08. 11. 2009. 12:27

A la recherche de corps perdus

Péter Nádas: Parallel Stories

This novel is truly radical in its documentation of the fundamental shift in human consciousness that occurred (and is still occurring) at the onset of the new millennium with all that it implies: the collapse of Cold War dichotomies, the new challenges to Western civilization, the advent of cyberspace.

In one of his reflections on the art of novel-writing, Milan Kundera complains that the achievements of such a writer as Rabelais have scarcely been considered fully within the history of the novel, let alone been taken up by a successor. Could we not, however, ask the same question for three of the great experimentalists of the early 20th century – Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce? After the turmoil and bloodshed of the past hundred years, the gruesome experiments with the creation of social utopia and totalitarian control – in themselves a kind of perverse fulfillment of modernity – what would it mean once again to embrace the radical shifts that these writers brought to the realm of literature?
At some time around 1910, Virginia Woolf noted, an essential shift occurred in human consciousness. Similarly, to pick up those themes that Woolf left dangling when she walked into the Ouse, her pockets filled with stones, the ones that Proust left behind with his reams of scribbled manuscript and chinchilla-like balls of dust might seem as irrelevant to readers today as, for instance, Jane Austen’s concerns about a good dowry. In particular, there has been a notable trend in the “new Europe” of post-Communism to celebrate the advent of post-modernity as a rejection of the modernism inextricably connected to a particularly brutal century, and a kind of return to a previous state of affairs. 
As Szilárd Borbély aptly notes in his reflections on Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child, there is something inherently false in the notion that one can return to pre-war European tradition as if the world of classical proportions and liberal democratic self-confidence lay undisturbed on the other side of the gates of Auschwitz. The one true link that remains between us and the self-assurance of the 19th century is in fact the work of those early modernists who documented its demise through their registration of the shifts of consciousness that preceded the trenches and the mustard gas. It is no accident that, in reading the first volume of Péter Nádas’s trilogy Parallel Stories, one constantly thinks of Proust and Woolf.
So many western European authors write as if they can return undisturbed to the nouveau roman of the immediate post-war years, so many American authors act as if they can imitate Hemingway for all infinity, and yet Nádas’s novel is truly radical not only because, as one critic pointed out, it is a deliberately open work (as opposed to Musil’s The Man without Qualities, left open by the author’s sudden death), but equally in its documentation of the fundamental shift in human consciousness that occurred (and is still occurring) at the onset of the new millennium with all that it implies: the collapse of Cold War dichotomies, the new challenges to Western civilization, the advent of cyberspace.
At the same time, though, in Nádas’s rendition, the two previous ruptures of the twentieth century (the traumas of the two world wars) are inherent within this new colonization of the human mind by the computer, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, with its symbolic redoubling of the real in cyberspace. Nádas, however, demonstrates that what is at hand is not necessarily a colonization. His novel is extraordinary, amongst other reasons, as a kind of textual performance of the absolute simultaneity of event and time. In a sense, this does return to a certain 19th-century literary “totality” – i.e. the ambitions of a Balzac to document all of French society – and there is a way in which Nádas’s infinite “textual links” seem to branch out in all directions. At the same time, the necessary acknowledgment of traumatic rupture is inherently contained in the text’s obsessively repetitive incompleteness. As Nádas himself noted in one of his statements, an ellipsis is also something that occurs and a lacuna is as much of an event as an event that is felt to have “happened”. For the author, the departure from a traditional closed structure represents a return to the original Greek notion of chaos, which designates in part “the ancient emptiness, filled with threats and tragedy”. 
Relating the plot of Parallel Stories in entirety is a Herculean feat. More than one brave critic in the Hungarian literary press has made the attempt, yet as one noted, “already this brief and incomplete retelling presents the novel as much more novel-like than it is in reality”. The body of the narrative – which, very roughly speaking, touches upon the lives of two families, one Hungarian and one German, across the twentieth century – is itself battered and full of holes, much like the scarred Budapest facades of 1960 that one character, Mrs. Szemzo, notices while walking to her regular evening card party:
At the time of the siege of Budapest, most of the houses of Újlipótváros had fortunately not fallen victim to the larger air-raids; direct artillery hits had been few; still, the facades of the buildings, articulated as they were with balconies, loggias and winter gardens, had not remained without damage in the fierce street battles. In the lamplight, shaded by the foliage of the large trees, the many small wounds were not visible.
In reading the novel, we experience a sense of infinite layering, almost as if time were endowed with horizontal dimensions. Memories intrude into the fictional “present” with hallucinatory force: in another scene, Erna Demén, traveling by taxi with her son’s lover to visit her dying husband, is forcibly reminded of her encounter with the daughter of a Dutch hotel proprietor thirty years previously in Groeningen, when she was still nursing her first child.
Images of her overflowing, gushing milk and memories of the strong attraction between the two women are interspersed with her suspicious reflections on the allegiance of the taxi driver. The text itself, devoid of quotation marks with both direct and indirect speech usually left unattributed, flows seamlessly from the thoughts of one character to the next, from one era to another. The visceral memories of Erna’s intense encounter with Geerte van Groote begin to appear in the text with the sentence that seemingly describes the taxi interior: “The opal curtain [of fog and rain] drifted across every window” also refers to the windows of the room where Erna sat nursing her child, though the reader does not discover that fact until later. The intervention of Erna’s mémoire involuntaire is given direct phenomenological expression in the text. The statement a few pages on – “But at the same time, she was nursing in an uncushioned Dutch chair” seems nearly nonsensical, until we are led closer to the thread of memory, through a sensation of bodily discomfort that serves as the connecting link: “It hurt. Like later on, years having passed, when she sat with her knees spread apart, nursing her child on the hard-backed Dutch chair, and the weak winter light glimmered like opal across the tall row of latticed windows. It penetrated the fog and the clouds in exactly the same way.” Her memories of the encounter with Geerte grow in intensity, becoming inextricably woven with the present moment, as the taxi driver’s comments turn ever more insidious and suspicious:
And while she clasped it between her fingers, raising the swollen nipple of her left breast slightly, and seeing that it was truly overflowing with milk, she would have really liked to ask the driver just what conversations he remembered. But she didn’t wish to come any closer to him. To have anything else to do with a secret-police informer who had also, very possibly, served with the Arrow Cross – but now she understood that perhaps both conjectures were mistaken. He was certainly misleading her about something.
    Geerte then lowered her gaze somewhat, although not completely, and from that point on the bifurcated memories could run along beside each other.
    At such times it is more fortunate to separate sight and physical sensation from each other.
In another chapter, “A Gentleman’s Residence”, a detailed description of the lives and personalities of the inhabitants of the spacious bourgeois flat on Budapest’s Oktogon tér proceeds to an equally detailed report of the history of the building itself, an analysis of the philosophy behind its design, and even a short biography of its builder, one Samu Demén – the grandfather of Erna Demén, herself one of the residents. Almost as if the narrative were attempting to create in time the equivalent of Borges’s map as large as the kingdom it depicted, it seems to branch out in every direction, going far beyond Gilles Deleuze’s “rhizomes” in its extreme anti-hierarchical organization, and seeming to push the notion of the stream of consciousness to its very limits – as well as our notions of what properly constitutes a “story”. One commentator noted that the entire book could be read in terms of one single first-person narrative. There is indeed a way in which all of the characters nearly seem differing facets of one consciousness, one that is also indistinguishable from that of the putative narrators – for the narration, despite its abundance of sociological description, invented historical background and anthropological analysis, refuses to produce an omniscient distinct Narrator.
The bodies of the characters described, however, remain achingly separate, their functions, reactions, sufferings and pleasures described in infinite, painstaking, painfully concrete detail. Critic Gábor Csordás refers to these bodies’ “suffocated language” as a kind of corporeal synecdoche: a language that, however, struggles to make itself felt. Indeed, one of the aspects that makes reading Parallel Stories such a unique experience is the dichotomy between the multitude (literally) of disembodied, nearly unidentifiable consciousnesses, and the bodies to which they seem to be only nominally attached, their functions of pleasure and disgust described in detail worthy of a Japanese erotic miniature, in which every pubic hair and ripple of the penis is rendered as if under a microscope. The mechanisms of Dionysian ecstasy are burdened with an endless accumulation of physical detail: the bodies are never truly allowed to escape from themselves, if only into memory (as in the case of Erna in the taxi). Or, we can cite, when the young Döhring, the grandson of one Hermann Döhring, a guard in the Pfeilen labour camp during the Second World War, is subjected to a “continuous dream” in which he assumes the doubled identity of an inmate of the internment camp (one inmate murders the elder Döhring, the other is found by two priests after the German retreat). The bodily filth of the emaciated prisoner materializes in the course of Döhring’s dream in the late Eighties: in a sense, the materialization of “liquid” modernity from the bowels. Döhring becomes the medium of a kind of collective mémoire involuntaire, a medium of twentieth-century history:
He sat in the bed, and felt that he had to persist obstinately in fabulations and lies, because he could never know who he was. Who am I? If a someone existed, a someone who was in fact several different persons… Still, the knowledge issuing from his dream proved to be the more powerful. In his body he felt their weary bodies, destined for oblivion, both of them. His only justification was their existence. Which would also mean that I carry these someones within myself who are not me, and I can thus look back through them to certain epochs and places where I never was, or I can gaze into future moments which will never come to pass with me…
    It came, however, to him with perfect sobriety that all I am thinking is perhaps not I. Others live within me, others whom I don’t know or who grew distant from me at the times of their deaths. As if in his dream he had been searching among all of those others for his own worldly I, then was woken up suddenly by all of the shit, and felt that no matter how much he would have liked to make a selection from this multitude, he was not he, he hadn’t discovered it. There was nothing of his own, there was no I, nor was there a he.
Given the extraordinary open-endedness of the volume, its extraordinary range and sweep, and the dazzling risks it takes in a language where few serious authors have shied away from risk-taking, these modest notes must of necessity be left open-ended, and thus can only conclude with the phrase
To be continued.

Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Péter Nádas