The World in Alphabetical Order

Published in Babelmed

As I prepare to write this piece about Péter Zilahy’s ingenious picture dictionary for the over fives, Le Monde announces the arrest, after over a decade defying the vagaries of human justice, of Radovan Karadžić, the “poet, politician, psychiatrist, psychopath, war criminal.”

In one of those mediatic twists of fate that have marked our understanding of the age we live in, Dr. Karadžić, alias Dr. Dragan Dabic, “a genocidal butcher disguised as a New Age quack,” as Jasmina Tešanović calls him, practising alternative medicine in Belgrade, was apprehended on Monday 21 July barely a week after the 13th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres in July 1995. Eight thousand Bosnian men and boys were systematically gunned down, one busload after another, by Serb gunmen, and buried in mass graves by the same men who were next in line to be shot.

Before becoming a politician, apart from serving as the psychiatrist for Sarajevo’s football team, Radovan Karadžić wrote poetry books for children, and composed Serbian folk music. “The secrets of the soul,” writes Zilahy, who is also captain of the Hungarian writers’ team, current European champions, “are familiar to him, even his critics concede he is the greatest of all psychiatrist poets. Especially recommended is his volume Split Personality and a piece starting ‘Going to town to beat up the scum.’”

Being there

In his critically acclaimed book, The Last Window-Giraffe , the Hungarian writer Péter Zilahy gives us snippets from a firsthand account of the demonstrations that were held in Belgrade against the regime of Slobodan Milošević when the Yugoslav authorities tampered with the local election results in November 1996. Milošević was then president of what was left of Tito’s mighty Yugoslavia and (according to Zilahy) the puppet master of Karadžić. But the crowds also gave special attention to Slobo’s wife, Mirjana Marković. Apparently, in her diary she wrote that she likes to read the novels of Shakespeare and Chekhov. “That woman has no weak points, an enemy of hers once said.”

Zilahy’s illustrated book is an joy to read, more obviously because of its memorable quips and often powerful photos taken by the writer himself. But more fundamentally, I suppose, it’s a joy because of its utterly subversive literary style. Zilahy has come up with a wholly entertaining, wholly captivating literary form that is both immediately amusing and rich in echoes, both anecdotal and multi-layered in meaning, both hilarious and profoundly serious. He manages to strike a careful balance in tone that conveys both cheerfulness and deep scepticism. He communicates eloquently his philosophical irony and the sillyness of history, but he does not banalize the value of brave individual or collective acts and the ultimate sacrifice of unexpected heroes. He makes fun of the picture dictionary he tries to emulate but there is little doubt that he has nostalgia for it and the childhood he associates with it.

“The Window-Giraffe made the world intelligible to us in alphabetical order. Everything had its rhyme and reason, symbolic or mundane. […] The Window-Giraffe is my childhood, the changing room, the PE class, the continual growing taller, the age before a better age, goulash communism, my homework my innocence, my generation. The Window-Giraffe is a book one of whose characters was myself.”

In a more philosophical vein, under “sz” (“szótár,” dictionary) he writes about how dictionaries, like class registers, justapose words that you never find together in real life, how they raise the accidental to the status of law. They’re a bit like crowds, I would add, or traffic, or even life itself. The alphabet, however, establishes some kind of (arbitrary) order. In Zilahy’s childhood, only that which was written down in a dictionary had meaning, and this gave it “a superhuman authority.”

As any post-war Hungarian would know, the original, or real book guided young students all the way from “ablak” (window) to “zsiráf” (giraffe). “An alphabet,” writes Lawrence Norfolk in his Foreword to the English version, translated by Tim Wilkinson and published in 2008 (Anthem Press), of Zilahy’s book (first published in Hungarian in 1998), “is a net to throw over the chaos, or a jig to knock it into shape.” The pictures in Zilahy’s book include reproductions from the popular primer he refers to, typical soviet style art for kids, I suppose. They’re so raw you might be surprised anyone could have ever taken them seriously – but that’s what you might say about Id-Denfil or Ġrajjiet Malta – styles change. Julian Evans of the BBC rightly describes the book as “not only a great piece of literature but a visual feast as well.” It’s a pity Zilahy chose not to include at least some captions.

Grand Narratives

The World in Alphabetical Order
Péter Zilahy

You have to read Zilahy’s book against the backdrop of police states and military regimes in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe and the horrific events of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. Zilahy seems to assume that you know your 20th century European history. (He would not have made any such assumption had he written this book for many Maltese, supposedly well-educated, eighteen year-olds who barely know their Iron Curtains from their Berlin Walls.)

Among the pro-government protesters there are “all those who fell for the idea of Yugoslavian brotherhood, believed Tito would last for ever, and now believe Milošević is a saviour, and our ancestors were driven out of Paradise over an apple. […] Everybody who fell for everything is here and accounted for. Everybody who bought a line, took the hook, guzzled and lapped it up, swallowed it whole, gobbled it up, gulped it down and still refuses to believe that they’ve been had, that they’re cannon fodder, spooks from a crypt, suckers… Yugoslavs.”

Zilahy’s unprejudiced insight is all over the place. One of his entries under “s” is “síp,” Hungarian for “whistle.” One of the demonstrators, a friend of his, suggests that they whistle rather than talk. “As long as we whistle no-one can tell we’re all thinking something different.” It’s a comment so many of us, standing in a seemingly homogeneous crowd under banners we are uncomfortable with, would find soothing.

Surrealism and the Wind

In his entry dedicated to “k,” Zilahy introduces his piece about Radovan Karadžić by quoting his childhood Window-Giraffe : “To say a person is two-faced does not mean he has two faces, just that he is acting as if her were something other than he is.” And yet, in another passage, the writer, I mean Zilahy, draws our attention to “a Karadžić poster on a road sign: ‘The man who did not betray us.’” Perhaps the thousands who failed to turn up for the demonstration in July 2008 in favour of their idol from the past, are not so sure anymore.

“The ethnic holy-warrior Radovan Karadžić,” writes Jasmina Tešanović ten years later, “has lost out to the New Age guru Dabic: his other Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality for the last 13 years.” Perhaps she’s right when she says that “The Radicals cannot forgive their idol for healing gullible idiots and not going down with artillery blazing into Sarajevo.” And meanwhile, Boris Tadic, the pro-European president, “is wisely minding the nation’s business and doing it relentlessly.” Tešanović sadly predicts that in the shattered ruins of Yugoslavia there will never be a neat equalizing of the blame, but the capture of Karadžić by the Serbs “is a giant step toward a living role for a peaceful, democratic Serbia within a modern Europe.”

Péter Zilahy wrote to me the day after Karadžić was arrested. “The guy was caught on a bus, which is surreal but it is also a sign that the surrealism of Serbia may end. Looks like the wind is turning and finally Serbia´s decade long denial of reality (or reality as we conceive it) can come to an end.”

Adrian Grima

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