AN INTRODUCTION BY ERIC M. B. BECKER
Much fictional ink has been spilled on the subject of the Cold War, from E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Noemi Jaffe’s Írisz could be just one more of these. But Írisz helps to fine-tune our perception of that era by telling us a powerful and nuanced tale that crosses two countries that we don’t immediately associate with Cold War concerns: Hungary and Brazil. In many historical accounts, these countries are minor players in a drama too often reduced to a battle between the West and the former Soviet Union.
Noemi’s style, in Portuguese, is deceptively unusual: it is captivatingly precise, with slow-building lyrical movements that are expertly grounded by a vaguely grim, often pained, tone. Following the failed Hungarian Uprising in 1956, Jaffe’s narrator Írisz flees Budapest, leaving behind her mother and her lover Imre, a guerrilla in the revolutionary movement. When she arrives in São Paulo, Brazil, to study orchids, she piques the interest of Martim, the director of São Paulo’s Botanical Garden. Having fled her home, Írisz writes rather unorthodox reports on newly discovered orchid species, mixing her observations of orchids with reflections on the differences between Portuguese and Hungarian, the Communist dream, her relationships with those around her and those she left behind, and our responsibilities to one another.
With Írisz and in her genre-bending What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? (Deep Vellum, August 2016), Jaffe demonstrates that Brazilian writers have plenty to say to us about universal themes. Brazil, in fact, is not on the periphery. If in the U.S. we consider European writers, such as Proust and Kafka, to be essential to our literary culture — and the translation and retranslation of their work affirms that we do — why shouldn’t we consider writers from Brazil and lesser-known regions of the world as essential to our literary life, too?
Jaffe, 54, is a writer of extraordinary talents. Her literature investigates the limits of ideology and human relationships in a way that is rare: with a confident uncertainty. She is an expert in making you wonder.
Eric M. B. Becker
Translator from the Portuguese, editor of Words Without Borders, and co-editor of the PEN America anthology Women Writing Brazil
Írisz: The Orchids
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Translated by Eric M. B. Becker
São Paulo Botanical Garden
New Species Report
NAME: Hardingia paranaensis (oncidium paranaensis) LOCATION: Paraná, Brazil
Hardingia paranaenses: Stem and floral structure similar to the Oncidium; epiphyte; conspicuous pseudobulbs, bloom sheaths protecting the pseudobulbs, multiple stems; exceptional number of flowers, very tiny; flared lateral sepals. (I looked up the meaning of conspicuous in the dictionary. “Obvious and attracting attention” and also “discernible.” Two contradictory meanings for the same word; people can be discernible even when they’re anything but obvious or conspicuous. But this is the term I read in everyone else’s reports. Conspicuous sounds closer to circumspect than discernible. Martim, I don’t want to use this term anymore to describe orchids. Do you think there’s any reason to say that an orchid is conspicuous? If you like, I can use the word to describe other flowers, the uglier or carnivorous ones. I knew a few easily discernible people in Budapest, and even here at the Garden. You want to know how to say conspicuous in Hungarian? Feltunö)
If Imre is still alive, he’s certainly not free, even if he always said he would be free no matter the situation, whether he’s walking free or locked up. I once read an interview with the writer Graciliano Ramos where he said that to him it made no difference whether he was free or imprisoned. What an idiotic and arrogant idea, to believe that freedom is found within and not wherever you find yourself, the places you’re able to roam. All heroes are like this — they think there’s some merit to being imprisoned in the name of the common good. What difference does it make to the people — a faceless mob who, if you stop to think about it, allow themselves be exploited by whoever screams the loudest — if Imre lays down his life for them or not? What can explain this mania every hero has for putting down roots? If Imre sleeps on a cold floor, goes days without eating, lets himself be tortured by Kádár’s police — how is all that for the good of the people?
I’m dead certain that — unless she’s been killed or raped — the girl who lived in front of our house and stood begging at the corner of Tuzöltö and Telepy is still there in the exact same spot, pleading for food. Vasko’s hardware store was broken into and looted and Vasko himself must have been beaten to death with one of his own wrenches. Or, if he did manage to escape, now he must be all alone with nothing to eat, wandering down some dusty road that leads to Szeged — which is where his mother lives, though I doubt she’s still there, either — with no one along the way to take him in. And all this despite the fact that Imre is in prison.
Imre, wherever you are, free yet imprisoned or imprisoned yet free, on the loose, in a cell, in another woman’s room, in an abandoned house off some back road, in Austria, where you’d never run, because you can’t handle so much as pronouncing the word run (which doesn’t need to be a dirty word; it’s man’s destiny to run and even staying behind, in many cases, is to run away), because for you words always mean only one thing and you can’t see that they really mean many — hear me out, in whatever way you can: with your hands, with your eyes, with your fingers. The word I said to you when you couldn’t decide whether you would come with me or not was szia, that same word I repeated time after time and whose meaning you always pretended was so discernible, but which I saw made you stifle a laugh, that same laugh of yours each time I kissed your fingers, your nose, your earlobes, the hairs on your head, your hip bones, and you felt embarrassed but excited at the same time. Szia is a word that means both “hello” and “goodbye.” I said szia because, in some way that even I didn’t quite understand, I wanted you to help me decide which one I meant. But you didn’t understand then and you don’t understand now; you decided for me that it meant “goodbye” and practically sent me packing. Hear me out, wherever you are, possibly even below ground without so much as a tombstone to mark the spot, the spot where — you used to joke — others would one day inscribe: “For once, he wasn’t late,” because you were always late for everything and I was always on time — that’s why I said szia. I couldn’t wait to decide whether I was going to stay or run away after the tanks rolled in and I saw that you were going to stay until you were imprisoned yet free, something I couldn’t allow to happen, couldn’t bear, and even now can’t agree with. So listen, I think that somehow you can still hear me, if you put your ears to the wind: I’m here, studying orchids in Brazil, at the São Paulo Botanical Garden, at 2:56 in the afternoon on the third of February 1960; I’m writing a report about the Hardingia, a new orchid just discovered in the countryside of a state named Paraná. I’ve even drawn it at the top of this report, so that you can see this epiphyte orchid. Don’t you know what epiphyte means? Bad luck. In Hungarian the word is álélősködő, but you won’t understand this, either.
The lip of this orchid has three lobes. When the pseudobulb dries out, it always forms a fissure lengthwise down the middle of the flower. You won’t be able to see this keel in my sketch. Here in Brazil, orchids don’t dry up, so these fissures don’t appear. Here, everything is in bloom all year. Not like there, where even the hardiest plants struggle to survive, and not just in the bitter cold of winter.
Martim says I see subjectivity in orchids, that I draw comparisons between everything and everything else and pay too much attention to words. And you would say the similar things to me, that I was always picking apart the words you all used, that I wanted to compare desserts to politics, flowers to relationships, my mother to guerrilla warfare. Neither she nor you understands me. I don’t believe that orchids and these other things have feelings or some capacity for sympathy. Nor do I see mysterious relationships between the world beyond and our little world, or think that everything is linked to everything else. Neither of you understand a thing and I’m not sure it’ll do a bit of good if I try to explain anything to you.
But words carry something beyond what they say, in a place that holds their meaning. I feel as if words hold some lost origin. And so, in this stubborn way that you, Martim, and all the others scorn, I’m trying to create a link between what each word once was and its meaning now. It seems that this way words and things might once again hold some greater meaning. With the orchids, I can’t help myself. Each time I say epiphyte or dry vein, I see the orchid as a collection of things in a state of — How can I explain to you? Careful when you hear this word, because here it means something different — in a state of “truth,” and also in a state of (I need to say it slowly) “beauty.” A state of truth and beauty. Don’t run in the other direction, don’t cover your eyes, don’t laugh, because if you do I won’t be able to go on. I’ll start laughing, too, and the two of us will laugh until we both fall over, like when we used to hear some comrade use words so stupid and void of meaning, words like freedom, justice, and equality. But now I’m going to say it, and you need to listen and listen closely: a state of truth and beauty.
This fullness found in orchids, which exists somewhere beyond words, in a state that’s unattainable by any human truth or beauty, makes me think of the empty words and phrases we spoke to each other: I don’t agree; You’re not understanding me; We really do live in different worlds.
These words don’t mean a thing and are only substitutes for what we really want to say, which is: Please, would you just hurry up and stay with me and forget about doing whatever it is that you think you have to do? Because there’s never anything to be done about anything and what you want me to do, in this situation you’ve created, won’t make any difference and only serves your vanity or your pride.
Or: Come with me, Imre.
When I look at myself in the mirror at night, without you watching me from behind — without my getting shy when you glance at me — and pulling away because I only like it when you look at me straight on or when I’m lying on the bed, I see fragments of this vein run dry, this very same orchid, a line that runs the entire length of my body. It begins at my neck, runs down, and passes through my stomach. The pseudobulb is a dense structure, storing water and distributing carbohydrates. You have an endless reservoir of water, which never runs dry even in cases of torture, desertion, failure. I even think you replenish your reserves in such moments; all these things are like fuel for you.
Imre, where do I find the water I came looking for here in Brazil, if all I see each night is this vein run dry?
Each orchid has a triangular base, with varying numbers of petals on top. They only bloom once a year and never last long — between two days and three months. Do you see the flower’s panicles, the ones that look like the folds of the robe from the statue of Anonymous at Budapest’s Vajdahunyad Castle? I love these little wrinkles that lend each flower’s colors infinite tonalities, almost as if the little shadows they create came from within the flower itself. As the daylight changes, the colors transform and move about. Their opacity and radiance also change, according to the light, the wind, and the humidity. A spot that is dark during the day might glow at night, and vice-versa. You can only see one of the flowers in the picture, but a single stem can hold up to 50 blooms, can you believe it? I sometimes count the number of specks on each flower, to see if they keep to some sort of pattern. Sometimes 20, other times 30 or 40, some spread out and others bundled together, so closely they begin to look like a single speck. I like to use the microscope to examine things that Martin hasn’t asked me to observe or which aren’t necessary, such as checking to see if the specks on the petals of each Hardingia are bunched together or spread out. Or to count how many there are in each sepal. Or to examine the flower’s vagina to see to what extent it resembles that of a woman.
I can never get a sense — not even when I peer at the orchids, playing oracle, not even examining them closely and calculating the number of freckles on each sepal in a way that results in combinations both numerical and cosmological — of whether you are alive or dead. And, if alive, whether you’re free yet imprisoned or imprisoned yet free. Or whether you’re in Budapest, in Austria, or in Siberia. I can’t forget you, but I also can’t remember who I am.
You used to say that you would be free in any situation but I don’t believe you’re free in a single one. You used to say that you could do whatever you want and that your will could never be imprisoned, tortured, changed, wounded. I don’t agree. To what extent did you really want what you said you did? I’m not sure if this desire of yours, this will, this drive, this strength was really your own. When someone believes so strongly in their own will, it’s time to ask questions, because will soon begins to take on the appearance of faith. You would say that this is just one more of my pseudo-philosophical musings that seem to question reality but which aren’t good for anything except remarking, “Oh!, it’s amazing how true that seems.” But it was because of one of these musings that I decided to come here; because of the orchids and because of the word szia. All other reasons, those you’d insist on calling real — fear, cowardice, and narcissism — are, in reality, tangential.
Take fear, for example. You feel it, too, even stronger than I do, only with you, it’s hidden beneath what you call “courage” and “ideals.” Cowardice and narcissism, then — well, it’s ridiculous how quickly everything becomes obvious. First off, you know I hate these words as much as you do, though you never showed the least bit of shame at throwing them in my face when I said szia and you couldn’t even be sure if I was saying “hello” or “goodbye,” but thought, in that instant, that my expression told you I was leaving.
So let’s consider for a second who is the bigger coward and narcissist: A coward retreats when it’s time to act. All of you used to say that it was better to be afraid than to be a coward. That if someone there among us lacked the courage to stand up and fight he ought to leave right then and wouldn’t be thought less of (as if that were even true) but no cowards would be tolerated when the time came to fight. If this is the definition of a coward, let’s consider the facts. Who refused to take Shtutsi to the veterinarian when he writhed in agony at home? Who waited for hours for me to arrive while my mother shit herself because he became nauseous at the thought of going upstairs to clean her up? And, worst of all: Who was it who preferred not to know what I meant when I said szia and then immediately turned his back on me, as if he already knew I meant “goodbye,” because, when it comes down to it, that was the most convenient word for you because it meant you could lay your cowardice at my feet? Who is it that always said he had no use for knowing the origins of words, but, whenever it suited him, acted as if they — words — were the only thing that mattered? You, who are so concerned with action, did you ever stop to think that action, the struggle, whatever name you give it, can also be a way of blinding yourself to things while thinking you see it all? You, who are so obsessive you can’t even move a matchstick out of place, because it bothers you, how the hell do you think you’re going to change Hungary? But worst of all, once the Soviets arrived and it became clear that we were going to lose everything, you couldn’t accept that the more cowardly thing to do was to stay — and be complicit. Under the pretense of some useless self-sacrifice, so costly and — to tell the truth — vain, you chose to stay instead of run. Run: this word that is so misunderstood, because, after all, isn’t staying another way of running away? To run is to pass through various states of existence — solid, liquid, gas — to be present for a few instants, while you’re living the moment and not while you’re dressing up life with ideals that aren’t worth a damn thing. And who does this hurt more? The person who believes he’s making some sort of sacrifice and considers himself a hero, or the person who’s been tagged a deserter and will always be thought of as a coward?
Now on to narcissism. Yet another definition you could agree with: a narcissist only thinks of himself and not of the greater good. (What a pathetic definition, have you ever met anyone who didn’t think only about themselves the entire time? And these are the people we can really place our trust in, because whoever says he doesn’t think about himself is lying.) Okay. Ever since we met each other, in Füvészkert, six years ago — when you saw me (actually, I saw you) as I was tending a gingko plant; you smoked while I placed medicine in each of its hollows; you hurled abuse while I sang who- knows-what; you flicked your cigarette into the lake while I looked at you with an expression only I know how to make; you laughed and I laughed, too, and since then I’ve exhausted my stock of funny faces and you yours of curses — since then you’ve always been opposed to my work, to Shtutsie, András, Béla, Károly, my family, and my way of doing things. I would follow you to meetings, to protests, I would hide banners for marches, put up your friends, return home in the early morning without any news from my mother nor her from me, invent codes botanical and linguistic for sneaking across secret messages, put myself at risk and expose myself to danger, be filled with joy at the moment we all thought that everything would finally go as planned. It didn’t go as planned. At a moment like that, when everything goes wrong, the least narcissistic attitude is to admit it: Everything went wrong, it all went wrong, it went wrong, just wrong, wrong. The least narcissistic attitude would have been not to refuse to recognize all those tanks and dead bodies. Not to still say no, there’s still a chance and it’s me — and only me — who still might be able to save someone or something. Me: a single blade of straw in the midst of an inferno.
The Hardingia has dark green leaves, flexible, similar to those of the Baptistonia or the Brasilidium.
Reports show that the Hardingia was recently discovered in a place called Ilha do Mel — the Isle of Honey — in the state of Paraná. There, swarms of male bees are seduced by any flower that resembles in the least a female bee. That must be why so many new species of orchid show up there. This part I made up, but Martim won’t mind, or, if he does, at least I’ll know that he read this report to the end.
We’ve reached close to 1,500 species, found in varied surroundings and stretching from the southern United States to Argentina, from sea level to elevations up to 13,000 feet.
Mama, anyuka, I always wanted to say this to you, but you always seemed as if you weren’t listening or didn’t understand, I’m not sure which: The opinions we form about things and about other people depend on our surroundings. It all depends on our surroundings and our point of view. You could have said I was a terrific student if you took into consideration my performance in my science or Hungarian language classes, but you wanted stellar grades from me in all my classes. Another example: If you looked at my relationship with Béla or the sellers at the market, you might have thought of me as a naïve, outgoing person. But no. To you, I was antisocial, rude, complicated, and difficult, and I only made your life difficult, too, scaring away clients with my questions and blathering on. If you’re still this way now, even though you might not say it because you can no longer speak, you must think to yourself that I’m the one to blame for your illness. Because for you, as for Imre, there’s only one side to every story, and my insistence on seeing more than two sides is a trait of dreamers who lack the courage to face life.
You and Imre, even though you do so in different ways, think you know what life is. You use the word just like that, without the least fuss. For you, life is doing what needs to be done, bearing hardship with your head held high, pretending like everything is alright, paying the bills — all the rest is useless ornament. Put another way, I’m a useless ornament that you, as a result of the misfortune dealt you by fate and by a man, were forced to bear and raise. But if, in the way botanists do with orchids, you could consider things based on their surroundings, then you’d understand my life, and especially my decision to leave, despite the fact that you can no longer understand anything. Among other reasons, this was why I left. I know it sounds strange, but I only managed to leave because I had no way of telling you that I was going. or that, had I been able to, I would have stayed. Is that how I’ve been able to forgive myself? If you could speak, if you could think, you’d find fault with me. You’d say all this is a ridiculous way of forgiving myself for all I’ve done to you, to Imre, to Hungary. But forgiveness is so much more complicated than this and I’m not sure I’m in need of any forgiveness. I’m not sure I did anything wrong. Of course, if I’m asking myself this question, it must mean that I’m not at peace with my decision. But no one is ever entirely at peace with the decisions they make. There’s something sad about always knowing exactly what you want and always being right. So maybe you judge me for what I did, but I can live with your judgment. Plenty of other people also throw me looks, are taken aback, can’t understand. “You left your sick mother all alone?” But I don’t know what the word alone means when no notion of company exists and, besides everything else, you’re being well cared for. “But what if she has bursts of lucidity, if deep down she’s able to understand some things and just can’t express her feelings or speak?” I’m going to have to live with this remote possibility. If you never forgive me for this, I’ll live with that, too.
There are more than 100 species of Epindendrum on Brazilian soil. New species are constantly being registered and it’s likely many others will still be found, especially in the Amazon. It’s one of the genera with the greatest number of species in Brazil — and in the world. The main characteristics that distinguish this genus from other Laelinae are its split bottom lip and the labellum that sticks to the entire length of its column, forming a tube.
Martim, if you’re reading one more of these ridiculous reports, it’s clear that you know I’m going to take the opportunity afforded by the orchid’s split bottom lip to transform it into a metaphor; but, since you already know this and already told me this is much too obvious, I’m going to be really childish. Everything is metaphor, save for dogs. Had Shtutsie been alive, he would have the only one capable of making me think twice about staying or leaving.
Anyu, I know that you love and that you need me — or needed me, to be more precise. You need me as an excuse to hate your life, so you could blame someone for everything bad that happened to you. Someone to buy food and the utensils you needed to cook — this was what you loved most — , someone to be wrong all the time, mixing up errands, appointment times, money, bank notes, words. I also know that if I weren’t to blame for all this, if I hadn’t been this terrible inconvenience, then you’d really be desperate and would never manage to love me in this bizarre way of yours. If I were with Rosza or László, who you always compared me to, then you’d have no one to blame and then your hate for me would be real. But at the end of every day, as we sat next to each other, finishing the rest of a cake and drinking tea, then I was able to feel your love. Every now and then, we’d remember songs from your childhood, which later became the songs of mine: Spotted cow, spotted cow, without ears or tail, we’re off to live where milk’s a-plenty and Come in, come in, little green branch, little green leaf, the golden gate’s wide open, walk right through, walk right through, the cat got stuck but he won’t harm you. Much later, Rezsö Seress and László Jávor sang “Vége a világnak” on the radio and you sang along, as though it were a song about your life:
One sad Sunday, with a hundred flowers of white, I waited for you, my love, with a prayer at the church, that Sunday morning chasing dreams, now sorrow’s come home without you, and ever since Sundays are always sad, I have tears to drink and sorrows to eat, oh sad Sunday, this one last Sunday, won’t you please come, my love, there will be a priest, a casket, an altar and a drape, even flowers waiting there for you, flowers, a casket and beneath the trees’ green leaves, this journey shall be my last, my eyes wide open to see you one last time, don’t be afraid of them, for I wish you all the best, even at the hour of my death, this one last Sunday.
Later, Billie Holiday recorded this very same song and she became famous the world over. In English, the tragic side of the song was played down, because after all the United States is not Hungary and neither is Brazil. That’s one reason why I like it here. I always felt a little bit afraid of this song, but I understood why you liked it and, in the odd moment of detente, I would ask you about my father, about the past. But when you felt you let too much slip, you immediately scolded yourself and clammed up. “Shh, shht, Írisz, there’s nothing to say. The past is past.”
But even having come all the way here, I can’t manage to let go of the past. Perhaps I’ll manage to forget the present, all that’s happening now with you, with Imre, and with myself, since there’s nothing to remember about my father. I have gaps I can never fill and that reach into every one of my thoughts. And yet, if it’s through these gaps that the pain seeps, they also afford me some good memories, even if I take into account what’s happening now and what’s yet to come. And then I remember certain smells, sounds, and foods, and I teach Martim and the girls at the botanical garden how to make your poppy-seed pastry: for the dough, four and a half cups of flour, sifted, one teaspoon baking soda, half a teaspoon of ground nutmeg, a cup of milk, half cup of butter, a quarter-cup of sugar, one teaspoon salt, two eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla, a teaspoon of grated lemon zest, and raisins; for the filling, a cup of ground poppies, half-cup of milk, quarter-cup of honey, half-cup of butter, a third-cup dates, chopped, a third-cup chopped walnuts, a pinch of cinnamon. I mix together the flour, the baking soda, and the nutmeg and put them aside; in a pan, I heat the milk, butter, sugar, and salt until the butter melts; I add the hot mixture to the dry, together with the eggs and the vanilla; I beat everything, first at low speed and then at high speed, toss in the lemon and, if necessary, more flour; I spread flour over the counter and then stretch the dough until it’s soft and supple; then I cover it with a towel and wait until it doubles in size. For the filling, I mix everything together in a pan, heat it, and then wait for it to cool. I spread out the dough, divide it in half, and wait ten more minutes. (As a kid, I could never wait these last ten minutes. I wanted to help you right away to make the little rectangles and you, who always knew how to wait the necessary amount for everything, would scold me, but now I wait, too.) I make the rectangles about a half-inch thick and fill them with the poppy and some raisins, dot the four corners with water and join them together in the middle. Then I stick them on frying pans greased with butter and put them in the oven. Everyone loves the pastry, just like I did, Anyu. And that’s when I pretend you were a caring mother who never minded teaching me recipes. That you even enjoyed sharing such things with me and let me help you in the kitchen.
It’s not easy to find poppy here in São Paulo; they have to import it and it’s expensive, but sometimes Martim comes with me to the Municipal Market and we buy poppy, fish, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. Then we go to my house or his (he’s on his own, Anyu, but there’s nothing between us, you can relax) and I cook for us, remembering your recipes, talking a bit about you, singing songs in Hungarian while he sings in Portuguese. I make stuffed cabbage, ricotta cake, goulash, cherry soup, little breads with ground beef and paprika, semolina loafs, pretzels, and lots of palacsinta, which here they call pancake. I’ll never be able to cook like you and, if I ever could, you’d be angry instead of proud. Whenever I did something well, you never liked it, and when I did something poorly, well, that was to be expected. I was born to do everything wrong.
Once you could no longer recognize me, you became more affectionate. Then, that outrageous laugh of yours, which, being so strange, made everyone else laugh to the point of tears, and which you only allowed yourself when we were all together badmouthing the government. Imre would mimic Rákosi, sounding just like the man, right down to the same expressions; later, this same laugh that only Imre could get out of you would escape from your lips more and more often, and no one knew why. Imre was no longer necessary to the equation and everyone laughed with you. Including me, who by that time couldn’t find many reasons to laugh. And every now and then you also called me Íriszka, Írinka, names I’d only heard from you twice in my entire life: once in a dream and another time when I hurt myself at school. You called to me a few times — like this, with your hand, folding your fingers like someone saying, “Come here” — and passed your hand over my face, feeling along my skin, but really it was I who was feeling for the warmth of your touch. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but I held back, fearful of your rejection. You began to tell me things about the past, about your mother, my father, how you’d learned to cook, and your favorite foods, which I then began to make and on which you even showered praise. You spoke my father’s name: Ignác, he who abandons. Ignác, the translator; the mathematician; the opera singer; the champion cork-popper; the man with the biggest nose in Hungary and the whole length of the Danube; the man who ate everything, who would devour seven pieces of mille-feuille one after the other without getting sick; the confirmed practical joker who would laugh even in the face of danger; the unnameable coward who abandoned his wife and daughter because he didn’t think there needed to be one more person in the world, especially in Hungary. This, though you agreed with him, you cannot forgive. Ignác, who later in your wild and delirious ramblings you confused with your own father — and with so many other men, including some from the army and the government. For that reason, I never knew if he really matched the description of the man I insisted on calling “Father.”
If I were you, and if things really happened the way you said, I wouldn’t forgive him either. And yet, as a daughter, he has my forgiveness. I’d even like to figure out where he is, to know where he came from, what language he speaks, why he abandoned you and me. I’d cook for him, forgive him a thousand times until he regretted ever thinking the world didn’t need one more person and hugged me with the same enthusiasm with which he’d once popped corks off the Margaret Bridge. I would find him and he would tell me that the story wasn’t at all like the coded, signed, half-spoken version you fed me, always adding some curse word before and after each sentence. He’d tell me that he was an important translator who worked for some government agency, who needed to travel to other countries to spread word there of what was happening to us in Hungary, and that nothing — not a daughter, not a wife — could stop him from doing this because, as a translator, he had easy access to other countries. He’d say that he left you with all the money he had and then some so you could take care of me, that he promised to come back, but that you wouldn’t allow it. He’d tell me how, all this time, he tried to get in touch with us but you kept him from getting close. Or maybe not. He’d say that the circus had stopped in Budapest, he’d fallen in love with one of the dancers and run off. He’d ask me: Who can resist a circus dancer? And I’d agree. I know that these thoughts are ridiculous. But it’s easier to imagine something ridiculous instead of a plausible and mediocre story that will make me even more of the realist you always made sure I became. I know the depth of my immaturity, but I need to tell stories about things and create other ways for these things to become real. I can’t stand it when people think things are facts and that facts never change.
You began to disappear as we began to disappear in your eyes. First came your displays of tenderness. Later, you began to laugh for no reason at all, and then you started calling us by other names, talking about things that appeared to really have happened, and others that did not. You took to hugging us — me, Béla, and Imre more than all the others, and anyone else who paid us a visit. You began to bake pastries. You spoke of Ignác and, after some time, grew quiet. Your hands kept waving me over for a hug and then — nothing. Sudden surrender, from one day to the next.
This surprising change is the only thing that makes me think that maybe it had been a conscious decision on your part, Anyu, and this causes me a great deal of hurt — that you might have chosen to go quiet as a way of freeing me, so that I would do what had to be done. For me, it would be unbearable to do something simply because you allowed it. I would even rather you’d died, so that I wouldn’t have this nagging doubt. There was nothing in your eyes, and your look didn’t suggest sorrow. Your gaze didn’t suggest anything; it was empty. That’s what I saw. You think that I saw what I wanted to see? Could be. In any case, how do we separate what we want to see from what’s in front of our eyes?
Okay, then, all right. I saw what I wanted and needed to see, the same way I believe that my father left us because that’s what he needed to do. But why is it I forgive my father, who left, and not you, who stayed behind? I have forgiven you. I’ve forgiven you and that’s why I needed to leave. You think I’m saying all of this just so I can convince myself that I needed to do the unforgivable? That’s not it. I believe in what I did and I forgive you because I know the value of silence and of what you left unsaid, the weight of the things you silenced, always greater than what you put into words. I learned to hear what you were saying by the temperature and texture of the poppy, by the way you ground the seeds. You taught me that love is found in the moments people touch and devour each other, drink in one another’s scent, and that most words disguise more than they reveal. Don’t worry if I find fault with you and grow angry just like you did with me. To be honest, I can only forgive Ignác because I believe that’s what you would have wanted me to do. You were unable to forgive him, but somehow you raised me so that you would be the target of my rage rather than him. Even in this you laid yourself down. You knew he’d run off to preserve a joy that you couldn’t offer him or anyone else, and that only your silence could make me understand that I ought to forgive him.
I already told you, before I came here, that I didn’t know anything about orchids and that, to tell the truth, I didn’t even like them that much. They’re too beautiful and too distinctive, and with their excessive beauty they appear to be making a point of being better than the rest of what nature has to offer. That’s why they attract people just like them, with their noses to the sky, who for the mere fact of collecting orchids end up convinced that they themselves are distinctive, using the orchids as a sort of window display of their own uniqueness.
But ever since I arrived here, in this garden that’s so far and different from the city center — São Paulo is like Budapest, in its size, its chaos, its abandonment, and its unruly order — ever since Martim taught me how to get closer to orchids, ever since I learned the significance of this flower’s distinctiveness and what it demands of those who come close to it, I’ve learned to like them, because they’re resilient and fragile at the same time. They live everywhere, from the cold, humid, and dark forests of the Andes to the dry scrubland of Brazil, where they survive whether on rock or humid swamplands. The same species, with the exact same characteristics. Of course we’re going to manage to make them adapt to Hungary, too, where everything adapts, where even you managed to adapt. This violet color — how is it this color survives the heat, the cold, the humidity, the dryness, the stuffiest air, the shadows, and the light? Where does such a violet come from when there’s barely any light?
Little by little, I began to learn that the distinctiveness of orchids isn’t some sign of exceptionalism, but of self-defense and resilience. They’re distinctive because they survive the worst of conditions, because they’ve devised a means of survival that makes use of the nutrients of other plants, without causing them harm. You can practically leave an orchid without water or light and it will go on as alive and fertile as ever. It will only bloom once a year, but, if you cut its stem at the right place and time, it will mysteriously grow and flower again, year after year. Ever since I began to learn about orchids — their variety, their distinctiveness, and the breadth of their geographical and meteorological environments — I came to understand that there’s a relationship between beauty and resilience. The capacity for adaptation, the patience the resilient exercise with themselves and with nature only increases their beauty: strong and unyielding, enduring, or, like an orchid, fragile but self-sustaining. That must be why, even now, you are still so beautiful and why I, while not exactly ugly — because I’m not — am of a more common and plain beauty, the type you find on any corner in Budapest, like a daisy, an impatiens. I’m not strong and I have no desire to be. I’m not resilient. I’ve never been resilient, and I don’t puff up my chest with pride at this because I don’t wish to be proud of anything. Not like you or Imre, another who possesses a beauty that for me would be unsustainable in its distinctiveness. The beauty of orchids I can handle: I can handle the beauty and strength of others, as I think I did for so many years with you and Imre. What would have become of you two without my own weakness? How would the two of you have survived, so strong and beautiful, were it not for my cowardice and my anxiety to accept things, my desire to escape?
Orchids don’t demand anything of me or anyone else. They bloom for blooming’s sake and their beauty is no more important than the ugliness of their dark and gnarled roots — there’s yet another truth even you can’t deny. Your beauty requires an underlying ugliness for its survival.
Martim gets irritated with this frenzy for drawing comparisons between orchids and the world around me. He says he understands how easily they lend themselves to metaphors, but that he finds it all too facile and pointless. I disagree. They suddenly appeared in my life, for whatever reason — fate, coincidence, some combination of the two, necessity, or cheap poetry. And if I’m in the state I’m in, why can’t I find recourse in metaphor to learn more about these orchids and find a way to explain things to you, to Imre, and even to myself?
Martim, I don’t think you want to hear me say it: Even though I was invited to come to Brazil, I was running away from somewhere else. You, who until this moment always believed in Communism, don’t want to hear me say the words: “I ran away from Budapest,” not even if I do it by way of analogies. But you already knew most of what I’ve laid out here before I said anything, and even so, you don’t want to listen. Or maybe you want to hear me but you can’t really bear it and you feel the need to reproach me for all this sentimentality. Did you want me to tell you, like this naïve Communist revolutionary of yours, Luís Carlos Prestes, that everything is all right? That I never saw what I saw? That I don’t know where Imre is because some Red Army soldier is chasing him through streets, factories, forests, until he finds him? And that when he does, he’ll interrogate and then kill him, or kill him before even bothering to ask any questions, because General Secretary Kádár said so? There’s nothing distinctive or beautiful about these men, Martim. They are like any old weed that grows in any old place at all. But if I compare my mother and Imre to orchids, this annoys you, because you know I’m telling the truth.
A few months ago, we read that Albert Camus said his greatest desire was that the Hungarian people continue their resistance because that was the only way to impact international opinion. He proposed a worldwide boycott against those he called “the oppressors”: the Soviets. He also said that if the resistance of the Hungarian people wasn’t strong enough to mobilize the world, Hungary should resist alone until the “Counterrevolutionary State” came tumbling down. But what shocked me more than anything, I don’t know if you remember, was when he said that a Hungary “conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years. That the Hungarian people “have left us a glorious heritage which we must deserve: freedom, which they did not win, but which in one single day they gave back to us.”
What I don’t understand, Martim, is how we Hungarians could have given all those people back their freedom in a single day if I don’t feel free. How could we give something back which we never even had? We don’t have our freedom, yet this is to be our legacy in the world. I’m certain Imre would agree with Camus, because it’s just such words that justify Imre’s sacrifice and our suffering. But that’s not freedom. I’ve never felt free, not before and not now, much less when I think that Imre might have died so that I might feel free. Martim, do you believe in such a freedom? Do you think we could ever feel free knowing that someone died for that freedom? What’s more ridiculous: believing such things or making comparisons between Imre, my mother, Hungarian, Portuguese, and these orchids?
Imre never pondered over the past. For a revolutionary spirit like him, of course, the past is past. In a certain sense, in this as in other things, he was like Anyu. Time — like eating, like surviving — is a practical matter: when each day reaches an end, it’s over.
But I need to tell you that even in these days full of revolution, in which I lived for and through the revolution, for Imre and the present, I remember that something lay dormant behind my eyelids, in the nooks of my elbows, beneath my armpits. Tiny but numerous doubts: about my mother growing sicker with each passing day, the secret words she traded with Imre, the way Imre cut our conversations short, and the surplus of good news coming from all sides — announcing each new victory, the recall of important Soviet ministers to Moscow, and Nagy’s imminent reclaiming of power. My past full of holes didn’t allow me to believe so firmly in the present.
Of course we didn’t know — and I know Imre never forgave himself for not having suspected something — that the Soviet tanks had received orders to not react. And so each street we took represented a false victory that we, in our foolishness, commemorated.
I accepted the first invitation that Rozsa — to her own detriment — miraculously wrangled for me. And I came here, where, with you and with the orchids, I once again embraced the present.
Caring for plants — this you share with me — has always been a way to understand the here and now. Nothing has the same temporal truth of plants, and to care for them only one thing is required: the ability to respect time. In the case of orchids even more so than with all the others. In addition to everything here with you and the orchids, there was the need to learn Portuguese and through it, with each new word and phrase, a new place, a bus route, a person, a proverb.
I had orchids, you, and this language. What did I need a past and a future for?