Péter Esterházy - Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World
On the surface, this is an ever so simple story. A father, gazing fondly at his son, remembers that one of his duties is to impart wisdom and, even more fun, to give gifts. So, he hands the teenager enough money to buy a bicycle. Kornél Esti buys the bicycle, shows it to his father, then rides off into the city. A local tough, vaguely known to Esti, asks if he can ride it. Esti says yes, the tough steals the bicycle. Years later, morphed into a drug dealer of sorts, the tough winds up in court and Esti gives testimony. And there you have it - the simple surface of the story, it's primary plot points highlighted in an effort to explain what happens.
But Péter Esterházy is not such a simple writer as all that. His short story, Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World allows, thematically, for the construct of a world of interlocking concepts and ideas, all of which stem from the purchase and loss of a bicycle. Esterházy's narrator is charming, intellectual, we suspect slightly fuddled from his immense knowledge of history, literature, and the high-flown thoughts of the ivory tower, and very, very pleased with the experimental aspects of function and form.
To wit, a taste:
For one thing, Esti did not judge his father, he paid him little heed, he was too busy discovering the world, something he’d do repeatedly in his life, he discovered the world repeatedly, but in this particular instance his father was not, strictly speaking, part of the world; but wait, I’m not putting this right either, he was part of the world, but was not part of the things waiting to be discovered; he felt that everything was as right with his father as with the garden gate, except the hinges could use a bit of grease because, like this, even when it’s not creaking, yet it’s as if something were not fully ideal; in short, he didn’t have to concern himself with his father, unless with the whimsical outbreak of some new initiative; these had to be nipped in the bud, but this, this nipping, was easily and consistently accomplished by the attractive grin on his face, his enchanting grin; besides, Esti didn’t regard this bicycle thing as such a big deal, an etwas, as I myself like to say.
We slip from the difficulty of paternity, to the emergence of youth into the adult's world, to our narrator having a little trouble properly expressing himself, back to contemplating his father (by comparing him with a gate that needs oiling), and then – and then! On it goes, and that's just a single sentence.
Esterházy's narrator makes the story. He is a charming fellow, distinct from both the father and the son, but intimately connected with both. The narrator is able and willing to see far, far ahead, as far as the father's deathbed if necessary, and he uses that sad instance as a chance for the father to reflect upon the events concerning the bicycle. He also, very often, jumps from the son to the father and back to show how something as simple and ordinary as the father allowing his son to purchase a bicycle on his own is enough to forcibly introduce the child to the responsibility of adulthood. Esterházy knows that life tends not to be the series of Distinct Moments that popular art would have us believe but a vast, minutely segmented gradient to – we never know where, but we end up there all the same. Each tiny step in a direction takes us closer to the destination of that step and, looking back, we can see a clearly defined trail when, looking forward, there was nothing. So, Esti's father, ceding ground to his son, isn't exactly aware that that is what he has done until later. Esti, excited about the bicycle and proud to be purchasing it on his own, isn't aware that the dynamic with his father has subtly shifted. But the narrator is, and he's happy to expound upon it, spiralling out from this to discuss some really rather grand subjects, including infinity, religion and God, and the workings of bureaucratic Hungary:
he’d rather put it this way, that this could remind Esti of an important Biblical admonition, namely, that we’ve been driven out of Paradise, in short, the sweat of our brow!, that our lives are full of the sweat of our brow, that the world is full of this salty, bitter seepage, his son doesn’t know this because neither he nor his mother bothered to teach him, nor was he particularly eager to learn it, and he suspects that Esti doesn’t even think it’s true, he doesn’t consider it inevitable, this is what he gathers from his son’s infinite glance (his glance pinned on the infinite), on his unclouded forehead, the way he soars rather than runs, sees it in the slightest ripple of his hand, the leaping of his thoughts, sees this ambition, which he respects, oh yes, when should a man want it all if not when he doesn’t know this all yet (and which is more finite than one would think); still, he’d like to warn his son after all, be careful, dear, he wouldn’t want to clip his wings, he’d be the last one around here to start clipping wings, though since we’re on the subject of wings, let’s not forget Icarus’s sweetly sorrowful gliding through the air.
Esterházy is a dense writer; he packs a great deal into his sentences, which stretch and extend, and loop back and curl in amongst themselves. But he never loses the thread of what is happening in the story – we remain, always, firmly anchored to the quite linear progression of the narrative from purchase, to loss, of the bicycle. No matter how far the narration flies away, it's always grounded to this concrete, and easily understood, plot structure. Esterházy keeps the threads connected, essentially.
The conclusion of the novel involves the bicycle-thief's court trial, and here Esterházy's narrator becomes more focused in his criticism of the state and its powers. Previously, the narrator was happy to flit about where he will, but now that Esti is older, the narrator can stay with him for longer. Esterházy shows the police as ineffectual and slightly sneering toward Esti's father, who perhaps foolishly believes that being a Doctor might allow him the luxury of the police searching more vigorously for the bicycle; and, later, the judge at the trial is bored and cold, a process man hitting his numbers and unsympathetic to whatever story might lie beyond the hard face of the criminal in the court room. He sparks up a little for Esti, but the (now) adult isn't fooled:
During the hearing, the judge’s questions followed each other as indifferently as raindrops. When it was Esti’s turn he seemed to liven up a bit, as if wanting to protect him, calm down, son, just tell us what happened. The slim, sympathetic young man of about twenty years of age, Esti launched in, as if he were reading it from a book. Why do you say sympathetic? That’s how I felt. But he stole your bicycle. After a short pause Esti answered: I know that what is in one’s heart is no concern of the court.
For English-speaking readers, Esterházy's massive Celestial Harmonies (my copy runs to 848 pages) is perhaps his most readily available work. It is an immense novel in terms of size but also in scope, intellectual difficulty, and artistic expression. Esterházy is one of those wonderful writers we foolishly refer to as 'difficult', because his art conspires to examine the world in a manner aligning with his intellect and desired method of expression, rather than simply concerning itself with that old worn tire, 'telling a story'. Having now read Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World, my excitement for what lies in store in Celestial Harmonies has dramatically increased. Esterházy is a major writer, and the availability of this short story – clearly more palatable than an 850-page novel – should increase his stature in English, which is sorely lacking when compared with Hungarian, German, French, etc. Highly recommended.
Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World by Péter Esterházy is a short story from Words Without Borders' August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue include:
---Háy, János - Lou's Last Letter to Feri's Wife
---Kornis, Mihály - The Toad Prince
---Lázár, Ervin - The China Doll
---Parti Nagy, Lajos - Oh, Those Chubby Genes
---Tar, Sándor - Slow Freight
Also of interest: Index of short stories under review