Péter Esterházy: A Simple Story comma a hundred pages – Mark’s version

It is possible that God does not exist at all, but nevertheless, or for that very reason, one can believe in him, one can pray to him, and, as many will testify from experience, one must fear him. (And according to Voltaire, as we all know, if He didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.) BY JÓZSEF SÁNTHA

Following the fencing version the second volume of the prose stream that is almost like a series of books tells the tale of a relocated family. The main characters are the father, the mother, the two children, the members of the affluent peasant family giving them shelter, and Mári, the woman keeping an eye on the narrator. The novel is narrated by the younger of the boys, who cannot speak yet, giving the narration a twist. At first glance his seems to be a sort of Tolstoyian faith, if we can recall the tale about the simple fisherman who walking on water returns to Christ over and over again, because he keeps forgetting his teachings, his words, and Christ lets him go saying: You have no need for them. The little boy’s words, on the other hand, bring to mind every historical, existentialist and theological aspect of the God view of the twentieth century, creating a conceptual image with so complex attributes that its in-depth analysis could only be attempted by a serious study. Let it suffice to just briefly name Pascal, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Simon Weil, Pilinszky and Imre Kertész, but the list is far from complete. 
Péter Esterházy
Péter Esterházy
This version is more novel-like than the first work, even if it complies only roughly with the rules of the genre. In this book we do get the everyday stories of a family chased out of their home, the roots of the conflicts reach deep and act strong, they almost yank the characters around. The first husband of the mother was dragged away and murdered by the Nazis, the narrator was born out of the second marriage, making the boys only half-brothers, and the narrator learns from the night-time whispers of the parents that it is still the first husband that the mother loves. The father is unhappily in love, the mother is unhappily married, the older boy is obsessed with objectifying everything through writing, and the grandmother’s ceaseless search for happiness manifests itself in constant prayers and faith, even though her son, the father’s brother was also killed on the front. Mári’s infinitely simple atheism is paired with desirous corporeality; the peasant family (having lost everything they had toiled for) says it is enough to pray on Sundays: “God is better left in peace. He should not be pestered, or else he smacks you on the head…. he nods towards my grandmother” (52). The mother is without faith, the father is an alcoholic. And the mute boys sees all this around himself, and absorbs everything as a peculiar mixture. The silent antagonism, the indescribable tension building between the boys symbolize the unbridgeable abyss between their parents and the one originating from history. Hunting was the father’s cherished pastime in “a previous life”, to which the older boy replies: “My father did not hunt. He was hunted” (73).
All of the above provide the prose framework of the text, but the Gospel of Mark is more and more heavily present in the story, Judas betraying Jesus, the passion and the crucifixion. The novel, as it was obvious all along, simply neglects the question of the authenticity of the narrator, the little boy’s figure dissolves in the articulation of the centuries-old theses on faith and sin. He becomes a receptor of this knowledge, and in a distinctive manner he also disgorges it, turning into the natural embodiment of worldly sin. He becomes demonic only gradually, he stomps the chicks to death, he throws the goslings into the pit latrine, these are all stages of willingness to sin. How the reader interprets all this, whether he considers it an acceptable summary richly illustrating the theses of the world of faith, a grand total of all evil inflicting man in this world – this is perhaps beyond the criteria of aesthetic reception. It is beyond the epic material embedded into the novelness of the novel, and acts simply as a phenomenon labelled as the scandal of the world, a gaze piercing through everything. It is not a little boy anymore who shoves his brother into the swollen brook, after trying to knead his grandmother’s palsied face into place, it is the lunacy of the age that can have no adequate parable. 

The mother is reproached by her former mother-in-law, the grandmother from Eger, for the sin of forgetting, she needs to answer for the memory of her martyred Jewish husband. The writer puts the words of Imre Kertész into the survivor’s mouth: “If my son died in vein, it is the fiasco of God. And God’s fiasco of is not the death of God, but the death of Man.” (43)

The gravest verdict is not contained by the wisdom of Stendhal (“Man got his tongue in order to conceal his thoughts” 95), but by the intellectually hardly graspable assertion reaching beyond the space of the novel, namely that since the “God is dead” declaration of Nietzsche, Man, and the humanity historically connected to Man is also dead, consequently the twentieth century has done away with the concept of humanity for good, and the creature that we still experience now and again cannot be identical with its earlier self: he has outlived and dismissed all hope he has imposed on God. Whether prose this densely saturated with morality is in fact palatable as fiction is going to be decided by a wider reading audience. 
Translated by Péter Papolczy