The Last Window Giraffe

The Last Window Giraffe
Riot police_80
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Ferris wheel_80111
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Fish window_80111
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
Photo: Péter Zilahy
A revolutionary alphabet for 5 and up

by Péter Zilahy

Extract translated from the Hungarian (Az utolsó ablakzsiráf, 1998) by Stacey Knecht


The first letter of the Hungarian alphabet is A.

Now we see through bulletproof glass.
Disperse us if you can, but I'll still look you in the eye. Bodyguards in sunglasses, motionless, the misty glint of a cigarette case. For a moment, the Golden Age was within arm's reach. We saw the Zastavas flashing by and would've gladly believed them, our land-forsaken countrymen, gladly believed it was a fairy tale, not a chained dog, or right-wing Revisionists, but non-aligned countries, Surda, Dubrovnik, Opatija, the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. A window to the sea where the view wasn't blocked by the struggle for peace, the fight against imperialism. A place where Italians, Albanians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Hungarians and Romanians would find land, rivers, grassy meadows, mountains and valleys, to quote the poet Arany. Water, woods and meadows, flowing noble and free. Their nostalgia makes me jealous, it reminds me of the golden age of the Dual Monarchy. 'A' for arany, aurum, gold - let this be the first window of my window giraffe.

It's an old wish of mine to see the news live: to know the place and the players, and to watch the news the way you watch a video of a school trip when you get home. In November 1996, in Yugoslavia, the authorities tampered with the results of the local elections. The citizens of Belgrade felt let down and took to the streets. In this dictionary you can learn a lot of interesting things about Belgrade. You can also read about the jungle, under the letter 'õ', for õserdõ.
I first saw Szerzsán on CNN; later on, we met at the demonstration. He was conspicuous by his silence. Under his hat, which he had pulled down over his ears, all you could see were his teeth, but only when he grinned. I could make out the Cyrillic letters on the book sticking out of his pocket and asked him why he was reading A Hundred Years of Solitude at a mass demonstration.

He hopes to find the girl he borrowed it from before the war. This would be a good opportunity for him to give it back.

Colonel Aureliano Buendía organized thirty-two armed uprisings and lost them all. He survived fourteen assassination attempts, seventy-three ambushes, the firing squad, strychnine in his coffee and a suicide attempt. After the war he retreated to his alchemist's workshop and made little gold fish from gold coins.

In Belgrade, time is measured in faces. After a week, I begin to recognize a few. After a year, I know everyone. Those who have a face also have time. Watches are worn as jewelry; the position of the hands forms an arbitrary angle to the mental state of the wearer. As long as I stay out on the street, I'll never be late - you can tell the time of the demonstration by the faces. You look at someone and you know: it's time. You arrange to meet someone and neither of you shows up at the appointed time or place, but then you run into each other in a different place where you never would've met if you'd been there as planned. Belgrade has been freed from astronomical time. People look each other in the eye. They spin like merry-go-rounds in the rain of confetti. A chain reaction of faces in an activated detonator. In Belgrade the faces are highly flammable, quick to ignite. It's impossible to be invisible. In Belgrade, the masses have a face. One out of every two faces is always you. You never lose face. The people of Belgrade bid a rousing farewell to the past. The shared experience of misbehaving together, farting, belching, whistle-blowing, horn-tooting. An old lady standing next to me is shouting at the top of her lungs. She knows it's allowed. Wristwatches are out, history is in. Down with faceless time!

The Window Giraffe was a picture book from which we learned to read when we didn't know how to. I already knew how, but I had to learn anyway, because why else would you go to school? The Window Giraffe presented the world to us in a comprehensible way and in alphabetical order. Everything had a meaning, everything had a place. We learned that the sun rose in the east, that our hearts were on the left, that the October Revolution was in November, and that light came in through the window, even when it was closed. The Window Giraffe was full of seven-headed dragons, fairies, devils and princes, but it also said they didn't exist. I remember four different kinds of dragons that didn't exist, and three princes. Syllable by syllable, The Window Giraffe taught us to read between the lines. It was something we took for granted, like the singing teddy-bear on TV before bedtime. No one ever thought of questioning it. The window giraffe was the window giraffe. The window giraffe is my childhood, the locker room, the gym class, my steady growth, a time before a better time, the 'mild dictatorship', my homework, my innocence, my generation. The window giraffe is a book in which I, too, played a role. Twenty years later someone asked me about it, and only then did I realize that ablak and zsiráf, 'window' and 'giraffe', were the first and last words, the Alfa and the Omega. Yes. The window is the beginning, through the window comes light, the giraffe is finite infinity, surrealism, flaming giraffes, we'll never die! An encyclopedia of everything that has been left out.
There's a window giraffe in Paris, too. I saw it once on a postcard: it's called the Eiffel Tower. The card was from Zsófi Brünner, who had sent it after she defected to France with her parents and began studying from a French alphabet book. The Eiffel Tower has a long neck, four legs, and hundreds of windows: window and giraffe at the same time. Even the name sounds good, encouragement and promise all rolled into one, the promise of a sudden, impossible leap to the sky, reduced to a question of technology by the elevator up the middle. Zsófi Brünner looked a bit like a giraffe herself, but she didn't have any windows, or an elevator. The elevator was in my own throat, when she came tripping over to my desk on her spindly legs and let me smell her scented eraser. I lay awake all night, spelling, drunk with joy, the letters rushing towards me like cat's-eyes on a dark road. The next day, Zsófi was gone. Our headmaster told us she had gone on a trip. He could've also said she was 'cut down in her prime,' like a Party official. The scented eraser left an indelible mark on my heart. We only found out she wasn't really on vacation when, instead of herself, she sent the Eiffel Tower, which looked like a window giraffe but meant something more - if you read between the lines.

alchemist, awake, ambushes, alphabetical order, a suicide attempt, activated detonator, at the top of her lungs, allowed, authorities, an arbitrary angle, Albanians, Arany

The riot police are running in the opposite direction, we run right past each other. They whack at a few passers-by on the other side of the square, then stand there, uncertain what to do next. An overzealous policeman tries to rub out a stylized gallows with his rubber truncheon. Below the gallows, in red, are the words: Slobo, you pig! You'll hang!

"Péter wants to draw. He thinks of his colored pencils and sketchbook. He stops playing, sits down at the table and starts drawing. When Péter wants to do something, he does it." They're demonstrating because they want something different. Everyone wants something different. Free elections, freedom of the press, power, women, Greater Serbia. Milosevic, they don't want. They want him to disappear.


Beds run out fast in a city under siege. Katarina, the Italian journalist, feels nostalgic at the sight of all those journalists dozing in the empty classrooms. So many people on one mattress - just like in '68! I wasn't alive back then, so it's hard to concentrate. I'd been woken up three times on the train by the Yugoslav border guards, as if I had crossed three borders. I long for a soft pillow, and try to make people think I'm important. Calling upon my vast international protest experience, I manage to get a bed in the old Jewish quarter. Cabbalistic woodcarvings on French doors. (Apparently, after I left, Bibi Anderson slept in the same bed. She had played in the movie Excuse Me, Are You For or Against?, and had come to show her support for the students of Belgrade. On my next trip, I lay on the convertible armchair in my unheated room and dreamt of Bibi Anderson - The Touch, Persona, and Hour of the Wolves.)

The poet compares the confluence of rivers to a woman's lap. The fortress of Belgrade is situated on the spot where the Danube and the Sava flow together, the spot that self-styled authorities regard as the most sensitive part of a woman's body. Five hundred years ago, at this very spot, the fate of our country was decided. Greater Hungary fell at the clitoris of Belgrade - Mohács was just icing on the cake. A fortress under siege that we were unable to defend. Belgrade is still a fortress under siege. For three months the attention of the media was focused on this sensitive spot, as an army of voyeurs marched from the train station to the embankment to get a better look.

Rumor has it that the dictator's private fortune is kept in Cyprus. That's why the Mediterranean fleet has been put on alert.

The state decides when there is a state of emergency. The state determines the state of the state. We are in a state of readiness, of excitement, of war, of impotence, of denial, in a state of peace, in excellent state, in an advanced state of decay. The state can be a prison, a fatherland, a haven, there are united states, friendly states, allied states. The state oppresses, civilizes, grants privileges, signs non-aggression pacts. The state nationalizes, incarcerates, bestows honor, arms itself to the hilt, celebrates its fourhundredandsomethingth anniversary. The state monitors its citizens: state exams, state police, state security. I'm in a real state! The state is statesman, state visit, state secret, coup d'état. The state is department store, restaurant, pub, wine cellar, station buffet. The state is pioneer railway, funicular railway, cog-wheel railway, look-out tower, Gellert Hill, the City Park, Margit Island. The state is Opera, Ballet Institute, Sport Stadium, Race Track, Museum of Fine Arts, Music Academy, János Hospital, Farkasréti Cemetery, Érdi Elementary School. The state is movie theatre, barracks, self-service restaurant, archive, church, cultural center, zoo, amusement park, circus, skating rink, playground, orphanage, retirement home, institute for the blind. The state is Szabó Lorinc Public Library. The state is the outdoor pool on Margit Island. The state is a language. C'est moi. Everyone who lives there. The state is lonely, lives in constant fear, tries to make friends, establishes diplomatic contacts, negotiates international agreements, violates them, declares war, tramples underfoot, ceases fire, signs treaties, treaties, and more treaties. Becomes a member. The state is a club, an inner circle, state secret, state intervention, state interest, state religion. The state is a grant, delegation, dinner, funeral. The state underwrites, circulates, levies. The state is a financial institution: state bonds, state treasury, state bankruptcy. The state changes shape, size, language, religion, friends. The state is a border. The state is a state within the state. The state sometimes falls apart into smaller states, which everyone later tries to put back together again.


One-way ticket for the Balkan Express. Student fare. She asks to see my passport, I slide it through the little window, right under her glasses. You know you're not eligible for a discount, she says - is that a question? Couldn't you just give me a new stamp? I ask. Look at me, I don't look a day over fifteen. She looks me up and down. Who do I think I am? The date of my birth is right here. No student discount and that's that. Did I really think I could fool the Hungarian State Railways? Did I think they were stupid? Oh, no, that never occurred to me, I swear, I never thought the Hungarian State Railways was stupid. The Budapest Public Transport Company - they're stupid. She looks me straight in the eye and says, with the utmost indignation: the Hungarian State Railways may be filthy, but they are not stupid. Imagine if everyone could get a ticket based on the way they looked! Where would it end? She tells me off as if I really were fifteen.
I am the only Hungarian on the train. The conductor warns me to lock the door, our men (the police!) will be getting off at the border. After that, God only knows. The train heads east, I sit facing west. I gaze at the stars through the spokes of the trees, humming, 'Every time Yu-go...'
I read somewhere that Leo Trotsky and Bram Stoker, once their train had passed Budapest, looked out at the approaching Balkans with lascivious anticipation. The war correspondent and the novelist give very similar descriptions of the countryside. Trotsky thought he had discovered Noah's Ark of Nations, right there in Third Class. This was the atmosphere that brought forth each man's greatest work: The Legend of Count Dracula and the Red Army.
I bump along, full-fare, on the Balkan Express, and I can't sleep. If I can't sleep I have to drink, if I drink, I have to pee. The carriage lurches from side to side, it slows down, we've entered another time zone. A beer bottle rolls down the aisle. I follow it, in search of the dining car. From one of the couchettes comes the sound of gusla and bagpipes, wine, women and song. I ask them if there's a dining car on this train. They nod their heads to the rhythm of the music and send me to hell in every Serbo-Croat language.

Every summer we went sailing on the Balaton. In winter the lake froze over, so we trained in Buda Castle. We ran around and around the walls, around the phallus-shaped tomb of Abdurrahman, with the turban on top, which I mistook for the globe. I made ambitious plans to sail around the world without puking. My sports injuries seemed to confirm the notion that the earth was round and not flat. The nearest harbor was on the map, my great geographical discoveries began on page 16 of the World Atlas. At first I mistook America for India, but my persistence in roaming the map did not go unrewarded. During a game of Quiz Me (played for high stakes) I discovered that all the capital cities beginning with a B lay along a straight line that could be drawn, with a ruler, from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, from Brugges to Basra. The Brussels-Bonn-Budapest-Bucharest-Baghdad axis speaks for itself, and of course there's Vienna, which is called Bécs in Hungarian. Since I knew that a city's origins were also influenced by rivers, mountains, and seas, I didn't see anything wrong with bringing Bratislava, Belgrade and Bern into the game. Berlin, on the north-south axis between Copenhagen and Vienna, could be regarded as a tectonic linguistic fissure, which was corrected by the superpowers after World War II. My discovery was confirmed by the cities beginning with B that lay along the fault line: Breda, near the Belgian border, Basel and Bolzano in the Alps, Baden-Baden in Baden, Bayreuth and Bamberg in Bavaria, the ancient Slovak Besztercebánya, the Moravian Brünn, and Badacsony on the Balaton. Banja Luka in Bosnia may have been slightly out of range, but Brashov in Transylvania lay exactly at the intersection. Beyond the Balkans, the tectonic fault line followed the Black Sea coast from Burgas in Bulgaria to Istanbul, or Byzantium, on the Bosporus, and Bursa, the old Ottoman capital. (Of the many Turkish cities along the way that began with B, it is particularly worth mentioning Batman and Beetlis, whose names will ring a bell. En route to Beirut we take a brief Biblical detour to the cities of Byblos, Baalbek and Bethlehem. Near Baghdad are the ruins of Babylon.) It was clear: a morphological map was needed, one that would prove that the letter B had played as crucial a role to the development of civilization as the great river valleys. History revolved around a B-axis, from Babel to Brussels, from the un

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