Angelus 2008

 

The verdict of the jury of Angelus Central Europe Literature Award

The jury of Angelus Central Europe Literature Award consisting of: Natalya Gorbanevskaya – Chairman of jury, prof. Stanisław Bereś, Piotr Kępiński, prof. Julian Kornhauser, Ryszard Krynicki, Tomasz Łubieński, Krzysztof Masłoń, Justyna Sobolewska and prof. Andrzej Zawada — the jury members, decided to grant the Angelus 2008 Award for the best book of prose published in Poland in the previous year to Esterházy Péter for his novel Celestial Harmonies: A Novel.

Wrocław, 6 December 2008

  Péter Esterházy Celestial Harmonies: A Novel Publisher: Czytelnik Translation: Teresa Worowska       The Lubomirski family in Hungarian Celestial Harmonies: A Novel is a remarkable novel about the phenomenon of our part of the continent, where the complex family history of the Hungarian aristocracy is a pretext for discussion about the nature of history and the experience of coming from Central Europe. Péter Esterházy worked on the monumental, nearly 700-page-long book based on the history of his family for reportedly ten years. The writer spent an impressive period of time on Celestial Harmonies: A Novel —others can publish ten times more during such a time period — but it stops to surprise when we find out that the Esterházy meant to Hungary as much as the Radziwiłł, the Lubomirski or the Zamoyski family to Poland. (By the way, one of the author’s ancestors died in Poland in 1863, while fighting for the rebels.) If any descendant of our magnates wanted to create a native version of Harmonies, it would have cost the comparable amount of work. We can only envy Hungary and regret that no aristocrat from over the Vistula can write as Esterházy. And indeed, there is a lot to envy. Celestial Harmonies: A Novel unfolds in two different structural parts. The first one is a collage of short non-chronological stories — anecdotes, yarns, notes, digressions, narratives and memories about the Esterházy family. The second part presents the history of the family and the Hungarian newest history in a traditional, almost documentary way. There is a method in this seemingly random construction. At the beginning the writer breaks the traditional form of a narrative, characteristic for the ancestral sagas. The historical truth gives way to literary fantasy and irony, while the second part focuses on the linear story. But he does not do it to play with the reader. This deliberate dissonance gives credence to the text — the author realistically writes only about the times he knows from his personal experience, and the rest is a filtered through his individual sensitivity and historical knowledge. The main character of the first part is a multiplied character of a Father, whose tangled stories are told by Péter Esterházy in 371 numbered fragments of the text. The Father appears in different situations, configurations and historical realities of the entire history of Hungary. One time he is a famous Palatin from the seventeenth century — Pal Esterházy, the other — a traitor of Rakoczy insurgent troops, he negotiates with the Napoleon, becomes a captive of Mathausen camp and removes the communist red star from the roof of the parliament in Budapest. But the idea of Harmonies is not to immortalise the aristocratic Esterházy family, to give a testimony of its huge role in the history of Hungary or emphasise that particular story for posterity. It also isn’t about saving the relicts of the old, aristocratic world, or the attempt to immortalise it in literature. The writer dissociates from such typecasting: ‘The nobility is worth something only if it comes with virtue, (...) and not the origin, which itself is like whitewashed graves, full of filth inside.’ The key to understanding Harmonies is the multiplied character of the Father, who is a sort of a Central European everyman. Esterházy wrote a detailed story of one timeless character, whose universal experience — or the determinant of his existence — is the historic trauma. Central Europe has a richer history than any other region on the continent, and the stories have to be re-told by nations every half of the century. ‘My Father killed religion in the eighteenth century, God in nineteenth century and a man in the twentieth century’ — confesses the author of Harmonies and at this point Esterházy’s novel enters another, timeless dimension and touches narratives which the modern European civilisation struggles with. Civilisation and culture, where one of the biggest taboos is a topos of a father. In Celestial Harmonies: A Novel, the son is a narrator of each story. There is a significant reversal of roles from reality: the son creates the father by telling about him and overcomes the Oedipus complex, one of the main myths of our culture. ‘There is a time when a man like me realises that he doesn’t have a father or fatherland, and there are only words left. And with these words he creates his father, fatherland and cooks his stew’ said Péter Esterházy. Those words have gained a new meaning right after the premiere of Harmonies in 2002. The author discovered the terrible truth about his father in the archives of the security services. It turned out that the respected Mátyás Esterházy was an agent of Communist secret services for many years. This discovery forced the writer to create the Revised Edition, a kind of erratum to Harmonies. Esterházy completed the book and added another chapter about a Central European everyman, hunted down by history again. Cezary Polak