Trieste Contemporanea settembre n.5 1998
Péter Zihaly
Esterházy: in the beginning was football

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Last descendent of one of the oldest families of Hungary, schooled as mathematician but since 1976 a full-time writer, Péter Esterházy is today, at age 48, one of the most well-known and appreciated Hungarian novelist. Author of about twenty titles, the first translation of his works in Italian was in 1988 with The Auxiliary Verbs of the Heart (e/o), after which followed The Book of Hrabal (Garzanti, 1990). The issue of "Trieste Contemporanea", for the most part dedicated to the Hungarian cultural situation, hosts in its central pages a conversation between Esterházy and the young poet, narrator and critic Péter Zihaly.

Z.P.: How would you describe your place of residence and its environs?

E. P.: The first thing came to mind about the question -where do I live- is the sneaky answer: You just want me to say I live in Central Europe. Then Central Europe made me think immediately of the Danube, because I live, de facto, on the bank of the Danube, and then I thought my living on the bank of the Danube is totally irrelevant. I have no contact whatsoever with the Danube. Sometimes I write a book about it, but otherwise, nothing. So I would have to answer that I live in my room, which can also be misconstrued, but at least it's a true statement. It can be misconstrued in the sense that it seems to mean a person has no existence outside of the work they do... and that's almost true.

Z.P.: You've been quoted as saying things like-there is no central Europe, there is no Budapest. In the meantime, you write about them all the time. I could even say denial is the first step toward the object of desire. So is there or isn't there Central Europe?

E. P.: If I think of the Central Europe a person reads about in Kundera, then I would say it doesn't exist. If I think of the Europe Danilo Kis speaks of, I would say it exists, trivially. The one was a very practical, very important and very beautiful nineteen-eighties struggle for independence, and as such, it has passed. Everything has taken an entirely different turn. But Danilo Kis postulates something ontologically unique.

Z.P.: Are you saying one is a political manifesto while the other is a slice of life?

E. P.: Yes, a different kind of connection to history. An experience in Belgrade is different than an experience in Paris.

Z. P.: I think the problem steps from the impossibility of defining Central Europe, either geographically or as a concept. Because a living being, like coral... that animal... all that knowledge and ignorance is deposited, and all the traveler sees is the beautiful skeleton. They called us Eastern Europeans, and that was a little uncool. And there is a Central Europe like that, Central in the sense that it's not Eastern.

E. P.: Yes, I think the Kundera of the eighties, or you could say Konrád too, wanted to make that statement: there is something in between West and East, something which might even be interesting, and at the time, the issue was a live one. It isn't interesting any longer in that sense. Today there's nothing of the future the hope then the gave meaning to all of these expression. It's not about the central European Dream anymore, it's about feeling like a inferiority, about the state of public restrooms.

Z. P.: And we could add those aestheticizing concepts to the list, like the "heart of Europe, nothing could be finer", or the "valley of the Danube".

E. P.: A person fights against these clichés, but clichés aren't there by accident. That's why people say a city is described best by its clichés, after all.

Z. P.: For example, one cliché that's characteristic of Central Europe -maybe it's a little more Hungarian than Czech- life is a burden, fate, a story of suffering. Can you imagine an image of Central Europe as a dandy, positively getting over, with a swimming pool, palm trees, women?

E. P.: I would say that the Central European dream-thing being over also means that the drama of it also stops being a rule, in other words, it is no longer necessarily a story of suffering, which means it can be the opposite, which means the palm tree version can work too.

Z. P.: Could that hurt us ? It always bothered me that saying "I'm Hungarian" had to have a tragic edge to it. It's ridiculous.

E. P.: It is ridiculous, the earlier attempts to formulate the notion of "Hungarian" are also about that. I wrote about it in connection to Hrabal -how to make drama out of bad luck, the notion that being Hungarian is bad luck, and not drama, that is, tragedy, that is, comedy. And that takes us near enough to the palm trees. I think that's the real test for writing, because otherwise there's only that kitschy self-pity.

Z. P.: Now that we're integrating, if we compare Europe to the USA, what do you think Hungary's image will be in United Europe ? On the side of the rainbow, a European Kansas with endless fields of grain ? Gypsy music in place of the blues, and the whole thing spiced with a csikós gulyás (Hungarian "cowboy") reservation ? Or is there a brighter future ? We'll need a more striking identity in this competition, superficial qualities will get a lot of attention. Because we are stepping into a state of many nationalities -I almost said monarchy.

E. P.: I'm afraid chichés will work.

Z. P.: And you'll be a cliché too, I just read somewhere that Esterházy Péter is Hungarian literature's passport abroad. What do you think of that ?

E. P.: It's rubbish, but hold on, I wanted to say something, oh yeah, I've never been able to answer the question: what's eminently Hungarian in my work ?

Z. P.: Maybe that you write it in Hungarian.

E. P.: Ok, but there is a difference between Thomas Mann and Proust, for example.

Z. P.: I think that particular virus can be detected when a person has a frustrated identity. For example, Joyce wrote about a country he no longer lived in, his whole life long.

E. P.: Yes.

Z. P.: You aren't frustrated by being Hungarian, so we don't read about that in your books. As long as we're on subject, do you have a problem with anything ?

E. P.: Your question contains the sly supposition that I'm satisfied with everything. Which has some truth to it. Just that something is, in myself, I think is quite a good thing. If we were in another conversation, I would say that I view the fact of existence with astonishment and joy.

Z. P.: Leafing through the Danube book, I was struck by how concerned you are with the bare existence of things, that something is or isn't, more about the is, the praise of existence. The picture of the writer I have in my mind's eye, is you, taking a dip in the river, throwing yourself in, letting it take you away and then writing down what happens. It's not even so much you that's doing it, you're simply glad it's there, you want to express your happiness. Is that what writing is ?

E. P.: I really do think of writer as someone who writes down what he sees, that's a classic emblem, but the world is completed through his writing it down, and the writing down is a part of it.

Z. P.: The way part of Creation is the Bible, the place where the whole thing is written down ?

E. P.: Yes, that belongs to the whole thing, to the universe. In that sense, all of the questions about what will be, what will the end of the century be like, what will the coming century be like -I am scandalously indifferent to all of them, because there will be something, and what there will be is something that interests me greatly.

Z. P.: We don't even know what's up now-

E. P.: -Without even bringing that up. Of course, these are current questions, especially now, at the end of the millenium.

Z. P.: Are you nostalgic?

E. P.: No.

Z. P.: Not about anything ?

E. P.: I don't think so, I was thinking about it a little while ago, and now again a propos the World Cup -I might be nostalgic about football. I'm the most nostalgic about that, but I can see that my build isn't right for it. Certain things are so painfully over.

Z. P.: I think football and dictatorship were connected. In Eastern Europe, where there isn't any money, they play good football. Where there's hard dictatorship. A little momentum can be observed in this field on the part of our neighbors to the South. Hungarian football and Czech football worked they had political content too.

E. P.: I think that's only half-true, but there is some truth to it, when the only way to stand out is through sports, more kids will play football, and so on. But that doesn't explain why the French won the World Cup.

Péter Esterházy
  Z.P.: Not long ago, I saw an interview on television, in which a writer said -in those days you couldn't do anything, and if someone wanted to be something, they wanted to be a football player or a writer. What about you ?  

Péter Zihaly

E.P.: I think a statement like that just exhausts the dimension of self-pity. I played a little football, and a did a little writing my whole life, but it didn't have anything to do with dictatorship. My studying mathematics did have something to do with dictatorship.

Z.P.: You studied mathematics because there was a dictatorship ?.

E.P.: That laughable statement is true. I spent a lot of time on mathematics in high school. Partly because I was interested, but mainly because at our Piarist high school, we had a teacher who umiliated people when they didn't know things. He considered stupidity willfull revolt, and he broke it with a firm hand. I remember my fifteen year old self thinking: I either have to go away or do something.

E.P.:When I graduated, I found out my attendance at Piarist high school and my name disqualified me from being admitted to the Faculty of Humanities, because they wanted to protect the youth from me. And that's why I became a Math major.

Z.P.: But to get back to the earlier thought, perhaps there is something to the notion that people became writers because it was macho, a way of standing up against "the thing". Even today, a lot of people think- and this is the funniest thing - being a Hungarian writer is macho, and that's where the idea comes from, they just haven't noticed that it's over.

E. P.: Yes, that's gone. Oh, now I understand what you're saying, that that's something

Z. P.: To become someone, by scoring the goal, or writing the sentence.

E. P.: Yes, in that case there is something to it, I only protested because I didn't choose these things. I've played football ever since I can remember, and writing just sort of happened.

Z. P.: But how did it happen ?

E. P.: How it happened, I can't say, because it really did just happen. I didn't start writing three hundred page novels at the age of ten...

Z. P.: At the age of twelve, then ?

E. P.: No, I just read a lot, and I was seventeen, something like that, when I wrote a short story, I remember that, because it had a big effect on me. It goes without saying that it was a realistic short story, concerning a figure I invented -that's what had a big effect on me. There was a cook I had to decide about, whether she should be fat, thin, old, young, prone to perspire, not prone to perspire, and I decided all of these things one after the other, and I remember that very strange, arrogant feeling the power to invent gave me, this "microtheos". It was the arrogance of creation. And once I had done it, I thought, quite incorrectly: I'm a writer. And I left it at that, for a few years I was calm in the knowledge that I was a writer.

Z. P.: And how was the story, looking at it now ?

E. P.: Looking at it now, it's quite bad, even worse than that. It's not the encouraging kind of bad. If someone brings me a short story like it now, I wouldn't hesitate.

Z. P.: You would send them away ?

E. P.: Uh huh.

Z. P.: Let's get back to football, which to you isn't dependent on dictatorship...

E. P.: It is dependent sociologically, but not personally, I've played football ever since I can remember, since I was four. And in the beginning was football, not the word. I always put football ahead of of literature, ahead of reading, ahead of school. Ahead of girls, football was before everything.

Z. P.: Why ?

E. P.: I was very happy when I played football. I was in a good place, that square, that rectangle was elysium.

Z. P.: Compared to literature, too ?

E. P.: Later I thought of literature the same way, and mathematics in a certain sense. I can yank football, mathematics and literature into category of games, defining a game As something with different rules, a separate field, everything is valid there and there alone.

Z. P.: Three completely different languages: a physical language, a formalized scientific language and a verbal language.

E. P.: But they work the same way, within a particular algebraic field certain are valid, other things have no significance. In football, some very important things have no meaning, for example, whether the left wing's wife is faithful or unfaithful is irrelevant. Just as in mathematics, there's no meaning to the statement that you can't touch the ball with your hands, and so on. That's the difference between languages. The point is, only what's inside the rectangle counts, the thing is decided there.

Z. P.: All three meant a different kind of freedom.

E. P.: Yes. Mathematics meant the least amount of freedom, because my capabilities were most limited there. I think all I got out it was that up to a level, I perceived the aesthetics of it.

Z. P.: How would you rank the three, which are you most talented in ?

E. P.: To be modest, let's say that in mathematics and football I saw my limitations immediately, whereas I didn't in literature. Talent leads a person along very cleverly, sometimes it generously blinds a person regarding his own capabilities, but that's a part of the gift. We both are acquainted with some very fine creatures, who know incredibly much, but their own standards inhibit them from doing anything, because compared to Dante, they always come up short. I would have been in big trouble if I would have had to remain a mathematician, it would not have been good. In football, the situation would have been even tougher, because there a person doesn't just want something, he either makes the team or not.

Z. P.: As football waned, literature became an unserious sport along with it, at least from the standpoint of acceptance. I wouldn't say people are less talented, but the situation has obviously changed.

E. P.: It really has, and literature finds itself back at its original level of ridiculousness.

Z. P.: Can we call the situation of literature today a "missed chanche" ?

E. P.: The situation is worse than the general trend, in the sense that we haven't begun to figure out the movements appropriate to this new situation, we don't know how to do bookstores, profits, and so on.

Z. P.: Do you think readers motivate a person to write in Hungary ? Is there some kind of creative relationship between the writer and the audience today ?

E. P.: I've never felt I was living in a country, or in a city, that helps my work.

Z. P.: Do you have a longing to leave ?

. P.: I'm so tied down, more than tied down, fixed on, or riveted to what I'm doing, that I can't really even give decent thought to anything else. Would I like to take a trip as a writer? Not unless I think of something I would need to travel for, but then that travel would be like going to the library.

Z. P.: The Danube book involved travel.

E. P.: Yes, it involved travel, and it raised some strange conflicts too, because traveling and being a writer started to converge for me, and I immediately saw through the duplicity of my nature as a traveler. I wasn't traveling properly, a proper traveler is always in danger of arriving in a dusty little town and never leaving, and I knew that if I arrived in a dusty little Romanian town, I would be on my way two days later, and there was a moment when that started to bother me, when the identification of the traveler with the writer became strong.

Z. P.: What's your Danube like?

E. P.: I've forgotten.

Z. P.: It wasn't anything personal?

E. P.: It was personal then.

Z. P.: Then I'll feel free to ask: there seems to be a mathematical theme in the Danube book. You were moving along a line to begin with, from one fixed point to another predictable point, the whole thing was there on the map, but the object of the novel is kind of "winding".

E. P.: If I think about it, I realize the five years I spent studying have left all kinds of traces. I was drawn mainly to mappings of a sort, taking two sets and finding correspondences between them through some complicated method. Let's say, one would be the set of words, the other would be the set of events. The mapping of structure is another very attractive notion. To take a musical form, let's say a sonata, and map it. I would even start doing that sometimes, but I found I didn't have the will to take it all the way to its conclusion. I'm not rigorous in these thing, because I'm not rigorous in general. If I do my job well, I'm precise, but I'm not rigorous. I don't do these mappings rigorously either, even talking about them is more like gossiping, because it's not certain the results are something the text says about itself.

Z. P.: When did you start studying math? Did they have chaos theory yet?


E. P.: No, we didn't have that yet, I'm afraid we didn't have fractals either, but as we know, from time to time, a butterfly has to pop up in a novel, flutter its wings, and cause an avalanche somewhere else in the novel. That's the way it is in a good novel.

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