In the early nineteen-forties, the scientists working on the Manhattan Project had a running joke with the Hungarians in their midst. This was the joke: the Hungarians – who included Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd, Theodore von Kármán and John von Neumann – must in fact be Martians. Didn’t they speak a logical language far removed from any other? They did: Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, with very few close relations (as Johnny remarks in ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, nobody talks this way). Didn’t they rove far and wide, like extra-terrestrial gypsies? They did. And weren’t they just, well, a whole lot smarter than us mere earthlings? The brilliant von Neumann, in particular, was said to be an alien “who had made a thorough, detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly”.
The Hungarians took this joshing in good part – especially Edward Teller, who on hearing the ‘rumour’, muttered: “Von Kármán must’ve talked…”
This was the genesis of my story ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ (also in the mix was the legendary mathematician Paul Erdös, the absent-minded genius at the heart of Paul Hoffman’s awesome book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (Fourth Estate, 1999) – Erdös was also Hungarian).
‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ is based on the premise that someone might take the Martian-Hungarian myth seriously.
This would have to be someone unworldly and relatively uneducated. And it would have to be someone who very badly wanted to believe that a fish-faced, gibberish-spouting little man they find lying in the street is, in fact, a man from Mars.
Fortunately, I knew just the people.
My novel Tom Quays is unpublished. It earned me a free lunch courtesy of Transworld a while back, but, since then, no dice. It’s set – or, rather, partly set – in Manhattan, in 1925. It’s about Tomas Quís, a.k.a. Tom Quays, who grows up to be a writer; it’s also about Jesca ‘Yes’ Möller, who grows up to be incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Both earn a mention in ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’: Jesca is the older sister of Anna, the narrator; Tom is mentioned so as to illustrate how, according to Anna, “around here no one calls anyone by their right name”.
Anna and Johnny (and their Martian) slotted easily into this ready-made milieu. It’s a place of hustles and rackets. It’s also a place of dreams.‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ is about – well, it’s about lots of things. I’m not the sort of writer who ever sets out to Say Something. I write stories; it’s the stories that should say something, and exactly what that something is is often not for me to say. To me, this story talks about aspiration and escape; about alienation and immigration (the characters are all of European stock: German, Italian, Irish, and of course Hungarian). Perhaps most of all it seems to be about imagination.
“They find the smartest guy in Europe just sitting in the street,” Anna laments, “and the best thing they can think to do with him is put him in a booth at goddamn Coney Island.”
Anna, I think, will make it out of midtown Manhattan, some day. I don’t think Johnny will. The reason why? Imagination.
— Richard Smyth
You can also download free previews of the book (or buy it for just £1.99 during our sale) on Amazon for Kindle or iTunes for iPad / iPhone. Richard Smyth has also written a book about the history of toilet paper: Bum Fodder is in all good bookshops now.