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Book Review: Celestial Harmonies by Péter Esterházy

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A noble family, and hundreds of years of history. Celestial Harmonies packs more historical events than any other novel I have seen, all written from the point of view of the lastest descendant of the Esterházy family. However, finishing this book left me dissatisfied, and I wished I didn’t pick up this book in the first place. Let me tell you why.

But first, a little attempt at a synopsis.

The House of Esterházy is one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Hungary and in Europe. Several generations exist, and the collective histories of these people are told through the eyes of the author, who himself is a descendant of the Esterházy family. Hence, it has the potential to be an historical novel. We see princes, diplomats, aristocrats, and many other political figures come and go. Several hundred years of Hungarian history are covered in this book.

However, there is one complication. In an attempt to be artistic and metaphorical, the narrator (presumably the author) portrays all of these as activities done by his Father (with a capital F). Yes, all the previous men belonging to the Esterházy family are portrayed as his collective Father. This makes it sort of cute, in an artistic sense, but as a narrative, this was an utter failure, I believe.

For one, it makes it really hard to form a mental representation of the sequence of events. I tried so hard to see how events related to each other, figuring out which one happened first, followed by which one, and so forth. But since every episode is about a Father that may not be exactly the same in real life, then it reaches a point when the reader just gives up all attempts in trying to read this book in a coherent fashion. One suspends all expectations of cohesion.

So, once the reader suspends an expectation of cohesion, what happens? The novel suddenly becomes boring. Yes, it is just pages and pages of vignettes, just tied together by a loose theme — that is, these are all vignettes about episodes from various members of the Esterházy family. It seems like this is just 840-something pages of text, all written in a stream of consciousness.

The thing is, I have nothing against stream of consciousness. In fact, I liked James Joyce’s Ulysses. Similar to Ulysses, this book also has plenty of material. Both books are tough books to read. Contrary to Ulysses however, Celestial Harmonies covers material from several hundred years, while all the events Ulysses covered happened in one day.

Hence, this results in a bipolar book. On the one hand, it uses artistic devices indicating that this is a literary work of art, but on the other hand, there are just plenty of events covered that it makes it very hard for the reader not to treat it as an historical novel. This divide is particularly evident in the division the author imposed on the text: Book 1 is more a collection of numbered sentences describing events several hundred years ago; while Book 2 covers more the Soviet period as seen by the House of Esterházy.

So overall, I came out of Celestial Harmonies disappointed, and with a headache, wishing that I never picked this book up in the first place. The literary devices were overused, and the form of narration was incompatible with the material. Instead of appearing as a spectacular piece of literature, it feels more like a transcript of a monologue by a senile individual, someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, recalling events in his past, in random order. He recalls and retells whatever event he remembers, in no particular order, in no particular causal relation, with no attention whatsoever to whether his stories were coherent or not.

I give this 2 out of 5 stars.

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