end of summer Manci said I had to go to school. When my father didn't make a move, Manci announced that she herself would register me. Then Father took our clothes out of the closet, and I folded them without saying a word, while Manci kept trying to persuade him to stay. We carried our suitcases along the gallery, past the many windows, down the stairs, and past the metal mailboxes, exactly the same way we had come. Erzsi followed us-Manci had knocked on her window-and pressed a little foil-wrapped packet of bitter chocolate into Isti's hands.

Now we found out where Father had spent his Budapest nights: at his friend Éva's house. Éva drove us in her car, heading east. As she never tired of explaining to Manci and Erzsi, she was driving into her future. She had a fiancé. His name was Karcsi, and the wedding was only a few weeks off. Pointing at the car, Manci whispered to Erzsi that he certainly must be a good catch.

Éva put her hands on the steering wheel. Her fingernail polish was pink. Isti and I sat in the backseat. We had never been in a car before, or even known anybody who had one. Éva started the engine and Isti unwrapped Erzsi's chocolate. "Just don't smear it on the seats," Éva warned. My father lit another cigarette, rolled down the window and let his arm hang out. Erzsi grabbed it with both hands and said, "Take care of the children." Manci started to cry, and when the car began to move, we waved to her through the rear window as she got smaller and smaller, until she finally vanished.

Father never took us back to Pest. Not to see Manci, or Erzsi, or anyone else. But wherever we happened to be, Isti and I would go to the station to look through the timetables for trains that went there. We walked, we went by bicycle when we could get one, or we let strangers take us on their motorcycles. I had shown Isti what the word Budapest looked like. For a long time, it was the only word he could read. Very few trains went to Budapest. When we found one that did, we memorized the departure time and kept repeating it to each other. Isti didn't forget a single one. Even after we had left a place long before, he remembered the schedule for the trains to Budapest. We turned it into a game. Isti would challenge me: "Ask me one." I'd name a town, and he'd tell me the times. Departure and arrival.

We really didn't know what 7:15 or 17:53 meant. For us, the times listed were nothing but numbers, numbers next to each other. Like the price of a pound of potatoes or something else that we would buy with Father's money. It was strange, the way our lives continued even after Mother had abandoned us. Morning came, night came, and I was no longer surprised that this was the way it was. We got up, we did things, we swore, we prayed, we ate, we argued. It seemed to me that we were doing something wrong, that time shouldn't be allowed to pass. Not like this.

When Manci died, years later, we were once again living in the eastern part of the country. Erzsi's letters reached us from time to time, and so we knew that toward the end Manci could no longer move her tongue or talk and was hardly able to swallow. She no longer went out in public or even left the house. When Erzsi knocked on her door, Manci wouldn't open it, and Erzsi just left bags filled with food outside her door.

Years after Manci's death I drove to Budapest to visit her grave in the Kerepesi Cemetery. I went on Sunday, when everyone goes, reaching out of car windows to buy bouquets from the flower vendors at the entrance. I walked on gravel paths that seemed endless, past names I read aloud to myself-Töth Lajos, Vitányi Orsolya, Hajdu Péter-and I stopped at graves, perhaps just to make people think I had somebody buried here. A cemetery caretaker had drawn a cross on a map to mark the row in which I'd find Manci's grave. There was nothing carved on her headstone but her name-no "We mourn our dear departed," or "Here rests in peace." Some yellow flowers were wilting in a pot in front of the stone. I wondered who had brought them. I could think of no one who would have taken the trouble to come here, except Erzsi.

The day we left Budapest, we drove a long time before we finally got out of the city, before it was nothing more than a dark spot in our rearview mirror. House façades went by, streets and people-walking or waiting, alone or in crowds. Isti stared out of the car window, and I thought, maybe we'll see her somewhere. Wearing her kerchief, riding her bicycle.

After we'd packed up our belongings and gone downstairs, Father had impressed on us that he didn't want to hear any complaining, not a sound. Not now and especially not during the trip. If we needed something, we were to tap him on the shoulder; we were not to ask Éva. We drove east for a day and a night. Isti and I didn't say a word the entire trip. I sat behind Éva and noticed that the back of her neck suddenly turned red just before we reached Hatvan, as red as the band with which she had tied up her hair. We stopped so she could take off her shoes, and she wiped tiny drops of sweat from her forehead, tugged at the collar of her blouse, and with one hand fanned air toward her face. It somehow made me glad to see her like that.

As it grew dark, animals ventured into the road. Foxes ran toward us, then froze in our headlights. Éva stepped on the brake and swore. Isti woke up and reached for my hand. Father yelled and waved his arms. Éva blew the horn. There were rabbits, lots and lots of rabbits, captured in our beams. In the morning, sheep surrounded the car, enveloping us in a cloud of dust, and Isti and I held our hands over our mouths and laughed. Éva snapped at my father, "Do something!" Then Isti saw the shepherd in a field; a barking dog came chasing after the herd. When the sheep moved off the road, Éva got out to see if the car was all right. She complained about the shepherd, the road that was no road, the animals, about the entire goddamn, godforsaken East.

We drove on toward Szerencs. They say the name means Good Luck, or something like that. Father had arranged for us to stay with his cousin Zsófi. Éva dropped us off in front of a garden gate; its green paint was eaten up with rust. Two barefoot boys had been following us ever since we turned off at the village signpost, and now they stood staring at Éva's car. Éva hissed, "Don't look at them. They're Gypsies." And she shouted at the boys, "Go on, get out of here," making a sound through her teeth, tsh, tsh, tsh, as if she were shooing away a cat.

Zsófi came running toward us. "My God, how pale he looks!" she said as she stroked Isti's head. "Don't you feed him?" She put her hands around my face. "So this is Kata, how she's grown!" In the kitchen a child in a crib was crying, drumming her fingers against the plaster wall. Something was cooking in a big pot on the stove; the lid was jiggling. Jenö, Zsófi's son, greeted us, then disappeared again behind a curtain of plastic strips that fluttered in the doorway to keep the flies out. Jenö wore rubber boots, in which he had stood in mud up to his knees. A pale scar connected his mouth with his nose. His skin was white and dotted with little black craters. In the yard a dog was barking, running around and around in a circle, biting and snapping, getting tangled in his chain. "Don't go near him," Zsófi warned us, pouring my father a little glass of homemade brandy. "To our health," my father said, and emptied it in one gulp. Zsófi had only a few teeth, and I found it hard to understand what she was saying. On her throat she had a big, quivering goiter that she had removed a few weeks later, in time for Éva's wedding. It left a thick red scar.

Zsófi gave us a room of our own. From the bed I shared with Isti I could see a window and through the window a nut tree. I often lay there and watched its leaves tremble in the wind. In the adjoining room Jenö played the piano. When we were alone and nobody could hear us, he told me he wanted to go away, maybe to Pest, maybe farther west. He wanted to play the piano, that was all he wanted to do. Why should he care about the farm, why should it matter to him of all people? When Isti and I stepped into the chicken droppings with our bare feet and watched our toes turn brown, Jenö would grab a chicken and put it into a pail. After swinging the pail around and around at arm's length, he would pull the chicken out and then laugh at the sight of it trying to stagger away. "It's drunk," he would yell boastfully, as if to tell us that he, Jenö, was the only one on the farm allowed to stick chickens into a pail, the only one.

The farm was some distance from the village. When we were sent to get bread it took us a while to reach the first houses. A small stretch of the village street was paved; on hot days the asphalt burned our feet. There was a dog in the village who chased birds. Isti and I would spend hours watching him as he snapped at pigeons without ever catching one. We'd sit in the square, in the shade of the church tower, jumping up now and then to run after the dog and the birds. "Dogs don't chase pigeons," my father said, when we told him about it.

The episode with the fish had changed us. If a glass fell on the floor in the kitchen and shattered, I blamed myself. I remembered my dreams; I collected them, in fact. I could tell Isti at least ten of them. I would keep reassembling them, embellishing them, weaving them into stories. I went to bed so that I could dream, so I could wake up the following morning with a mental picture, a feeling, that I would otherwise have never found. Isti would lie on his back, his arms crossed on his chest, unapproachable. He seemed to be sleeping with his eyes wide open. Once, when Zsófi saw him like this, she took him to see the village doctor. After that Isti had to take drops from a small bottle every day. Maybe he gave them to the dog ...

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Bánk, Zsuzsa.
Published by Harcourt, Orlando (2004)
ISBN 10: 0151009325 ISBN 13: 9780151009329
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Book Description Harcourt, Orlando, 2004. Softcover. Book Condition: New. Uncorrected Proof.. 278 pages. Softcover New copy. Uncorrected proof. FICTION. Hungary, 1956. Without a word, Katalin leaves her family and sets out for the West. Her husband, Kalman, abandons the family farm and begins a long and circuitous journey through Hungary with his two young children, Kata and Isti. Staying briefly with distant relatives in unfamiliar cities and villages, Kalman keeps his family on the move and shuns anything resembling a home or a steady life. As their father sinks into depression, Kata and her brother create their own imaginary universe: Kata invents relationships with the people they meet during their long journey while Isti converses with world around him-houses, stones, snow, skies. It is only in rare moments, on the riverbanks and lakeshores where the two swim with their father, that they experience a semblance of calm and happiness. This copy is an uncorrected proof. (Key Words: fiction, swimming, Bánk, Zsuzsa, Hungary). book. Bookseller Inventory # 14994X1

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Zsuzsa Bank, Margot B. Dembo (Translator)
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