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The Heart of the Matter

SHE LOVES ME.\o7 By Peter Esterhazy\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy (Northwestern University Press: 196 pp., $26.95);\f7 THE GLANCE OF COUNTESS HAHN-HAHN (DOWN THE DANUBE).\o7 By Peter Esterhazy\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Hungarian by Richard Aczel (Northwestern University Press: 256 pp., $22.50);\f7 HELPING VERBS OF THE HEART.\o7 By Peter Esterhazy\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Hungarian by Michael Henry Heim (Grove Weidenfeld: 112 pp. [out of print]);\f7 A HUNGARIAN QUARTET: Four Contemporary Short Novels.\o7 Novels selected by Maria Korosy (Corvina Books: 174 pp., $9.95 paper);\f7 A LITTLE HUNGARIAN PORNOGRAPHY.\o7 By Peter Esterhazy\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy (Northwestern University Press: 216 pp., $24.95, $15.95 paper);\f7 THE BOOK OF HRABAL.\o7 By Peter Esterhazy\f7 . \o7 Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy (Northwestern University Press: 168 pp., $22.50, $15.95 paper)\f7

June 07, 1998|THOMAS McGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

As a boy growing up in the little village of Patchogue on Long Island, I was introduced to the world by collecting stamps--Tanganyika, Ghana, Fiji, Ascension Island, Tibet--and now as an adult the world comes to me by way of translations. Certain countries, certain civilizations only exist because of translations.

Sadly now in America only three publishing companies can be said to reliably, season after season, produce significant translations: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the University of Nebraska Press and, most extravagantly, Northwestern University Press, which almost single-handedly are keeping alive the idea that the many countries in Eastern Europe are replete with marvelous writers worthy of our attention here in the West. One such writer is the altogether extraordinary Peter Esterhazy, the Italo Calvino of Hungarian literature. First, some facts:

Esterhazy was born in 1950 in Hungary and is the author of . . . but, to be honest, I don't know how many books he has published in Hungarian. Unlike the French or the Irish, who are proud to itemize their writers as part of the country's exports, the Hungarians are not very good at promoting their writers. One blurb says Esterhazy has published 17 books, and in another the line is that he is simply a "prolific" author of many novels, collections of stories and essays. We'll just say that Esterhazy has a lot of books, and six of them have arrived here in the backwoods of America in a rather haphazard fashion. The most recent of these are "She Loves Me" and "The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube)." And although both books can be read on their own, they come out of an already wonderful complex literary career, some of which is available in English.

Esterhazy was never part of the Communist regime in Hungary or one of its lackeys, both because of temperament and by bearing. His name is a reminder that he comes from the oldest noble family in Hungary (who were patrons of, among others, Franz Josef Haydn), a fact that is alluded to in his various novels together with mentions of the humiliation that members of his immediate family suffered under Communism through unjust confiscations, imprisonments and deportations to rural, inhospitable villages.

Esterhazy's first novel was "A Novel of Production," published in 1979 when the author was 29. It was described by the Hungarian critic Ferenc Takacs, and presciently so, as being "full of linguistic exuberance" and revealing "his wonderful sense of parody and pastiche, his weird talent for combining ready-made myths and pieties of the Hungarian mind into shockingly subversive and very funnily evocative collages, of debunking standard fictional procedures by exhilaratingly carnivalesque dislocations." Still untranslated, the book forms the first part (or "aspect," as the author calls it) of an exploration into the process and problems of writing, which is the focus of a 700-page collection of Esterhazy's early work titled "An Introduction to Literature."

Three short novels from this large collection have been translated. The most accessible yet most disturbing is "Helping Verbs of the Heart," which is both a haunting meditation on the death of the author's mother and an examination of all the cliches that surround such topics. Starting from the viewpoint of the grief-stricken son, the book suddenly throws us into the situation of seeing it from the view of the recently dead mother. And it ends with the tantalizing final page: one line at the top, "The End," and at the bottom of the page, "Some day I'll write about all this in more detail."

Another feature of Esterhazy's "introduction" is the presence of Zsofi, a very young female narrator, in "The Transporters" (featured in "A Hungarian Quartet") to tell an intensely subjective story of her and her sister's ravishment by drivers who deliver food to sustain them in their exile out in the country. However, Esterhazy subverts the emotional truth of the story by acknowledging many buried quotations in the novel from, among others, Kierkegaard, Pascal and Teilhard de Chardin, whose work was normally banned by the Communist authorities.

For instance, as little Zsofi runs down a hallway to elude the men, she (or maybe it is Pascal) thinks: "Which of the two fooled us? Our senses or our education? Man is by his nature credulous and faithless, fearful and bold. . . .The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with trepidation. . . . There is only one kind of loneliness . . . My dear, I am afraid. I am afraid. My sisters seemed to cry . . . I was running, I flung the first door in the corridor open--beds pushed up to each other, a wide and ravished field, bodies with strangely contorted limbs--O my God, what is this?--My face icy cold--what is going on?"

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