Saturday, June 20, 2015

Peter Nadas. Parallel Stories.

It is impossible to talk about this novel without talking about its length: 1133 small-type, large-format pages.  Parallel Stories is huge: in length, scope, and ambition.  It includes many (sometimes very, sometimes barely) linked stories that are located in Hungary and that range from the 1930s up to 1989.  This means it includes the lead up to World War II; the Holocaust; the years under Communism, including the 1956 revolution; and the fall of Communism in Europe. It took 18 years to write. I began this book when I was in Budapest and finished it here at the lake.  (I took breaks from it every now and again.). Published in Hungarian in 2005 and translated into English in 2011, it is considered one of the greatest Hungarian novels of the 21st century.  Peter Nadas's (b. 1944) earlier novel, A Book of Memories, was described by Susan Sontag as "the greatest book written in our time, and one of the great books of the century."

Parallel Stories offers a network of stories, spread over fifty-plus years.  These stories are connected in that various characters, or their relatives, appear and reappear, as the novel proceeds.  The stories are not told in chronological order, but skip backwards and forwards in time.  The novel thus demands of its readers a particular kind of attention.  As she proceeds through these somehow-linked stories, the reader must remember and construct connections and must work to understand the ways in which these stories are parallel (or perhaps not).

The subject of these stories is the history of Hungary in the 20th century as played out on the human body. It is one of the most visceral books I have ever read.  It lays out the full range of bodily actions--including sexual intercourse, masturbation, hunger, eating, digestion, urination.  There is a particular focus on the penis.  These bodily actions not only take place in but somehow anchor the horrors of Hungarian life under the Arrow Cross, Nazis, and Communists.

Reading Parallel Stories was a monumental task.  All the chapters are focalized through particular characters, but some are structured as fairly traditional narratives, and others more as stream of consciousness.  It was a strenuous experience but, in my view, worth it.  Constructing in my mind this complex and allusive narrative was a little like constructing an understanding of Budapest.  Finding connections and tracing genealogies and friendships in the book resembled finding patterns and tracing the histories of buildings and sections of the city.  In both cases, I was not just  a spectator but an active participant in building an understanding of something that is simultaneously vital and decaying, public and private, physical and symbolic.


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