Elza, the pilot – A translation project

Section one

The perfect society

A historical introduction


It was the fortieth year of the eternal war.

As the Ancient Romans calculated everything from the foundation of their city, this society counted years from the outbreak of the war. It had been one year since they introduced this system, to commemorate the four decade anniversary: the speeches still rang in the ears. The old, Christian chronology didn’t disappear completely; the Office tolerated it because of the priests. Only the conservative and religious circles insisted on using it though. That was how the new age broke away from the old, both nominally and symbolically. In its spirit, however, it had already left the old age behind a very long time ago. Only the elderly remembered the beginning of the war. The word “peace” referred to some kind of prehistoric world, an unlikely world of fairy tales…

But life went on, and one shouldn’t think that it had changed too much compared to how it was during those magical years of peace or even during the older, shorter wars, for example the one that lasted from 1914 to 1918 and which the unsuspecting people called “world war.”

The objective onlooker would have noticed little change. At least not behind the front lines. The forms and layers of society, the cultural face of cities remained roughly the same. What is more, as the war raged on for more and more years and slowly all hope of eventual peace disappeared; the world seemed to become a calmer place.

Old wars were often ended by disturbances, revolutions. Now these options couldn’t be considered seriously. Never had states been so powerful and never had they possessed such terrifying means. It wasn’t only technical progress that provided them with weapons. The perfect organisation, which was prepared by the persistent and unfailing work of the long decades before the war and helped by the experience of past wars and the findings of modern sociology, proved to be a more unfailing weapon. Organising a military state, in the form of soviets or fascios, had started already in the 20th century and slowly rippled to every state.

“A modern war cannot last long!” people said at the beginning of the fights. These prognoses proved true just as little as the ones in 1914. Nothing at all worked the way they had imagined it. Many people talked about the unsustainability of trench warfare too. The fighting, however, instead of getting out of its trenches, dug them even deeper, transformed them into tunnels, drilled its layers under each other, downwards, into the ground.

The modern findings of technology, forced to even bigger defences ended up neutralising themselves and thus didn’t bring the crucial and catastrophical change everybody expected from them.

 In the second quarter of the 20th century if “the war of the future” came up, the terrified imagination loved to dwell on the horrors of gas attacks. They talked about poisonous gases which would threaten the lives of the civilians far from the front lines as well as the soldiers and which could delete the inhabitants of whole cities from existence. In the first years of the eternal war many such catastrophes happened. Almost every human hive remembered one or two “Black days.” Every metropolis has at one pointed suffocated from the stench of death issuing from one of its districts. But what good the genocide did apart from retaliation! Their growing efficiency and speed opened up apocalyptic vistas. In the eights year the whole population of a smaller country was erased by a bacteria culture thrown at them from a passing airplane. The reply was the immediate destruction of the enemy’s most flourishing provinces. It was almost the sustainability of the war at stake. Thus, the leaders finally came to see that this could be only protected by the relative security of the hinterlands.

Defensive techniques became more important than offensive ones; the “black days” became rare and the war concentrated on the front lands which were huge in themselves. Unexpected attacks didn’t stop completely, though. Both sides made sure that none of the enemy cities or provinces should feel totally safe. The long chimneyed gas bunkers and other protective measures had to be increased. For a while now the sirens shrieked more often again; one couldn’t know if there was a real reason for it or was it just a trial and practice or maybe just nervousness?

But life still went on, and although the fronts devoured incredible amount of people year after year, the state controlled birth statistics provided ample supplies. However much the compulsory military service expanded to more and more people on both sides, there were still enough invalids and exempted who secured the normal continuation of peaceful work. They formed a sort of aristocracy, mental and financial distinction. Their life expectancy was around the double of what the enrolled youth could hope for themselves and they could live this life at home, for themselves. They had time to get money and knowledge.

This strange aristocracy was recruited from those born with some bodily malformation and only less and decreasing numbers from the invalids of war. Modern war carried out a thorough job; it only let its crippled go when they were unable to earn money or to live a life worth living. Everybody knew that a third type of disability existed, which was much more able to cope, although it was illegal and of unmentionable origins. It’s not as if self mutilation became fashionable; that was an offence punished by death. Rich parents often bribed their doctors to carry out some form of mutilation on their newborns. They were made unfit for military service already in the cradle. Newborn mutilation developed a real science and new techniques untraceable by investigations. Doctors, who carried out the tests and examinations for military service and were the leaders of gas protection and military hospitals were the biggest powers of hinterland societies and also the lords of life and death, made an immense fortune from these illegal operations. Similarly to the many doctors of 19th and 20th century became secretly reach from the forbidden operations which were then called abortions.

The state seemed to tolerate newborn mutilations to a certain extent. At least when it was carried out by distinguished doctors against whose knowledge and solidarity among each other they could do nothing. Only the wealthiest families could afford this kind of bribes, who were also the ones who had the most influence in internal affairs. The practice didn’t threaten to take bigger masses from the army, that’s how, in a sense, disability became hereditary. As every state protects its own aristocracy, the state of the eternal war stood up for the rights of these invalids, not explicitly but very efficiently, even though they weren’t crippled on the battlefield. The weaponry of this new age didn’t justify the exemption of the invalids.

There was no need for physical strength in the fronts. Everything was done by machines and these machines could be operated even by children; they necessitated at most some competence and practice. Whoever had it was competent enough to kill and die by the book, however weak or crippled they were. The exhausting marches, the strained physical performance that was so typical to the battles of the 19th century, had long become unnecessary. Yet the military exemption of the disabled became an irrefutable tradition; changing it in the least would have seemed a cruel and disagreeable thought.

On the other hand, a huge movement started for the military service of women. It promised much bigger masses for the front and it chimed in with the sense of justice of many suffering men. The traditional practice that women were only employed as nurses or in other subsidiary units and not in the real combatant troops felt like an outdated decorum. And the ones revolting most against this ancient tradition were women themselves, who had been for long equal to men in everything, what is more in things like intellectual capacities they even outshone them. Women could have been justified in feeling that they only had a secondary and despised role in the War itself although it had long become proven that the war is the final cause and aim of human existence.

It is the introduction to Mihály Babits’s Elza,the pilot (Elza pilóta) a novel published in 1933 by one of Hungary’s most well-known and beloved 20th century poets/translator/novelists. Today we would consider it a dystopia. It is about a world plunged in endless war (much like in Orwell’s 1984), women had reached equality in everything except for one thing: they are still banned from going to war, they’re confined to the Hinterland. They are organizing demonstration for the right to die for the homeland just like men.

It is a depressing and thought-provoking tale which is as relevant today as it was in 1933. It speaks about the crippling effect of war, the situation of women and the self-destructive tendencies of humanity.

Babits is one of my favourite Hungarian writers and it would be a great honour for me to translate his works one day.

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