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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thoughts on "Parallel Stories" by Peter Nadas (by Liviu Suciu)


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INTRODUCTION: As 2011 is drawing to a close, I wanted to discuss all my top books of year here and the only one that was missing was Peter Nadas' 1150+ page, 18 years in the writing and few more in translation masterpiece. I will offer just a compilation of my thoughts as I have been unable to cohere them into a review, but I hope they will give at least an inkling of this book's power. Very long, quite difficult and quite messy and sprawling on occasion, but a great and memorable book that I see myself rereading for a long time. Here is the blurb:

"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 Europeans—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; Ágost Lippay Lehr, whose influential father has served Hungary’s different political regimes for decades; and András 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 the 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.

This is Péter Nádas’s masterpiece—eighteen years in the writing, a sensation in Hungary even before it was published, and almost four years in the translating. Parallel Stories is the first foreign translation of this daring, demanding, and momentous novel, and it confirms for an even larger audience what Hungary already knows: that it is the author’s greatest work."

THOUGHTS: The parallel stories of the title have rarely any finality and characters jump in and out though there are several mainstays in the "bedrock" part of the novel that takes place in Budapest 1961 and revolves around several late middle aged women with troubled past, their sons, nephews, husbands, and especially the Lippay-Fehr household.

The novel took me several weeks of reading, rereading, going back and forth and extensively using the search function on my epub version which I alternated with the print version as I read each page at least twice, though not necessarily in order, but sometimes following the characters using search. As quite a few of these stories just stop at some point, while others start I think that either a flow chart of some sort or using search is useful in making sense of the huge tapestry of the book.

"Parallel Stories" is extremely dense and jumps between pov's, narrative forms, tenses, characters, so it is best read as a collection of vignettes; some shorter, some longer as in the (in)famous seventy page sex scene that is like most of this novel not for the easily offended - I did not count the pages of the scene though it seemed to be 50 pages at least but others did and 70 sounds about right.

There are haunting descriptions from war to sex to death, bodily fluids left and right while the novel abounds with very deep and subtle connections between characters that are easy to miss. There is also much more so that it is really hard to convey what the novel is about unless you start reading and the book was worth all the money and time I spent on it, no question about it.

On the other hand the scathing review by Tibor Fischer in the Guardian has a kernel truth and the novel may turn readers off easily, but I am in the "masterpiece camp" and consider the book an impressive achievement.

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