Not Art, like all good sports fiction, isn’t about sport and in many ways it isn’t even a novel. It’s a piece of autofiction by a man writing about his mother. A mother who is besotted by football and by one practitioner in particular, the great Ferenc Puskás of Hungary.
Esterházy is an interesting character, coming from an aristocratic family, and considered a major European novelist. His brother was a professional footballer and Péter himself played a bit.
The author is therefore, I believe, uniquely suited to write fiction with a sporting background. He has one foot inside the sport and one outside. He is both inside and outside the football collective and this is the ideal place to write about it because it allows both intimacy and distance. It facilitates detail and perspective.
Firstly he is clearly extremely engaged by football and this engagement has come from his mother, with whom he is obsessed and whom the book is about. His mother’s own obsession with and friendship with Puskás is partly from a nationalistic bent but he is also a carrier of nostalgia for her. Sport and nostalgia are easy bedfellows. As are sport and nationalism.
Her nostalgia is for when Hungary bestrode the world of football. In 1953 The Golden Squad, The Mighty Magyars, beat England 6-3 in their home patch in Wembley, and went on to hammer them 7-1 in Hungary the following year. Syd Owen, one of the English players, would later tell Malcolm Allison that ‘it was like playing people from outer space.’ They were that good.
They beat Italy 3-0 and Brazil and Argentina 4-2. One million people applied for tickets for the 1954 England game. Think about that. In a population of only 10 million.
What was interesting about the team, and footballers generally in Hungary at this time, was how much the played with freedom and imagination. How, on the pitch, they could act with abandon and openness and inventiveness – all of which they daren’t show in a country run under a rigorously Stalinist regime.
Another interesting fact was that Puskás’s club was Honved, sponsored by the Hungarian army and he was an officer. So his association with the country was deeper than that of most players. He even changed his name to sound more Hungarian – from Ferenc Purczeld to Ferenc Puskás (as did other players).
And this is another major factor in sport – why we play and why we watch – identity. Esterházy knows this.
Anyway, like most good stories it all went wrong and there was a tragic ending – they were beaten 3-2 by Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final in Berne. Now many of the elements of great fiction are aligning, including loss and grief. There was a riot in Budapest on the night of that game. The adoration of the players turned to hatred and when they came home they had to have minders to protect them from the public – great stuff, no?
Better still (from a writer’s perspective) was to come. When the Russians invaded after The Hungarian Rising in 1956, Puskás and his team were in Spain preparing for a match against Athletic Bilbao. He wouldn’t return to Hungary for 25 years.
And so, by being absent and staying away, in some ways, Puskás remained pure, untouched by the shame the Hungarians felt. His legend-hood was intact. But the Golden Squad was no more. Puskás spend 10 years with Real Madrid; players like Czibor and Kocsis joined Barcelona and didn’t return home either.
Esterházy’s mother continued to love Puskás and to obsess about him into old age. And the book charts her descent, physical and mental, and her son’s care of her.
But the thing about sport is that it allows us, even as we grow old, to remain young in the moments when we, or our team, or the men we worshipped were great. When I saw old men weep with abandon at Christy Ring’s funeral, it wasn’t only Ring they were mourning and his greatness – it was their own prime too, the youth and vigour they had left behind.
At the end of the book, when the narrator (the author) meets a former great young player, Miki Gorog, on the street (and now they are both old men) he cannot restrain himself from hugging Miki. And the reason is clear:
‘I wallowed in the onrush of sentiment, the nostalgic memories of him and could hardly restrain myself from telling him how lucky I was to have known him. How happy that my soap-smelling God had created a world in which a man like him is possible … this meeting contains the universe within it, or if not quite the universe, still minimo calculo the past, present and future that our national anthem says we must atone for, but which in short, we can now celebrate with glee.’
And earlier when his mother tries to tell him about what sport is and what it means to watch it, she says:
‘ … but it’s one thing standing by the sidelines and shooting your mouth off, it’s not you doing the talking there, the words just happen, they speak themselves, or, as you would say, the pitch is doing the talking. However, I can buy that. I’ve done the same thing all my life, I stood by the sidelines, you can be a smart-ass, a know-it-all, partial, half-baked, what have you there, or all of it together. You’re not the crowd but neither are you you too. You’re part of the game. A person like that is free, not just the one playing, but also the one watching. It’s in the air, son, you absorb it even if it hangs over you like a canopy of dense fog, you barely see as far as the net, the men, too, grow indistinct … and you can’t tell where the field ends, it doesn’t, son, you can see infinity with both your eyes.’
Esterházy gets sport. He really gets it.
And that’s why he writes about it, I think.
Péter Esterházy has another novel which goes into football even more. It’s called Utazás a Tizenhatos Mélyére (Voyage to the End of the Penalty Area), but alas it’s not translated into English.