The doppelganger is an unsettling figure in literature. This person has your face, your eyes, the way you part your hair, the cut of your jib — and he has used those same components to build an entirely different life. Where you demurred, he seduced. When you stayed home, he ventured forth. What you repressed, he expressed, making him less an evil twin and more a Jungian shadow.
Kornel Esti — the titular character in the late Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi's third novel to be translated into English — may as well be his mirror image, but he is everything that the nameless narrator isn't. He is the bold, reckless counterpart to the narrator, the one who exhorted him as a child to skip school, play with matches, bite his nursemaid. Now, in middle age, Esti is full of stories of wild adventures across Europe, but he lacks the discipline to write them down. The narrator, who has spent his life sensibly, building a career and a simple writing style, has found himself with nothing to say. "One man isn't enough to write and live at the same time. Those who've tried it have all broken down sooner or later," the narrator explains. So they make a deal: Esti's life in the narrator's words.
What a life, and, oh, what words. Together they tell the stories from scenes of a life fully lived, such as a long night on a train through Bulgaria, the hours spent in deep conversation with the conductor despite neither speaking the other's language. His journeys sometimes tip into fantasy, like the trip to a town where instead of businesses exaggerating the value of their wares, their advertisements tell the brutal truth: "Crippling shoes," reads a store's sign. "Corns and abscesses guaranteed. Several customers' feet amputated." In turn hilarious, touching and exasperating, each chapter takes the reader on a completely unexpected journey through a Central Europe as yet unravaged by World War II and the suffering to follow. The prose soars and lifts, but the narrator always provides the necessary ballast to the whirligig storyteller.
Despite being originally published in 1933, Kornel Esti's form resembles the rather modern novel-in-stories template. Or perhaps a better marker is James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as both catch the formative moments in the development of a person's character, leaving out the connective tissue. That half the formative moments in Kosztolanyi's book appear to be lies and fancy doesn't matter. It's like the man at the bar who you know is telling tall tales but who is so engrossing in doing so that you don't care to sift lie from truth — you just want him to keep talking. Whether Kornel Esti the character is psychological allegory, an imaginary friend who overstayed his welcome or a coincidence of facial features, Kornel Esti the novel is a rediscovered Hungarian modernist masterpiece about the relationship between experience and art, what we give up to pursue a dream, and how two men can start from the same position and end up in wholly different worlds.