Bears are very good Turks

Mr. Zoltán Medve – in literal translation, Sultan Bear –, the Governor of Krassó-Szörény County was not the first bear to visit the island of Ada Kale. Even if we discount the medieval Hungarian and Vlach bear-leaders, whose animals appeared in the island’s market place not of their own will, we must not be silent about the renowned Maczkó Úr – Mr. Bear – who preceded his colleague only by a nose. That he preceded him is beyond doubt, for Mr. Medve paid his official visit to the island on 12 May 1913, but at that time the book about Mr. Bear’s visit to Ada Kale, from the pen of Zsigmond Sebők, was already for sale with great success throughout the whole of Hungary.

The book Dörmögő Dömötör utazása hegyen, völgyön és a nagy ládával (“Travels of Grunty Demeter – Mr. Bruin – through mountains and valleys with the great chest”), published in 1913, was the last volume in the series about the travels of Mr. Bruin from Maramureș – “Huszt Forest, Third Valley, Second Stream, Fourth Rock, Sixth Cave, not far from the rest place of the wolves, any of whom will willingly show you the way” – which had been published since 1883. It guided its large audience, the children of Hungary, to Budapest, the Tatras, and the Iron Gates on the Lower Danube. To many of them, this was the only source of knowledge about the most beautiful parts of pre-war Hungary.

Mr. Bruin and his two small cubs, Zebike and Pimpi visited Ada Kale on the way to the Iron Gates. To their credit, they did not get the annexation of the island ahead of their senior relative, but were satisfied with annexing some caviar, coffee and tobacco to their native Maramureș. A great stroke of luck, since seven years later an island under Czechoslovakian, and later Soviet, sovereignty would have caused much international complication on the Lower Danube between Serbia and Romania.

The only complication during his visit remained inner-Maramureșan, inasmuch as Uncle János Hörpentő (“John the Sipper”), the cousin and evil spirit of Mr. Bruin also took part in the journey uninvited, now traveling in the chest of Mr. Bruin, and now acting as an inhabitant of Ada Kale, dressed as a local Turk, Mustafa Herpendji, who keeps drinking and eating whatever and whenever possible ahead of the honourable bear and his cubs.

In the course of this short visit, the little readers only get to know the most important topoi about Ada Kale. That you can get there from Orsova on a boat. That Lajos Kossuth, MP of the lost war of independence of 1848-49, set off from here to exile in Turkey. That here you can already encounter the Orient, the bazaar, women wearing hijab, coffee and real Turkish delight. Mr. Bruin was not exactly an Ignác Kúnos. But this much was enough for a little schoolboy to whet his curiosity, and once he grows up, he will also set out to see this wonderful East, as did Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, Ármin Vámbéry, Aurél Stein, and many others.

“Orsova is a pretty town with some five thousand people. If you stop at the bank of the Danube, flanked by one- and two-story houses, you can see three countries. On the other bank is Serbia, to the left Romania, and on the Danube a small island shines in green, it is Ada Kale. This belongs to Turkey. […]

When the company was fed, Mr. Bruin asked:

– And now, what shall we do until evening?

– Come, my effendi, to Ada Kale, – said Mustafa, the Herpendji. – There you will get fine Turkish tobacco, fine Turkish coffee.

– Turkish tobacco? Turkish coffee? – 
happily asked Mr. Bruin. – That’s fine, my friend Mustafa Herpenji, I love Turkish tobacco, Turkish coffee, Turkish pipes, Turkish divans, Turkish comfort… Hehehe, bears are very good Turks. So, let’s go to Ada Kale.

The boat harbor was close, and an old Turk soon carried them over to Ada Kale. The Turk was a silent man – to the good luck of Mustafa-János Herpenji-Herpentő, because I don’t know how he would have replied to the questions of the Turks. The Turkish ferryman broke the silence only once. When the boat arrived under Orsova, they saw a creek flowing into the Danube. This was the Cserna. Then, a mountain observing himself in the river. This was the Cserna. And a mountain, which staring at itself in the Danube. This is called Alion Mountain. The old Turk pointed to the bottom of the mountain, where the Cserna runs into the Danube, and he said, in good Hungarian, although with a Turkish accent:

– Lajos Kossuth kissed the soil of Hungary there, when he had to say goodbye to it forever.”

“Ada Kale, or in Hungarian New Orsova, is a two-kilometer-long island. Most of it is occupied by the fortress, and inside the fortress, its streets, houses, and shops. It is inhabited by Turks, only the army is Hungarian, because, although the island belongs to Turkey, since Serbia gained its independence, it has nevertheless fallen so far away from the motherland, as a button that had been cut off the coat. So, Hungary undertook its defense.

This is an interesting little place. As Mr. Bruin entered the fortress gate, his mouth gaped in amazement. Here he found a world which was completely different from anything he had ever seen during his journeys. Here, the men wore not a hat, but a turban or a fez, and the women a long mantle that covered all their face, except for two holes for the two eyes. It looked like a masquerade. The merchants sold their goods not in glass-door shops, but in an open bazaar. There they were squatting, under tent-like carpets, on soft Oriental carpets. There they were selling all kinds of sweets, trinkets, beautiful Oriental rugs. It was a real Turkish world.

Mr. Bruin immediately stopped in front of a candy store, like a big bumble-bee on the sugar, and the two cubs like two little flies on the peach jam. They just foamed, sucked, swallowed, chewed, sipped the sugar, dates, dessert, Turkish honey, that even the serious Turk smiled.

– Well, never did I hear such noisy chewing, even when the Budapest students came to Ada Kale, and visited the candy bazaar!

But when it came to the payment, Mr. Bruin and the Turk did not understand each other.

– Where is that Mustafa Herpendji? – said Mr. Bruin. – He would speak in Turkish with this Turk. Look, he’s nowhere just now, when he would be most needed!

But Herpendji–Hörpentő was clever enough not to be there, where he would have had to speak in Turkish. Finally Mr. Bruin agreed with the merchant, and then he sat down at the breezy porch of the Turkish café.

– Bring me Turkish tobacco, Turkish coffee, Turkish pipe! – he shouted.”

“Soon the Turkish coffee and Turkish tobacco was on his table. Sitting in the Turkish way on a carpet, he smoked the latter from a pipe called nargile. The fragrant tobacco floated around his head, made him sleepy, and soon he fell asleep, forgetting even the black coffee. The cubs also bumped with him. The Turks of the island gathered in the street, and asked each other:

– What is this? They are shooting with mortars in the fortress?

Oh, no, they were not. It was just the three bears who were snoring in the café. But who is this figure silently approaching the sleeping ones, and sipping their coffees one after the other? Yes, it is Herpendji–Hörpentő. Then, just as he came, he left, in silence, unnoticed.”

Soon Mr. Bruin woke up.

– Oh, I sneaked a little. Well, the coffee will come the more in hand… But where did the coffee disappear to, from my cup?

– And from mine? – was upset Zebike.

– And from mine? – whimpered Pimpi.

Mr. Bruin cried out angrily:

– Where? Where? Why do we ask it? It went down the throat of my alter ego! He has a devil, that he is able to get to wherever I am. Hey, you Turk! – he shouted –, coffee!

The waiter brought the steaming cups.

– You, Turk! – shouted Mr. Bruin. – Pour the coffee right in my mouth! Dont put it down, because my alter ego will immediately sip it – let him be suffocated on his name day!

The waiter poured the coffee into the respectable traveler. Mr. Bruin coughed, cleared his throat, because the hot coffee burned it.

– No matter if it burns me, at least I drink it on my money, and not my alter ego – he comforted himself. Then he exclaimed: But it’s already getting dark! Cubs, let’s say good-bye to Ada Kale, and go back to Orsova. Where’s that Herpendji? Let him carry the luggage to the boat. Waiter, my dear friend, didn’t you see Mustafa Herpendji somewhere?

The coffee owner knew Hungarian. He wondered:

– Who is that Mustafa Herpendji?

– Don’t you know him? He is a Turkish porter from here.

– From here? No Turk of this name has ever lived in Ada Kale.

– It’s impossible, my friend. For he had such a great turban, that it even covered his nose… it never let me see his face. And he spoke so well in Turkish! He said: djin, djin, choje to, djin, djin, potjesem.

The coffee owner smiled:

– But this is in Slovak, not in Turkish! – he said

Mr. Bruin shuddered.

– Oh my, how this wasp stung me!… Or rather this idea, more stingy than a wasp. I start to believe, that this Mustafa Herpendji was my alter ego. That Mustafa drank my beer, he ate my caviar, he sipped my coffee. That’s why he pulled the turban in his face, so we could not see his face.

– Hehe, what a fooldji he has made of you! – laughed Zebike.

– You cub, if you don’t shut up, you’ll get a slapdji! – grunted Mr. Bruin.”

After Mr. Bruin’s visit, the island began to fade from the Hungarian children’s horizon. Seven years later it lay behind new borders, fifty-nine years later it was submerged under the new water level. Today even the oldest bears of Maramureș can not easily say where Mr. Bruin had sipped his Turkish coffee. But since then, his adventures have not faded.

“When on Rákóczi street we passed before Manó Vidor’s bookshop, my father asked me whether I want a new book. He knew that a book was the most precious gift to me (and still it is). We entered the bookshop, and my father asked me which book to buy. I looked around excitedly on the shelves of the novels for the youth, and I discovered a rather thick Mr. Bruin book, perhaps the most exquisite fable book of Zsigmond Sebők: The travels of Mr. Bruin to the Iron Gates. That’s what I asked for. My father bought it, and right there, in the shop he wrote in it these unforgettable lines: “To my son Géza, on the day of the proclamation of the Hungarian Republic, and of the rebirth of Hungarian freedom, in Nagyvárad, on 31 October 1918, from your father.” I had this book until the end of the Second World War. I kept it as one of the great historical documents of my life. But it also belonged amaong my first important readings. In fact, here I read about the evil alter ego of the benevolent Mr. Bruin, Uncle Hörpentő. Only decades later did I realize that this masterpiece for children is actually a parody of Dostoyevsky’s novel Likeness. And, to tell the truth, since then I cannot take seriously this masterpiece of Dostoyevsky. It always reminds me of Uncle Hörpentő, the wicked bear, for whose jokes always Mr. Bruin must pay. And in the course of my life, if any inconvenience fell on me because of others’ inhumanity or meanness, I always calmly realized that now I am Mr. Bruin, and the malevolent, the wicked souls, the shady characters, the parasites all are in some way Uncle Hörpentő.”

Géza Hegedüs remembers like this Mr. Bruin’s Ada Kale adventures in his memoirs Preludes to an autobiography. From this inspiration sprung the historical novels which meant to my generation what the wanderings of Zsigmond Sebők’s bear had meant to him. The island of Ada Kale, like Hrabal’s house on the Dam of Eternity, submerged deep and flew up high, and now forever

floats above us, like the clouds of the ideal buildings on a Baroque painting.

“– Mr. Bruin for President! – shouted the bears.”

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