Heir to a famous name, Esterházy (She Loves Me, 1997, etc.), drawing on his family’s history, creates a lightly fictionalized portrait vividly illustrating the clan’s survival through turbulent times.
The story is told in two parts: the first is a fast-paced, allusive take on Esterházy’s paternal ancestors, who received their name from the Evening Star in the first centuries of the second millennium; the second, more personal and less allusive, is Esterházy’s telling of his father’s particular story. Book One, rich in quotes from writers ranging from Bellow to Beckett, is a long, quick riff, in short paragraphs, on fatherhood all the way back (“My father is metaphorical”). Esterházy recalls a range of ancestors: one was a patron of Josef Haydn’s, another was running the Vatican in 1621, yet another concluded peace too early with Napoleon. In Book Two, the author recalls the changes in his father’s life that were inevitable results of changes in Hungary itself as the country briefly became Communist, in 1919, then a reactionary republic tied to Nazi Germany, then Communist again until 1989. Esterházy’s father, born in 1919, began life as a count, with numerous castles and a great fortune, but when the Communists came to power after WWII and the family was forcibly removed to a small country town, he had to work as a fieldhand, a floor layer, and finally a translator. Despite the privations—little money, bad food, police surveillance—the family was close and often happy, perhaps because both parents were adaptable and uncomplaining. So, rather than a lament about how the mighty have fallen, the story is a more rueful tale of how the mighty coped: Esterházy’s father was arrested and beaten up during the 1956 uprising against the Russians, and, at school, the young Esterházy himself was picked on by a rabid Communist teacher, though his peers didn’t mind that he was a former count.
Daunting at first, then richly rewarding. A major achievement.