Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy


Word PressThis was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. It claimed to be (according to the back cover) “a national epic” and “a work of profundity and invention”.  It was just a load of drivel.   Apart from the last 200 or so pages – and I waded through 650 pages before I got to there – it wasn’t about anything or anyone or anywhere: it was just waffle.  It also contained one of the worst translation errors I’ve ever seen – although that, to be fair, wasn’t the author’s fault.  Peter Esterhazy passed away very recently, so I feel a bit awful about slagging off his best-known book; but it was just dire.

I was expecting Hungarian history, as witnessed by the Esterhazys, a leading Hungarian aristocratic family. I was expecting, if perhaps not as far back as St Stephen, then certainly Matthias Corvinus, war against the Turks, the Habsburg-Jagellon marriage alliance, the Reformation, the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Rakoczy Uprising, Kossuth and the 1848 Revolution, the Ausgleich, the dissolution of the Empire, the coming of communism, the 1956 Uprising … oh, and Ferenc Puskas and co beating England in 1953.  There aren’t a lot of books available in English about Hungary, and I was really looking forward to reading this one.  Instead, all I got was … drivel.

The book was in two parts. The second part at least made some vague sort of sense – or, at least, the later part of it, covering the aftermath of the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then the aristocratic Esterhazys having to adapt to communism after the Second World War, did.  But the first part, and a large section of the second part, was just waffle.  I have no idea what it was supposed to be about.

I feel as if I’m missing something, and showing that I’m really uncultured and can’t appreciate post-modernism or whatever the hell it was supposed to be!  It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you’re in an expensive restaurant and, in the name of nouvelle cuisine or something, they give you a tidgy little spoonful of food in the middle of a huge plate and you’re sat there thinking that you’d have got a far more satisfying meal at McDonald’s!   But I really don’t know what the reader was supposed to appreciate in this.  It was a load of disjointed waffle.  It jumped backwards and forwards across the centuries, from one sentence to the next, and half the time you couldn’t even tell what century it was talking about because it was just generalised waffle.  A lot of it was about arguments between spouses or potential spouses.  And then there was one bit in which someone inadvertently opened the bathroom door whilst their distant cousin was on the toilet.  What exactly is supposed to be profound, inventive and epic about someone opening the bathroom door whilst someone else is on the toilet?!

The jumping about between centuries from one sentence to another was bad enough in that it was confusing, but some of it was deliberately wrong. There was one bit which mentioned an ancestor who’d gone into exile with Rakoczy, but then it said that this person was born in 1741, i.e. thirty years after the Rakoczy uprising!  I mean … what was that about?!  Then there was a reference to the Dreyfus affair (and I don’t see what that really had to do with Hungary anyway), followed by a reference to the French Revolution which made it sound as if the Revolution happened after the Dreyfus affair.  Maybe that was meant to be really witty and amusing in some sort of strange way, but I don’t see how!

Then there were the inadvertent errors. At least, I assume that saying that the Battle of Mohacs took place in 1562, when it actually took place in 1526, was a typo, and not another bizarre deliberate mistake!   All right, we all make typos, but couldn’t the editors have checked the text?  That’s a pretty significant date to get wrong.  And, sadly, it was only a brief reference to Mohacs anyway, before the drivel started again.

Typos can just about be excused, but some things can’t, and saying that the First Duke of Marlborough’s name was Victor von Hochstedt is one of them! The Battle of Blenheim is often referred to in Central Europe as the (Second) Battle of Hochstedt, so I assume that the Hungarian text referred to “the Duke of Marlborough, the victor of Hochstedt” and that somehow got translated as “the Duke of Marlborough, Victor von Hochstedt”.  Seriously, does no-one check these scripts before they’re published?!  That is horrendous!   Incidentally, the reference to the Duke of Marlborough was not in connection with the Rakoczy uprising but in connection with … er, nothing.

Why “von” should have come into a translation from Hungarian into English is a mystery as well, but quite a few sentences in the book, especially in the first section, were in German. I can only assume that they’d been in German rather than Hungarian in the original text, and left like that to make a point, but some of them were long and convoluted sentences and my German’s very limited!  And there were odd words of Yiddish thrown in as well, which was fine in areas where Yiddish was appropriate but rather odd in areas where it wasn’t.   Would a Hungarian aristocrat really refer to his relatives by the Yiddish word for family?

OK … let’s try to think of something positive to say. One thing that did come across quite well was how closely the Hungarian aristocracy were bound up with the Austrian aristocracy and the Bohemian aristocracy. My generation grew up without the concept of Mitteleuropa.   For us, there was Western Europe and Eastern Europe, with the Iron Curtain between the two.   That’s all changed now: Mitteleuropa is back.  Maybe it never really went, but we felt as if it had.

Then there was some reasonable coverage of the aftermath of the end of the Great War. The brief existence of a communist state in Hungary in 1919 is something that tends to be forgotten about now.  A lot of what happened in 1918-1920 – the war between Poland and Russia’s another thing – tends to be forgotten about now, at least in the West.  And there’s the question of borders.  The post Great War border decisions were bloody ridiculous, really.  Don’t get me started on the South Tyrol question!  After the Berlin Wall fell, there was some speculation in some areas of the press that there might be calls for borders to be withdrawn.    But it never happened.

For everything that happened in the former Yugoslavia, there never seemed to be any calls for Vojvodina to become independent, or to become part of Hungary, but there weren’t. That’s a bit strange, really.  Having said which, Vojvodina as a whole is about two-thirds ethnically Serbian these days, so it’s a totally different ball game to Kosovo where the vast majority of the population’s ethnically Albanian, although the situation in 1920 was very different.  And Transylvania had a Romanian majority even in 1920.  There are issues, though.  There were protests in 2009 by ethnic Hungarians who weren’t happy about the language laws in Slovakia.  And CFR Cluj, who were in the same Champions League group as United a few years back, are supported mainly by ethnic Hungarians, whereas their neighbours Universitatea Cluj are supported mainly by ethnic Romanians.  Is any of this an issue in Hungary?  I don’t really know, and I’d like to have been given some sense of it.  But I didn’t really get a sense of anything very much from this book.  Except not to barge into the bathroom unless you’re sure that no-one else is in there.

Then there was a lot about the Esterhazys adapting to life under communism. That was the only bit of the book that really came across well.  A lot’s been written about the fate of the Russian aristocracy after the Russian Revolution, but the effect of communism on the formerly privileged classes of other Eastern European states isn’t something that’s ever discussed very much.  I’m glad that I stuck with the book because I’d have missed that part otherwise.  But the rest of it was just so disappointing!   Maybe it’s me, because this book has won a lot of plaudits, and I think an award as well.  But a burger and chips at McDonald’s is a lot more filling, and certainly much better value, than a small dollop of fancily-presented food at an expensive restaurant, and a book which actually tells you something is a lot better than a book which just waffles about things that don’t even follow.  This book was nearly 850 pages long.  That was a lot of waffle.


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