Obituary: Peter Esterhazy, novelist

Born: 14 April, 1950, in Budapest, Hungary. Died: 14 July, 2016, in Budapest, aged 66.

Hungarian writers works have been translated into more than 20 languages. Picture: AFP/Getty

Finding out, after a lifetime of admiration of your father, that he was not the paragon you had thought he was, is a hard enough blow.

To make the discovery after his death, and when you have just written and published a glowing tribute to him, is galling.

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But how much worse still, to find that the man you loved, on whose words you hung, and with whom you adored all through your childhood to play hour after hour of your favourite game, football, was, all that time, a secret police informer to a cruel and repressive communist state.

That was the shattering blow that hit Peter Esterhazy, Hungary’s best known writer of the late-communist and post-communist era, who had many friends in Britain, and whose own death on July 14, aged only 66, will surely be mourned at Edinburgh’s international book festival this year.

Esterhazy’s ironic, witty and complex writing, most notably that tribute to a father, his 800-page novel Celestial Harmonies(2000) has been described, by John Updike, 
the US author and critic, as having an “electric crackle”, and his works have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Esterhazy won, in 1996, the Kossuth Prize, his country’s highest cultural award – named after the 19th-century Hungarian freedom fighter who in 1856 came to Scotland’s capital – and added to his many international laurels, in 2004, the Frankfurt book Fair Peace Prize.

A descendant of the central European aristocratic family that once employed the composer Joseph Haydn at its palace at Eisenstadt, Austria, Esterhazy would joke that he possessed not even one palace.

He was born two years after Hungary’s first post-war communist government took power, and as an infant was bundled off with his parents into exile from Budapest to the countryside, where his father, Matyas, had to work as a farm labourer.

Nevertheless the richness of the Esterhazy family’s story, spanning 300 years of Austro-Hungarian history, fills Celestial Harmonies with anecdotes and digressions.

Embarked on immediately after Matyas’s death in 1998, and written in two parts, the novel goes on into the twentieth century, when, during the First World War, Esterhazy’s grandfather was briefly Prime Minister of Hungary.

“The fact that my name is an omen, a sign, a portentous sign, didn’t worry me for a long time”, Esterhazy, who is still listed in genealogies as a titled Count, declares in it.

But it was the sudden discovery about Matyas, just before the novel was published, in Hungarian state files, that set Esterhazy the task of a huge reassessment of his relationship with his father, and even of his own writing.

He expressed it at once in a paroxysm of further work, adding to Celestial Harmonies” a third part, which he called Revised Edition , and finished in 2002.

“One could say that the game I play with all my novels has caught up with me,” Esterhazy reflected. Upset, he saw his own habit of borrowing other authors’ words as perhaps no better than his father’s practice of saying things, in his role as informer, that were not his own.

Irrepressible, nevertheless, Esterhazy was known for his humour in near-untranslatable puns, a characteristic that has made his translators rise to the challenge.

His wit is evident in a version regarded as especially sensitive to his style, by the British translator Richard Aczel.

This work, The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube) (1991, English version 1999), is an account, by a hired adventurer, addressed to his employer, of his travels through central Europe, the title slyly referring, for anyone in the know, to the fact that the Countess, a 19th-century writer, had only one eye.

One of four brothers, Esterhazy was educated at the Piarista Gimnazium in Budapest, and went on to study mathematics at Budapest University. In 1969 he did army service at Hodmesovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary.

He also excelled at football, and became an officially registered player for the Csillaghegy Working Men’s Gymnastic Club, Budapest. The game was a family talent: his brother Marton made football his career, and would play for Hungary at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Esterhazy did not need to toil for long at his first job, as a systems supervisor in the ministry of industry: his early works, including Fancsiko and Pinta, were greeted, from 1978 onwards, with acclaim.

Other works include She Loves Me and The Book of Hrabal, a tribute to the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, who died a year before Esterhazy’s father, 1997, and to visit whom Esterhazy made a special trip to Prague.

Esterhazy married, in 1973, Margit ‘Gitta’ Reen, and they had two daughters and two sons: Zsofia, Dora, Miklos, and Marcell. She and their children survive him.

In October 2015 Esterhazy had to pull out of the Gothenburg book fair, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Even his illness did not escape a literary going-over: for his last work he wrote Pancreas Diary, a dialogue with the troublesome body-part.

Admirers of his work will remember many pithy sayings. In one, from Celestial Harmonies, he observed: “History belongs to the victors, legends to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.”