The White King: A Novel

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9780618945177: The White King: A Novel

An international sensation, this startling and heartbreaking debut introduces us to precocious eleven-year-old Djata, whose life in the totalitarian state he calls home is about to change forever.

Djata doesn’t know what to make of the two men who lead his father away one day, nor does he understand why his mother bursts into tears when he brings her tulips on her wedding anniversary. He does know that he must learn to fill his father’s shoes, even though among his friends he is still a boy: fighting with neighborhood bullies, playing soccer on radioactive grass, having inappropriate crushes, sneaking into secret screening rooms, and shooting at stray cats with his gun-happy grandfather. But the random brutality of Djata’s world is tempered by the hilarious absurdity of the situations he finds himself in, by his enduring faith in his father’s return, and by moments of unexpected beauty, hope, and kindness.
Structured as a series of interconnected stories propelled by the energy of Dragomán’s riveting prose, the chapters of The White King collectively illuminate the joys and humiliations of growing up, while painting a multifaceted and unforgettable portrait of life in an oppressive state and its human cost. And as in the works of Mark Haddon, David Mitchell, and Marjane Satrapi, Djata’s child’s-eye view lends power and immediacy to his story, making us laugh and ache in recognition and reminding us all of our shared humanity.

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About the Author:

Novelist and translator GYÖRGY DRAGOMÁN was born in Transylvania in 1973 and moved to Hungary when he was fifteen. His first novel, The White King, has been translated into more than twenty languages and went on to win the Sandor Márai Prize and the Jan Michaelski Prize. Dragomán lives in Budapest with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 Tulips

The night before, I stuck the alarm clock under my pillow so only I would hear it ring and Mother wouldn’t wake up, but as it turned out I was awake even before it went off, that’s how wound up I was for the surprise. After taking my extra-special nickel-plated Chinese flashlight off the table, I pulled the clock from under the pillow and lit it up, it was quarter to five. I pressed the button so it wouldn’t go off, and then I took the clothes I had put on the back of my chair the night before and dressed in a hurry, careful not to make a sound. While pulling on my pants I accidentally kicked the chair, which luckily didn’t topple over but only thumped against the table beside it. Carefully I opened the door to my room, but I knew it wouldn’t creak because the day before I’d rubbed the hinges with grease. I went over to the cupboard and slowly pulled out the middle drawer and removed the big tailor’s shears Mother always used to cut my hair, and then I opened the lock on our apartment door and slipped out, quiet as could be, not even hurrying until I reached the first turn in the stairwell, where I broke into a run. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped outside our apartment block, I was warm all over, and that’s how I went toward the little park, whose flower bed, next to the iron spout where people went for spring water, had the most beautiful tulips in town. By then we’d been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to go away for only a week to a research station by the sea on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he told me how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see. “But no matter,” he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me too, so I could have a look for myself, why, he just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea. “But that’s okay,” he said, we’d make up for this along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense in rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything because we had a whole life ahead of us, yes, this was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and I never did quite get it, but then when he didn’t come home after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot too, when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a gray van. I’d just come home from school when they were about to head off, if our last class of the day, earth science, hadn’t been canceled I wouldn’t even have met them, they were just getting into the van when I got there, they were in a real hurry, Father’s colleagues didn’t even want to let him talk to me, but then Father told them not to do this, they had kids too, he said, they knew what this was like, five minutes really wouldn’t make a bit of difference, and then one of his colleagues, a tall silver-haired man in a gray suit, shrugged and said he didn’t mind, five minutes really wouldn’t make a bit of difference here. So Father then came over and stopped right in front of me, but he gave me neither a pat nor a hug, no, he just kept clutching his sport coat all the while in front of him with both hands, and that’s when he told me about how he was needed urgently in that research institute, he’d be there for a week, and if it turned out the situation was really serious, then he’d be there a little while longer until he put things right, and then he got to talking about the sea, but suddenly that tall silver-haired colleague of his came over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, doc,” he said, the five minutes were up, now it was really time to go or else they’d miss the plane, and Father then bent down and kissed my forehead, but he didn’t hug me, he just told me to take good care of Mom and to be a good boy, because now I would be the man of the house, time to raise that chin up high. And I said, “Okay, I’ll be good,” and told him he should take care of himself, and then his colleague looked at me and said, “Don’tcha worry, little guy, we’ll take care of the doctor all right,” and he gave a wink, and then he opened the side door of the van for Father and helped him get in, and meanwhile the chauffeur started the engine, and no sooner did the door slam shut on my father than the car headed off, and I picked up my school knapsack and turned around and went toward the stairwell because I got a new forward, one more button for my miniature soccer team, all its players were buttons, and I wanted tto test the forward on the oilcloth to see if it slid as well on that as it did on the cardboard, so anyway, I didn’t stay therrrrre and I didn’t even wave, and I didn’t keep watching that van, and I didn’t wait for it to disappear at the end of the road. I remember Father’s face clearly, he was scruffy, he smelled of cigarette smoke, and he seemed really, really tired, even his smile was a bit crooked. Anyway, I thought about this a lot later on, but I don’t think he suspected beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to come home. A week later we got just one letter from him, and in it he wrote that the situation was much more serious than they’d figured, not that he could give details, seeing how this was top secret, but he’d have to stay on there for a while yet, and if everything went well maybe he’d get one or two days’ leave in a couple of weeks, but for the time being he was needed there every moment. Since then he sent a few other letters too, every three or four weeks, and in every one he wrote that he’d come home soon. But then he couldn’t come for Christmas either, and we waited and waited for him even on New Year’s Eve, and before we knew it April had arrived, and no more letters were coming either. Which is when I got to thinking that Father had in fact fled abroad like the father of one of my classmates, Egon, whose dad swam across the Danube and went to Yugoslavia and from there to the West, but they hadn’t heard a thing from him since then, they didn’t even know if he was alive. Anyway, that morning on my way to the park I slunk along behind the apartment blocks because I didn’t want to meet up with anyone, no, I didn’t want anyone at all asking where I was off to so early. Luckily no one was at the waterspout, so I was able to climb over the chain and right into the flower bed where the tulips were, and I took out the shears and started cutting the flowers, snipping their stems way down by the ground because my grandmother once told me that the lower down you cut tulip stems, the longer the flowers will last, that it’s best if you just cut the whole thing, leaves and all. Anyway, at first I wanted to cut only twenty-five stems, but then somewhere around fifteen I lost count so I just kept cutting one after another, meanwhile my jacket was getting all covered with dew, and my pants too, but I didn’t bother about it, no, instead I thought of Father, of how he too must have done something like this every year, he too must have cut the tulips like this each spring. Mother told the story lots of times of how he gave her tulips when he proposed, how he courted her with bouquets of tulips, and how he gave her tulips every year on their anniversary, every April 17 he surprised her with a huge bouquet. Yes, by the time she woke up, the flowers were there waiting for her on the kitchen table, and I knew that this anniversary was going to be their fifteenth, and I wanted Mother to get a bouquet bigger than any she ever got before. I cut so many tulips that it was all I could do to hold them right, and since the bouquet only slid apart in my hands when I tried hugging it tight, I laid it down on the ground beside me, shook the dew off the shears, and went on cutting one stem after another, and meanwhile I thought of Father, how he must have used these very same shears, and I looked at my hands and tried imagining Father’s hands, but it did no good because all I saw were my own thin, pale hands, my fingers in the shears’ worn metal rings, and then all of a sudden this old man shouted at me, “Get over here at once, what do you think you’re doing, cutting those flowers? I’ll have you know I’ll call the police and you’ll wind up in reform school, which is where you belong,” but I looked up and luckily didn’t recognize him, so I shouted right back, “Shut your trap, stealing flowers isn’t a crime,” and I pocketed the shears and gathered up the tulips with both hands. A couple of stems fell away, but by then I’d already jumped out of the flower bed, and I heard the man shouting after me that I should be ashamed of myself for talking that way, but no matter, he’d jotted down the ID number on my arm, but I didn’t even look back because I knew he couldn’t have done that, since I had come on purpose in the jacket without my school ID number sewn onto its arm, and so I ran right on home holding the flowers in both hands, carefully, so they wouldn’t break, the flowers were smacking against each other and sometimes touching my face, the broad leaves were swishing and swooshing and flapping about, and the smell was like freshly cut grass, only much stronger. When I got to the fifth floor I stopped in the hallway in front of our apartment, crouched down, and put the flowers carefully on the doormat, and then I stood up, slowly opened the door, and stepped over the flowers and just paused there in the dark hall, and listened. Luckily Mother wasn’t yet awake, so I carried the tulips right into the kitchen and put them all on the table, and next I went into the pantry, got the biggest empty pickle jar out from under the shelf, and took it over to the faucet, where I wiped it clean with water and set it down on the middle of the kitchen table and went right to work stuffing the tulips into it. But there were so many tulips that they didn’t all fit in the jar, about ten stems just wouldn’t slide in, so I put those in the sink, and then I went back to the kitchen table and tried my best to set the bouquet right, but it didn’t work too well. What with all those leaves, the tulips were really tangled up, some stems were too short and others were too long, I knew I’d have to cut the stems the same length if I wanted the bouquet to look decent, but then I thought that if I got the big washtub from the pantry, all the flowers would fit in that, and maybe I wouldn’t even have to cut their stems, so I went back to the pantry door, opened it, bent down, and pulled the tub out from under the shelf, which is when I heard the kitchen door open and I heard Mother’s voice. “Who’s there?” she said. “Is there someone in here?” She didn’t see me yet, on account of the pantry door being in the way, but through the crack in the door I could see her standing in her long white nightgown, she was barefoot, and her face turned pale when she noticed the tulips, and she leaned with one arm against the doorjamb and her mouth opened. I thought she was about to smile, but instead her face looked more like she wanted to cry out or shout, as if she was really angry or something was really hurting her, she bared her teeth all the way and she scrunched up her eyes, and I heard her taking really deep breaths, and then her eyes began scanning the kitchen, and when she noticed the open pantry door her hand came off the doorjamb and swept the hair away from her face, and she let out a big sigh and asked, “Son, is it you, dear?” But I didn’t say a thing just yet, no, I first came out from behind the pantry door and stopped beside the table, and only then did I say that I wanted it to be a surprise, and I begged her not to be angry. “I didn’t want to do anything bad,” I said, “I did it only because Father asked me to be the man of the house while he was away.” Mother was straining to smile, but from her eyes it was obvious that she was still really sad, and now she said in a deep, raspy voice that she wasn’t angry, no, she wasn’t angry, she repeated, “Thank you very much, dear,” and as she said that, she stepped over and gave me a hug, not her usual sort of hug but a whole lot tighter, she held me really tight the way she did when I was sick one time, and I hugged her back and held her tight too, and through my clothes and through her nightgown I could feel her heart beating, and I thought of the tulips, of how I’d knelt there in the earth in the park, cutting one tulip after another, and I felt Mother hug me even tighter, and I hugged her even tighter too, and my nose was still full of the tulips’ smell, that thick green scent, and then I felt Mother shudder, and I knew she was about to cry, and I knew I would start crying too, and I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t let her go, I could only hold her tight. I wanted to tell her not to be so sad, that everything was okay, but I couldn’t say a thing, I couldn’t open my mouth at all, and at that very moment someone pressed the buzzer on our apartment door, and the person sure did press it hard because the buzzer buzzed really loud and long, once, twice, three times, and I could feel Mother letting me go, her whole body seemed to turn cold all of a sudden, and then I also let her go and I told her, “Wait here, I’ll go and see who it is.” On my way to the door I thought it had to be the police, yes, that old man in the park had recognized me after all, he’d reported me and now the police were here, they’d come to get me and take me away for vandalizing public property and cutting tulips, and I thought that maybe I’d better not open the door after all, but the buzzer just kept buzzing really loud, and by now there was knocking too. And so I reached out a hand all the same, turned the lock, and opened the door. It wasn’t the police standing there in front of the door but Father’s colleagues, the ones I saw him leave with on that day a while back, and I was so surprised I couldn’t get a word out, which is when the tall silver-haired man looked at me and asked if my mother was home, and I nodded, thinking Father must have sent a gift with them for his and Mother’s wedding anniversary, and I was just about to tell them to come on in, I wanted to say, “My mother will be really glad to see you.” But before I could get a word out, the silver-haired man snapped at me, “Didn’t you hear me, I asked you something,” and I said, “Yes, she is home,” and then the other man, the shorter one, snarled at me too. “Well then,” he said, “we’ll just come on in,” and he pushed me away from the doorway and both of them did come right in, they stopped in the hall and then the shorter one asked which room was my mother’s, and I said, “Mother is in the kitchen,” but by now I was leading the way, and I called out to Mother that Father’s colleagues were here, that they must have brought a letter from him or maybe he’d sent some gift. And right then Mother was drinking water from the long-eared mug we usually used to fill the coffeemaker, but her hand stopped in midmotion, she looked at me but her eyes then fixed on Father’s colleagues, and I saw her turn pale behind the mug, which she then lowered, and I saw her mouth turn to stone like it did whenever she got really angry, and then, in a really loud voice, she asked Father’s colleagues, “What are you doing here?” and she slammed the mug on the counter so hard that all the water splashed right out, and she said to them, “Get out of here,” but by then both of them had followed me into the kitchen. The tall silver-haired man didn’t even say hello, but instead he said to Mother, “What is this, you haven’t even told the kid?” And then my mother shook her head and said, “That’s none of your business,” but the tall silver-haired man said, “Well, that was a mistake because he’ll find out sooner or later, anyway, best to get t...

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