01. 19. 2006. 10:33

An irregular meeting of parallels

Péter Nádas: Parallel Stories

1500 pages of memorable resonances between the perceptions, emotions, thoughts, gestures and stories of the various characters. And actually, Nádas says little more beyond the structural beauty of parallels. Yet this is how he comes to include so much about the Hungarian and European history of the 20th century, about our culture and, within that, our most neuralgic regional characteristics, our physical, psychological and social compulsions. What he does not offer is an overarching ideology, an ideal to grant cohesion. 

Péter Nádas certainly set the standards very high when he published A Book of Memories twenty years ago. A literary bestseller in Germany, the novel has been translated into a number of languages and was expected for years to win the Nobel Prize. It offers a map of the depths and heights of the life of body and soul, the richness and poverty of human existence. Shockingly open, unprecedented in its degree of detail, it relies on a tight structure and the rhythmical interaction of three parallel memoirs, thus expanding into a form of grand epic.

In his new novel Nádas retains the parallels, but demonstratively allows the classic, contained structure to fall apart. The novelistic form becomes startlingly open: so open it turns out almost impossible to close. Although the reader discerns roughly three main strands of narrative in Párhuzamos történetek (‘Parallel Stories’), these do not take their turns neatly and predictably as those of the previous work. Nádas also makes a drastic break with that most characteristic structural trait of A Book of Memories, the lazy, comfortable period which represented the principle of epic rhythm. He works in a much more readable style – producing a far more irregular novel.

The first of the three story-lines which wind their way through the time and space of the novel takes place in Germany and Hungary in the 1930’s and 1940’s; the second in communist Hungary in the 1950’s and 1960’s; while the third section is set in Germany around the turn of the 20-21st century.

Each one of these stories is brimming over with the uncommon richness of human relationships so characteristic of Nádas, offering a rich catalogue of the elective affinities of the body and the emotions, between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman. At the same time, we are ceaselessly aware of the presence of history in the background – and sometimes in the foreground. We see Europe marching down the way to fascism, with the accompanying air of nationalism and racist biology. Or we see the communist era with the revolution of 1956 and the compromises of the 1960’s. Or the sophisticated shallowness of the consumer society of the turn of the millennium manifested, say, through the choice of men’s underwear offered in a Berlin store.

While extending this abundance to the reader, Nádas questions the most basic traditional means of arranging the epical material: linearity, purpose and predictability. Sometimes the reader gets the impression as though instead of the author ruling over the material the case were the reverse. But it is only an ‘as if.’ Although Párhuzamos történetek was generated from the doubt regarding the cohesion between parallel narratives, or even control over them, it is still a novel par excellence in its every word. A sweeping, 1500 page epic in three volumes, which is exciting even in its volume titles. The first book of this grand but unconventionally ordered trilogy, A néma tartomány (‘The Silent Province’) sets the terrain where the parallel relationships unfold in time and space between people, situations and actions that are far removed from each other. Thus, for instance, between Kristóf, a drifter from 1960’s Budapest, and Döhring, a pathologically shy university student from Berlin. The secret domain of these relationships, however, remains ‘silent.’ 

In the second volume, Az éjszaka legmélyén (‘The Depth of Night’), we penetrate to the depth of the ‘night-time’ parallels of the body, as in the description of Kristóf’s homoerotic adventures, enriched with pornographic inserts. The third volume A szabadság lélegzete (‘The Breath of Freedom’) is where the will to structure reaches an extreme degree of tension in both the reader’s and the author’s mind. The disparate threads are all spun together in an incident of the third chapter staging a taxi ride through Budapest in 1961; one of the principle female characters of this scene was also the heroine of a love story which took place in the 1930’s and 1940’s. No sooner do the strands come together than they once more disintegrate after the description of a gigantic party at somebody’s home in Budapest. At last, the reader can breathe freely in the relatively tame world of the last two chapters which simply describe an everyday ritual in the life of a group of provincial road-builders. This is a fine, resigned decision from the author. He relinquishes resolution.

Nádas’s parallel stories never join together in some overall narrative conducted from a bird’s eye perspective. Whenever the threads of narrative come too close to each other, close enough almost to meet, Nádas instantly retreats and denies any rapid and satisfying connection. Let us take as an example the chapter which opens the novel in Berlin in the recent past. We see the dead body of an unknown man, the student Döhring and a detective called Kienast. In the remaining part of the chapter we are given an intermittent but coherent narrative of the previous history of these characters and we can also try to guess which character of the parallel stories the dead man is. The detective thread stops, or is interrupted, when after a highly erotic conversation Döhring and Kienast go into a restaurant for a chat on Christmas Eve. What they talk about we never find out. Similarly, all stories which enumerate or at least touch upon all of the characters are left open at the most crucial point. The most important motifs and subjects, e.g. the highly plastic descriptions of human bodies, are passed on from one story to the next, in a play of mutually reflected variants.

It has become accepted to talk of Nádas as the author of the body. He writes about bodily sensation and its emotional and rational consequences in the spirit that they deserve, i.e. in a sensual fashion. It is a pervasive paradox in his writing that while he sees clearly that bodily sensation is a treacherous chimera, futile in its very multi-faceted richness, he remains unable to neglect it. ‘No point in fucking,’ thinks Kristóf’s uncle, Ágost in the copulation scene that takes up over a hundred pages of the first volume. And while Nádas seems to be talking for chapter after chapter about the male genital organ, and in baffling detail, too, this is not of the essence. What is of the essence, however, is concealed, so the reader never finds it out. To use a Platonic turn of phrase, in Nádas it is not the cloak that is removed from the human body: it is the human body that becomes a cloak. 

This time the cloak is a rich tapestry – 1500 pages of memorable resonances between the perceptions, emotions, thoughts, gestures and stories of the various characters. And actually, Nádas says little more beyond the structural beauty of parallels. Yet this is how he comes to include so much about the Hungarian and European history of the 20th century, about our culture and, within that, our most neuralgic regional characteristics, our physical, psychological and social compulsions. What he does not offer is an overarching ideology, an ideal to grant cohesion. He does not penetrate beyond the mimetic surface of fiction which parasitically coats reality, only demonstrates its unparalleled richness. For twenty years Péter Nádas has followed the tracks of his heroes until eventually the current of parallel stories drifted apart into a wide, rocking, waving surface of epically rolling sentences which exude the ‘breath of freedom’: a reading experience of exceptional linguistic quality.
 
Péter Nádas: Párhuzamos történetek I-III
(A néma tartomány, Az éjszaka legmélyén, A szabadság lélegzete)
Pécs: Jelenkor, 2005

Sándor Bazsányi

Tags: Péter Nádas