Review – 18th July, 2008

The shadow of a father

Péter Esterházy: Revised Edition

Review–18th July, 2008


Few works of literature have raised such a storm and caused such reverberations going way beyond their literary relevance as Esterházy’s Revised Edition. One of the greatest confessions of the age, the book recounts the story of the author finding out that his father had been an informer.

Although during the years of the transition many critics were expecting that a hoard of secret manuscripts would suddenly pour out of authors’ desk drawers after years and years waiting for happier times to come, it soon transpired that the masterpieces were not forthcoming. Esterházy’s book is certainly among the most valuable documents of the transition years and of the transition itself. In the following analysis the main focus is on the poetical characteristics, merits and difficulties of the work rather than its quasi-external historical-political context, even though, to be sure, the latter cannot be left out of consideration either.

Revised Edition was published in 2002, shortly after Celestial Harmoniesand this latter magnum opus provides the broader context for Revised Edition. In the centre of Celestial Harmonies Esterházy placed a figure he terms ‘my father’, fully exploiting both the pseudo-realistic and the metaphoric potentials of the term. An important milestone, this novel, written over nine years, opened a new epoch in Esterházy’s writing after he had concluded the cycle summarily referred to as Introduction to Literature, created little by little over the 1980’s and forged into one grand structure at the end of the decade. In Celestial Harmonies Esterházy deployed, and at the same time superseded, the full arsenal he had developed in reconstructing Hungarian prose – post-modernist poetical devices polished to the absolute, relying chiefly on inter- and para-textuality. In the first part of the novel the signifier ‘my father’ has a relevance in every situation, testifying to a language which is omnipotent yet ironic, frivolous and yet of sacred power. In the anecdotal second part, however, woven through and through with auto-biographic reference and citations from other works, ‘my father’ is a flesh-and-blood creature unfolding before us in his historical embeddedness. In the interplay of the two parts there pulses a dynamic of permanent echoes, of deconstruction and reconstruction, adding up to a cosmic and panoramic tableau of the age, while the encyclopaedic aspirations of European thinking are built up and demolished before our very eyes.

In Revised Edition the main thread is still the figure of the father. But this time we are not seeing a literary trick: reality, which Esterházy had always treated so ironically, becomes the main character of the novel. The plotline is ‘simple.’ Driven by curiosity plain and simple, the author, entitled as any other Hungarian citizen so to do, is searching in the archives of the Hungarian State Security for reports possibly written about him. Upon receiving him, the director of the archives explains that besides the reports written about him they have found some documents which are far more sensitive and may affect Esterházy more closely. These documents are none other than files comprising the work that his father, the late Mátyás Esterházy had done as an informer. Revised Edition starts in the moments just before and just after the author receives the documents in question. This time Esterházy, clearly much impacted by the experience, opts for linear narration – that of reading and commenting on reports made by his father. He copies entire sections from the reports, returns to some crucial sections, inserts the list of persons executed at the time of the report written during the retaliations following the 1956 revolution and quotes sentences from Celestial Harmonies which juxtapose the father figure, the grandiose aristocrat there with the character who transpires from these documents, not unlike a skeleton falling out of the family cupboard.
"To be sure, this journal reflects on the state of mind of its writer, as well as on the conditions under which it was written and, more generally, on the emergence of this shameful secret," as critic András Kardos notes. Yes; and thus Esterházy’s novel is, in the first approach, indubitably a gesture this side of literature, one where ethics precedes the poetical approach. The book is a dramatic play of condemnation and forgiveness, with the former usually gaining the upper hand. Esterházy goes so far as to suggest that the crucial event that happened once and is re-happening now determines everything. "Along with my father I am losing my language. A neat thought, pure coquetterie. Not to mention the fact that I am not losing my father – he is there; he is the one who is there. It is not even a new father – after all, I have claimed so many times in speech and writing alike that I don’t know him, we don’t know him. So there you go! I still don’t know him any better. Not that I believe he might have been able to supply any information… It is not my language I am losing but my name – now, I really am losing that."
It is exactly in this sense that Revised Edition posited a poetic challenge to Esterházy. It surpassed Esterházy’s possibilities to give a literary rendering to a shocking fact (now also a literary fact), namely that Mátyás Esterházy had been an informer. The reason may have been that he found himself in a situation which defeats linguistic erudition. Esterházy had always been known to have a proclivity to tease life, to mock it and turn it inside out with what he called 'ontological cheerfulness.’ Now life suddenly took the pen out of his hand and went on writing the story. To be sure, the author does not fail to reflect on this previously unknown, rather impossible status. He simply reports that the conversation between father and son has ceased. What emerges is an indictment by an author who is a son and who has been left all alone while, beyond doubt, we see the birth of one of the greatest confessions of the age.
A paradoxical inclusion within the Esterházy oeuvre: while ever since the very beginning of his career Esterházy had been committed to an ultimately free use of borrowed texts, quoting anyone at any time with perfect timing and the precision of an engineer, merging with his text sentences and entire paragraphs from other people’s writing in a truly inventive fashion, the borrowed texts in Revised Edition were not written by a literary author. Esterházy’s text falls captive to the informer’s reports written by his father – these write a novel which is a startlingly faithful reflection of the shallow and petty everyday life of the Kádár era and which at the same time offers an entire gallery of lives that are miserable, broken and humiliated, lives under multiple inspection. History whose anti-fiction is the spirit of fiction. Haunting.
Previously on HLO
Péter Esterházy: a portrait
Esterházy Péter: Javított kiadás
Budapest: Magvető, 2002

Lajos Jánossy

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