San Francisco Chronicle // Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas

My review of Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on 11/27/11. I’ve reviewed a number of his other books in the past, including Love (for the Philadelphia Inquirer), and admire his work a great deal. For all the hype 1Q84 is receiving, much of it deserved, I hope Parallel Stories also finds its audience. It may very well be the best book I’ve read this year.


On a somewhat related note, I wrote about Hungarian fiction in translation a few months ago for Publishing Perspectives.


Parallel Stories

Péter Nádas

Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1,133 pages; $40)

Being a subversive writer must be difficult when whatever it is one stands in opposition to ceases to exist. And, to make matters worse, there’s bound to be some disappointment when the new, longed-for regime fails to live up to its promise. These tensions enliven the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’ sprawling new novel, “Parallel Stories.”

The title calls to mind Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” a series of biographies about influential Greek and Roman dignitaries written in the first or second century of what would become the Christian era. Those texts also served as the acknowledged inspirations for Nádas’ 1986 novel “A Book of Memories,” which was published in English to the breathless (and warranted) critical acclaim reserved for the most remarkable literary accomplishments.

On the surface, “Parallel Stories” would appear to be a sequel or some kind of continuation of that project (now up to 1,800 total pages in English translation, courtesy of the indefatigable Imre Goldstein). Both books consist of three parts divided into stand-alone chapters. There is, however, an important difference between “A Book of Memories” and “Parallel Stories.” Nádas wrote the first during the Soviet occupation of Hungary and completed the second after the fall of the Berlin Wall – which is to say during the initial growing pains of a new Western-style democracy.

And the results are spectacular.

The two novels work in parallel much the way Plutarch’s biographies did, but even taken alone, “Parallel Stories” is an epic on a literary par with Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” or William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions.” Unlike those books, however, it explodes the traditional linear story in favor of a patchwork approach that perfectly captures Hungary’s unique and unenviable place at the burning center of Europe’s brutal 20th century.

As in Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” meaning accumulates over a series of stories that on the surface don’t always appear related. “Parallel Stories” doesn’t follow the traditional model of beginning, middle and end any more than do our own memories. There’s no unifying plot in the traditional sense, but instead a series of forking paths. These vignettes have been arranged and published in a particular order, of course, but connections between them are for the most part left up to the reader. The book opens in 1989, but many of the goings-on take place during World War II and at other moments in Europe’s recent past. The Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising of 1956 gets a lot of attention, as you might expect.

No out-of-context excerpt or example can do justice to such a lengthy novel, but a passage from “By the Summer of ’57” exemplifies the overall mood and is worth quoting at length:

“The trains were taking orphans and bombed-out children somewhere, though the official language no longer permitted these innocent words, just as it had been forbidden, since March, to utter, even by accident, the word revolution. Jails and internment camps were full, reprisals against the uprising of the previous autumn had entered their most vicious stage, and people were determined not to let their mouths betray them; if they had managed to survive until now, they weren’t going to make a wrong move and risk everything. Anyone talking to a policeman had to invent a whole other language, taking into account that the very act might be considered suspicious by people standing around.”

Nobody is better than Nádas at articulating the constant renegotiation of what’s possible. Most of his best scenes involve the interplay of three people or competing forces. “Everyone in Their Own Darkness” is set in one of Budapest’s famous thermal bathhouses, where three friends are luxuriating near the hot springs when another guest collapses. “Margit Island” is set on the Danube River between Buda and Pest and features a young man named Kristóf. He’s new to the city’s gay cruising scene and finds himself checking out the other men: “Their freedom seemed beautiful and dazzling to him. He saw himself as tied down by tethers of convention.” The different varieties of freedom – political, personal, sexual – might be seen as another theme here.

The timeline jumps around a lot and the prose style changes with it. You’ll get used to it. In fact, the immense joy of reading the novel derives in large part from its lack of linearity. “Parallel Stories” reads like a series of half-remembered dreams (and occasional nightmares) and it seems to contain the entirety of 20th century Europe.

Nádas is the chronicler our era needs and deserves. Though he’s focusing on the inner lives of these particular characters, his gaze is big enough to contextualize them amid thousands of years of history. When future generations want to know how we as a species survived the 20th century and what we lost along the way, “Parallel Lives” will have the answers.