Hungarian Sprats

Camilla Grudova

On his first voyage to Europe, Baron Dambski had lost his monogrammed leather luggage and all it contained. He was not a Baron, just as his younger brother was not a Count, and his older brother not a Prince, but those were the first names their wealthy industrialist father had given them. His monogram was an intertwined B and D contained in a diamond shape.

Many of his belongings, including the lost suitcases, were made in Europe. The movement of products back and forth over the oceans gave him a great feeling of anxiety, and every night since the loss of his luggage, he had dreamt of being on a sinking ship stuffed with delicious, alluring things, not knowing what to save. The dream ended with him floating on an Italian Mannerist painting of a long-necked woman, surrounded by whales and octopuses laughing at him.

The humiliating loss of his possessions and his beloved luggage prevented him from returning to Europe, though he longed for it. One morning, while struggling to open a can of oysters, he hurt his hand with his golden can opener. “Impossible to open without great strain!” he said to himself, and called one of his servants who managed, with some effort, and the bleeding of his fingers, to open the can with a large knife. “How safe my possessions would be from thieves if they were in a can!” Baron exclaimed.

The canning factory he approached with his idea, the Hungarian Food Company Inc., was owned by a friend of his father. The owner was not Hungarian and nor were his products, but he wanted to evoke the glory of Budapest and the confusion people often had between Hungary and hungry. Behind his desk was a poster of a can with a label depicting a globe on it. Above the can were the words

c a n t h e w h o l e wo r l d

The factory canned: asparagus, turtles, mushrooms, water chestnuts, clams, peas, herrings, sardines, snails, peaches, oysters, ham, anchovies, tuna, eggplant, salmon, white beans, mussels, caviar, pearl onions, pears, rice wrapped in grape leaves, gherkins, pigeon, peppers, bamboo shoots, octopus, pineapple, crab, artichoke hearts, pig hearts, calf hearts, chicken hearts, beets, beef, sausages, apples, duck, corn, livers, carrots, pineapple,­ soups of all kinds, custard, goat meat, mutton.

Canning whole calves and turkeys proved to be disastrous, as the meat was too large, the can too big for everything to be cooked and preserved. Canning a whole chicken or a whole piglet in jelly proved very successful.

The owner of the Hungarian Food Company Inc. wanted to move beyond food, to take in all the world’s chaos, and to spit it out again in uniform shapes. He created a line of novelty toy cans with jack-in-the-box-like spring clowns inside of them instead of food, sold in joke stores.

Perhaps Baron’s idea could catch on. Secure and discreet luggage, secretive storage—no thief would steal a dented can of sprats, would they? Thus all of Baron’s possessions were canned in sizes ranging up to five pounds, and for extra security, labeled “sprats.” Out of vanity, Baron had a well-known graphic artist design a label in the style fashionable at the time, a nude faun grappling with a fish.

In his enthusiasm he did not think that he would need anything on the long voyage itself, his cans packed below deck. His beard grew long, he did not take his fur coat off, and he was rumored to be an exotic animal from Central America on its way to a European zoo. Baron’s servant, Otto, had in his modest pigskin suitcase the following: a package of dried apricots, three pairs of underpants, the complete short stories of Tolstoy, a can opener, a razorblade, an extra pair of trousers, a pair of grey socks, and an Italian dictionary. Baron was too proud to borrow the razor or underpants. His clothes were sent to the ship’s laundry facilities daily, and as they were being cleaned, he wandered the ship with his fur coat held firmly shut.

Otto spent the voyage in dreadful anticipation of having to utilize the can opener hundreds of times under Baron’s gaze in the suite of a London hotel. Baron planned to have his possessions recanned before heading to the continent, and again before heading home. The canning factory in his home country had factory contacts all over Europe, cousins of his—they would discreetly and securely bring his possessions to their factories, where they already had the labels made. Baron had paid them in advance. The Hungarian Food Company Inc. had contacts all over Europe and Baron had limitless pockets.

Baron waited at his hotel. His metallic luggage, packed in boxes, did not arrive. Instead, through some miscommunication, the boxes of “sprats” were brought to a warehouse, and from there distributed all over Europe for consumption.

Baron thought to take out newspaper ads calling for the return of all cans, but Otto advised him against it considering the many discreet items within. All over Europe, people opened cans, expecting to find fish, but instead finding the follow-ing: a single hanky, a container of licorice-flavored lozenges, silver shirt cuffs, a pocket English-German dictionary, a pocket Polish-Italian dictionary, a pair of opera glasses, silk underpants, a pipe, a set of erotic cards depicting women with exotic animals (lion, elephant, etc.), a single shoe, a tangle of black suspenders which the opener first thought were eels, a box of lambskin condoms, reading spectacles, small golden scissors shaped like a heron, large silver scissors, an eighteenth-century Harlequin figurine, a maroon celluloid dildo, twenty white dress shirts, all in their own cans, which resembled ghosts when pulled out, causing at least five nervous attacks and one death, a bottle of hair oil, a shoe horn, a glass bottle shaped like a coiled snake full of an amber-smelling cologne, tweezers, a toy hippo made out of leather, an umbrella, six fountain pens, cream-colored envelopes tied together with ribbon, sixty sheets of Italian marbled paper, eighty sheets of plain cream paper, a paper knife, a stamp container, a silver and lacquer cigarette case, an ivory ashtray shaped like a swan, a comb, a large silver-backed brush, a small silver-backed brush, a hand mirror, an empty powder jar, a powder puff, a pair of black silk socks (a hundred cans), a pair of mustard-colored socks, a pair of white socks, a pair of blue socks, a pair of salmon-pink socks, a red rubber and brass enema syringe, a pot of anise-flavored toothpaste, a cane that folded into three parts, a sewing kit, a tin of buttons, including ivory buttons, gold buttons and black satin-covered buttons, a retractable gold and ivory back-scratcher in the shape of a dainty hand, a cream waistcoat, a black waistcoat (six cans of each), one pinstripe waistcoat, a black jacket (there were twelve such cans), one tweed jacket, one pinstripe jacket, a pair of black trousers (there were thirty cans of trousers altogether), a pair of pinstripe trousers, a pair of tweed trousers, a soap box with a bar of purple soap inside, a manicure set, a gold matchbox, a pair of black finished binoculars, an oriental silk robe, a pair of white gloves, a pair of brown gloves, a pair of grey gloves, a pair of black gloves, a glove stretcher, a toothbrush in a silver case, a corkscrew, a stiff-bristled clothes brush, a curling iron, an ivory and gilded metal snuff box, a map of Europe, a guide to hotels in London, a hat made out of beaver, a shaving kit, six white bowties, seven black bowties, a paisley bowtie, a red bowtie, an oyster fork, a green wooden mask from Central America with a spider on its nose—the spiders’ legs spreading out across the cheeks like a moustache, the mask was too small for the wide face of Baron so it was purely decorative—a lacquered fold-out shaving mirror, a copper percolator, shoe polish, a beige rubber ball, a ragged topsy-turvy doll, one half with white skin, the other with black, a pistol, a striped knitted cotton swim-suit, a leather-bound edition of The Diary of Countess Françoise Krasinska, written in the final years of the reign of King Augustus by Klementyna Hoffmanowa, a mahogany stereoscope fitted with a double image of a ballerina, a polished circle of amber with an insect inside, a small table clock, a silver pocket watch, a yellow towel, a green wool blanket, a single slipper (there were six such cans), a magnifying glass, a small rose-colored pillow, a taxidermied black North American squirrel, a watercolor paint set, twenty smallcut squares of watercolor paper, a small black leather notebook with thick paper, a pair of leather and canvas sports boots, a bowler hat, a trilby hat, a straw boater hat, a white cotton vest, a pair of leather mules, a jumper with horn buttons, a black overcoat with a beige fur lining, a dinner jacket (fifteen cans altogether, two per can), a knitted jumper, a peaked cap, a pair of leather sandals, purple silk pajamas, green silk pajamas, yellow silk pajamas, a large cotton nightgown, a bottle of iron tablets, eighteen tie pins and, finally, a tin of oysters, of a much higher grade than those produced by the Hungarian Food Company Inc.

Baron was able to recover: a photograph of himself as a boy dressed as a peasant, a glass bottle of witch-hazel, a Vienna bronze bear whose stomach contained a compartment holding digestive tablets he had bought in preparation for the gastric novelties of European restaurants, and an extremely delicate and realistic cupid made out of colored beeswax in a glass, coffin-shaped box. He returned home with each remaining possession taped to his chest underneath his fur coat, and never left again.

Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto. She holds a degree in art history and German from McGill University, Montreal. Her fiction has appeared in the White Review and Granta.

“Hungarian Sprats” is reprinted by permission from The Doll’s Alphabet, published by Coffee House Press in the US, Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coach House Books in Canada, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Camilla Grudova.