Thursday, July 9, 2015

PotD: Passages from The City Builder

The prose George-Konrád's The City Builder is piled heavily upon itself, less like rows of bricks than like the buildings of new Troy built upon the layered ruins of earlier Troys.

The narrator, a city planner in an unnamed European town, has lived through both World War II and the communist takeover. His musings and observations are at times journalistic, and other times dream-like. The book compares favorable to noticing attitudes of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project and to the associative imagination of Finnegans Wake.

The following selection is characteristic, and appears on pages 22-24 of the Dalkey Archive edition, published in 2007, translated by Ivan Sanders:
For me, this city is a challenge, a parable, an interrogation frozen in space, the messages of my fellow citizens dead and alive, a system of disappearing and regenerating worlds to come, the horizontal delineation of societies replacing one another by sperm, gunfire, senility; a fossilized tug of war, an Eastern European showcase of devastation and reconstruction . . . Because by virtue of my practiced clichés I have become one of its shareholders; though beyond the tenuous links of my existence and surroundings, beyond my father's overdecorated gravestone and the haunting shadow of a cremated woman, beyond my hardened and irremediable blueprints, my myopic utopias, and the procession of figures out of an ever-darkening past, I could well ask: what have I to do with this East-Central European city whose every shame I know so well. A city situated between the middle and the end of most scales, its reality far too realthe victim of partitionings, bankruptcies, punitive campaigns, extortions, bombings, burnings; a buffer city, a shelter-belt city, a protective-zone city. It can welcome the enemy with salt and bread, and, having taken crash courses in the art of survival, it can change its greeting signs, statues, scapegoatsits history. 
A tent city on the ruins of a Roman circus; ancient cats, crows, lizards scurry over the cracked skulls of legionnaires killed in rear-guard actions. For centuries a sun-faced god on a winged horse led his arrow-shooting nomads and their half-tamed studs from barren plains to vast forests, in search of grass and water, and at last reached this dead city of abandoned Roman watchtowers and water mains, where in the felt tents of their winter quarters they bowed their long, brown heads before the Prince Jesus and built a cathedral for Him from the stones of the old circus. In the undamaged crypts embalmed kings smile with curled-up gums; before their metal caskets tourist-wives stand in awe as flash guns pop and the guide tells them the sad tale of the Tartar invasion. They came from all directions with their battering rams and catapults, their poisoned spears, long, bone-tipped arrows, goatskin tubes, and scaling ladders; their root-eating horses, their cattle trained to screech, their straw dummies strapped to riderless horses and prisoners pulled on chains. They came on windswept, fear-soaked roads aswarm with terrible news. Pouring across the wooden barricades, they slashed the throats of kneeling supplicants. Smoke from scorched villages, burning churches, and the smell of dead bodies floating in the water and blooming in the rye fields trailed intheir wake. Up ahead a wall of arrow-absorbing prisoners subsist on sheep guts. A castellan is stretched out between two planks, and on the planks horses pass. Town elders are roasted alive like pigs; citizens are impaled or tied to the wheel, or become lamenting targets in the entryways of their houses. The cathedral, packed with preachers and feuding worshipers, is going up in flames; a rainstorm and human fat put out the glowing embers. But the hordes are already on their war, tracking down the survivors in tree hollows, empty riverbeds, swamps. The murderer cannot rest; whomever he spares will kill him. The city disappears under a sea of weeds, though a few starvelings are already searching under the blackened stones for buried meats and gold coins.
The Prose of the Day series, curated by editors, contributors, and supporters of Decameron journal, showcases examples of particularly excellent prose. To suggest an entry, email the excerpt and your reasons for calling it excellent to