Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays
by Péter Nádas, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 392 pp., $30.00
In countries where a state apparatus, by means of continuous and perceptible monitoring, threats, and reprisals, accords due respect to the power of language, it is hardly surprising that both readers and writers would take words and their uses seriously. And although it’s certain, insofar as anything can be, that Péter Nádas would have become an extraordinary writer no matter what his circumstances, life in Hungary under a Soviet-backed regime has left a burning imprint on his writing. His work’s frank claims to be on a high level, its ambition, assurance, rigor, and tone of urgency, as well as the extent to which it sometimes makes free with the reader’s stamina, not only suggest irrepressible artistic and moral force but also seem unburdened by personal arrogance. What is at issue for him, clearly, is to discover truth and tell it in whatever way possible.
Nádas was born in Hungary in 1942, and, except for some travels, primarily in Germany, has remained there, under the heavy shadows of World War II, the cold war, the long, hopeless period of stasis between the superpowers, and the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet empire. As a boy in Budapest he witnessed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; in 1958 his father, a high-ranking Party functionary, committed suicide.
His titanic novel A Book of Memories—which has been subsequently outweighed by his 1,500-page Parallel Stories, finished in 1995 but not yet available in English—was written over a period of more than ten years. Its dense and intricate plot unfolds at mesmerizingly close range. Specific information tends to appear only obliquely or incidentally; it takes some time for us to orient ourselves and to understand that the narrator, whom we first encounter in Berlin, is in love with a young man who has just disappeared, presumably to the West, and that both of them are also emotionally involved with a well-known actress. Sections of the book that deal with this period of the narrator’s life alternate with sections about his childhood in Stalinist Budapest. A second voice, that of a dissolute aesthete and anarchist, who we come to realize is an invention of the first narrator’s, braids itself between these settings, and toward the end of the book, a third narrator—an important childhood friend of the first—takes over for a while.
The story is refracted and amplified through these semipermeable consciousnesses, which, from time to time—from the force of longing, pain, revelation, or danger—fray still farther. It is in the convergences and divergences of various love triangles and wrenching, hidden family histories, in the multiple political and personal alliances and treacheries, and in the mergings and sunderings of identities that we feel the underlying heart of the book—the search for the sense of self that is the precondition of both autonomy and commonality.
Memories—not as static snapshots but as active conduits—move the story forward; the long sinuous sentences delicately approach, probe …