05. 19. 2011. 08:21

The Infinite Garden

An excerpt from "Esti"

No, my friends, heaven is not ocean-sized. It’s smaller. Significantly smaller. It’s the seaside I saw, and on the seaside a curtsying willow, and under that willow, a family. Oh, the family, we teetered, how utterly romantic, the smallest social unit, ha-ha!, the mainstay of the government’s concerns, he-he! No, we were not satisfied with Creation. Hold your horses, Esti waved as if he were our brother, the nincompoop.

One late summer Esti returned from Italy with the sonorous strains of the miles in his ears, the sun-drenched markets and unruly street urchins in his heart, the memories of Titian and the sweetly unsavory odor of clams. I saw heaven, he announced promptly, believe you me, ye infidels – and he winked, an infidel himself.
    We knew all about his ocean theory, the ocean does wonders for a nation, frees it of its shackles, the inhabitants hold their heads up high, the horizon, too, is appreciably higher in countries with an ocean, the men and women go about their business with a spring to their gait, yet are not arrogant, nor do they know the meaning of envy (whereas we all know it); in countries with an ocean the infinite is manifest, even their humdrum weekdays are infinite, there’s something ceremonious about their pedestrian Tuesdays, and so those who hail from there, if they’re not careful, can all too easily succumb to delusions of grandeur, they’re not presumptuous, but they enjoy the fact with presumption.
At which we hooted in chorus: Ah, you saw the ocean!
    No, my friends, heaven is not ocean-sized. It’s smaller. Significantly smaller. It’s the seaside I saw, and on the seaside a curtsying willow, and under that willow, a family.
    Oh, the family, we teetered, how utterly romantic, the smallest social unit, ha-ha!, the mainstay of the government’s concerns, he-he! No, we were not satisfied with Creation. Hold your horses, Esti waved as if he were our brother, the nincompoop.
    I went down to the shore first thing in the morning, right after my coffee, I planted myself on a comfortable rock, concave, like an enormous armchair, a superb observation post, a Beobachtungsstelle, reading, looking about me. I saw the family march down to the shore every day, the lame family, I’d say if only it were not morbid and unseemly here, four children wheeled their father under the willow tree in a wheel chair. The handsome, well-knit man seemed not to talk to his children, ever. Having reached their destination, one of them secured the wheel of the chair with a rock, while the father divested himself of his shirt, then immersed himself in a book, reading earnestly all morning, even more earnestly than I.
    Well, that certainly is heaven with a capital H, we screeched. No two ways about it, as far as Esti is concerned, heaven is a library!, one of us guffawed. And not any old library, either, we said, showing our hand, it would contain his books exclusively, and he’d read on and on and on… Infinity as the pleasure principle, is that it, Cornelius maior? – We enjoyed being together like this, we were young, life lay ahead of us, and this made us giddy and light headed. We showed ourselves off – in front of ourselves, each a mirror of the other. We enjoyed this very much, this being proud – of each other. (Nota bene: reality makes you feel you’re at its mercy.)

    Esti lowered his voice to a whisper, a cheap theatrical trick to force our attention. The oldest of the children couldn’t have been more than ten, if that. On the morning in question I could see that they were playing, that they were in the act of playing, as they came out of the water they moved differently somehow, yes, there was something ominous about it, and in fact, having reached the willow, they dropped on all fours, four wild lion cubs stalking their seemingly distant father. Their thin, kittenish growls, meant to be spine-chilling, reached me on top of my rock.
    Poor man, here he is, trying to keep four children in line, his wife having absconded with a Neapolitan card-sharper – Esti!, stop!, we broke in, poetry has its limits!, no it doesn’t, he barked, then continued – she got fed up with this bookworm who is now intrepidly bringing up their children, engaged in a valiant struggle, yet reduced to hiding behind the bastion of his books, incapable of getting close to them even though they’re blood of his blood. All of which I could clearly read from the man’s rigid posture, his silence. He’s even afraid to hire a nanny, the kids have been trained to attend to their own needs, each knowing his duty, that was clear, sandwich-boy, clothes-boy, and so on. But I shall not impose on you further, my ill-reputed friends!
    The poor, weary father, whom I saw with the mind’s and thus my real eyes, did something he’d never done before this time of the day, he stopped reading, but before he laid down his book, such a horrendous lion’s roar ripped threw the air from behind it that even the heart of the rock I was sitting on skipped a beat. He threw the book down in the sand whereupon, frightened and suspicious, the young lion cubs drew back, rippling like when someone throws a pebble in the water, and seesawing with the wheelchair, their father literally made himself fall over, then stood on all fours himself as best he could, his lame leg like a rag.
    Right away, the frisky lion cubs surrounded him, butting him with their heads, growling, sniffing each other, their childish bums lighting up the beach all around, from time to time they shook them like dancers, while the majestic paw of the lion lashed out as they playfully bit each other and growled. They were chewing. Unabashed innocence on the one hand, Esti proclaimed raising a hand, then like a prelate at High Mass, symmetrically raising the other to match, and unabashed sensuality on the other hand! The joy of love, the joy of the flesh. This joy sat on the father’s inert, ashen face, and on the faces of his frisking children. I got a glimpse of Paradise there, on that cheap Italian shore, Kornél Esti trailed off with a triumphant look around him.
    A minute ago it was heaven.
    Was it? Lapsus linguae.
    A silence ensued. Silence in a café is cumbersome. Then, upon reflection, Esti added, yes, Paradise, the infinite garden, though at one point in the game the father remained motionless longer, vulgo, he died faster than the rhythm of the game would have called for.
    We said nothing, we were growing older with utter nonchalance, convinced that we had time, practically speaking, an infinity of time.

Translated by: Judith Sollosy

Tags: Péter Esterházy, Esti