Between Generals: A Newly Translated Short Story by Antonio Tabucchi

The complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies.

Antonio Tabucchi | from the collection Time Ages in a Hurry | Archipelago Books | May 2015 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a newly translated short story from Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi, as recommended by Longreads contributor A. N. Devers

“A result of living in a place as inescapably public as New York City is that its people are deeply private in public spaces — eye contact on the street and subways is actively discouraged and conversation between strangers is kept to a minimum — making it easy to forget that its greatest asset is the stories of its people. We’re reminded of this in “Between Generals” a quiet and nuanced portrait of a man by the late Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, in which we learn about the complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies. Newly translated into English by novelist Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani  for Archipelago Books, Tabucchi’s stories in Time Ages in a Hurry are careful, nuanced, and smartly skeptical of memory and experience.

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“I’ve never believed life imitates art, that saying’s widespread because it’s so easy, reality always outstrips the imagination, that’s why some stories can’t be written, they’re too pallid to evoke what actually was. But let’s forget about theories, I’ll gladly tell you the story, but then you can write it yourself if you wish – you’ve got the advantage over me – you don’t know who lived it. The truth is he only told me the backstory, I learned the ending from a friend of his, a man of few words; we limit ourselves to talking about music or chess moves, probably had Homer known Ulysses he would’ve thought him a banal man. I’ve come to real ize one thing, that stories are always bigger than we are, they happen to us and we are their protagonists without realizing it, but in the stories we live, we aren’t the true protagonists, the true protagonist is the story itself. Who knows why he came to this city to die when it doesn’t remind him of a thing, perhaps because it’s a Tower of Babel and he started to suspect that his story was an emblem of the babel of life, his own country was too small to die in. He must be almost ninety, he spends his afternoons gazing out the window at New York’s skyscrapers, a Puerto Rican girl comes each morning to tidy up his apartment, she brings him a dish from Tony’s Café that he reheats in the microwave, and after he listens religiously to the old Béla Bartók records that he knows by heart, he ventures out for a short walk to the entrance of Central Park, in his armoire, in a plastic garment bag, he preserves his general’s uniform, and when he returns from the park, he opens its door and pats the uniform twice on the shoulder, like he would an old friend, then he goes to bed, he’s told me he doesn’t dream, but if he does, it’s only of the sky over the Hungarian plains, he thinks that must be the effect of the sleeping pill an American doctor prescribed. So I’ll tell you the story in a few words just as the one who lived it told me, all the rest is conjecture, but that is your concern.”

***

When the story begins, its protagonist was a young officer in the Hungarian army, and according to the Gregorian calendar the year was 1956. For the sake of argument we’ll call him László, a name that renders him anonymous in Hungary, though truth be told he wasn’t just any László, he was that László. From a purely conjectural viewpoint, we might imagine him to be a man of around thirty-five, tall, thin, reddish-blond hair, gray eyes with a faint glint of blue. One might add that he was the sole heir of a family of landowners on the Romanian border, and in his household, they spoke German more than Hungarian, according to Habsburg Empire tradition. After the expropriation of their land, the family moved to Budapest into the large apartment they were granted by the Communist regime. Perhaps we could say our protagonist was drawn to the humanities at school, that he excelled in ancient Greek, that he memorized entire passages from Homer and secretly composed odes in the manner of Pindar. His teacher, the only person to whom he’d dared show them, had predicted for him a future as a great poet, a new Petöfi, something he himself hadn’t believed, an insignificant detail in any case, merely conjecture. The fact was his father wanted him to serve in the military, like he had when he was young, serving as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and for the father, that the army now belonged to a Communist regime was altogether secondary, because Hungary came before anything else, it was for this land that people bore arms, not for some ephemeral government. Our László accepted the will of his father without protest; he was very much aware that he’d never be a new Petöfi and couldn’t stand being second to any one, he wanted to excel at something, whatever that might be, he didn’t lack willpower, and sacrifices came naturally to him. At the Budapest Military Academy he was soon the best cadet, then the best officer-in training, and finally the first-class officer who, at the end of the training, was entrusted with a delicate command post in a frontier zone.

At this point, a digression might be necessary that no longer belongs to the realm of conjecture but to the imagination of the teller of a story as heard by somebody to whom the story was told in turn. It is permissible to think that László, in the village where he spent his youth and where his father once owned the land, had left his first love yet remained faithful to her. Some emotional clarification is called for concerning our László, otherwise he might seem to be only a puppet in uniform consigned to a story that reckons on willpower and physical force but excludes the mysterious strength of the cardiac muscle. László had a sentimental heart, and to attribute feelings to him that we all feel in our hearts isn’t groundless conjecture, for László’s heart was also beating for a great love, and his lamented great love was a pretty country girl to whom, after an afternoon in a cornfield in his youth, he’d sworn eternal fidelity, and she in her father’s large house protected by a line of trees would have assured him a line of descent. But meanwhile László was there, in Budapest, with all the grand buildings in that city, the general chief of staff had taken a liking to him, the last Sunday of each month he gave a party and all those invited were in dress uniform, after dinner people danced, a pianist in a tailcoat performed Viennese waltzes, the general’s daughter, while dancing, was lost in his gaze, and who knows if she was really seeing László there or the most brilliant officer of the Military Academy as described by her father. But this is altogether secondary, the fact is that after a brief engagement they were married. It can’t be ruled out that for László, imagination was stronger than reality. He loved his wife, who was pretty and kind, but he wasn’t able to find the same love for her that he thought he’d betrayed, that is, the now-blurred image of a country girl with blond hair. So he went searching for that ghost in the brothels of Budapest, at first going with some of his brothers-in-arms, then melancholically on his own.

And meanwhile we’ve arrived at 1956, the year when the Soviet army invaded Hungary. The reason for the invasion, we know, was ideological in nature, but it’s not possible to establish if László’s response was along those lines or had other motivations: the education he had received at home, for instance, because this was Hungarian soil, and as his father had taught him, Hungarian soil came before any government; or was his reaction merely for technical reasons, so to speak, because a soldier must always obey his chief of staff and never question orders. It’s also true, however, that László, raised in a big family, had access to a large library, and this might allow for more specious conjecture, that he knew his Darwin, for instance, and thought that political systems, like biological organisms, have an evolution, and that Hungary’s system, somewhat coarse though rooted in good intentions, could, if headed by a man like Imre Nagy, lead to a better outcome. Or that he’d read Return from the USSR by André Gide, which all of Europe had read and which had also circulated underground in Hungary. Along with this second-level conjecture we can introduce something more: that he took comfort in the possible support of the communist parties of several European countries, and especially in the words of a young functionary of the Communist Party in a country he deemed important, a distinguished man who spoke perfect French and knew everything about the gulags, who at a cocktail party confessed that he was a migliorista communist, a term whose definition remained vague to him but which he’d believed analogous to his own ideas.

The night Soviet tanks crossed the Hungarian border, László remembered the migliorista, and since that young functionary had left him his phone number, he called him right before the Russians cut the lines: he knew that the symbolic support of a democratic country would have been more important against the Russian tanks than the small, poorly equipped army at Hungary’s disposal. The phone rang for a long while, then a sleepy voice answered, a maid, sorry, the onorevole was out for dinner, the caller could leave a message if he liked. László told her to say only that László had called. No one called back. László thought domestic servants couldn’t be trusted, but he wasn’t much concerned, because at that moment he had other things to think about, and then, two days later, when he heard on the radio that the foreign comrade, on behalf of his own party, had called the Hungarian patriots counter-revolutionary, he realized he hadn’t gotten it wrong. What László’s thinking now, instead, as he gazes out the window at the New York skyscrapers, is how curious things are, because he’s just read a poem by Yeats, “Men Improve with the Years,” and he asks himself if it’s really like this, if time actually improves men, or if this improvement actually means they’re becoming other men, because as time carries them along with it, what once was true now seems more like a mirage, and meanwhile he’s listening to Béla Bartók’s music, the sun is setting over New York, he has to take his constitutional up to Central Park, and he’s thinking of the time when he was the one who wanted to improve his era.

How László was able to hold the Soviet army in check for three days, nobody can determine. We can make some conjectures: his strategic skill, his stubbornness, his fervid faith in the impossible. But the truth of the matter was that the tanks of the invading army couldn’t get through, the Soviets sustained many losses until, on the fourth day, their forces finally prevailed over László’s fragile platoon. The Russian commander was a man close to his age, let’s just call him Dimitri, which in Russia ensures anonymity, but he was none other than that Dimitri. A Georgian, he’d studied at the Moscow Military Academy, he loved three things in life: Stalin, because loving Stalin was mandatory and because Stalin was Georgian like he was, Pushkin, and women. A career officer, he’d never been involved in politics, he simply loved Russian soil, he was a hot-tempered, hearty man, who was unhappy, maybe, because while he’d been decorated for bravery as a young man in the fight against the Nazis, he also really hated the Nazis, while he wasn’t able to muster up any hatred at all for the Hungarians and couldn’t under stand why he had to. Yet their unexpected resistance bothered him, he grieved for his dead soldiers but mostly he was bothered by this useless resistance that made no sense to him, the Hungarians knew they’d be swept away like twigs and every hour they resisted was just an illusion made of blood. Why shed blood over an illusion? This disturbed him.

When order was restored in Budapest as Moscow wanted, and the unwanted government was replaced with more loyal men, the Hungarian officers who’d taken part in the rebellion, as the resistance was called, were tried in court. Of course László was among them, he’d been one of the worst rebels and deserved to be made an example of. To support its own charges, that fake court asked the officer Dimitri for a written report, which he sent from Moscow. The sentence had already been set, this was just for show, yet because of the sheer force of the writing, László thought he was being condemned mainly because of Dimitri’s report. He was given the sentence a rebel like him deserved: he was publicly disgraced, then expelled from the army, eventually jailed in civilian clothes, because the Hungarian uniform must remain guiltless. When they freed him he was already an old man, his house had been confiscated, he had no means of support, his wife was dead, he suffered from arthritis. He went to live with his daughter, who’d married a country veterinarian. And so time went along, until the day the Berlin Wall collapsed, and the empire of the Soviet Union collapsed as well, along with the systems of satellite countries such as Hungary. A few years later the democratic government of his new country decided to rehabilitate the career officers who in 1956 had guided the revolt against the Soviet Union. Only a few were still alive, László among them.

* * *

Sometimes the deep meaning of an event reveals itself just at the point when that event seems to be settled. László’s life seemed almost at an end, and his story too. And yet it’s right at this point that the story acquires an unexpected meaning.

His daughter and grandchild took him to Budapest for the solemn ceremony that would reintegrate him into the army and award him the Hungarian medal of heroism. He went to the ceremony wearing the old uniform that had withstood time except for a few moth holes. The ceremony was imposing, broadcast on television, in that immense hall of the ministry: so, like many years before when he’d been demoted from one moment to the next, from one moment to the next he was now promoted, and found himself once again a lieutenant general, with a bunch of medals pinned to his chest. The Defense Ministry had reserved a luxurious suite for him in a fine hotel in Budapest. That night László fell asleep quickly, perhaps because he’d drunk too much, but he awoke in the middle of the night, experienced a long bout of insomnia, and during that sleepless time, he pondered something. It’s difficult to guess the motives behind this idea, but the fact is that the next morning László telephoned the Defense Ministry, gave his name and his rank, said the first and last name of a certain Russian officer, and asked for his coordinates. These were furnished to him in a few minutes: the Hungarian secret service knew everything about this officer and even provided his phone number. Dimitri, too, was a general; gold medal of honor of the Soviet Union, now retired, he lived alone in a small apartment in Moscow. The new Russia offered him a pension; a widower, he’d joined the Russian chess-players’ association and had a Saturday night season ticket at a little theater where they performed only Pushkin. László called him very late at night. Dimitri answered after the first ring, László told him his name, and Dimitri remembered immediately. László said he wanted to get to know him, Dimitri didn’t ask why, he understood. László proposed that he come to Budapest, he’d pay for the trip and lodging for a weekend at a fine hotel in Budapest. Dimitri refused, offering plausible reasons: a Hungary he didn’t like, certain foreign secret services, who knows what could happen to him, he hoped he’d understand. László said he did, and so, if Dimitri agreed, he’d go to Moscow instead.

He left the following day. His daughter tried to talk him out of it, but László told her to go back home, to not leave the vet by himself too much. When he returned, all he told his daughter and son-in-law was that the trip had gone well. They insisted on more details, and he repeated that the trip had gone well, nothing else. It was only later that he explained about that weekend in Moscow, when he was gazing at skyscrapers from a small apartment in Manhattan.

Saturday nights he’d go for dinner at a little McDonald’s on Seventieth Street and Amsterdam Avenue. He went there for two reasons. First of all because he’d discovered that in the elegant restaurants of New York, they served only breast of chicken and disdained the other parts, which ended up at McDonald’s, the restaurant for poor people, and László liked precisely these parts of the chicken reserved for mediocre restaurants. Plus he’d gotten to know a little group of fellow country men who stayed there late playing chess. He’d started playing chess with one of them, someone like himself who’d resisted the Soviets and had the great quality of knowing how to listen. László chose to recount his voyage to Moscow to this man: it was late, snowing, and the only ones left in the restaurant were the two of them and the waiter who was sweeping the floor. Dear Ferenc, he said, three days in Moscow, a city I’d never been to before, what a great city, you’d have liked it too, the people are like us, it’s not like here, where we all feel like strangers.

The first day, Dimitri and I talked about this and that and played chess, he won three times in a row and the fourth time I won, but I had the impression he let me. The following day we took a long walk along the Moscova and that night we went to see a play by Pushkin. The third day he took me to a brothel, it was a very elegant place, the sort you can’t find anymore in Budapest, I had quite a good time there and found a virility I thought dead. Ferenc, I want to tell you something, perhaps you won’t believe me, but it was there in Moscow that I spent the best days of my life.

* * *

From Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi, published by Archipelago Books.