The Budapest Bookfair

Per Olov Enquist in the public eye in Budapest
Enquist-per-olov[1]1
Among the hundreds of novelists and other writers in Budapest, only two men attracted the kind of audiences that packed the ceremonial space Bartók Hall: Mario Vargas Llosa and Per Olov Enquist. Anna Paterson listened to the latter speak.


'Mothers and their influence' started off the conversation in German between Per Olov Enquist and the Hungarian novelist Péter Esterházy, writer of a great family saga. Enquist's mother, and her fundamentalist Christian beliefs with its blood-and-love images of the suffering Lamb of God, has influenced him deeply.

Religion has moved centre-stage in Enquist's last two novels. In his internationally acclaimed novel set in the late 18th century, The Royal Physician's Visit (Livläkarens besök), pietism is the part of the spiritual background to the reforming figure of Dr Struensee, the Royal Physician. Popular evangelical religion is the core topic in his latest novel Lewi's Journey (Lewis resa), which follows the explosive growth of the Pentecostal Church from the 1920s to our days. The Movement started as an ecstatic creed in USA but, as Enquist said, 'the Swedes organised it'.

Thanks to Enquist's mastery of narrative and language, Lewi's Journey has become immensely popular as well as warmly reviewed, in spite of its formidable 600 pages and a subject apparently remote from modern consciousness. Given that 'the Mother' was not sufficient to explain this complex story of belief tempered by human calculation, Esterházy moved on to an even more monumental influence: the Bible.

This topic greatly exercises Enquist, who argues that the Bible is 'a work in progress' and the Gospels alone are fundamental to Christian belief. This is not new, he insists, but an enlightened view expressed e.g. by Count Zinzendorf (18th century founder of the Moravian Church). All this caused an unusually lively response in the normally quiescent Festival audience, but Esterházy and Enquist got the conversation round to the novelistic dimensions of Lewi's Journey.

The book's central relationship is between Lewi Pethrus, part gentle father of 'The Movement' and part ruthless master of Realpolitik, and his ambiguous colleague Sven Lidman, an right-wing ex-pagan turned religious enthusiast and orator. Esterházy asked about role of sexuality - the Movement attracted lots of young working woman - and about the implicit homosexuality of the Pethrus-Lidman friendship, which ended in bitter enmity. These promising subjects, including some close-to-the-bone questions about a Pethrus v. Lidman-polarity within Enquist himself, took up almost all of the remaining time.

Finally, they simply had to talk about European culture: how did a Swede feel about being celebrated in Central Europe? Sweden, Enquist said, was part of a 'non-occidental' axis, taking in the Baltic states and western Russia, Germany and Central Europe. The pact of cultural understanding stopped short of 'the Mediterranean countries' and of the western centres of Paris, London and Madrid. Applause - everybody seemed pleased and intrigued by this.







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