Miklós Vámos
(translated from Hungarian by Ági Bori)

Gidus and I were in the fourth grade when one day we bumped into each other at Kodály Körönd, a famous square only a stone’s throw away from our elementary school. An older woman was leading him by the hand. He was crying, and the old hag was belching forth vulgarities. When I reached them, she grabbed me by the shoulder and launched into a tirade in a nasal voice: Tell me, why can’t you all leave him alone, just because he goes to physical therapy? That doesn’t make him different from the rest of you little boys! Why does everybody have to tease him? I don’t know, I mumbled. The old woman, as if she hadn’t even heard me, continued: Answer me, why are you boys calling him a conehead? Do you realize how rude that is?

I looked him up and down, and concluded silently that the long and short of it was that he did indeed have a large head, a bit pointy, so the nickname hit the nail on the head. I tried to defend myself: I never teased him! A surprised look appeared on the old woman’s face: You never did? Never. Then you two need to be friends! Fine, I agreed. It soon came to light that the conehead’s given name was Gida, he aspired to be a poet, and, by his own admission, he wrote poems day and night. Someone died in every poem he wrote.

Before long, we decided to co-author a book about life, and quickly settled on a title: LIFE. We divided up the chapters. I was assigned the introduction and the first chapter. He got chapter two about birth. I got chapter three about childhood. He got chapter four about career. I got chapter five about marriage. And so on. Illnesses were also allotted to me. Death was his. I went home and opened my notebook.

“LIFE. Introduction.”

I took a deep breath, then words began to pour forth: “Life is like a …”

I immediately started to experience writer’s block. I sat for hours with this opening sentence, staring at what felt like the emergence of something promising. There was one thing I knew for sure: The first sentence was the most important one, and it could make or break the entire course and future success of our masterwork. I kept chewing on the end of my pencil.

Interestingly, my father, who rarely initiated a conversation with me or other family members, asked me: What are you doing? I told him it was nothing special, Gidus and I were simply writing a book about life. He listened to me patiently, and said: Listen to me, your plan is really captivating, though initially it might be better to pick an easier topic. You could always write about life in your second book. First you should dissect a less complicated topic. For example, try writing about the history of the ship. You could, step by step, describe how the first rafts and barges were made, followed by the arrival of galleons, all the way to hydrofoils. Truth be told, this might sound somewhat boring, but it would be more self-evident, and you would actually have a chance to finish it.

I took serious offense at his recommendation. Why the heck would we want to write about the history of the ship when we could spend our time writing about something valuable, namely LIFE itself? I agonized some more about the opening sentence. “Life is like a …” The next day I found out that Gidus took a stab at the chapter about death. He made it this far: “Death is like a …” Being an author is a backbreaking profession, he murmured. I was well aware.

Thirty-five years later, a hefty book caught my attention at my favorite bookstore in Budapest. THE HISTORY OF THE SHIP. Believe it or not, someone did end up writing it. I thumbed through its pages. Everything was exactly the way my father suggested: It looked very professional, all the information was in chronological order, methodically and tediously arranged, interlaced with graphs and diagrams, plus footnotes. I bought it. Someday I will read it.

Instead of a poet, Gidus became a marine biologist. Alas, his opening sentence became my responsibility, too. And I have yet to come up with mine. As of today, I am still hung up on the same beginning: “Life is like a …”

Time and again I stare at it and try to continue it.

Or finish it.

Miklós Vámos is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary, unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

Ági Bori originally hails from Hungary, and she has lived in the United States for more than thirty years. A decade ago, she decided to try her hand at translating and discovered she loved it. She is a fierce advocate for bringing more translated books to American readers. In addition to reading and writing in Hungarian and English, her favorite avocation is reading Russian short stories in their native language. Her translations are available or forthcoming in Apofenie, Asymptote, B O D YThe Forward, Hopscotch Translation, Hungarian Literature OnlineThe Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, MAYDAY, and Northwest Review. She is a translation editor at The Los Angeles Review.