NOTE: In 1919, only months after escaping from an insane asylum, Géza Csáth had swallowed poison and died. He was thirty-one. Before succumbing to insanity and suicide, Csáth had been a student at Budapest Medical School, a music critic writing on Bartók and Kodály, a neurologist at a prestigious Budapest research clinic, a country doctor, and a soldier in World War I. Ten years before his death he’d begun smoking opium, and within a year was an addict injecting morphine and Pantopon. “Immeasurably loathsome and despicable” is how his diary describes the junky existence: “…in my weak and forever veiled voice, my steady staring in the mirror, my cynical and shrunken penis, my drawn face, my witless conversation, my impotent, lazy life, my suspicious behavior, my insolence with which I lengthily disappear into the WC, my stupidity…. I also think that I stink, because with my sense of smell impaired, I can no longer smell the stench of my poorly wiped asshole or the mouth odor caused by my rotting teeth.”
The twenty-four pieces in Opium and Other Stories—selected by Marianna D. Birnbaum, professor of Hungarian literature at UCLA, and translated by Jascha Kessler and Charlotte Rogers—represent about a quarter of Csáth’s short fiction, most of it completed during the early years of his addiction, before the outbreak of war and the political reorganization of Central Europe. In “Matricide”—characterizing the two sadist sons who murder their widowed mother, then steal her jewelry to present to a young whore as a gift—Csáth writes what could pass as a précis for the fiercest of the Opium stories: “Their curiosity over the mystery of pain was insatiable.” The executioners in Csáth’s theater of punishment—their destructive gusto, their bestial pleasure, their delirious excitement in the violent moment—lead one to comparisons with the adolescent scenarists of Musil’s Young Torless, Gombrowicz’s aging perverts in Pornografia, and Mishima’s ghoulish fantasies in Confessions of a Mask. “The butcher’s coming with his great big knife,” chirps the coarse fifteen-year-old peasant housekeeper to the barnyard pig at the start of “Festal Slaughter,” and by the time he leaves he’s made not only sausage out of the sow but overcome and impregnated the young girl. The brawny butcher with the bloody knife, the red-faced brute with the wild fists, the abominable lunatic and his madness—just a few of the agents of horrifying upheaval who sweep in upon Csáth’s innocent sufferers and make their settled lives “a house into which Torture has moved.”
“Little Emma” may be the most horrifying story, and the most teasingly allusive: “In the Penal Colony” redreamed to be performed by children—children spellbound by the spectacle of submission to violence and the weeping of the condemned broken by punishment. “The new teacher used a cane…. This was exciting…. The class would watch the beating…. I stood on my toes so as to miss nothing of the sight….” Given the seething feelings …
English translation copyright © 1979 by Marianna D. Birnbaum, Jascha Kessler, and Charlotte Rogers. Reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.