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from the August 2010 issue

Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World

As a rule, Esti looked up to his father as he did to God, but when he bought him that certain bicycle, that clinched it. The way an atheist looks up to God. Easily gliding similes never give the fate (or destiny? or is that the same?) of the world a satisfactory design, for there are atheists by the dozen, martial-like, resigned, terrified, curious, just like God, who is martial-like, resigned, terrified, curious. Possibly, God should be written with a small g here, but the truth, primitive as it may seem, is that I have always suspected some commie trickery in it, and could never shake the thought that they made that small g compulsory, thus proving (!) the nonexistence of God. Gagarin didn’t see him either, did he? That’s what I like about grammar, it thumbs its nose at the commies and all things related to them. Esti must have been around ten years of age, his father a bit older, I should think.

The Good Lord enjoyed observing Esti around this time; or to put it another way, it was around this time that he felt the urge once more; and this time (thanks to some unexpectedly discovered old photographs) to his utmost satisfaction, for Esti’s sober and wild features reminded him of his own. I am proud that I resemble you, he announced (or put forth?) pedantically to his son, and the way Esti responded, slowly, deliberately and generously arranging his lips into a grin as wide, or nearly, as that American actress Julia Roberts’s, there was something highly reassuring, even encouraging in it, as if all were right with the world, and not only the two of them understand each other, and not only do they understand each other as father and son, going in the face of custom, Oedipus, and this whole rigmarole by now no stranger to either of them (or is it pickle?, or mess?, that’s it, mess), but . . . I don’t even know, possibly they were just overwhelmed by a fever pitch of love, and being bashful by nature, they lost no time in projecting this onto the world, as if the world also understood itself.

But what I said just now is not right; the purchase of the bicycle did not help and possibly it did not hurt Esti’s judgment of Esti’s father. 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.

Of course he knew perfectly well that for once this was an expensive purchase, for he studied the leaflets, procured from at least two independent sources, the folders, fliers, catalogs, advertisements and brochures at length and in great detail, considering in the process possible cheaper, alternative solutions with respect to the rear light, the pump, and the varnish, I think—considerable savings from a moral point of view only (good intentions!), but I fear that Esti had other considerations unknown to me, principles, bicycle principles; he had strict bicycle principles on which . . . to say that he insisted would not be felicitous, for he saw to their enforcement with the sort of offhandedness that made you think they were the laws of Nature; after all, it would be foolhardy to blame the force of gravity for the broken china or, on the contrary, to derive perverse pleasure from doing so, and it would be even more foolhardy because, to put it tactfully, it would be based on a misunderstanding to say that we, for our part, that as far as we’re concerned, we side with the gravitation. Esti wanted something. He wanted the bicycle, thisparticular bicycle, and what fell outside its scope was beyond his field of vision. The circumstances, the conditions and repercussion of his wanting it left him cold. We might call the bicycle the non plus ultra of his dreams, and in fact, nothing was more ultra, and so Esti was not particularly awed when his dream, the dream of his dreams, was made flesh. He must’ve felt about this, and excuse me for the frivolous, fickle and foolhardy, careless and reckless, whimsically inappropriate to its subject, but not irresponsible parallel, like the young hero of that certain novel felt about the concentration camp,1 to wit, they were just familiarizing themselves with the world, and since they were unbiased in their innocence and attentive (not in the sense of obliging, but like someone paying attention, who is careful, vigilant, attentive and alert), they saw that the world is the way it is, and as a result of their lack of bias and quiet attentiveness it never occurred to either of them to be surprised or perplexed by anything, not a muscle on their faces stirred; after all, they had no expectations, they had no wishes, they took seriously what they were just learning, and their joy (or let’s call it happiness) was rooted in this seriously, the way mine is rooted in this frivolity: The world, concluded one of them, is such that sooner or later you’re taken to a camp, it’s the way of the world, it’s the universal order, or to put it another way, and here Esti nodded thoughtfully, the world is such . . .—this sentence is more difficult to finish aphoristically—in short, the world is such that this bicycle in it is a possibility. That the story of this bicycle—with respect to Esti—is possible in it.

Esti was not spoiled, and if a grain of sand happened to land in the great pedagogical machinery, he even resisted being spoiled, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he respected money (a circumstance in which his parents set a bad example, they couldn’t hide properly and in accordance with pedagogical principles that they didn’t care about money as such, nor the acquisition of money, nor the lack of money, and since they were not entirely without money, though he tactfully looked the other away, Esti couldn’t help noticing that almost none of their actions were financially motivated); in short, he had no respect for money, but he didn’t squander it either, not that there was anything to squander thanks to the strictures pertaining to the doling-out of his pocket money, which at times fell prey to forgetfulness, which strictures he accepted without a word of complaint, even when they manifested themselves in the guise of disorder. He was a puritan child. He would have also accepted without a word of complaint had his father made it a condition that, let’s say, he earn part of the price of the bicycle, maybe not half, but maybe a third, through summer work. Still, his happiness did not go so far that he should make this proposal himself, for the simple reason that it never occurred to him. He felt rather than knew that his parents did not make decisions about so-called pedagogical questions on the basis of principles but, first and foremost (and naturally, not independent of said principles), in accordance with their own best feelings, with what made them happy, and yes, with what brought them joy. It was these sudden attacks of joy- gathering that Esti’s above-mentioned grins were meant to moderate.

Esti cared only about the bicycle and couldn’t have cared less about the purchase of the bicycle, and shoved the fifty thousand forints his father had ceremoniously handed to him under ceremonious circumstances into his pockets like so many half-used hankies; if anything, he was surprised only that his father was not coming with him to the bicycle shop to effectuate the purchase. For his part, Esti’s father couldn’t have cared less about the bicycle, he couldn’t tell one from the other, and so had no considerations; in this bicycle purchase, too, it wasn’t the concrete purchase, the buying that was important to him, and so it never occurred to him to go along with his son (besides, in this heat?).

On the other hand, ever since, dispensing with the usual childish wiles, to wit, caution, circumspection, and ingratiation,  Esti did not bring up or hint at the question of the bicycle but confronted his parents with it as a problem in need of a solution, and did so with such disarming impertinence or innocence that they nearly forgot the obligatory lamentations and the shilly-shallying—nearly, because then they remembered and out of a sense of duty put up a fight, but were too lazy to provide reasons (in short, their resistance was meaningless and therefore useless), but without lowering themselves onto that bleak, alkali landscape where good grades become the pawns for the purchase, the pettiness of if-you-do-this-we’ll-do-that, in short, from that moment on, Esti’s father thought of the “father is buying a major present for his son” project with grand and noble emotions. Present is not the right word, because it’s not the thing that counts but the gesture, though the bicycle happened to be a fortunate choice, to start someone off on his path, isn’t that right? There won’t be many such occasions in their lives; besides, he couldn’t be put upon to buy such outrageously expensive things just like that; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to regard it (the outrageous expense) outrageous in earnest, though could someone please tell him why, in a city, on flat terrain, anyone would need twenty-seven (!) gears? And that’s just the beginning. He’s not saying there shouldn’t be progress, though his own R26 would satisfy all requirements even today, it would be more than adequate with its three gears, three gears, not too much, not too little, just as much as is needed, these modern “in” bicycles are not the product of organic technological development but fashion and frivolity, excess, frippery, happenstance, but never mind, this is not about the bicycle anyhow, it’s merely the humble expression of a symbolic paternal gesture, I should know!, expressing yourself humbly for fifty grand!, something that not only he but his son, too, will not soon forget.

Though he did his best, Esti’s father often fell into the (classical) trap of considering Esti not only his equal, but a grown-up as well. Still, back then, at the age of ten, Esti was a ten-year-old in every sense, who would embrace his father with such unlooked-for vehemence, kissing his neck, that they (father and neck) turned crimson; be that as it may, he was to blame for the mistake, for he was fond of grown-up gestures; he didn’t say, like the other children, I kiss your hand, but how do you do, a Hungarian child doesn’t do that; his thinking, guided not only by consistent but veritably dogmatic principles also bolstered this mistake, as did his gift for argumentation with which he protected the untenable consequences of his stubborn insistence on principles, and his general meticulousness, too, which was not without a trace of squeamishness, and which stretched from attention to the color harmony of his clothes to the over-scrupulous choice of TV channels. (His father didn’t even know what he had on, much less the color, or that colors stood in a relationship to each other. Also, it would never happen with Esti that he’d turn on the TV first and only then check the TV guide, that was his father’s usual practice; except for Mezzo and Spektrum, Esti hardly watched anything else, films never, and if he found his father watching a “crimi” (Columbo, Petrocelli), his silence was as contemptuous as that of fathers with a perennial chip on their shoulders—how or why they do it, we shall never know.)

There was just one blemish in this regard, though it was dark, to be sure, and the size of a birthmark, not unlike a hairy wart—a year of Dragon Ball madness. (By the way, Esti’s father always said Boy, at least that makes sense, not like Dragon Ball—and I heartily agree with him.) Esti scheduled his life according to these Japanese cartoons, he watched every episode, he even recorded them on video and watched them eagerly again at the most unexpected moments (morning before school, Sunday during lunch, when a soccer match was on). Esti’s father felt as if he’d been corralled, as if he were being corralled in by growing idiotism, the TV channels are broadcasting nothing but nonsense, and to make matters worse, Esti kept redrawing the characters, spectacularly but in a servile manner, as a result of which a Dragon Boy might come leaping out from basically anywhere, the napkin in the kitchen, the toilet paper in the bathroom (can’t one even do you-know-what in peace in one’s own home any more?), and once (three times! three times!) one came leaping from the mirror, sketched in lipstick, and though he repeatedly and continually suspected himself, for self-irony, too, was in his blood, and though he never wanted to be in the right when he wasn’t in the right, still, at this juncture he was canonballed by the banal conviction that, simply put, he was in the right. Indubitably. Him. Sometimes he absentmindedly stopped in front of the TV and saw, askance, that unsurprisingly, it was Dragon Boy, he looked at Esti, the unapproachable Esti, and in his heart felt the cold arrogance of those who have right on their side. Naturally, he too was an object of his own disappointment, which just heightened the growing irritability with his son. At such times he would keep out of his way, tried not to bump into him. He saw no hope of freeing his son from the clutches of Dragon Boy. His fatal embrace. Also, Esti was gradually taking on the sketchy outlines of the cartoon figure, or so his father thought. But no, that’s an exaggeration. And to make matters worse, in this dazed, vertiginal state, Esti kept recording the series on one or another of his father’s treasured video cassettes, for instance, an archived memory!, which just strengthened the above-mentioned unpleasant feeling of being in the right. I’m right, Esti’s father grumbled, and ran out to the garden, just like a shame-faced adolescent. Then from one moment to the next the nightmare was over, Esti surfaced as if from the bottom of a lake, looking about him grinning and coughing and not remembering a thing. And truth to tell, there wasn’t much to remember.

In short, while it never occurred to Esti that the price of the bicycle, the number, might be of concern to anyone, basically unintentionally (!) Esti’s father, if he did not calculate outright, yet made a quick estimate of how many working hours that certain number would entail, more or less; he had no intention of rubbing this in but rather, like Pavlov’s dog, whom, reflex-like, I like to bring up whenever I can, he started to divide that appreciable sum by a rough assessment of his hourly wages. One makes do with what one can. Though he never mentioned the results of his mathematical calculations to Esti, still, he wouldn’t have thought it entirely ill-advised if this appreciable and in its objectivity, how shall he put it, more boring then petty revelation of the number of his workdays would reveal to (Esti) the structure of the world, to wit, that you, as bearded old schoolmasters would say, don’t get something for nothing, everything has its price; for his part, 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.

Many a time did Esti’s father seethe inside in a like manner, though he rarely drew conclusions from it, rarely was this followed by action; he’d continually get bored with this typically paternal line of reasoning, he got bored with his duties, too, and fatherhood, the paternal nitpicking, and he loved standing around by Esti’s side, as if he were standing by his own. It’s at times like this that he was the best of fathers.


When Esti showed up with the new bicycle, there was no knowing where the sudden radiance was coming from, what was causing it, Esti, or the bicycle. They were standing in that radiance, Esti, the parents, the garden. If I were wont to be jocular I would say that Esti’s father would have liked to put the brakes on this excess of emotion, but it was Esti who put on the brakes, backing up in front of them with a dexterity bordering on the audacious. Hey, hey, hold your horses, mind the tires, Esti’s father would have liked to shout, but the way Esti put on the brakes, coming to a slanting halt from the swift movement like some sort of film trick or break in transmission, there was that radiance again.

The essentially silver-colored bicycle shot off quivering green flashes, as if a real painter—Chinese? Japanese?—had breathed them there, that’s how light and artistic they seemed, and Esti’s parents were struck dumb and just looked at each other in this silvery radiance, which in the meantime had turned white and milky, not a fog, though, because it was a glittering light and a dull gloom simultaneously—the least I can say is that everyone was happy, they had planned something, and it was now a reality, and if they could believe the silence (the silence rearing up between them), even more had been accomplished than they had bargained for. Esti’s father was the first to move; he placed a hand on the steering wheel, then stroked the light as if it were somebody’s head. Well, well, I’ll be, it’s quite a machine, he said exaggerating his own unintentional parodistic gesture, and then, continuing along the same line added: But it’s four horses! Which if I remember well is a sentence from Mikszáth;2 Esti’s father felt the innocent solemnity of Westerns. Esti raised the front wheel as if he knew about this Western feeling, the mechanical mount—that’s it! a mechanical mount—he reared up, rider and mount becoming one; Esti seemed to have entered another world, and spinning round on the back wheel he steered himself (the two of them) toward the street, waited it out, then whooping “I’ll be back!” galloped into the infinity of the side street.

Esti’s father was thinking about this, this infinity, even on his deathbed. Which, by the way, surprised him. However, let us add, for the sake of the truth, that this was not the only thing on his mind; he was thinking about lots of things there; in short, though he’d come to terms with that whole thing, death, as it were, sneaked his triumphant forces in through the back door. But never mind. He considered this grinning, this galloping (side street) infinite as the high point of his fatherhood. The high point was almost directly related to the low point, the bicycle affair to the bicycle.

Provided that the school janitor was called Kovács—that guzzler Kovács!—then the young man or mature big boy spoke thus to Kornél Esti, who was pedaling his bike in front of the school: Listen, you think the Guzzler’s at home? Or if Czigler, then Cigi-boy. Esti shrugged, he was busy balancing on his bicycle, advancing a little at a time, inch by inch, his entire attention concentrated on what he was doing. Cheaters have a natural psychological aptitude, they’re born psychologists, as if they’d learned it at school. The Guzzler’s buddy, that’s how Esti referred to him later on. And how beautiful his new bike is, this buddy said that, too. Esti got off the contraption; they were walking back towards the kindergarten. Possibly the kindergarten children—their innocent toddling, their chatter—may have had something to do with his lack of caution. It is hard to identify the source of trust. The big boy’s striped T-shirt, for example. Esti had never studied a T-shirt so closely before, with excited respect, in fact. Now and then the boy’s belly peeped out from under it. But what I’ve just said about the source of trust is not right, it’s the other way around, for at this point in time Esti trusted every Tom, Dick, and Harry—to give you one example, he even trusted his father.

Whether just this once, could he take it for a spin. Esti felt flustered, but was instantly ashamed of himself. At which the boy quickly resumed that he understands it, no kidding, a person doesn’t like handing his brand-new bike over to a stranger, and can Esti turn right around with two movements, no, three, two. What does he mean right around? Well, completely around. No. In which case he’d be happy to show him. Esti was holding the steering wheel in the middle as if it were the back of somebody’s head. And another as if: as they walked, he leaned the bicycle in towards the big boy as affectionately as if they’d known each other a very long time. That rotten, stinking thief got on the bicycle carefully, respectfully, that’s great, he said, first I pick up speed, and with that, picking up speed, he took off quick as a flash toward the main road, came to a sudden halt, pulled back the steering wheel as if it were a bridle bit, and wouldn’t you know, he turned a hundred and eighty degrees, then taking his time, he pedalled back toward the owner. He could have bolted the first time, Esti later said. Why didn’t he? Why was there need for even more trust? Just one more time, all right? No, screamed Esti silently. The boy picked up speed again, but now—surprise!—he didn’t put on the brakes, but with a hissing sweep rounded the corner. Confused, Esti took off after him, picking up speed, panting, no, no, he kept repeating; by the time he reached the corner the bicycle was just disappearing at the far end of the street. Was there something infinite about this, too? Surprised, dismayed, he watched as his bicycle disappeared forever.

Not much later, Esti’s father was pole-axed by an improved version of this surprise, this, one might say, dumb expression on Esti’s countenance.

First, they went back to the school, where the old guzzler Kovács was snoring hunched over the table in his kitchen, out of commission; he shrugged, don’t ask him, he doesn’t know anybody, so they continued their hopeless reconnoitering of the neighborhood in the car; both were sunk in silence, Esti more so. His father felt that he was going about his business as he should and tried not to think of the fifty thousand gone out the window. His new active self impressed him somewhat, and to the extent of this somewhat, anyway, he forgot about Esti. They even went to the police station, not because he (they) was (were) hoping to get anything out of it, but because this is the prescribed order of things, when there’s a theft, we report it to the police, we let them know that the order they’ve been charged to uphold has come undone. This is the first time in my life I’m reporting on anyone, and he shot a proud glance at Esti, who nodded noncommittally. As it turned out, it wasn’t easy, making a report. It’s got its own choreography. The young officer examined the first attempt closely, constructively. Osvát3 must have looked at manuscripts in much the same way.

This won’t do, Doctor. Esti’s father appended Dr. before his name for the occasion; he must have really thought, I think, he must have truly believed the nonsense that this will make the authorities throw more weight into the investigation. First kindly write at the top in capital letters REPORT so we know right off what we’re about, there’s a strict procedure to follow—just like the West, I swear—and stick to the facts as you write, it doesn’t matter what you or your son were thinking in the meanwhile, like it’s such a shock and the like. What is in one’s heart, the young officer explained politely, is not a police item.Heartache is not a police concern. Kornél Esti etched these two sentences into his memory.

Everyone was genuinely surprised, the police, the offender, the Estis, when three years later he was found, a needle in a haystack. He was a member of a drug ring, the sale of stolen goods constituted their capital. A call came from the police, a detective!, whether Esti would give testimony in court, it’s not obligatory, but is highly recommended. No!, screamed Esti’s mother who, whenever she heard the word drug, immediately and without fail fell into a funk, No! Yes, said Esti. His father accompanied him. The waiting at the law court was like in a hospital. Or the Council (local government). Esti tried to tell the witnesses apart from the offense, the guilty from the innocent, but failed.

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. The judge sank back into boredom again, let’s continue, shall we?, do you see the offender in the courtroom? The sympathetic offender? Who was sitting in the first row, his hands in handcuffs. Neither Esti nor his father had ever seen real live handcuffs until that moment. There was something domestic about it, a slightly antiquated object, or mechanism, about which there’s no knowing the use, but no one dares dispose of it. It should be rusty, by all odds. Esti’s eyes wandered in a disciplined manner from the back rows forward, and when he saw the offender, his countenance brightened, he pointed to him, for he recognized him, I recognize him, he said. The guilty party raised his shoulders slightly, almost as if he were apologizing, or possibly he was just indicating, sorry, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I tried but failed. Esti nodded, a fleeting smile lending emphasis to his seriousness. His father, who was not sitting with the people in the courtroom but was standing behind a column by the door, was startled by the loneliness and pride in the thief’s gesture, and he saw the same thing in his son’s. He was being excluded from something, he felt, irrevocably.

When the bicycle disappeared from Esti’s sight, he started running for home, and his father, who came to him impatiently in response to his impatient ringing at the door saw right away that something was amiss. Panting, Esti related to him the facts of the case in a manner almost identical to his testimony at court years later. It wasn’t the bicycle that hurt, his father could see that, but that such a thing could happen. Something that he was confident could never happen. There was fear on his young face, the fear that, in that case, anything could happen. And by then there had settled in his bluish, melancholy eyes something, too, that nothing could entirely chase away later on—beyond the disappointment, the surprise and fear, an ashen and cosmic indifference.

1A reference to the young character of Nobel Prize Laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fateless.

2Kálmán Mikszáth (1847–1910), major Hungarian novelist, journalist, and politician.

3Ernő Orvát(1877–1929), editor of various literary magazines who became famous for discovering young talent and for his unerring taste in literature, which is respected to this day.

Translation of Esti Kornél biciklije, avagy a világ szerkezete. From Esti (Magvető, 2010). Copyright 2010 by Péter Esterházy.By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.



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