Esterházy Péter: Egy nő
Egy nő (Hungarian)
She loves me (English)
There’s this woman. She loves me. If she’s not Finnish, I’ll eat my hat. At first, we even said, isn’t it hunky-dory? We’re related. ‘Are you Finno-Ugrian, too, if you don’t mind my asking?’ We try to discover national traits in each other. Unfortunately, I’m not conversant, I’m not the least bit conversant with Finnish history (it’s major mineral resources: chrome, titanium, cobalt, vanadium, copper, zinc and nickel) and have only the vaguest ‘northern’ images to go by, and so I hold on to these banalities like so many straws - my points of reference. I try to place her in some sort of context, stuff her inside some national cliché, but it’s no good, because her real context is my body. Her homeland is not her homeland, my body is. When I look at her, trying to figure her out, it’s not the image of the tablelands of Finland that I see, the abundant, cascading rivers as they surge forward between its lakes, but myself, I always see myself, too, my thighs, which we can safely call muscular, and at times the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, or my moist lips, my finger.
For years and years she positively denied feeling the same way about me. But then, in the heat of an all-out knockdown fight, she finally came clean. ‘I look at you,’ she screeched, ‘and all I see is my cunt! I see you in the shadow of my cunt!’ I don’t like her talking like that. I don’t like her calling the parts of our bodies by their names without due reflection. For her part, she hates my silence. ‘Now … now you’re silent about your prick!’ she says revealingly. And the cleft between my ass! What’s the big deal?!’ To me it is a big deal. But I say nothing. What could I say? The fact that she feels about the body, my body and her body, the same way I do is all the more surprising given the ease with which she knows her way around Hungarian affairs. She’s got pronounced views on the battle of Vezekény (‘it was neither as inconsequential nor as fruitless as it might first appear’); she uses the expression ‘the Drágffy method’, in reference to the brave warrior who, discarding his spurs, galloped to his death with the national flag at the ill-fated battle of Mohács; she’s familiar with the anecdotes about Deák and Imre Nagy’s 1953 reforms; she knows who were sentenced during the so-called minor-league, and who during the so-called major-league literary trials. She can even tell one Democratic Forum tendency from the other.*
Our increasingly frequent and - to be perfectly frank and above-board - furious fights, which from time to time end in mutual assault, with me shaking her, sometimes by the neck, which in all fairness could be construed as strangling, with her showing a marked preference for throwing things, and not only books and plastic ashtrays but pictures, too, pulled off the wall or, more traditionally, vases, or, in a certain sense surprisingly, cast-iron meat grinders, though she has been known to opt for the silverware laid out on the table which, seeing as we were about to have Wiener schnitzel, included knives and could thus be regarded as assault with a deadly weapon - in short, our fights, I think, had nothing to do with our shared Finno-Ugrian roots. Or did they? Could it have been the nightmare of time spent together? The wandering, the hunting, the tending of the herd, the adoration of the self-same gods? Or the nightmare of recognition? After all, she’s even familiar with my silences! Who knows, perhaps she even dreams about me … or I about her … What’s the use of this sort of pitiful proximity? This sort of mirroring?
‘I know what you’re thinking!’ she lashed out at me shrilly, ‘that it would be better, better for us, if I were God. That’s what you’re thinking. But don’t you think you’re better. You’re no better. No, sir! Because I think the same thing about you, that it would be better, better for us, if you were …’
This marshalling of the troops happened after the fucking battle of Vezekény. Words were of no avail, silence was of no avail, we just went round and round in circles. At times it is not worth it, trying to distinguish between love and hate, I have read somewhere. I find such sentences repugnant. And yet there was something to be said for it, some feeling had taken a hold on us, and there was no knowing where it would lead. Or trying to influence it. Or holding out hope. Our lovemaking, too, was different at the time, more frequent, desperate.
Once I told my father about this. What I mean is, asked him what northern women were like. He shrugged and made a face. ‘How should I know? Still, he asked me to his room, where I hadn’t been in a long time, and pointed to a painting which I had seen many times as child, in another apartment, in another dark, dimly lit room, a ponderous, dromedary oil painting in an ornate, self-assertive, nineteenth-century frame. It depicted Norwegian fishmongers at the market by the sea. The wind was up and a mysterious light was pouring forth, and it was neither dark, nor light, nor nightfall. Dark and light and grey and bright, a bright darkness, a shimmering glow, eternal twilight. I had my eye glued to the painting, my father had his eye glued to me.
Standing in their wooden clogs, looking merry and, intent, the fishmongers were throwing their fish about. To me they looked just like this Finnish woman. And the hips swayed with an indescribable strength and ease, wit a substantial liveliness. Girls and women at the same time, pack-mules and Northern fairies, that’s what they were though their hips were good civilian hips, hard-working of the body. I said goodbye to my father, and henceforth made this frame the Finnish woman’s lodgings. I localized her there, this became her home. These many massive, monumental women. And now when I look at her I needn’t see myself any more, not my thighs and not the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, nor m wet lips, nor my finger, and I don’t even have to think that it might be better, better for us, if she were … However I won’t even say it. Instead, teasing like two relatives, we go on asking each other, ‘Are you Finno-Ugrian, too, if you don’t mind my asking?
* In short, the lady is on intimate terms with Hungarian history from the ill-fated battle of Mohács (1526), where King Louis II and his troops lost to the Turks, through the battle of Vezekény (1652), where four young Esterházys lost their lives fighting for the same cause; from the losing battles against the Habsburgs, culminating in the 1848-9 wars of independence, in which the reformer and politician Ferenc Deák was a motive force, through Imre Nagy, another reformer, though Communist, and though executed after the failed uprising of 1956. The Hungarian Democratic Forum came to power during more peaceful times, when the first post-Communist elections were held in 1990. (They have since failed to be re-elected.)