04. 07. 2015. 12:31

"There is no God. I am not afraid of sentences"

Péter Esterházy: Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – the Mark Version

If God seems to have forsaken the family, does it mean he still pays attention? In Péter Esterházy’s new novel, "Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – the Mark Version," these and similar questions pile up on page after slowly drifting page.

How are we supposed to address God? To talk about him, to talk to him? What is our own personal God like? What is this whole complicated situation between God and the narrator? How does God relate to the family? What is the role of Scripture? If God seems to have forsaken the family, does it mean he still pays attention? In Péter Esterházy’s new novel, Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – the Mark Version, these and similar questions pile up on page after slowly drifting page. "If I don’t pray, there is no God. Lack (nincs) cannot be recognized in lack, only afterwards, in presence (van), after the lack passes, but when I realized that I hadn’t prayed, I wasn’t worried, 'cause Granny always prays, prayer is everything for her. But I am scared to think of what happens if her God is not the same as mine." (32)

This is the story of a family, squeezed into one hundred numbered pages. On the surface, there is a young narrator who challenges God and who does not speak, and in the background there is the drama of the postwar years: the internal deportation of aristocratic families (and other 'enemies of the state'), the life of 'kulaks' (affluent farmers, stigmatized by the new communist regime), and the disappearance of the mother’s first husband, killed by the Nazis. Plus some 'minor,' yet quite complex problems, including the relationship of the stepbrothers and of father and son, or religion and atheism. The cast also includes Judas, communists, policemen, a drunken father, an unhappy mother, and there is much talk of Mári’s tits, crucifixion, and swearing. "Fuck your mother. I’m practicing. This is not yet swearing, swearing is something greater seeing that there is God in it. So, Baby Jesus, what the fuck. I’m looking at the picture with the silver glitter. This was the first time I cursed." (53)

This book is a sequel to Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages – the Sword-Brandishing Version (2013), both written with the rule in mind to tell a story in not more than 100 pages. Esterházy's aim was to write "short sentences in Hungarian," with "subject, verb and object," as he specified in his previous book. The Mark Version is a magic book in which he certainly managed to write a simple story in 100 pages, as opposed to the sword-brandishing one, which is in fact 250 pages long and quite complicated.

The Mark Version is narrated by a boy who claims that he is thinking of God most of the time. "More than my parents, more than playing, more than the red, dead balloon." (5) It is the story of a family who were deported from Budapest to the countryside after the communist takeover as 'enemies of the state.' In those years, several hundred thousand families – aristocrats, army officers and other prominent, and often not so prominent, people of the previous regime – had to leave their apartments behind and move to the countryside, often into miserable circumstances. (On this little-researched topic, see Kinga Széchenyi’s Stigmatized among the upcoming releases of Helena History Press.) The setting of Esterházy’s novel is a village where the Budapest family – father, mother, grandmother, two children – has to share a house with a kulak family.

There is certainly a biographical element in the story as the Esterházy family was deported to Hort in northeastern Hungary in 1951, and were only allowed to move back to Budapest in 1957. Péter Esterházy had already written about these events in Fuharosok [Transporters]. The story is narrated by an adult reminiscing about his boyhood, who is placed in the narrative position of the boy who does not talk. In each sentence the ever-changing relationship of God and 20th-century humans is evoked. The meaning of language, of the word, in our description of the world and our relationship with God – this is the name of Esterházy’s game in this book. "For my prayer, no words are necessary, so Granny’s deaf and dumb God comes in handy. I don’t let them know that I can speak, and I don’t show that I understand what they say to me. But they don’t say anything anyway. They just babble, and want me to show off." (5) And "There is no God. I am not afraid of sentences. My brother is afraid of them, and he is also happy about them." (26)

The narrator finds himself at the end of the world (with slight exaggeration), absolutely uncertain of what is to follow. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is, what his family had done, and why all this is happening. It is in this setting – full of doubts but, essentially, a very open situation – that the child begins to get acquainted with God, who is basically the God of the grandmother: "Granny is probably on good terms with God, they talk so much. Not that I am not on good terms with him, but for that you have to pray constantly. Not that it is hard for me to pray. Not that God and the word are close to each other. There are big silences. Wordless God and godless word, this is silence. But, except for Granny, praying is not like breathing." (25)

At the end of the novel there are footnotes in which Esterházy reveals the source of many of his unmarked quotations, though not all of them as this is part of the game. The narrator quotes János Pilinszky, Imre Kertész, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil and Kierkegaard, but all these quotations are articulated in such a personal way that we see them in a completely new light – sometimes they sound wise, sometimes just naïve. It is an amusing and exciting game to untangle what the author disguises and what he reveals, how and why.

This is a quiet, intimate book, with sentences to be read over and over. A mere 100 pages, but it is impossible to rush through them as the text does not allow it, each sentence requires a special relationship. "When it comes to God/fatherland/family [the slogan of the Hungarian political right], I will overtake everyone from the right," Esterházy said in an interview. The Mark Version is precisely about these topics and the connections (silences, betrayals…) between them. Before reading The Mark Version, I didn’t believe in God, but now I would be happy to meet Him, and certainly Esterházy’s version of Him.

Esterházy Péter: Egyszerű történet vessző száz oldal - a Márk-változat
Budapest: Magvető, 2014

This article was originally published in Hungarian at Könyvesblog.

László Valuska

Tags: Péter Esterházy