Review – 25th November, 2016

The dramatic tedium of being ill

Review of Péter Esterházy's Pancreatic Journal

Review–25th November, 2016


Review of Péter Esterházy's Pancreatic Journal

Are they composed confessions meant for publication, or extremely personal, intimate details from a famous writer suffering from a fatal disease? It matters whether we’re receivers or voyeurs in this story. - A review of the late Péter Esterházy's Pancreatic Journal by Kinga Forgách

It’s difficult to get started writing about Pancreatic Journal ('Hasnyálmirigynapló’). Esterházy it “easy” with the first word: cancer. But is it even worthwhile critiquing a journal like this, and can we even call a book published by a writer – initially not intended for publication, but eventually edited nonetheless – a journal? Journal or literary work? Treading a narrow path, tacking into the wind, playing with the reader. “Attention, attention! Problems of genre in the jaws of death!” Who knows whether or not we can believe Esterhàzy’s last entries, which would suggest he hadn’t initially meant the texts to be published: “a book will come of these texts nonetheless”. But it’s as though the book depends on this. Are they composed confessions meant for publication or extremely personal, intimate details from a famous writer suffering from a fatal disease? It matters whether we’re receivers or voyeurs in this story. It matters whether they’re the author’s words or the narrator’s. “Then years later it turns out he’s secretly not writing a journal, he’s writing short stories. You say, cheerio, and he’s off, gone.”

Given it's a journal of sorts, the regular, short daily entries organised by date act as though that’s exactly what it was. Then at times the writings lean towards literature, grow into standalone texts, then return to the reality of the everyday, and the tedium. We don’t normally think of an illness – especially when it’s fatal – as tedious. We think it to be a dramatic, frustrating and out of the ordinary experience, until we get accustomed. The ever-narrowing scope for action, the endless treatments and the foreseeable reactions of those around you dash the hope of enduring the tragedy, and what remains is your cohabitation with the disease, soon to become daily routine. Hence the ‘Pancreatic Journal’ is an Esterházyesque, intellectual, playful and thought-provoking text, yet dutifully and reflectively boring. “Will the heaping lumps of tedium produce something else? Something fateful? The inevitable end, comprised of little meaningless parts, blood samples, minor pains, reducing bowel movements, hospital smell, waiting, irritation, tension, fatigue, grumpiness, shrillness, veins?”

The bulk of the entries comprise of what the writer ate, how much he slept, what kinds of symptoms he had, how many times he’d been to the hospital in the past year; these offset the daily monotony. Meanwhile time stops and accelerates; hollow, empty, slow hours and days fly past with no real happenings. “Individual moments lose their depth – they haven’t become worthless, but flat and void of meaning. Moreover: if you turn out to be incurably ill, then time becomes confused, perhaps even worthless and banal.” The time oozing away and the tedium are caused by being trapped in one’s body, locked in with cancer, paired with the realization (and impalpability) of one’s own end.

Pancreatic cancer is present even when it’s not, or when it gives no sign of its existence, it’s lurks in the body and more so in the mind. Through personifying cancer Esterhazy tries to make friends with the disease, he even goes a step further and cultivates an erotic relationship with it. “So, let’s say Pancreatty’s some hot girl. Sure, but still no. She’d be pretty tall, over 5’6”, in high heels that’s already something. How would she curl up inside me?” The pet names, the intimacy and the absurd sexual desire flow into cheesiness, maybe because of the anger or the helplessness. Often these smutty remarks are without function and pointless, as though purely to exploit the freedom of the journal. The pancreatic cancer is like some fuckable young thing. “My sweetie pie, my Pancreatty or whatever your name is, can you really suck me from the inside?”

Can we enjoy being aware of our own ill health? Perhaps this very close, sexual relationship cultivated with Pancreatty reflects on this question. The psychology of diseases is a complex science, but it’s thought-provoking to lay-readers as to what kind of mental background cancer has and what kind of benefit could be gained from the disease. In Esterházy’s case it’s as if he regards cancer with excitement, with irony and with a desire for drama rather than with fear. As time passes, the attitude changes. “11 hours and 20 minutes, drip by drip. The first is done. Somehow I’ve lost all interest in the whole thing.”

Of course the journal isn’t finished, but discontinued (luckily). The entries last from 24 May 2015 until 2 March 2016. But in the middle of Esterházy’s quarrels with the Lord a more dramatic denouement still occurs to him, something more apt from an author’s perspective. “It bothers me for example that the ‘quality’ of this text depends on its writer’s life expectancy. What a sentence that is. Once again: so it doesn’t have any pull, unless I’m carried off by my sweetie pie. Unless I’m already far away when you, dear reader, read this. What an unfair advantage to work with. Even my death becomes a kind of coquettish notion.”


Photo: Gábor Valuska

Kinga Forgách

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