“Parallel Stories” by Peter Nadas, translated by Imre Goldstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,152 pages, $40)
Peter Nadas is Hungary’s foremost literary artist, his country’s most accomplished and ambitious novelist. He also ranks among the greatest writers of our era — according to the highbrow critics of international fiction.
This formidable reputation rests on the strengths of one novel, “The Book of Memories,” issued in English in 1997. Written in 1986 under the repressive communist regime, the book gave birth to a new “novel of consciousness,” according to the New York Times, and Nadas’ name rose to its rightful place on the Mount Rushmore of European writers, alongside Marcel Proust, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann.
In Nadas’ hands, we were told, the Eastern European novel had at last come of age.
By far, the most effusive review came from the American writer Susan Sontag, who called the 706-page tome “The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” This, of course, was a classic example of critical hyperbole — a statement that cannot literally be true because it is impossible to verify: Who has read all the novels written in our time to judge this one the best?
Whether you think that question is worth asking will largely determine your willingness to tackle “Parallel Stories,” Nadas’ obese successor to “The Book of Memories.” Weighing in at 1,152 pages and almost four pounds, this brick of a book begs for a sound bite that can outdo Sontag’s. Thus one European critic: “A twenty-first century ‘War and Peace.’ ”
“Parallel Stories” certainly carries the gravitas of a monumental work of art. Nadas took 18 years to write it, reveling in his new-found freedom from the censorial eye of Budapest’s Big Brother. Imre Goldstein took five years to translate it, a truly heroic feat, despite his penchant to alternate between 20th-century slang for body parts and stuffy Victorian expressions of emotion. And the novel will take at least a good month of steady, second-wind reading for you to finish it. (Assuming that you have a life apart from literature.)
If nothing else, “Parallel Stories” is monumental: exceedingly complex, stylistically challenging, shockingly deviant in the behavior it deconstructs.
Whether you find this type of postmodernism pretentious or profound will largely determine your reaction to the book. At its best, “Parallel Stories” proves to be an acquired taste. At its worst, it’s a jumbled mess of self-indulgent, below-the-navel-gazing. And unlike critical hyperbole, taste and messiness tend to be matters of cold, hard fact.
Parallel lines do not converge
Trying to summarize the plot of “Parallel Stories” would be like trying to explain Salvador Dali’s paintings to a blind man: Only silliness ensues. But certain elements can be isolated, giving us a feel, a mood, a sensation of what Nadas is up to. If this sounds unnecessarily fragmented, that’s because for postmodernist aesthetics, fragments are the story. Nadas has happily thrown out the metanarrative baby with the bathwater.
Still, let’s see what emerges.
One morning in Berlin, a jogger discovers a dead body covered in snow on a park bench. Thus, a murder mystery seems to be brewing at the outset of the novel. The time is 1989, the year Hungary liberated itself from the Soviet bloc. The man who finds the corpse is named Dohring. He is not one of the three main characters whose parallel stories will give the novel its title and unwieldy shape. But he is a member of one of the families whose histories form the second strain of parallel stories in this three-part behemoth. Confusing? Get used to it.
The triad of ostensible protagonists — none of them particularly sympathetic — line up as follows: Agost Lippay Lehr, son of a Hungarian bureaucrat; Hans von Wolkenstein, who has ties, through the maternal side of his family, to Nazism; and a spy, aptly named Andras Rott. Elementary geometry tells us that parallel lines do not converge. Nor do the three characters’ stories. Occasionally, they overlap, as Nadas swerves wildly from Germany to Hungary, from World War II to the Cold War, from the Nazi death camps to the hidden corners of Budapest bedrooms.
And when I say “swerve,” I mean “swerve”: Nadas may never disclose the place or time of an event; third-person narrative slips into first-person like a comma splice in a run-on sentence; disjointed stories unravel, only to reattach hundreds of pages later.
We sense that we are feeling our way through the moral fog of the past century, when two years in particular pop up, 1956 and 1961: the first, the year the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising; the second, when Agost, Wolkenstein and Rott meet in a Budapest bathhouse.
History may therefore seem to be Nadas’ main concern in “Parallel Stories,” how it shapes one’s character — or brutalizes it. But family history quickly usurps world history, and we find ourselves twisting in the intricacies of the Hungarian Lippay Lehrs and the German Dohrings.
This makes for dizzying reading, which may indicate that Nadas is not so much a postmodernist, as a plain, old-fashioned sadist.
Arrested adolescence, Freudian style
But let’s turn back to history. Hungary’s tells a story of helplessness, a country victimized by two of the most brutal, murderous regimes of 20th-century Europe: Nazism and Stalinism. The torturous, totalitarian urge to repress or exterminate the Other — whether Jew, Gypsy, homosexual, or mentally impaired — may be the real protagonist of “Parallel Stories.” The dark heart of European culture looms as the central scandal of the novel: the ugly, intractable will to power that philosophers call “totalizing.”
Totalitarianism is the logical outcome of totalizing, the urge to conquer the world through concepts, a project bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks. Nadas intuitively expresses the most effective way to resist such totalizing: through the body. This is the chief insight of the Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who says that the body of the Other — specifically his or her face — is the start of ethics. For Nadas, however, the body is the start of limitless indulgence of one’s erogenous zones. Levinas declares that the Other’s face pleads, “Don’t kill me,” while Nadas intones, “Leave me alone with my sexual obsessions.”
Predictably, he spends an unseemly, inordinate amount of time on clinically precise renderings of sex, in all its bewildering varieties. It’s as if a middle school student had discovered a textbook on human anatomy. He can’t help staring at the biological details, fascinating and repulsive, until he remembers that the body also extends above the waist, and lingers patiently below the knees.
Worth asking again: What is art?
That was Tolstoy’s question as he grappled with the ultimately unsatisfying nature of his novels. He felt a spiritual emptiness, an inescapable egoism, in all his creations: the vanity that feeds great art. As the “War and Peace” of the 21st century, “Parallel Stories” raises a similar query: When does autobiographical writing — refracted through the imaginative and linguistic conventions of the artist — become an authentic public value? A value that does not consciously repress the Other, who, in this case, is the reader.
Nadas has said in an interview that “Parallel Stories” embodies the Greek notion of chaos, the ancient fear of the infinite, that which has no limit. Hence, the incomplete, disorienting, desultory and arbitrary shifts in time, place and voice. Hence, the jarring fragmentation.
But here’s the rub: To utter a judgment about chaos is to impose the order of language — an idealized structure that the world itself does not possess. Mimesis, even of chaos, cannot itself be chaotic. To assert otherwise is simply literary sleight of hand. Come to think of it, Nadas may be less a sadist than a monumental magician.
Secret pages; or, this way madness lies
So, what has Nadas given us in “Parallel Stories”? Perhaps one passage in the novel puts it best: “There were secret pages, then, among individual lives. Which she has now uncovered, found the trail of, but should not tell anyone about lest they think she’s gone mad.”
This big, incorrigible, indulgent book is a monument to the secret pages in the personal, familial and political histories of Germany and Hungary in the 20th century. Secrets can lead to madness, which may be the fount of poetry or mindless babble.
Nadas is by no means mindless, but his poetry sings the body electric in all its disturbing, jolting undercurrents. After 1,152 pages, you may be ready to pull the plug.