Barcode by Krisztina Tóth

Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood.


Tender loving care was something that her body had not been given for the best part of a year. Whenever she hugged herself, sitting by the little window thinking of her young man, the images that surfaced were like stills from a film: Miklós in the corridor at the university, Miklós whispering to her in the dark, Miklós waving from the platform. Miklós was no longer a real being, just a sender of letters with news not from real life but rather as evidence of some sophisticated fiction, as if he were writing to and for himself, to prove that the body that existed in her imagination was not just a doppelgänger of her desires. Most surprising of all, she couldn’t even recall the smell of his body. The other day, in one of the department stores, she had a sniff of every men’s deodorant she could find, hoping that one of the sprays might summon up something of the spell cast by his flesh and blood; but what passed before her was only a parade of imaginary male bodies. Miklós continued to lack a face and was only a name, and even the address on the envelope seemed to be that of a made-up person, a fake address, Virág Cserép, 3 Föld Street, Hongrie.

She spent the whole of the previous day in the immigration bureau. She’d been summoned to appear at 8 in the morning, before breakfast. When she arrived and entered the barn-like 1920s building decked out in marble, the receptionist pointed her to the entrance hall. There was a vast crowd of people, some white, some black, and yet other, dark-skinned groups that seemed unclassifiable. They all kept looking around impatiently and if anyone went over to the vending machines the porter reminded them in loud but measured tones that the examinations had to be carried out on an empty stomach. Nothing happened until ten o’clock. At ten-thirty an official appeared, distributed some forms, then disappeared down a side corridor. There was a sudden flurry of activity, pens were passed around, people filled in the forms in their laps, some translated for others, strange words, guttural sounds ricocheted in the air. By eleven, everyone was thoroughly exhausted. Black men took off their shoes, hunkered down one after the other on the floor, children burst into tears, women suckled their babies, while others strode nervously up and down in the side corridor, thinking that perhaps their impatient sounds as they walked to and fro might somehow get things rolling, or that they’d be allowed to go home.

At last, at eleven-thirty a stocky man appeared and led the pushing and shoving throng over to one of the corridors and, roaring at the top of his voice and gesticulating wildly, explained that the men must now split from the women, men to the left, women to the right.

Obediently they marched over Indian file to the lockers where they had to deposit all their clothes and inch their way along to the various examinations dressed in the paper gowns they had been given, each secured only with a piece of string.

There was a hold-up at the x-ray machines, because of an Asian woman shuffling ahead of her, whose stomach had a very visible bulge. Resting her slim, childlike hands on her little mound she looked at the official apologetically. Head tipped to one side, her face bore a shy smile, with something of the look of the deaf: obviously this universally expressed a willingness to cooperate – she’s sending the message ‘I don’t understand you, but I am really listening, paying close attention.’

Vous êtes enceinte?” came the question. The Asian woman, like a student caught out, just echoed the words: Vous êtes enceinte? The official became agitated and kept repeating the question at an ever higher pitch as he pointed to the woman’s belly. She looked back at the official with an emollient smile: yes, she said, baby. She, however, couldn’t stand it for a moment longer and marched up to the official:

“Monsieur, can’t you see she’s pregnant? No x-ray!” The man shot her a venomous look, and motioned to her to get back in line. When it was time for him to take her passport, he started leafing through it with intense curiosity (goodness! so many countries!), his eyes eventually alighting on something at the bottom of one page. He read out the name: “Mlle. Hungary Magyar.”

She’d have been amused if this had been the name she would bear on becoming a French citizen, but in the circumstances she felt obliged to intervene and so, moving awkwardly to maintain her modesty in the paper dress, she simply took the passport out of the man’s hand and pointed to the correct rubric. If looks could kill, the pimply official would surely have murdered her on the spot, but in the event he just let her pass, and began to explain things agitatedly to the fat black woman behind her, who was trying with her chubby hands to hold together the paper gown bulging over her stomach and breasts.

Her blood was taken and her mouth and uterus peered into, with the details noted down so that some higher authority might eventually decide whether she represented any direct and immediate threat to the French nation.

When at four in the afternoon she finally was able to return, fully dressed, to the entrance hall, dizzy from hunger and exhaustion, she immediately hurried over to the chocolate vending machine. The Asian woman was there too, in a simple linen dress and sandals, with a grateful, permanent smile on her Madonna-like face.

“Where are you from?” she asked in English, her little bird-like head cocked to one side.

“Hungary,” she replied, smiling back.

“Me too,” the young woman nodded understandingly, and opted for a Mars bar.

It was getting dark by the time she reached home, at the other end of the city. The Monoprix sign was already glowing red and inside it was rush hour, with housewives pushing and shoving in the aisles with their trolleys. Exceptionally, she bought not only some sweetcorn, but added sour cream and some salad to the salmon in her basket, and then took a giant container of 100% pure orange juice and even a bar of chocolate. Hungry, me too.

She could barely carry the two heavy bags home. The container of orange juice snagged open one of the bags and she had to take it separately in one hand, so that when she got to the gate she had to put half of what she was carrying down on the ground. Fortunately, someone happened to be on their way out and let her in. Going up the back staircase she felt she was at the end of her tether, her only desire being to drop the bags and stretch out on the grey chequered blanket and watch the night sky through her dirty square of window. She unpacked by the door and started looking for her key.


Krisztina Tóth is one of Hungary’s most accomplished, popular, and respected writers and an outspoken public intellectual, engaged particularly with the struggle for women’s rights and the increasingly severe restrictions on cultural autonomy in Hungary. Her first collection, published at the age of 22, won the Radnóti prize, and she has since garnered a dozen or more major awards for her poetry, prose, and (often taboo-breaking) books for children. Her prose is as outstanding as her plays and poetry: she has helped to define the character of all these genres in contemporary Hungary. She is also a translator of French literature while being widely translated herself: 26 books in 15 languages. In English, some dozen short stories and a volume of prose (Pixel, translated by Owen Good, 2019) are available, while such distinguished poets as George Szirtes and the translator David Hill have published numerous acclaimed versions of her poems. A new play The Bat will shortly be published by Bloomsbury as part of a collection of “Difficult women and resistance dramatic voices” from contemporary Hungary.


Peter Sherwood studied Hungarian and linguistics at the University of London before being appointed, in 1972, to a lectureship in Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London). He taught there until 2007. From 2008 until his retirement in 2014 he was László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Peter received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic for contributions to Anglo-Hungarian relations in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011, the László Országh prize of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English in 2016, and the Árpád Tóth Prize for Translation in 2020.


This excerpt from BARCODE was published by permission of Jantar Publishing. Copyright © Krisztina Tóth, 2006. English translation copyright © Peter Sherwood, 2023.

Published on April 15, 2024.


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