Book Encounters – Lela and Péter Esterházy

Lela seemed paranoiac, as if a Party-State black Volga would edge down the street, pull-in close, from its curtained interior a chill-complexioned thug make for…

Romancing with Lela, Péter Esterházy and Fyodor Dostoevsky at Central Station
Encounters with Lela
p42 Lela Celestial H Not Art 300       

In the concourse of Central Station I met a woman from Roumania. Outside rain poured heavily. Extremely so. It was the season for that. We had coffee together confident within an hour the storm would be passed. I began to suspect Lela’s internal ones never would.

When people of a certain race pressed in, munching hamburgers, gulping coffee, licking ice-creams and yabbering loudly, she turned her back to them, huddled closer to me. There was good reason, they coughed and spluttered without using a tissue or handkerchief to cover their sprayings. That was eighteen months ago. Now it’s mandatory to wear a mask in public places and particular spaces. Were these people never taught as children, as we were, to cough or sneeze into a handkerchief (which Mother boiled up in a copper with great quantities of salt, much rinsing then hanging up in the sun to dry) or use a disposable cloth which was burnt? Wash hands after… you know what! and before handling food?

But it was more than that. Lela warily scanned beyond the young people, her eyes seeking out darkest nooks and crannies and sifting amongst bodies pouring off the escalators.

And I suspected Lela was not her true name.

Her last name sounded Hungarian but she muttered it so softly I could not catch it. And it was so foreign to my ears and long, I would not have remembered it. She would not repeat it, nor would she write it when we exchanged telephone numbers.

We arranged to meet a month later closer to our homes – we’d both travelled far, her to go to the cathedral, me for a Sunday lecture up-river at the university.

Four weeks passed with intermittent telephone calls and definite arrangements. We met at a club with a large dining hall and several small casual-eating areas comfortably appointed with well-padded chairs and lounges ninety minutes from our respective homes. A half-way mark.

My new friend was in a beautifully embroidered white sunfrock. Utterly unlike anything I had seen before. I wore black jeans and jacket with a bright scarf draped about my neck. Despite her smiles and boisterous greeting, she seemed paranoiac, a trait I had begun to suspect when we first met… as if a Party-State black Volga would edge down the street, rein-in close, from its curtained interior a chill-complexioned thug make for her.

Despite her long drive she would not eat, nor take coffee. I said it was my treat but still she refused and we both drank water only. We shifted to a more intimate booth where she pulled a book from her basket and clutched it close to her chest.

Before allowing me to look at it, she glanced around. Glanced? No, she scrutinised the area in a practiced way though as covertly as she could.

Warily, she asked me again why was I going to Roumania. Why Transylvania. What was my purpose?

As if in a clandestine meeting in a cloak-and-dagger novel, she bade me draw my chair closer. She put the book on the table (it was sizeable) along with another, opened the first at a series of pictures. Old photographs. Great forests and mountains. Fairy-tale castles and carriages. Men, elegantly attired.

‘That is my grandfather,’ she said. ‘He is now dead. They got him. Some of us escaped. I returned last year when my grandmother was dying. Decades had passed. I missed her by a day. All our jewellery is gone. Stolen. And our estates.’

As a group of people came close, she darted furtive glances, closed the book, hid it in her basket. I never saw it again. Nor the other titled Once Upon a Transylvania.

I’m glad I’d been reading Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies. I had a handle on her behaviour. That fear that never seems to leave her. The old families of the East European Bloc when the big changes came, could not even trust one another. I’d seen it in the eyes of friends of my family when I was young. And our neighbours who were Polish. I remember a day when census officials were calling door-to-door. Mrs K had spotted them, leapt the fence, rushed up our twenty back stairs calling to my mother, ‘Quick, quick, police! They’re coming. Hurry! Come! Bring children. Quick! Must hide!’

I’m still reading Celestial Harmonies, I’m a slow reader, appreciating every nuance, every word and, it’s a big book at 841 pages (and admittedly I do break to take in other books).

Judith Sollosy translated Celestial Harmonies from Péter Esterházy’s Hungarian. She said, ‘Panic, too, can be a formative part of the translation process, an unwelcome source of inspiration … For Esterházy, style and content are inseparable, and the medium is the message … I had to bend a close ear to the text in order to distinguish the Esterházy from the pseudo- Esterházy … As his translator, I wanted to get inside Péter Esterházy’s head.’

And I’m reading Péter Esterházy’s Not Art.

Both books make one consider what else a novel can be. Just as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons does (or, The Possessed as Constance Garnett in 1913 translated).

All three made me look up histories of Russia, Roumania and round-abouts.

Re-aligning my understanding of the politics of the time, how those came about and ways of life beyond those novels gave me deep insight to the characters and indeed the authors (both men were genius writers), and of course Lela.

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