She Loves Me [Egy Nö]

GÁLL István

The Sun Worshipper [A napimádó]


Péter Esterházy was born in 1950 into an aristocratic family who had played a key part in Hungary’s history for several hundred years before being branded as ‘class enemies’ in the Stalinist 1950s. He is one of the country’s most popular contemporary writers, well known for his essays, short stories and plays as well as his many novels. But he is also a leading literary gure, respected both at home and abroad for his virtuoso use of language and his skill at weaving his wide knowledge of Hungary’s troubled history and of European literature into his witty, irreverent, often erotic ction.

This short, plotless novel is made up of ninety-seven chapters, some of them only a sentence or two, others around a page long, and all of them starting with a variant on chapter one’s two sentences: ‘There’s this woman. She loves me.’ Or on its opposite: ‘There’s this woman. She hates me.’ The tone is playful, even jokey, as a fragmented picture gradually emerges of the narrator’s relationship, sexual and otherwise, with the unnamed woman, who may or may not be Finnish, may or may not speak Greek, may or may not be living with him, may or may not be the mother of his children. But then again, maybe these two characters aren’t always the same. Maybe each chapter introduces a new relationship.

 Does it matter? Not if you enjoy experimental ction that keeps you guessing, keeps you entertained, and, somewhere along the way, tells you quite a lot about Hungarian literature, history and contemporary politics, sometimes in the form of footnotes. VMI

Gáll’s book is a courageous attempt to ‘excavate’ the living consciousness and personality of young people who were children in the traumatic last two years of World War Two in Hungary. Focusing especially on Juli the female protagonist and her emotional formation in the fearful conditions of wartime Budapest, as she hid in the ‘Red Cross basement’ of a former Jewish school while the Russians closed in but the German army, fanatical and ruthless to the end, put up stiff resistance.

Her memories are such that ‘for twenty years I have dreaded sleep’ and her husband has to lull her with a childish world of bedtime stories. Her personality is presented as being of a kind of devil-may-care rebelliousness and light-heartedness — a real urgency to live in the present because the darkness of her childhood is ever ready to close in on her.

There’s an arresting picture of Hungary’s Jews living on the edge of the abyss, when, for example, their property is ‘Aryanized’ (i.e. stolen), as so much Jewish property in Europe was. Juli, whose father has been deported, wanders around a Budapest that seems truly a portrait of purgatory, avoiding questions about who she is (being a little Jewish girl means dying) and begs food at better-off homes.

After the war she ends up in the Communist political police, the ÁVO, much to the disgust of her Social Democrat father. Here we get an interesting picture of everyday life in the early Communist years.

While Juli grows up into a curious, somehow childlike woman her husband has also been shaped by war-time trauma. His family leave Budapest for the countryside but he is inducted into the Levente — a youthful militia — to be sacriced in the last-ditch defence of the Hungarian Fascist régime.

All this is wrapped up within the context of an intimate portrayal of the relationship between man and wife; an attempt at literary ‘human warmth’ that will appeal to some readers more than others. Undoubtedly, though, the character of Juli is a rich and thought-provoking portrayal. Although from a very assimilated Jewish background her fate is determined by that Jewishness, but as an adult her only belief — apart from the normal craving for love and acceptance — is in Communism. Gáll has created a gure that makes us reect on exactly how signicant is history and circumstance in our lives at the profoundest levels. RK


 Not so after the elections ! Ah! So you’re back, are you!, and those cute little starry eyes of hers ashed like the very devil. They lay sprawling over this country for forty years. And these assholes went and voted for them! I keep mum. I’d rather not say that these assholes are us, the country. I didn’t vote for them, and don’t you go saying it, even as a joke, and if you voted for them in secret, I’m going to kill you. What a sweetheart. I don’t even try to calm her down, I wouldn’t dream of it: memories of Tuscany. Why, they can’t even speak the language properly, she screeches. Inside me, everything is stretched tight as a bow, that’s how close I feel to her. They robbed us blind, and now they’re playing Mr Clean! They crippled this nation, and now they’re shooting their mouths off. I turn white, my hands tremble, and I hear the beating of my heart. Trade union lobbyists!, and she squeezes my balls, but with so much feeling, passion and oomph, it would sufce to rebuild the nation. 158-9

When friends and strangers were moved together to a Jewish house, they played a lot there. They just had to move to the opposite side of the boulevard; thus, having been the rst arrivals and coming from the neighbourhood they were essentially locals and so rated immediately below the tenants of the house. Those who came later (when the relatives of the tenants who, in spite of strict regulations to the contrary, moved in from distant quarters to be with their family) were only tolerated, strangers who were forced to move into the house and who perhaps had deserved to be thrown out of their own homes — for some fearfully hidden stupidity, otherworldliness or, perhaps, sin! — they had put their few belongings on a handcart, of their furniture only their bed, greasy mattress cover, pots and pans in a large kettle, dishes and glasses, and on top of the pile, perhaps a picture of father, grandfather or grandmother. They also brought the tools of their trade (what they could sneak out of their Aryanized shops), the hatter needle-marked hoods, the barber his razors and scissors in a porcelain shaving mug, the seamstress her Singer sewing machine. Uncle Mikits, that gasping mountain of esh, sweating lard, dragged two strapped, bulging suitcases up to the third oor. They laughed when he arrived, panting from the exertion, but when he put them down in the hallway, they marvelled and even two of them were unable to lift just one of the cases; foot long marble statues and polished pieces of marble, all wrapped individually in tissue paper, carefully tted together, black and pink and snow-white Carrara imitations. Mikits was a traveller in headstones until the very last minute of his freedom to travel. He had to take advantage of the rare opportunities, since the people in the country, whose deportation had already begun at the beginning of the summer, frequently signed sales agreements even while waiting for the cattle cars, as though the two-ton headstones somehow anchored them to their homes, or as though they felt that their trust in the soil of their homeland and the fact that their money was so spent, gave them some assurance that they would return. (Later Mikits