06. 30. 2004. 10:01

Celestial Harmonies (Excerpts)

Péter Esterházy

"But the worst of all was the silver cutlery, the fact that we ate with the silver cutlery every day, not only on Sunday or holidays. 'Why?' 'Because we haven't got anything else,' our father grinned. Our mother shook her head. The weight of the silver got imbedded in our hands. When we were invited somewhere, or at school, our hands could hardly switch to aluminum."

Péter Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies, a novel about the Esterházy family, which has played a very important role in Hungarian history throughout the centuries, and especially about the writer's father - a wealthy aristocrat impoverished during the Communist regime -, was published in English recently. Below are some excerpts from the second part of the novel, recounting episodes of the Esterházy family's life during the "forcible resettlement" to the countryside during the 50s, about the transposition of their aristocratic eating habits and table manners into the world of the Communist era and about the young Esterházy's experiences in the Hungarian People's Army.                                                                

113.

We felt that there was a mystery behind our attitude to poverty, that something was not right. For all practical purposes - this is how we saw it - we  were poor, and our clothes shabby. (For years we thought that children's clothes were used to begin with, that there's no such thing as new clothes). We didn't go on vacation, the rugs were threadbare, meat was a rarety, and chicken rarer still - but we never thought of this. But no, that's not how it was. We didn't even see this poverty. For one thing, they hid it from us, our mother hid it from us, and for another, we had everything we needed, which must have meant that what we had we looked upon as everything. Our father did not concern himself with it, we were not aware of it, while the balance was provided by our mother who would not have liked the moral whatnot that comes with poverty go to waste. If she's working like a beast of burden, people should at least feel sorry for her. Or possibly, she wanted even less: since she's working like a beast of burden, at least. If.

Still, there were indications that in practice this poverty was resting on shaky foundations. The cooking, for instance! It was poor, but how poor! Let's not beat about the bush. Our mother remained a slave to hors-d'oeuvres, even in our forced resettlement. Of course, we denied this hors-d'oeuvre business in front of our classmates. Why get involved in hopeless explanations? Green peppers or tomatoes stuffed with cottage cheese and dill, or just a boiled onion with mayonnaise, canned liver paté tuned up with sour cream and thyme - something. For the sake of appearances. Our mother could make something out of almost nothing. No, not just something, but something beautiful. In every sphere of life she was at war with anything ugly, anything that lacked shape. Hard semolina pudding from goat's milk and grits, which she then flattened out, baked, cut into rounds, then she stacked them up with jam between the layers. This was the Tower of Babel. We could talk to our heart's delight then, partly pure nonsense, partly gibberish (obvious wisdom). Duck sans orange. Who wants more sansorange? (Déclassé humor.) In short, hors d'oeuvres and dolce. La dolce vita.

"A little dolce? Pur la bon buss."

This double sentence was always forthcoming, as if we had to choose.

But there was no denying the tomato juice with pepper, nutmeg, ginger and ground orange peel, when available. We loved it. Our friends make faces and pushed the plate away.

"You're putting on airs!"

When it came to food, there might have been a touch of the précieux in us. We were proud of our taste buds.

Still, from time to time we reproached our mother for cooking too much like a lady. I'd be hard put to say what we meant by this. Maybe that in our home the potato soup was not as nice and greasy, and there were no big chunks of onion swimming in it like in other homes. It was pale, with sour cream. R la française, our mother said. She made us onion soup, too. And to go with the meat - we didn't see this anywhere else either - a bit of something sweet, for contrast, baked fruit, or her legendary sauce piquant made with common mustard and just as common jam.

But the worst of all was the silver cutlery, the fact that we ate with the silver cutlery every day, not only on Sunday or holidays.

"Why?"

"Because we haven't got anything else," our father grinned. Our mother shook her head. The weight of the silver got imbedded in our hands. When we were invited somewhere, or at school, our hands could hardly switch to aluminum.

"What's the matter, can't you eat properly?" A too light hand is hasty and helter-skelter, it spills things, it makes you eat like a pig. We didn't say anything. But later we were caught red handed. It happened at the swimming pool. We would've been caught red handed even without the silver cutlery.

We spent most of the summer at the pool across from our house. We went in the morning and stayed until it closed. We could've had something from the buffet, but that's expensive, or we could've taken bread with us, like we took to school, with butter and green pepper slices, and at times we did, each wrapped separately in a napkin. But come noon, it had to be a hot meal. If at all possible, we ate at noon, this is what we brought with us from our compulsory resettlement and the village - church bell, lunch, century after century. In short, at noon we dropped whatever we were doing - soccer, swimming, flirting - and headed for the fence, where our mother was waiting with the food can, because one must eat, and one must eat regularly, and do justice to the meal. Accordingly, one of the food compartments held napkins and the only cutlery we had at home, that certain ancestral cutlery. There we sat side by side, knife of silver, fork of silver - which looked even more bizarre among the half-naked bodies - Bless these Thy gifts, most gracious God, from whom all goodness springs, make clean our hearts and feed our souls with good and joyful things. And there stood our friends around us, disdainfully watching our green bean salad (!) with dill.

These lunches did not help our assimilation with the working class.


                                                                    148.

  My name didn't interfere (much) with my life. It made its presence felt, but it didn't bully me, and it didn't blind me. On the other hand, it was great for anecdotes.

For instance, once on the bus they turned on me because in the big (profane) crowd, I was making squeamish faces, silently hating the whole thing, and also, somebody stepped on my foot - if I don't like it, why don't I take a cab - at which I continued my affected ways, at which that certain sentence came, why am I so squeamish, who do I think I am, the Prince?, and here followed the name, "my father's fine name". I had just received my first ID papers. I shoved it under the man's nose. (I didn't feel like launching into the distinction between a prince and a count.) He read it syllable by syllable. Basically, he couldn't believe his eyes. He shrugged. The thing had no effect on him, he just stopped talking.

In those days, when asked if I was related, I said no, I'm not related, I am them. I didn't say it with pride or arrogance (although it must have sounded that way); I said it matter-of-factly, I am not related to my family, I am part of my family, I am one of them, I'm them.

But mostly I answered in haste, which confused them, and they just fell (hastily) silent; it would have indeed been simpler to take a cab - or a hansom.


                                                                    149.

It (my name) acted up only in the army. There was a different time reckoning in the barracks; specifically, the times were different, younger by fifteen or twenty years. In this way, I hat a chance to experience first hand what it must have been like to live with my name in a real dictatorship. (Lousy.) Like the Man from Mars, that's how they stared at me; as for me, I wasn't afraid yet, because I didn't know I should be. (Not true. I knew perfectly well, except I kept forgetting; I was scared, then forgot, I was scared, then forgot; that's dictatorship, I was scared and I forgot. I sinned against one of the Commandments by being afraid and then forgetting. I was afraid on my own, no witnesses, which made it easier to forget that I was afraid.) I was plunged into this thing after high school graduation, with no safety net.

"Well, Count," said the young army doctor amicably, "I see you got only one prick, like the rest of us mortals."

"Indeed, I do, sir," I said, the reserved yet cooperative scion of the house, in my best English, nodding and raising my balls with the tact of a soccer pro, "but I got two balls!"

The doctor shot me a look, his boyish face pink and gleaming as if he'd also just graduated, his bushy, black eyebrows drawing together, lending a certain severity to his face, said severity being offset by his perpetual girlish smile. When I got dressed, he waved me over.

"You mind if I call you by your first name?" I was on my guard. What was he getting at? "My mother is a Nádasdy!" he announced in a semi-whisper, grabbing my elbow on both sides. What he said must have been very important, both proof and disclosure. I listened with animosity. I seemed to recall that the Nádasdys were related, but for one thing, who wasn't related, and for another, that certain ancient Ferenc Nádasdy had perfidiously stabbed us in the back, hadn't he? Playing the relative to our face, he got our Aunt Júlia for his wife, then when we were in dire straits, tried to get his hands on our estates. Of course, he was later duly beheaded, and then we got his estates. Oh, beloved relative of mine, what a pleasure to meet you!

The young doctor spoke in an excited whisper. Do I know what the army is all about? I mustn't go thinking it's to defend the nation, tra-la-la, tra-la-la (??), or... and here he lowered his voice even further... the socialist camp. Give me the "my mother is a Nádasdy" approach any time!

"Intehr-nah-tionahl-ism," he whispered with the same drawn-out ah Mami used when she said tahxi, take a tahxi. He laughed. "Just one thing counts. You. Or us, the young people, to bring us to our knees, to teach us who - and he lowered his voice further still - is the boss."

Then he held forth in a whisper about the nature of dictatorship and fear, that a dictatorship is scared, too, but that just makes things worse for us underlings. A dictatorship should walk around with head held high and not prowling like this, like the one here. I couldn't make heads or tails out of what he was getting at. Whose prowling where with head held high? I saw a Nádasdy girl in the mind's eye, her hair let down, galloping like Lady Godiva o'er the misty plain in the wake of a prowling dictatorship.

"Watch yourself, old boy," the doctor, who was still in transition between boy and man, said, gently sliding his hand down my arm, his palm silky-smooth, like Aunt Mia's, then embarrassed, trying to annul the gesture. I didn't understand a word of what he was saying, and I couldn't have cared less. But later, if I felt I was riding a high horse (not the Nádasdy girl's), if I felt that I was acting too much on my inclinations, I recalled this strange, grownup boy's shy warning: watch yourself, old boy.

                                                            150.


 There were more than enough people watching me to begin with. Gyula Szabó and I made a pair on two iron beds pushed up against each other. He was an easy going village boy studying to be a math and physics teacher, bony with a strong physique, a blond crew cut, a girlish, turned-up nose, but rough, pitted, pock-marked skin, daring yet cautious; he carried out his orders without griping, he had what most of us adolescent adults, who were dreaming of a bright future (college without admittance exams!) lacked, a sense of seriousness. Nobody fucked with him, not even the meanest officer.

It wasn't a confession and it wasn't a disclosure - he saw nothing secretive or hush-hush about it - he just told me because it happened, and because it concerned me. He didn't take sides, he wasn't outraged or apologetic, if anything, he seemed irritated. He regarded everything not directly related to manual labor with suspicion. In that case, why was he going to attend college? Because he was very smart, and his parents back home didn't want it to go to waste - something that Gyula, with his down to earth peasant mentality, found only natural. Besides, teaching is almost manual labor.

He told me that the major from Military Intelligence called him in to ask about me. He asked him to tell him things because clearly, he must hear things - what I say, who I talk to and what about - because Gyula mustn't go thinking I've changed, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and Gyula better be on his guard and stay vigilant, because Gyula is the true son of the people, he must always keep that in mind, whereas I am not a true son of the people, and Gyula had better keep that in mind, too, and he better think of his father, the destitute cotter, his grandfather ditto, for all we know, Gyula's family might have suffered under the Esterházy yoke, Gyula's from Transdanubia, and need he remind him, that meant the Esterházys, and that meant there was no crying mercy.

"No mercy you say? In Transdanubia?" I asked in surprise. Does it follow then that there's mercy here? Still, I knew that the only thing that followed from this is that if there is pardon here, then this is not Transdanubia. (We were stationed in the deepest depths of the Great Plain, in the mysteriously named Hódmezovásárhely. Peasant Paris.)

"No. No mercy," Gyula grumbled, back there we were up to our old tricks.

"Excuse me?"

He's just repeating what the major told him, he doesn't know what it's supposed to mean.

That we ruled the roost?

Yeh, that must be it, because the major's father, the major said, had seven brothers and sisters, and the only reason they were born in seven castles belonging to the family is that two of them were twins. There they were, in the mind's eye, the destitute cotters as pair of twins coming into the world with a chip on their shoulder, bawling, vigilant, in the various Esterházy castles.

"What exactly are you driving at, Gyula my sweet?"

"That I gotta inform on you, asshole!"

"Inform? On me?"

He waved me off. It's not me we're talking about but him, it's him that's gotta write a report every night about what I did all day. Except he doesn't know. Furthermore, he couldn't care less. Furthermore, he wouldn't know even if he cared, because I'm in playing soccer town all day.

"How am I supposed 'ta inform on you when the most basic conditions are missing," he said careworn, dejected.

                                                             157.


 At first I thought my name would be good here, too, a good source of anecdotes, and what could go wrong in a Hungarian anecdote?

Once in the middle of a political seminar - the refuge of forbidden naps - I was startled awake by hearing my name being called, I jumped up and saluted according to form, whereas it was just the heroic Tibor Szamuely languishing on an Esterházy estate, and I'd misunderstood. In short, the lecturer had said:

"Esterházy estate." And snapping to attention, shouting enthusiastically, I said, "Present!"

This could have been taken as provocation, but following the cue from my innocent, sleepy face, they concluded I was just an idiot. They were as unprepared for my name as I was. Nothing came of it. Nothing comes of nothing, I thought, and nothing came of nothing. Later, though, when something did come of something, I learned soon enough that though nothing comes of nothing, anything may come of anything.

For instance, nothing came of it when I had to put my parents' and grandparents' occupation down on a form. Landowners, I confessed, but it had to be more concrete. They needed to know how many acres, but I saw the column on the form, and knew it wouldn't be big enough, there was no way I could in all the zeroes. I told them, and they roared at me for a while, though I was just trying to help.

Also: the regulations allow the storage of two books in the small bedside table. But my Majk Grandmother decided that this was the time to read the 19th century, and she sent me the whole Cheap Library series, about twenty volumes, Stendhal, Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, everyone, and I read them all conscientiously. (Once in the early fifties, "culture propagandists" showed up at Lóránt Basch's house. Seeing all the books, one of the young, nadve propagandists sighed, oh, so many beautiful books!, at which the old man, angrily: And you might as well know, I read them all!)

You can actually fit twenty books in, though not according to regulations. The captain couldn't believe his eyes when he reconnoitered this small, but cleverly stored workers' library during one of his rounds. It took his breath away. In order to alleviate his mild nausea, he grabbed the stand as if it were a cat or a small kitten by the neck, and started shaking it, and the world literature came tumbling out, out and under, until the captain calmed down. Stendhal, Balzac, Turgenev pacified him.

He was panting, but he looked at me with something like gratitude. He was straightforward, he didn't set perfidious traps for us, but if we fell into one, he punished us. He screamed a lot, too, but his bark was worse than his bite. Now he whispered my name with something akin to love, and he closed his eyes. What did he see, I wonder? Then he softly whispered my name once again.

"Esterházy. Take. Note. This is not. A reading man's army."

I grinned, I took note. This is not a reading man's army. Indeed it is not. He assigned me some impossible task, but the nature of the inflicted punishment was what I'd expected. Bagatelle.


Translated by Judy Sollosy

Tags: Péter Esterházy