Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas

Author:  Péter Nádas
Translator: Imre Goldstein

Imre Goldstein, tr. New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2011. ISBN 9780374229764

Parallel Stories by Peter NadasPéter Nádas’s monumental, labyrinthine novel, Parallel Stories, is the first of his works of fiction not written in the first-person singular; only in the chapters that focus on a young man named Kristóf Demén, whose biographical particulars are closest to those of the author, does the narrative voice lapse into I and become a little more intense and personal. Otherwise, the presentation is stolid and dispassionate. Gone are the wistful, elegiac confessions, the long and languorous sentences of A Book of Memories, Nádas’s previous novel. In Parallel Stories, the sentences are often abrupt, jagged. But because Nádas is bent on plumbing the depths of his themes, and because more than ever eros is his perennial subject, we don’t miss the languor and don’t mind the close scrutiny, the explicitness, the objectivity.

Nádas has said that he wrote A Book of Memories when Hungary was still a Communist dictatorship, which is why he couldn’t be open and frank about many things. While that novel also deals with large chunks of modern European history, he deliberately passed over the Holocaust, didn’t specify the Jewishness of his implicitly Jewish characters, and though human physicality is a major theme there too, he handled it rather more demurely.

In Parallel Stories, Nádas makes up for lost opportunities with a vengeance. Not only do the chapters jump back and forth between Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s and Communist Hungary in the early 1960s, with glances backward at a more civilized Central Europe and forward at post-Communist, postmodern Germany; what is also on full display is the limitless human capacity to kill—out of fear, revenge—though only one chapter deals specifically with wartime horrors. We are in a small north German town close to a concentration camp in the final days of the war. An air raid has reduced much of the town to smoldering rubble. One horrific atrocity and conflagration follows another. In the camp, inmates who can no longer walk are herded into hospital barracks and set on fire. Escaped prisoners half-crazed with hunger and thirsty for revenge march on the town. The enraged inhabitants set upon them with pitchforks, spades, and shovels and massacre most of them. Three Hungarian escapees find a burly German hiding in a shed outside the town and shoot him with his gun. Upon recognizing him as their own vicious prison guard, they drive a sharpened stake into his dead flesh. Afterward they scrounge around for things to take with them, but “[t]hey found nothing of value. As to money, only five imperial marks in a wine-red purse in a windbreaker pocket, even though they looked everywhere, turned everything over, while they kept eating and searching, eating and searching.”

The chapter is as riveting as it is bewildering, if only because the concentration camp inmates are as bestial as the locals. Furthermore, the ferocious prison guard’s “human side” is suggested when he masturbates furiously, to relieve his pent-up tension no doubt, shortly before he is killed. The man’s name, Döhring, is familiar to us. In the very first chapter, we meet a young man by that name who is suspected of killing someone in a Berlin park, and eventually we learn that the two are indeed related. But the true significance of the parallel eludes us, and even eight-hundred pages later we are left guessing.

It should be noted that Péter Nádas’s basic premise, at least in this novel, is that our world is chaotic. In real life, there are no easy resolutions, no thrilling dénouements, only tantalizing possibilities; neatly tied-up loose ends are the stuff of conventional fiction. Parallel Stories starts off as a whodunit, but that’s just what we never find out, nor can we ever be certain about the identity of the victim. The last two chapters of the novel go off on new narrative tangents, which are only tenuously connected to what came before. Each new chapter poses a challenge: we must reorient ourselves, get used to a new set of characters, new locales. Every one of the thirty-nine chapters can in fact be considered a self-contained piece of fiction.

In other words, Parallel Stories is not always a reader-friendly novel. Perhaps this is the reason why the critical reception of the English translation, so far, has been mixed. To anyone familiar with the novel, it becomes fairly clear that some reviewers didn’t bother to finish it, or if they did, it left them cold as well as confused. Yet the careful and patient reader will be led to hidden connections, correspondences, analogies; the novel does contain parallel stories. One example should suffice. In the chapter entitled “Like Fine Clockwork,” we meet members of the scientific and medical elite of Nazi Germany as well as German and Hungarian aristocrats with lofty pedigrees. At an elegant luncheon, there is polite small talk, intellectual chatter about history, and lots of name-dropping, including names—Mengele, Speer—that would become infamous. About the host,  Otmar Baron von der Scheur, the newly appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, we are told that “his appointment would not have been even considered had his origin, traced back to the distant past, not been pure Aryan. He instinctively kept his distance from racist groups because of his deep contempt for the hoi polloi, and he favored neither absolutism nor anarchy, although he had an aversion to the physical proximity or even spiritual presence of Jewish persons. The characteristic traits of Jewish thinking disturbed his composure and indeed his entire mentality—their penchant for emotional exaggeration, their spectacular ideas, their fiery gesticulations, their scientific bluster, their effeminate features, and their hedonism—but he never talked to anyone about these reactions of his and in fact fought them heroically, mustering the full power of his Christian conscience, as if he were trying not to feel toward Jews what he felt about people beneath his rank, and he was loathe to wind up being influenced by other people’s extreme expressions.” We eventually realize that behind the refinement and decorum, the inner core of these people is as coarse and vicious as that of the uncouth and violent townspeople in the previously mentioned “German” chapter.

These German chapters alternate with Hungarian episodes, though not as regularly and rhythmically as in A Book of Memories. Much of the novel’s action takes place in the early 1960s, primarily in the inner districts of Budapest, which Nádas knows like the back of his hand. There are at least a hundred named characters in Parallel Stories, each of them individualized to some extent, and dozens of major figures, but no main character, no true focal point. The novel’s movement could be likened to creeping vines: it inches forward, changes direction, branches out, seeks new paths. If it did have a center, it would have to be the family of István Lippay-Lehr and his wife, Erna Demén. Lippay-Lehr is a distinguished scientist who served the prewar, pro-German Hungarian government as eagerly as he does the postwar Communist regime. His wife, referred to as Lady Erna, has remained a grande dame even in a Communist setting. She and her husband live in a handsome apartment building designed in the late nineteenth century by Erna’s grandfather, a Jewish architect.

They have a son, Ágost, who along with his two closest friends, János Kovách, also known as Hans von Wolkenstein, and András Rott, work for the Hungarian counterintelligence service. (János’s mother, Karla Baroness von Thum zu Wolkenstein, was one of the guests at that fancy luncheon in Dahlem, Germany, back in the 1930s.) Erna’s nephew, Kristóf, also lives with them. His Communist father was killed in the purges of the 1950s, and his mother abandoned him as a child. Kristóf’s main problem at the moment is that he cannot come to terms with his bisexuality. Ágost’s lover, Gyöngyvér, from a poor peasant background, is a kindergarten teacher studying to be a singer. She rents the maid’s room of an apartment in a more modern section of the city. Her landlady, Mrs. Szemző, had opened her first office as a psychoanalyst in that same apartment some thirty years earlier. She had hired a promising young architect, Alajos Madzar, who was half-Hungarian, half-ethnic German, to decorate her office. Madzar’s childhood friend was László Bellardi, a Hungarian nobleman with an Italian name. Thirty years later, this déclassé nobleman happens to be the taxi driver rushing Erna Demén and Gyöngyvér to the hospital where her husband, the famous scientist, is dying. We could go on and on.   

Actually, more captivating than the meandering plotline are Nádas’s set pieces, his elaborately arranged tableaux and scenes. An eventful evening in the penthouse apartment of a former countess in Budapest’s still fashionable Újlipótváros. A boat trip from Budapest to the southern Hungarian town of Mohács on an old Danube steamer in the early 1930s. A detailed account of the work routine of the staff of the Grand Hotel on Margit Island, which had seen better days but managed to keep up appearances even under Communism. And also on Margit Island, an almost surreal, nighttime orgy under the leaves of ancient trees, in a part of the island that is a gay cruising ground. It is here that Kristóf Demén, terrified but hungry for sex, is initiated.

Which brings us back to Nádas’s exploration of the human body and its functions. The novelist is alert to all sensory experience, smells in particular, body odors, and other emanations and secretions. He describes physical relationships as though taboos didn’t exist and there was nothing unseemly or unsightly about carnality—as though it was his duty to “dip down into the living stuff,” to quote Sherwood Anderson. “I have insistently tried to direct the attention of my deaf and blind and non-feeling, non-smelling compatriots to sensuality,” Nádas has said in an interview. There will naturally be readers who will find minutely detailed clinical descriptions of human coupling numbing. And there will be others who will say that his characters are oversexed erotomaniacs, or a bunch of polymorphous perverse sickos. But if we read carefully his microscopic descriptions on any subject, we realize that many of those precise yet nuanced details or even the sharply etched portraits of less than minor characters stay with us—a Viennese waiter on that Danube steamboat, for instance, who drags around his large body and knows all that an old pro must, and more. Or the Hungarian countess at the luncheon table in Dahlem, who “could hear herself making her report to her woman friends of this visit. Charming people, but I have never sat on such an uncomfortable chair.” Which in turn reminds us of the German tutor in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, who while dining with his betters carefully notes the name and taste of each wine served, so he could write about it to his family back home. Nádas’s novel does bring to mind the classic novels of the Russian and French masters. And the translation helps. Imre Goldstein’s English is clear, crisp, unfailingly on target. I would go as far as saying that his feat is almost as formidable as that of the author who is indeed in the masters’ league. For Péter Nádas can conjure up a place, an age, a moment so fully and vividly as only the best literature can.

Ivan Sanders
Columbia University