The Story of Contemporary Hungary

In the lead-up to In the lead-up to the announcement of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature winners, I have come across lists of possible writers who are tipped to win the prestigious literary prize. Some of the names that caught my attention are Yoko Tawada, Maryse Condé, and László Krasznahorkai. I would, later on, read the works of Tawada (Memoirs of a Polar Bear) and Condé (Crossing the Mangroves), and while I have not read any of the Hungarian writer’s works, I am looking forward to reading some of them. It was, however, another Hungarian writer who particularly piqued my interest: Péter Nádas. Recall worked for me, and the moment I encountered one of his works – Parallel Stories – late in 2019, I did not hesitate to buy it despite its length. Because of my anticipation, I included the book in my 2020 Top 20 Reading List.

Parallel Stories opened with a chapter carrying the ominous title of Patricide. The story commenced in 1989, the year when the famous Berlin Wall was torn down following the accord between East and West Germany. It was also the same year that Hungary liberated itself from the Soviet bloc after four decades. A couple of days before Christmas, the corpse of a well-groomed man was found in the Tiergarten or the game preserve. During one of his routine runs during the dawn, a young man discovered the lifeless body half-buried in snow, “half-dangling off a bench”. The young man, Döhring, has little to show for an alibi, but as the interrogation digs deeper, the police detective begins to believe that the perpetrator could be anyone.

As the mystery deepened, several questions started floating. Who was this man? How did his lifeless body end up in the Tiergarten? However, there was one other thing that stood out for Dr. Kienast, the police detective tasked to handle the case. There was an unusual odor emanating from the body that perplexed him. He can’t get it off of his mind because it was not the usual stench of death, but it was of another kind, a familiar and sweeter kind. He started to hypothesize that the odor was “not the man’s own, was not caused by a scent he had used but was an odor that he had received during his last hours from another body and that clung to him.” Could this be the result of a fetish gone wrong?

“She was a ruthless mother, not even worthy to be called a mother, but I never believed this, no matter who said it. In classiness and strictness, she resembled my piano teacher. People also said to me, little boy, don’t even think about her, it’s not worth it. She was living in austere grandeur with someone, somewhere in a distant and alluring strange land. They said this was a moral slough. Which made me think of a puddle with pigs wallowing in it, snorting with pleasure. At other times, I imagined classiness as something like the dignity with which my piano teacher endured her lameness; she never complained. Or as the threatening act of destiny that will reach me too with its fury and one fine day strike me down.”

~ Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories

And indeed, as the narrative moved forward, fetishism was the first prevalent subject; it abounded the first half of the story. As each new character is introduced, we would eventually find them colliding into sexual intersections. From what seemed to be mystery fiction, the narrative took on an entirely different course. The story started to resonate with numerous sexual references and images, some were subtle, but most were painted vividly to the minutiae. “Cock”, “labia”, “clitoris” became ubiquitous, and moaning sounds reverberated throughout the story. The smell of semen and urine permeated through every page. It became a challenge making sense of all of these images and acts taking place all over the story. It reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The preoccupation with the intricacies of sexual acts, however, can get discomfiting. The real story was muddled by these tedious details that seem to be unnecessary.

I, nevertheless, managed to pass through the tawdriness of the first half. Past the uncomfortable and graphic sexual images, the story started to take another turn; the story is drawn to. A seemingly different landscape began to take shape. Nadas, with his lush prose, vividly painted a picture of post-War Budapest – its nooks and crannies, streets, its atmosphere, its social and cultural landscape. Through Nadas’ writing, Budapest came alive. Despite the sepulchral tone that hovered above the story, I can imagine myself walking all over the city. And Budapest was a seminal element that glued the story together for Parallel Stories, at its heart, is the story of 20th century Hungary.

In Parallel Stories, we are introduced to three primary characters whose individual stories comprise the heft of the novel. The first is Agost Lippay Lehr who is the son of a Hungarian bureaucrat. Hans von Wolkenstein, on the other hand, has ties to Nazism because of his German mother. The third man is Andras Rott, a spy. As the title goes, their stories rarely intersect except for the ties that each one had with certain elements of the political factions prevailing in Hungary during different periods of history. The story also has little to do with these characters, except for Agost Rott. Rather, we see a vast cast of characters being introduced, such as Döhring who is a member of one of the families the story is about.

With over 1,100 pages, the novel was originally published in three volumes: The Mute Realm, In the Very Depth of the Night, and The Breath of Freedom. Within its ambit is a plethora of subjects and themes that are inevitably connected with the history of Hungary. The novel’s historical elements touched on Nazi eugenics, the trenches of the First World War, and the Holocaust. With its rich historical portrait, Parallel Stories does appear, on the surface, to be on the fore of Nadas’ behemoth of a book. After all, the tumultuous history of Nadas’ native country provided a great canvas upon which to juxtapose the story of Lehr, von Wolkenstein, and Rott.

“To imagine that he would meet his total-stranger doppelganger, differing from him only proportionately. He couldn’t imagine this other person except as an exact likeness, which is why it couldn’t be a girl. But this person should be more perfect than he, rather like that giant from whom he’d been fleeing, but not so perfect as to humiliate him with physical and mental superiority.”

~ Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories

In line with its exploration of Hungarian history, the narrative is brimming with characters from Jews, to Gypsies, to Communists, to homosexuals, to the mentally impaired. The cast of characters was as diverse as the book was longer. Nevertheless, Nadas masterfully wove these elements together to produce a tapestry that was lush and rich. What comes to the fore are the dark corners of European culture, such as Nazism and totalitarianism, two political philosophies that have become an inevitable part of Hungary’s history. At its heart, we see the portrait of a nation that has remained powerless before its more influential and powerful neighbors: “Writhing under the enormous weight of its ongoing collapse, self-satisfied feudal Hungary drags itself from one economic crisis to another, lugging along the antiquated customs, traditions, and inexhaustible wounded pride of its failed aristocracy, which keeps an iron grip even on those who do not share their hope for prosperity in an illusionary greater Hungary.”

However, the novel doesn’t reduce itself into a mere retelling or exploration of Hungary’s history. With various historical elements intersecting, the story also explored family history with family dramas at the fore. A seminal element of the narrative was the exploration of how the voices of the different, how the voices of individuals most perceive as “others”, such as the homosexual, the mentally-impaired, the Jews, the Gypsies, were stymied and shunned by society at large. All of these were captured in both subtle and vivid details.

Nadas complimented the story with cultural touchstones, further enriching what is already a lush tapestry. He was able to capture the landscape of Budapest, highlighting pre-war architecture and Bauhaus furniture building. It was one of the novel’s elements that I appreciated for it transported me to a place and time. There were also details of opera singing. With its length, the novel also covered subjects that bordered the eccentric, tackling subjects such as the Hungarian aristocracy, to perfume, to criminology, to undergarment fetishism, to Jewish lumber-merchants. Each subject, while not always relevant, added details to the story. The subjects and themes the novel explored were as varied and vast as the cast of characters it projected and introduced.

There was never a single solid plotline. Rather, Parallel Stories is comprised of vignettes of different stories that were woven together to come up with a cohesive whole. These vignettes and the novel’s various elements were woven together by Nadas’ capable writing. He has prose that is richly descriptive and graphic. Its descriptiveness and graphicness, however, border on the uncomfortable, especially in the first part of the novel. Despite this, there was a raw honesty that still made the narrative flourish amidst the challenges brought about by its length. To fully comprehend and appreciate the story, one has to deliberately slow down and let the atmosphere and the text embrace you.

“For five nights in a row, again and again, at different locations and in different positions he had offered me everything. Maybe his specialty was showing not only his prick but also his testicles, hair, belly, and top of his thighs. There was a certain merciless openness in this. The relief of his stomach, thighs, and loins, his head, and his entire splendid figure eerily reminded me of the man with anvil and hammer one can see on the twenty-forint bill. On each occasion, I had stupidly run away from him. To my shame, in the light of day I would take out the twenty-forint bill to see him and be with him. I couldn’t forget him. The only difference between him and his image on the bill was that on the latter the artist had used drapery to conceal the loins.”

~ Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories

With its length, cracks will eventually surface. There is no perfect story, after all. What was lamentable in the story was Nadas’ proclivity to frequent and sudden shifts in time, perspectives, and places. Weaving in and out of time, and of place, it was rare for a place and time to be disclosed. This made it a challenge following each thread for there was more than one thread to follow. What came out was a puzzle that one must piece together. The succession of minutely detailed scenes, at times, did come across as over-described, tedious even. Nadas also tended to provide elaborate histories for each character which was not relevant to the story. It came across as fleeting, unnecessary.

Parallel Stories, my first novel by Nadas, enthralled me with its graphic and descriptive storytelling. He conjured strong images that certainly have left deep impressions on me. Exploring seminal parts of Hungary’s contemporary history, the novel provided a peek into the heart, the soul, and the plights of his native country. Checking my notes, I did note “voyeurism” for it did give me that impression, especially on the first parts, which abounded with both overt and covert sexual encounters. Past the vivid and graphic images, Nadas riveted me with the intricacies of Hungary, and of how its history intersects with the powers that surround it. To some extent, it was engaging. We are regaled with a plethora of subjects and themes such as family dramas, architecture, opera singing, Nazism, and totalitarianism. It was a smorgasbord that was prepared by Nadas. Like most literary works, Parallel Stories had its fair share of slanders. Nevertheless, it was a rich and lush story that makes me look forward to reading more of the Hungarian novelist’s works.

Ratings

76%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
20%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Book Specs

Author: Péter Nádas
Translator (from Hungarian): Imre Goldstein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: January 2011
Number of Pages: 1,133
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

In 1989, the year the wall came down, a university student in Berlin on his morning run finds a corpse on a park bench and alerts the authorities. This scene opens a novel of extraordinary scope and depth, a masterwork that traces the fate of myriad European – Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Gypsies – across the treacherous years of the mid twentieth century.

Three unusual men are at the heart of Parallel Stories: Hans Von Wolkenstein, whose German mother is linked to secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration during the 1940s; Agost Lippay Lehr, whose influential father served Hungary’s different political regimes for decades; and Andras Rott, who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad. The web of extended and interconnected dramas reaches from 1989 back to the spring of 1939, when Europe trembled on the edge of war, and extends to the bestial times of 1944-45, when Budapest was besieged the Final Solution devastated Hungary’s Jews, and the war came to an end, and on to the cataclysmic Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. We follow these men from Berlin and Moscow to Switzerland and Holland, from Mediterranean to the North Sea, and of course, from village to city in Hungary. The social and political circumstances of their lives may vary greatly, their sexual and spiritual longings may seem to each of them entirely unique, yet Péter Nádas’s magnificent tapestry unveils uncanny reverberating parallels that link them across time and space.

About the Author

Péter Nádas was born on October 14, 1942 in Budapest, Hungary. Following the death of their mother due to an illness and the suicide of their father suicide following slanderous allegations of embezzlement, Péter and his brother, Pál, were raised by their grandparents. Nádas left high school before studying journalism and photography between 1961 and 1963. He then worked as a journalist at Pest Megyei Hírlap, a Hungarian magazine, from 1965 to 1969.

Nádas had his first short story published in 1965. Two years later, his first novella, A Biblia (The Bible) was published. It was followed by a collection of short stories, Kulcskereső játék (The key-finding game, 1969). In 1972, he completed his first novel, Egy családregény vége (The End of a Family Story). He started working on his most popular work, Emlékiratok könyve (A Book of Memories) in 1973 while studying at East Berlin on a theater scholarship. However, due to heavy censoring of the Hungarian government, the book was not published until 1986. His latest novel, Párhuzamos történetek (Parallel Stories) was published in 2005.

In between his second and third novel, Nádas, began writing plays and from 1980 to 1981 he served as a dramaturge at a theatre in northwestern Hungary. In the late 1980s, he published several essay collections including Évkönyv: ezerkilencszáznyolcvanhét, ezerkilencszáznyolcvannyolc (Yearbook: Nineteen Eighty-seven, Nineteen Eighty-eight, 1989), and z égi és a földi szerelemről (On Divine and Earthly Love, 1991). Post-Parallel Stories, Nádas returned to theatrical work. For his works, Nádas has received a score of accolades such as  the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007. He was elected to be a member of the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts in 1993, and of the Berlin Akademie der Künste in 2006.