"A Second Story" by Georgi Gospodinov translated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin
At that moment the conductor walked into the compartment and interrupted the story for a while. After he disappeared, I asked the woman whether I was boring her. She only shook her head and cast an inviting glance at me, as if asking me to continue.
“So, my grandfather would smile mysteriously and would start telling his version of the story about his conversation with the Hungarian. One night he was walking down the corridor of the train to Istanbul, it was past midnight, the passengers gently snoring in their seats. There was a solitary well-dressed gentleman in the first-class car who was smoking a cigarette - short, plump, with a red beard – my grandfather would point out, as if taking revenge for the ‘plump Bulgarian with a black moustache.’ ‘I had already checked his ticket and was about to pass on,’ he would continue, ‘but the gentleman obviously wanted to talk to someone, since he made me stop by offering me a cigarette. He did it in Bulgarian, yes, but there was something in his voice that didn’t sound quite Bulgarian. It’s true that the cigarettes were good, “gold-tipped,” the kind one couldn’t find around our parts. He looked nice, kind of gentle, kept smiling at me, in other words, he didn’t feel like sitting alone. I didn’t either, but since I speak only Bulgarian and a little Romanian, what could we talk about? Never mind, I asked him questions in Bulgarian, who knows, maybe he spoke a bit of it, there are all sorts of different folk. Where was he coming from, did he understand our language? I thanked him for the cigarette, too. He just nodded his head and patted me on the shoulder in a friendly manner. So, I had him figured out alright, he understood nothing of our language, but he wouldn’t let it show for some reason. Do as you please, mister, I thought, maybe you’re afraid of losing my company.
And so I decided - I decided on my own,’ my grandfather would insist, ‘to take the bait. And I started talking about everything that I had pent up inside me. I could tell this man anything, because he didn’t understand a single word. I told him about my army days, about my service for the railway, about the strange characters I’ve seen around here. He listened so carefully, that gentleman. We Bulgarians are good at interrupting and saying: o-oh, that’s nothing, you know, a most amazing thing happened to me once… We never let ourselves run short of words. But that gentleman just kept staring at me, not missing a single word. At times he would smile, at other times he would nod, or he would mutter “Da, da” once in a while. He didn’t always pick the right moment, but I didn’t mind. I pretended to take him for a Bulgarian, and he enjoyed it. I, too, enjoyed it. I could tell him anything. There are so few people to whom one can tell anything. And that man, you could swear at him, so to speak, or you could just complain - he would always be glad to accept it. It turns out that people understand each other best when they don’t speak the same language. He was pleased, and I was pleased; it was clear that we were both fooling each other and really enjoying it.’
“It seems that my grandfather felt too much at ease talking to him, since he came to show him the two metal buttons (that’s what the Hungarian mentioned in his story, too). He always had them on him, and it was his most cherished memory. They were the only thing left from his father who had gotten killed in the Balkan wars somewhere around here. My grandfather had almost no remembrance of his father, and these two overcoat buttons were really precious to him. He never parted from them. So, he showed them to the foreigner, who started playing with them and laughing. To him, they were just two buttons. At that point my grandfather couldn’t stand it anymore and he burst out crying like a child (so the Hungarian says), and, according to my grandfather’s version, he just looked daggers at him and immediately took back his buttons. It almost came to a fight, he would tell us, because I had gotten so carried away that I forgot that the gentleman understood nothing. I walked straight into the trap that I myself had set. Then I felt bad for being rude to him and I apologized, but I wasn’t sure anymore that he understood. It was as if we had had no languages a minute before, as if we had left them behind and understood each other perfectly well, and now each of us had placed his own language as a fence in front of him, so that nothing could make it through. We said goodbye to each other properly enough, but I still feel bad about it somehow.’“That was the story that my grandfather used to tell only at holidays, twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter. He acknowledged no other holidays. As for that man, he really turned out to be a foreigner, and not only a foreigner, but a Hungarian, as my grandfather would put it. To him, the Hungarians, because of their language, were the most foreign foreigners. Moreover, he turned out to be a writer.
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Per Contra Spring 2007