The Atlas of B. Görbe
He was the sort of man you've seen: big and fat in an overcoat beaded with rain, cigar poking from between his jowls, staring at some vision beyond the neon and noise and commuter frenzy of Times Square.
That's how Benedek Görbe looked the last time I saw him. This was May, 2007, shortly before I left Manhattan, where I'd been living with my family for six months on a Fulbright fellowship at NYU. Görbe was an ex-boyfriend of an aunt in Budapest, though he hadn't lived in or visited Hungary for over forty years. He wrote in Hungarian every day though, along with drawing illustrations, for a series of kids' books published under the name B. Görbe by a small but quality imprint out of Brooklyn who'd hired a translator and published them in enormous folio-sized hardcovers under the title The Atlas of Dreams. Benjamin and Henry, my two boys, loved the books, with their pictures reminiscent of fin de siècle posters, stories of children climbing ladders into dreamsendless garden cities, drifting minarets, kings shrouded in hyacinths. That was Görbe's style, not that you'd have known it from the way he lookedwith his stubble, pants the size of garbage bags, half-smouldering cigars, his obnoxious way of disagreeing with any opinion that wasn't his own, and sometimes, after a moment's reflection, even with that.
I was drawn to Görbe out of disappointment. The position at NYU had promised "a stimulating artistic environment," though what it actually gave me was an office in the back of a building where a bunch of important writers were squirrelled away writing, when they were there at all. In the end I wasn't surprised; that's what writers didthey worked. But this meant that when I wasn't writing I was wandering the streets, sometimes alone, sometimes with my wife, Marcy, in a dreamscape very different from the one described by Görbe. Rather than climbing up a ladder, I felt as if I'd climbed down one, into spaces of concrete and brick, asphalt and iron, and because it was winter it was always snowing, then rain, always torrential. I don't mean to imply that New York was dreary, only that it seemed emptied, an abandoned city, which is odd since there were people everywhereto the point where I sometimes couldn't move along the sidewalk all of them rushing by me as if they knew something I didn't, as if every street and avenue offered a series of doors only they could open. Because of this, because so much seemed inaccessible, New York made me feel as if I was a kid again, left alone at home for the first time, or in the house of a stranger, on a grey Sunday when there's nothing to do but search through the closets and cabinets of rooms you're not supposed to go into, never coming upon anything of interest but always hoping the next jewelry box or armoire or night- stand will redeem the lost afternoon. New Yorkmy New York that winterwas a place of secrets.
Görbe was the biggest of them all. I called him on advice from my aunt Bea, who gave me his phone number after I complained about how few contacts I was making. She'd dated him, unbelievably enough, back in university in Budapest during the early 1960s. Görbe was an art student then, though he was also taking courses in literature and history and whatever else fired his imagination. He was "quiet and dreamy," according to my aunt, but also "very handsome." She compared him to Montgomery Clift. In the end, they only went out for ten months, after which Görbe dumped her for the supposed love of his life, a woman called Zella, who was majoring in psychology and who kept, according to rumour, the dream diary that would inspire Görbe's writing. Within a year of meeting Zella, Görbe left university without a degree, disappearing from my aunt's life for five years before resurfacing when his first book was published. My aunt went to the launch, wandering past posters of his illustrations, amazed to see how much Görbe had changed. Gone was the easy smile, that faraway look he sometimes had. There was something frantic about him that day, my aunt said, but he was as handsome as ever, and though he never revealed what the trouble was he seemed happy to have someone from the past to talk to. Görbe was especially bad-tempered when people who hadn't bought a book came up to him. "I was surprised to see him like that," she said. "When I knew him in university he was so different. We were hardly adults then, but we were on the edge of ituniversity degrees, jobs, marriages, childrenbut whenever I was with him it always felt to me as if we were back in the garden in Mátyásföld, playing hide-and-seek, climbing the downspout to the roof, searching for treasures in the attic." My aunt paused on the other end of the line. "Well, he's become an important man, and maybe he could help you. It doesn't sound like you're having much luck there." She paused again, and I could hear her shifting the phone against her face. "The number I have for him is quite old. He used to call me once in a while when he first left Hungary. I always got the feeling he really missed it here, that he didn't want to go, and he always asked me to describe what the city was like, the changes that had happened. I think it was because of Zella that he went." I could hear her rummaging on the other end of the line. "He hasn't called me in years."
Excerpted from Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. Copyright © 2013 by Tamas Dobozy. Excerpted by permission of Milkweed Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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