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Péter Esterházy: Szív segédigéi (Helping Verbs of the Heart)

The story of this short book is very simple. The narrator’s mother is dying. The first part gives the narrator’s point of view of his mother’s death and funeral. The second part gives the mother’s view (though she tells it posthumously). However, this book is anything but simple. He starts with a foreword. The stories people wrote nowadays are all very beautiful, meaningful, deep and useful, full of temperament or serenity. Only they have no introduction. That is why I’ve decided to write this story in such a way as to require an introduction.. Of course the book does not need an introduction, except for telling us that he uses quotations from a variety of authors. These authors constitute a panorama of modern Hungarian and other authors. Interestingly enough the introduction is dated 16 June, which is both the date on which Imre Nagy, the leader of the revolutionary Hungarian government in 1956, was executed and Bloomsday, the day on which the action of Ulysses takes place.

While the narrator tells us his story – the almost conventional description of his mother’s dying, with the relatives returning home and fighting – Esterházy adds, at the bottom of every page, quotes from these authors, as well as from himself. Most of the quotes relate to interfamily relationships and, in particular, relationships between mother and son. The mother is called Beatríz Elena Viterbo, the same name as a Borges mother (she appears in a couple of the quotes). In telling his story with the quotes and the oddly named mother, Esterházy, while showing the mourning for a relatively conventional mother, also distances the reader with these techniques so that, instead of concentrating on the story, the narration, we are distracted by the quotes.

After the son’s narration, the dying, the family squabbling, the funeral and, finally, the sadness, we pass to the mother’s posthumous narration. While expressing her love and concern for her son, like any good mother, she also goes on to tell her story, not in a conventional manner but more in a fantasy style as mother chooses the Pope and goes round Budapest in men’s clothing trying to pick up a man, while also recounting her early life, including her sexual fumblings with her husband. But, finally, she dies and she knows it and she speaks to her son. She is afraid of death.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1985 by Magveto, Budapest
First published in English 1991 by Grove Weidenfeld