Polymorphous Adversity

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.

No one who has read Péter Nádas’s novel A Book of Memories (1997) will be surprised that the very first character introduced in Parallel Stories, a middle-aged man who happens to be a corpse, immediately becomes an object of desire: The male police officer investigating the scene sniffs the dead man’s penis in order to determine what kind of sex it might have recently had. Let’s pretend that he’s all business; “the secretion tests would provide exact details.” Meanwhile, the student who discovered the body—in Berlin, just after the dismantling of the wall—finds himself called upon by God to confess to the murder. He, too, feels sexually attracted to the dead man, and evidently also to the brown-eyed police investigator. “He could no more break free of the trusting pair of brown eyes than he could of the figure of the unknown corpse, the gentle, white, bladelike stripes of snow, the magical coolness of the discovery.”

To be blunt, Americans, that quaintly puritanical tribe, may not like this novel—a saga of Eastern European history, atrocities (against Jews, Gypsies, and others), and sexual compulsion. If you’re wondering whether it is for you, the following extract might save you some trouble: “As if forbidden pleasure and conspiracy were mating at this unknown, hot and secret depth, concealed from consciousness. Not only do they fuck each other in the mouth, they even penetrate each other’s asshole.” There you have it.

The parallel stories of the title are, in fact, no more parallel than a ball of spaghetti—or, better yet, than the various existences of social insects in their hive. I can tell you that the characters are (mostly) Hungarian, that much of the action takes place in Budapest, and that nobody’s acquaintance comes easy. The Magyar Nemzet has called it “a twenty-first-century War and Peace,” but this, to my mind, is not quite right: While we can describe Tolstoy’s parallel stories in the traditional terms of character development—Pierre matures, Natasha learns how to love, et cetera—traditional character development isn’t Nádas’s forte. His figures are bleakly static; the narrative doesn’t recapitulate their vicissitudes but instead reveals why they are as they are. Therefore, rather than struggling to tell you “what happens” or what the novel “is about,” I will look in on two or three characters, and tell you what I see.

Consider, for instance, the aspiring young singer Gyöngyvér, “doomed to suck cocks as babies do tits.” When we first meet her, she dwells tenuously in the family home of her latest boyfriend, Ágost, who is sick of her. “Sometimes the sounds Ágost elicited from her she deliberately intended for” his cousin Kristóf, who can hear them through the wall: “She’d have her orgasm a little for him.” Ágost’s mother, who despises Gyöngyvér, nonetheless finds herself sexually drawn to her, as would any self-respecting Nádas character: “It was rare that she saw her so scantily dressed. She had to take advantage of the opportunity.” As for Kristóf, who is both aroused and disgusted by the noises that Gyöngyvér makes on the toilet, he has come to the following conclusion about women: “From the moment of penetration, it was no longer he they wanted but something they could obtain from anyone with a sense of rhythm and a cock.” Hence he gives himself over to nighttime homosexual adventures in the park.

Yes, please do forget Tolstoy; Parallel Stories is more reminiscent of the opportunistically hypersexual Marquis de Sade. Here is Ágost’s first encounter with Gyöngyvér, in her dingy lodging: “He entered into darkness, into the pervasive odor of the cunt, with its sloshing sounds at every little movement. He must face the task. . . . To outwit the woman.” Shall we all envy their halcyon moment?

Although Nádas lacks Sade’s gleeful cruelty (come to think of it, he lacks glee, although he serves up plenty of irony), a hint of exploitation, nonconsensuality, or, at the very least, cross-purposes relegates his sexual participants to an icy, isolated fantasia. And when Gyöngyvér moves in to Ágost’s house, things get worse. “Don’t move, stay there, said Ágost loudly, as if deterring an intruder. Stay where you are.” While issuing these commands, he is busily masturbating, without troubling to close the shutters. Gyöngyvér feels angry, jealous, and aroused. And so she, too, masturbates, although without pleasure. On the next day, she and Ágost’s mother kiss awkwardly in a deathbed-bound taxicab, while each of them is thinking of someone else.

After a couple of hundred pages it comes out that Ágost was the victim of sexual bullying at a French boarding school, where the other boys punished his language mistakes. Here we begin to take stock of his impressive Hungarian inferiority complex, and its effect on his relationship with the poorly educated Gyöngyvér: “He disdained these Hungarians, especially this woman with her submissive tendencies who was playing up to him; he despised them all, every Hungarian.” And as the scope of the novel enlarges, we realize that he is not alone in his opinions. In one scene, a riverboat captain assures an architect that “we Hungarians are a lost people.”

In an essay in his collection Fire and Knowledge (2007), Nádas offers us a somewhat anti-Freudian admonition:

If one does not guard well the delicate and sensitive border between hatred and love . . . if one’s closed physiologic system is not preserved for the more noble pleasures, then the chaos of suspicion, of being insulted, of the unquenchable thirst for revenge . . . will quickly swallow one up. . . . This sort of chaos swallowed up Yugoslavia.

The assertion of equivalence between eros and politics is typical of this author, and telling. The characters of Parallel Stories do not guard their hearts’ borders at all well.

• • •

SLOWLY, ALMOST INSIDIOUSLY, Nádas conveys us from desire to loneliness and back again. Meanwhile, every now and then, politics, or the paranoia experienced in the Eastern bloc, flashes as bleakly and briefly as lightning: “For security reasons, everyone preferred to pretend they didn’t notice what other people did or said.” His method is to spiral outward from erotic activity into memory and history. The novel looks backward in time, back to Gyöngyvér’s wretched foundling childhood, back to the prewar years, when her not-yet landlady was young, married, and in love with the architect (the confidant of the riverboat captain), who handmade for her psychiatric clinic beautiful furniture that would in due course be destroyed in an anti-Semitic operation. It looks back to a hideous scene at Buchenwald, the relevance of which we must take on faith for a few more pages—back, back, memory opening up like an enchanted cavern behind the very long and narrow introitus of the present. Thus it is not until Kristóf and his sexual degradations have cycled in and out of the narrative a number of times that he suddenly informs us: “I couldn’t tell anybody that my mother had abandoned me for a woman and my father had been done away with by his comrades.”

Just as in Marx the cultural superstructure is founded upon a half-invisible economic substructure, so in Nádas the neuroses of the personality owe something to the psychoses of the society behind it. The scene in which Ágost, while penetrating Gyöngyvér, determines “to outwit the woman” takes place in about 1961. That such attitudes might be generic not only to Ágost himself, but perhaps also to certain aspects of mid-twentieth-century Hungary (if not to all humanity), is intimated in a scene in a breadline, set evidently during the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Caught between hunger, curfew, guns, and tanks, a man thinks, “A person may have the necessary strength and can bravely stand up to any pressure applied to his back, but all he wants is to hold off the other person, keep him from getting what he wants for himself.”

Thus the novel’s method: The sudden shifting of tenses (which not infrequently occurs in Russian or German literature), the rapid changes in voice, the ever-flitting omniscient narration, unpredictably settling in this or that soul, the sudden flashbacks to the Nazi years or to 1956, when Soviet troops crushed Hungarians attempting to revolt—all of these alterations presently become alternations, interconnections, in Nádas’s spiraling web.

Every once in a while the novel’s overall procedure takes place in miniature, so that some of its effect may be conveyed in a review’s brief space. We meet another architect—this one from the nineteenth century—who is “morbidly insensitive to any auditory proportions and perhaps because of that was incapable of listening to others or hearing himself properly.” Nádas spends a few pages explicating not only the man’s personality but his restrainedly classical ideology, so that we begin to appreciate what he was trying to do in his buildings, at which point we are brusquely informed that in one of them, the very place where Gyöngyvér over-utters her orgasms, “in October 1956, a few senseless submachine bursts sprayed this symbolic colonnade.”

Most of the time, however, receiving a sufficient education to appreciate the novel’s revelations requires patience. Parallel Stories can be arid at times, and maddeningly slow. I mean this not as an objection, but as an honest description. Not until halfway through the book do the nastiest memory-shards show more than points and edges. This strikes me as a prudent authorial strategy: Remembering atrocity is painful, and so we circle around our nightmares. Hence one quasi-friend of Ágost’s mother warily regards her recollections of the Soviets’ first invasion of Budapest in 1944: “As the years passed, although nothing changed she found it harder and harder to talk about old issues. . . . Her throat, her nose . . . preserved the stench of carrion. . . . The sled with the ropes, whatever happened to the sled which they’d used to move the frozen Russian corpses.” Hence she insists to another woman that there is no reason even to recall or remind others about these events: “I won’t have her remembering anything. There’s no pit. It’s all over. Twenty years later, there’s no need to remember.”

In short, Parallel Stories’ obstinately gnomic method of explication is in keeping with its psycho-historical sweep, and from time to time the author offers what could be justifications: “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.” Elsewhere: “I’d call it a professional mistake, to keep harboring a fear we don’t dare admit even to ourselves.”

Still, the relentless sourness can be wearing. Of one monster we are informed: “Schuer was appreciated at the university because he never said anything surprising.” This might amuse us more if everybody else wasn’t constantly farting, conniving, avenging, thrashing in ennui, and generally carrying on a stained existence. “Everyone has a mother, that’s what I say, a baron also shits.” Accordingly, the poisoned relationships between characters rarely surprise us. “Gyöngyvér . . . is not a cruel or vengeful person, but Ágost had so debauched her that he now deserves the pain.” Didn’t you see that coming? Rarely does the sourness get relieved by anything except claps of violent horror. I cannot object to this on artistic grounds; form follows function. All the same, this is no book to “enjoy.”

Nor is Nádas—in translation, at least—a great stylist. His sentences can be outright hackneyed, as in: “She cannot tell whether she will reach her goal before total darkness. What eternities pass . . .” The several times repeated “twin kid sister” rings awkwardly to me. And the flock of questions without question marks—e.g., “the child could comprehend it, but how could he possibly accept it”—do these occur in the original? Who’s responsible for the slovenly grammar in the chapter title “Everyone in Their Own Darkness”? Who wrote the occasional historical footnotes—such as the one that banally identifies Eva Braun as “Hitler’s companion and, eventually, wife”? Not being able to read Hungarian, I can only say that the translation appears to be careful and clear, and that thanks to its clarity I can see that Nádas is a great delineator.

He specifies, with as much care and nearly as powerful an effect as George Eliot, the limitations of people, measures the gulfs between them, maps their obsessive orbits around daydreams and traumas, weaves their crazy stream-of-consciousness threads into a durable patterned fabric. That his threads are constructed from polymorphous sexuality is surprising at first, but once we get used to it, we begin to appreciate why in this fictional world it ought to be this way. Like Sade, Nádas is a gender egalitarian par excellence: “The way a man’s lips took possession of me suggested that I should possess myself, yet it felt as if I had wound up in the vagina of a woman.” After reading enough of these sentences, we become strangely freed from various dichotomies between the erotic (or, if you like, romantic) and its opposite. Any character may relate to any other character in any way, and often does; therefore, we begin to see them less as men and women than as souls. The obscene becomes cerebral, attachments grow contingent or accidental, and what we are left with is, again, a beautifully complex constellation of motivations, energies.

Several secrets about the characters and their antecedents come out near the end. They have to do with the Final Solution and other atrocities. I will not reveal them. Nádas’s achievement lies not in how he plots out his parallel stories, but in how he interrelates them. In fact, Parallel Stories may be great precisely on account of its flaws. The best way to characterize this haunting, tedious, obfuscating, painfully sharp, ugly masterpiece of a novel, both in and of itself and in relation to its subject, is in its own words: “At least Hungarians feel lost because the Turks took away their kingdom. I, however, am nothing but myself, nothing more.”

William T. Vollmann is the author of many novels, including Europe Central (Viking, 2005), which won the National Book Award. His most recent book is Kissing the Mask (Ecco, 2010), a work of nonfiction.