Esteemed Hungarian writer Esterházy (Celestial Harmonies, 2004, etc.) blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction in this novel about a mother, perhaps his own, whose life centers around soccer.
There isn’t exactly a plot. The middle-aged narrator, who lives in suburban Budapest, reminisces and ruminates about his childhood and adult life with the help of literary allusions and wordplay. Sentences run on for pages while he layers impressions on top of memories, metaphors onto philosophic concepts, characters’ viewpoints within other characters’ dialogue. While trying to navigate the flood of language, American readers will find themselves grabbing at the incongruous but useful footnotes, which offer some minimal help in sorting out the onrush of names and ideas. The narrator’s 90ish mother, in failing health but still a pistol, talks incessantly about soccer (sometimes translated as football). Readers will learn more than they ever wanted to know about Hungarian players and team politics, as well as more significant issues of national politics and culture. When the narrator was growing up under communist rule, his father was brutalized as a scion of the famous Esterházy family. His mother used her passion for soccer as a survival mechanism for herself and the family. She worked in a factory that also employed members of the national team. A beautiful woman with spirit, she manipulated her ability to make friends with the players to advance her career. But the soccer team was always watched by an informer, a party member who may or may not have seduced the narrator as a child. The novel emulates Lampedusa’s The Leopard (referred to repeatedly and admiringly) in its aristocratic nostalgia and choice of an aging protagonist at the cusp of national change, but Esterházy is far more ambiguous and convoluted in his approach to history.
Murky, self-conscious meta-fiction, full of intellectual name-dropping.