Everyone knows what this is. The Answer to the Great Question. The Life, the Universe and Everything. The one found out by Deep Thought, the second largest computer of the universe of space and time in seven and half millions of years.

There was a moment’s expectant pause whilst panels slowly came to life on the front of the console. Lights flashed on and off experimentally and settled down into a businesslike pattern. A soft low hum came from the communication channel.
“Good morning,” said Deep Thought at last.
“Er… Good morning, O Deep Thought,” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have… er, that is…”
“An answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes. I have.”
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.
“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.
“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?”
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonquawl.
“I am.”
“Now,” said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
“Though I don’t think,” added Deep Thought, “that you’re going to like it.”
“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”
“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.
“Yes. Now…”
“Alright,” said the computer, and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
It was a long time before anyone spoke.
Out of the corner of his eye Phouchg could see the sea of tense expectant faces down in the square outside.
“We’re going to get lynched aren’t we?” he whispered.
“It was a tough assignment,” said Deep Thought mildly.
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

However, the recently published Goose Game seems to finally give us the correct interpretation of forty-two, and thus the key to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

I have recently edited for the Europe Publisher the Hungarian version of Il libro dei labirinti by Paolo Santarcangeli, published for the first time in the 1970s, but now published again with the author’s additions, new illustrations and a foreword by Umberto Eco.

This book looks back at the history of the labyrinth topos together with all its relations and dead ends. And when reaching the Renaissance, and discussing the relationship between the popular games of the period, including the turf maze and the “noble goose game”, number 42 suddenly flashes up just as the giant neon letters emerging from the dark space at the beginning of Hollywood movies:

“Due to its concentric circles, the goose game in itself has a labyrinth-like path; and if there exists any intentional and conscious representation of the “obstacle-ridden pilgrimage”, so that’s it. Besides its inherently labyrinthine nature, this game also has another surprising feature which is important for our topic. Square 42, which is considered a “dangerous” place in almost all versions of the game, is nothing else but “the house of the labyrinth”; what is more, the labyrinth is but the “trademark” of square 42."

But why exactly square number 42?

The goose game, the first European table game appeared in late 15th-century Florence, in the court of Lorenzo il Magnifico. This was also the laboratory of the first card game, which had a huge impact on the iconography of Renaissance art, quoted by me several times in the first critical edition of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593), the earliest encyclopedia of the symbol language of the Renaissance. Santarcangeli thus assumes that the number symbolism of the two games can be explained from each other.

The deck of Lorenzo il Magnifico consists of 42 numbered cards, each representing an allegory. Card number 21, ending the first half of the deck is a usual depiction of the world, the cosmos or Mother Nature in the form of a naked woman, with the globe under her foot, which also refers to her unstable and unpredictable nature. However, the image of the last card number 42 is not clear at first glance, so we have to turn to the interpretation of Santarcangeli:

“Card 42 represents a pilgrim on the brink of an abyss. He looks back in horror. Before him, but on the other side of the abyss, there is a castle. This symbolizes the man who encounters difficulties during his trip. This card also warns us not to let hesitation and obstruction stop us.”

Representation of both symbols in one emblem: “The Christian soul in the labyrinth of the world”.
Engraving by Boethius von Bolswart (1580-1634) in Hermann Hugo’s Pia desideria
, one of the most popular and most often published emblem books

The meaning of square 42 is thus the dangerous labyrinth of the world. That of card 42, its equivalent, is persistence on a given place, efforts for the really important things. And its value is exactly twice that of the unstable world. This is, then, the Life, the Universe and Everything, and the Answer matching it.

A more suitable one we cannot advise to our Readers for the new year, rich in struggles.

The photos were taken in the town of Santarcangelo di Romagna

Cuarenta y dos

Todo el mundo sabe a qué nos estamos refiriendo. Es la respuesta a la Gran Pregunta. La Vida, el Universo y Todo lo Demás. La que enunció Pensamiento Profundo, el segundo ordenador más grande del universo del espacio y del tiempo tras siete millones y medio de años de reflexión.

Hubo un momento de pausa expectante mientras los paneles de la parte delantera de la consola empezaban a despertarse lentamente. Comenzaron a encenderse y a apagarse luces de prueba que pronto funcionaron de modo continuo. Un canturreo leve y suave se oyó por el canal de comunicación.
- Buenos días –dijo al fin Pensamiento Profundo.
- Hmmm... Buenos días, Pensamiento Profundo –dijo nerviosamente Loonquawl–, ¿tienes... hmmm, es decir...
- ¿Una respuesta que daros? –le interrumpió Pensamiento Profundo en tono majestuoso–. Sí, la tengo.
Los dos hombres temblaron de expectación. Su espera no había sido en vano.

- ¿De veras existe? –jadeó Phouchg.
- Existe de veras –le confirmó Pensamiento Profundo.
- ¿A todo? ¿A la gran pregunta de la Vida, del Universo y de Todo?
- Sí.
Los dos hombres estaban listos para aquel momento, se habían preparado durante toda la vida; se les escogió al nacer para que presenciaran la respuesta, pero aun así jadeaban y se retorcían como criaturas nerviosas.
- ¿Y estás dispuesto a dárnosla? –le apremió Loonquawl.
- Lo estoy.
- ¿Ahora mismo?
- Ahora mismo –contesto Pensamiento Profundo.
Ambos se pasaron la lengua por los labios secos.
- Aunque no creo –añadió Pensamiento Profundo– que vaya a gustaros.
- ¡No importa! –exclamó Phouchg-. ¡Tenemos que saberla! ¡Ahora mismo!
- ¿Ahora mismo? –inquirió Pensamiento Profundo.
- ¡Sí! Ahora mismo...
- Muy bien –dijo el ordenador, volviendo a guardar silencio.
- ¡Del Universo...! –exclamó Loonquawl. Los dos hombres se agitaron inquietos. La tensión era insoportable.
- ¡Y de Todo...!
- En serio, no os va a gustar –observó Pensamiento Profundo.
- ¡Dínosla!
- De acuerdo –dijo Pensamiento Profundo-–. La Respuesta a la Gran Pregunta...
- ¡Sí...!
- de la Vida, del Universo y de Todo... –dijo Pensamiento Profundo.
- ¡Sí...!

- Es –dijo Pensamiento Profundo, haciendo una pausa.
- ¡Sí!
- Es...
- ¡¡¡ ¿Sí...? !!!
- Cuarenta y dos –dijo Pensamiento Profundo, con calma y majestad infinitas.
Pasó largo tiempo antes de que hablara alguien.
Con el rabillo del ojo, Phouchg veía los expectantes rostros de la gente que aguardaba en la plaza.
- Nos van a linchar, ¿verdad? –susurró.
- Era una misión difícil –dijo Pensamiento Profundo con voz suave.
- ¡Cuarenta y dos! –chilló Loonquawl–. ¿Eso es todo lo que tienes que decirnos después de siete millones y medio de años de trabajo?
- Lo he comprobado con mucho cuidado –manifestó el ordenador–, y ésa es exactamente la respuesta. Para ser franco con vosotros, creo que el problema consiste en que nunca habéis sabido realmente cuál era la pregunta.

Douglas Adams: Guía del autoestopista galáctico

Sin embargo, el juego de la oca del que hablamos hace un tiempo, finalmente parece darnos la interpretación correcta del cuarenta y dos y, por tanto, la clave de la Gran Pregunta de la Vida, el Universo y Todo lo demás.

Recientemente hemos editado para la Editorial Europa la versión húngara de Il Libro dei labirinti, de Paolo Santarcangeli, publicado por primera vez en la década de 1970, pero luego reeditado de nuevo con adiciones del autor, más ilustraciones y prólogo de Umberto Eco (en español, por la editorial Siruela, 1997).

Este libro repasa la historia del laberinto sin perdonar ninguna de sus ramificaciones y callejones sin salida. Y al llegar al Renacimiento y discutir la relación del tema con los juegos más populares de la época, incluyendo los turf-mazes ingleses (laberintos de hierba) y el «noble juego de la oca», de pronto el número 42 destella como el letrero gigante de neón que surge de la oscuridad al principio de una película de Hollywood:

Pues bien, hay un punto sobre el que nos gustaría llamar la atención. Por añadidura al aspecto ya «psíquicamente» laberíntico del juego, este posee una característica sorprendente para el tema que aquí nos ocupa: la casilla 42, considerada singularmente peligrosa en casi todas las versiones del juego, es la casa del laberinto; mejor dicho, por usar la debida fórmula técnica, el laberinto es «diseño de casa» en el número 42.

Pero por qué precisamente la casilla 42.

El juego de la oca, el primer juego de mesa europeo, apareció a finales del siglo XV en Florencia, en la corte de Lorenzo el Magnífico. Aquí estuvo también el origen del primer juego de cartas, con un gran impacto en la iconografía del Renacimiento, mencionado varias veces en la primera edición crítica (a cargo de Tamás Sajó) de la Iconología de Cesare Ripa (1593), la primera enciclopedia de la lengua simbólica del Renacimiento. Santarcangeli, así, supone que el simbolismo numérico de ambos juegos se explica mutuamente.

La baraja de Lorenzo el Magnífico se compone de 42 cartas numeradas, cada una representando una alegoría. El naipe número 21, donde termina la primera mitad de la baraja es una representación habitual del mundo, el cosmos o la madre naturaleza en forma de mujer desnuda, con el orbe bajo sus pies, cosa que también indica su naturaleza inestable e impredecible. Sin embargo, la imagen del último número de los naipes, el cuadragésimosegundo, a primera vista no es tan clara. Por ello acudimos a la interpretación de Santarcangeli. Dice,

... figura un paseante al borde de un precipicio. Vuelve la vista atrás porque está aterrorizado. Ante él, pero separado por el abismo, hay un castillo. Es el hombre que ha topado con las dificultades del camino. La carta advierte que no se ha de ceder a las vacilaciones y los titubeos.

Representación de ambos símbolos en un emblema: «El Alma Cristiana en el Laberinto del Mundo». Grabado
de Boethius von Bolswart  (1580-1634) en Pia Desideria de Hugo Hermann, (1624), 
uno de los libros de emblemas más populares y reeditados.

Así pues, el significado de la casilla 42 es el laberinto peligroso del mundo. El del naipe 42, su equivalente, es el de persistencia en un lugar determinado, esfuerzo por las cosas realmente importantes. Y su valor es exactamente el doble que el del mundo inestable. Esto es, entonces, la Vida, el Universo y Todo lo Demás, y la Respuesta que le corresponde.

No podríamos dar a nuestros lectores una respuesta más justa para este Año Nuevo que tantas luchas promete.

Las fotos proceden de la ciudad de Santarcangelo di Romagna

For a birthday

S. M. Karpov (1890-1929): The Soviet Union – the friendship of peoples

I have just noticed, as I went on my usual evening walk on the Russian net, that I have forgotten about a birthday again. On 30 December 1922 the Soviet Union was born. But I already have some experience in the matter, and I always have a reserve gift for such unexpected occasions, so I do not stand empty-handed in the middle of the general celebration.

On the Russian net they recall nostalgic memories with the coat of arms, flag and photos of the Soviet Union, which I do understand. I, however, reach back straight to the Soviet Union’s founding fathers. This little book was published in 1926, and it presents each member of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) with an icon-like portrait and a short poem to the Soviet children. Although each image is the portrait of a specific individual, his name is not disclosed to the child. It is me who add it to the prosaic translation of each poem, complemented with the duration of his office, as well as with the date and cause of his death. This latter makes the document much less nostalgic than the bulk of the festive posts, but in turn this makes it a faithful birth certificate of the fêted one, which also includes its hereditary and childhood diseases, thus suggesting why it deceased so young, albeit still much beyond the country’s male life expectancy which by then fell under 50 years of age.

Your people’s commissars are at home with you

Moscow: Oktyabrenok, 1926 (it had two editions, in 1925 and 1926; this is the latter, as the narkomtorg is Kamenev instead of Krasin, since November 1925)
Poems: N. Y. Agnivtsev. Illustrations: K. Yeliseev and K. Rotov

The book was banned from the 1930s until 1987.

Narkompros (нарком просвещения, people’s commissar for enlightenment)

He makes efforts so you do not stay stupid.

Anatoly Vasilevich Lunacharsky (1917-1929; after Stalin comes to power, he loses all his government positions, and dies in 1933 in France)

Narkomzdrav (нарком здравоохранения, people’s commissar for public health)

He is watching you at home and on the street so that you become healthy and no milksop

Nikolai Alexandrovich Semashko (11 July 1918 - 25 January 1930, dies in 1949 for natural causes)

Narkomzem (нарком земледелия, people’s commissar for agriculture)

He’s always fixed on one thought concerning your native land: to give your slice of bread to you every day.

Alexandr Petrovich Smirnov (July 1923 - 1928; executed on 9 February 1938)

Narkomtrud (нарком труда, people’s commissar for labor)

He is watching all the way lest any time, wherever and whenever you have any disadvantage at work!

Vasily Vladimirovich Shmidt (1918-1928; executed on 29 July 1938)

Narkompochtel (нарком почт и телеграфа, people’s commissar for post and telegraphs)

From Egypt to Siberia, whatever happens in any corner of the earth, wherever in the world, he tells you about everything!

Ivan Nikitich Smirnov (6 July 1923 - 12 November 1927; executed on 25 August 1936)

Narkomput (народный комиссар путей сообщения, people’s commissar for public transport)

He feels sorry for your feet, so he prefers to take you without effort and hurry on train or ship, wherever necessary!

Jan Ernestovich Rudzutak (2 February 1924 - 11 June 1930; executed on 29 July 1938)

Narkomindel (народный комиссар иностранных дел, people’s commissar for foreign affairs)

He talks non-stop from Moscow with all the world, so every country lives in peace with you.

Georgy Vasilevich Chicherin (1918-1930s; dies in 1936 for natural causes)

Narkomtorg (нарком внешней и внутренней торговли, people’s commissar for domestic and foreign trade)

Day and night he thinks about how to prevent your being cheated!

Lev Borisovich Kamenev (1926; executed on 25 August 1936)

Zamnarkomtorg (заместитель наркома внешней и внутренней торговли, deputy people’s commissar for domestic and foreign trade)

Until day is off, he strenuously buys you in foreign countries whatever you don’t have in the Soyuz.

Leonid Borisovich Krasin (6 July 1923 - 18 November 1925; dies in 1926 for natural causes in London)

Narkomvoen (нарком по военным и морским делам, people’s commissar for military and naval affairs)

Armed to the teeth, he’s watching very much so no enemy kills you on mountain or in valley, on land or on sea, or even from the clouds!

Mikhail Vasilevich Frunze (26 January 1925 - 31 October 1925; dies in 1925, probably poisoned)

Narkomfin (нарком финансов, people’s commissar for finances)

He is good friends with the ruble and with each kopeek, so you can fill your pockets with silver.

Grigory Yakovlevich Sokolnikov (6 July 1923 - 16 January 1926; dies in 1939, according to the official version killed by his cellmates)

Narkomyust (нарком юстиции, people’s commissar for justice)

In the wide country he looks everybody in the eye so nobody hurts you and of course you don’t hurt anybody.

Dmitry Ivanovich Kursky (1918-1928; suicide in 1932)

Predsovnarkom (председатель Совета Народных Комиссаров, vice president of the Council of People’s Commissars)

He’s here and heʻs there, he has much to do, he moves everyone so you can live better!

Alexei Ivanovich Rykov (2 February 1924 - 19 December 1930; executed on 15 March 1938)

Vsesoyuzny starosta (All-Soviet President, Chairman of the Central Executive Committee)

If you are concerned of something, do not give much thought, go to Kalinin at once and ask for an advice! That’s why heʻs the “head”!

Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (30 December 1922 - 12 January 1938; dies in 1946 for natural causes)

Messina, 1908

Hundred and three years ago, on 28 December 1908 the most powerful ever recorded earthquake in Europe shook the city of Messina in Sicily, and within minutes a twelve-meter tsunami swept across the coast. Almost every building of the city collapsed, burying seventy thousand people under themselves.

Messina is located on the shore of the strait separating Sicily from the Italian peninsula, opposite the city of Reggio Calabria. The two cities of Greek foundation were the ancient Scylla and Charybdis known from the Odyssey, between which either the vortex of the latter sucked in the boats, or the former decimated the sailors. Messina once before had played a tragic role in European history: from its port spread in 1348 to all Europe the Black Death which in two years killed half the population of the continent. A century before the 1908 disaster, in 1783 already a major earthquake shook the city, but this warning was not successful: Messina was rebuilt with elegant, but not earthquake-resistent buildings, with weak foundations and heavy roofs.

On vintage photos we often see the members of the Italian, British, and even American navy who arrived to Messina in the week after the disaster to help the survivors. It is not widely known, however, that in the ruined city for several days it was only the Russian navy who rescued the survivors from under the ruins, provided for the wounded, extinguished the fire following the earthquake, and transported to safer regions those who lost all their property. In fact, four cruisers of the Imperial fleet – the Tsesarevich, Slava, Admiral Makarov and Bogatyr – during their Mediterranean voyage, with the cadets of the St. Petersburg naval academy on board, anchored just a day earlier to the south of the city, in the harbor of Augusta. Their commander, Admiral V. Litvinov on hearing the news asked in telegram the Russian Maritime Ministry for permission to participate in the rescue. In the course of this even an armed struggle took place. The nearly eight hundred criminals who escaped from the collapsed prisons began to plunder the city, but the Russian cadets successfully applied their newly acquired military training against the forces outnumbering them.

Italian king Victor Emmanuel arriving soon to the city personally thanked for the help of the Russian navy, and then in telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. In the following year Messina became the twin city of St. Petersburg, and this relationship has survived all the vicissitudes of the century. The anniversary is regularly remembered on the Italian and Russian net as well, where I collected the archive photos. And the documentary below was broadcasted some months ago on the Petersburg television channel of the Orthodox Solunsky Foundation.

A postcard with the photo of the surviving postmen of Messina, issued to support the rebuilding;
international aid stamps with Russian, German and Hungarian denominations;
and the royal award bestowed on the Russian, British and
American navy participating in the rescue

Night blue

I got this simple little book printed on foldout cardboard from my mother at the age of three, and I was very impressed. The deep colors reaching into each other led towards deep secrets, and the mixture of unknown and quite familiar elements rendered natural the passage between the world of home and that of books. Of course I have been able to formulate this only decades later; at that time I just gratefully absorbed text and image alike. One becomes a reader well before the knowledge of letters.

I have no copy of the first edition, but the number of copies of the second and third edition of 1974 and 1980 – 57 800 and 70 000, respectively – suggest that many other children may have read it. It is strange how many ugly editions of this same Lullaby were published after this really well-shaped one.

Nowadays, when I sometimes see it in a second-hand bookshop, I buy it for a gift.

The Lullaby is known by most kindergarten-age children, as the author of the little poem was Attila József, one of the most important Hungarian poets. (The twentieth century otherwise abounds in most important Hungarian poets.) The drawings are by Ádám Würtz. It has a number of English translations (1, 2, with a glossary); the one you can read when moving the mouse over the Hungarian verses is by Edwin Morgan. Here you can also listen to a famous sung version of it by Zsuzsa Koncz, one of the most popular singers of the same period, the 70s and 80s.

Attila József: Lullaby, music and song: Zsuzsa Koncz