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The Genius of Péter Nádas

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, recoil, and approach again from new angles the details in their path, sliding easily here and there through time. The prismatic narratives and psyches strike rich harmonics, and now and again the reader can become lost in the welter—or at least I did—but that scarcely matters; the book is so intense an experience that when one comes up for air, the incarnate world around one seems no more vital than wallpaper.

Scrutiny is fundamental to the milieu Nádas portrays, where every intimacy creates new ambiguities and new ground for betrayal, and there’s no work I know that examines so atomically the composition of an instant of experience—the interstices of that instant; at times it’s miniaturization writ almost too large to take in. Here is a fragment from an episode in which the first narrator and a school friend, Maja, suspecting their fathers of being spies, go through their desk drawers:

How could we have known that our relationship reenacted, repeated, copied, in a playfully exaggerated form—today I know it followed a diabolical pattern— our parents’ ideals and also their ruthless practices, and to some extent the publicly proclaimed ideals and ruthless practices of that historical period as well? Playing at being investigators was nothing but a crude, childishly distorted, cheap imitation; we could call it aping, but we could also call it immersion in something real, for Maja’s father was chief of military counter-intelligence and my father was a state prosecutor, and therefore by picking up on hints and remarks they dropped, we were both initiated, almost by accident and definitely against their will, into the professional pursuit of criminal investigation; more precisely, for us it was turning their activities into a game that enabled us to experience their present life and work— which we thought was wonderful, dangerous, important, and, what’s more, respectable—and also to bring their past closer, which, judging by the contents of those drawers, was filled with adventure, real-life dangers, narrow escapes, false papers, and double identities—we could see their youth, and if I were going a little further—and why shouldn’t I?—I’d have to say that they were the ones who blessed the knife with which we sought their lives….

After finishing the book, I, for one, felt irreversibly altered, as if the author had adjusted, with a set of tiny wrenches, molecular components of my brain.

Nádas can actually make you experience what it is to feel or think two mutually exclusive things at once. Attraction and revulsion, for example, or anguishing tenderness and murderous rage, or the simultaneous conviction that one is imparting an intimate truth and awareness that one is laying a deceitful snare, or a feeling of approaching a safe harbor and one of sudden endangerment. Not that this isn’t something that happens—perhaps continuously—in the course of an ordinary day, but it’s a shock to have the sensation plucked forth from the hidden recesses of one’s mind and put into the consciously perceptible forefront.

Fiction inevitably examines, to some extent, lying; and lying—or falsification, anyhow—is woven into our very existence; every moment differs from the last, thus our every response must be inaccurate to both the moment that has passed and the one that has arrived. But the workings of a totalitarian regime refine and focus the inquiry into the true and the false, and if you want to get some insight into the elaborate mental, moral, and emotional gymnastics entailed in negotiating a milieu in which spying and surveillance are a given, A Book of Memories will provide it.

For people who would like to acquaint themselves with the distinctive timbre of Nádas’s voice, Fire and Knowledge is a fine introduction. And many who are already readers will be elated to find these early though astonishingly accomplished stories, and will be fascinated to see, in the essays, a number of his continuing concerns interweaving and transmogrifying as they attach themselves to diverse events and experiences. The fourteen essays and nine pieces of short fiction in Fire and Knowledge were chosen by Nádas from his copious works and arranged by him as well. They were written over nearly four decades, from 1962, when he was twenty, to 2000. The latest piece of fiction in the collection was written in 1975, after which the author turned the considerable force of his attention to A Book of Memories.

In these essays, Nádas writes about art, theater, and prose, about the relative powerlessness of the East Bloc countries, the obstacles to an integrated Europe, and the relationships between the West and the East Bloc, or former East Bloc, countries, especially during the period he refers to—enclosed in quotation marks as effective as the gloves of a sanitation worker—as the period of “peaceful coexistence.” “The archives are open,” he writes:

One can learn how the great, parasitic world systems were built into and worked inside each other…. Their sense of reality suffered great injuries during the cold war, and with the facts of these injuries they had overwritten the universal ideals.

He writes about continuities that can outlast specific political systems, such as the stratifications of class and privilege that endured the revolution and thrived, paradoxically, despite their altered composition under communism. About the social construction of character, specifically expressed as the various costs—in honesty, dignity, and integrity—to the individual and a culture incurred by a totalitarian history, about personal responsibility in times inimical to personal autonomy. He alludes to his vacillating and tormented relationship to Communist and socialist ideologies, and describes his youthful failure—as a military recruit assigned, he realizes to his surprise, to Hungarian Military Intelligence—to confront his own complicity with the regime:

I was sitting in the secret power center of one of the world systems. Care was taken to keep me away from sensitive material, and I also took care to keep away from it…. In sober self-defense I kept to all the regulations lest it might occur to someone to use me for something other than what I was being used for. I did not want to know anything. It was as if someone who had to go through the door a hundred times a day were being careful not to touch the doorknob.

Virtually none of the essays approaches its goals in a straight or single line, and in some instances it is the points of intersection of these lines in the mazy skeins of thought that are the most interesting aspect of the piece. Recalling the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he writes:

Helplessness, confinement, fear, and enforced silent endurance carved another deep groove in my memory, and distrust settled into it like a lasting experience; it became the psychic reality of my life.

Later in the same essay he writes:

In a dictatorship it is very difficult to determine the proportions of one’s participation and one’s refusal. Four more years had to go by before I could, and it was not I but the combined military forces of the Warsaw Pact that determined the final proportions when in 1968 they overran Czechoslovakia. Only now am I fully aware of the many decisions I made back then—without available information.

Although a reader might happily dip into the book here or there, the first two selections—one nonfiction, one fiction—provide an excellent starting point. The opening essay, “The Great Christmas Killing,” written in 1998, is an account of the lawless and somewhat improvisatory execution by firing squad on December 25, 1989, of the Romanian despots Nicolae and Elena Ceauåüsescu. The author describes and assesses his responses as he watched it—twice—in televised documentaries:

Dispassionately I watched myself enjoying the tyrannicide. I kept observing that although I should have been ashamed for enjoying the sight, I was not ashamed at all….

I believe in just, legal procedures. Despite this belief, my conscience was conspicuously silent. I do not believe in capital punishment. Still, the brutality of the procedure I was witnessing did not offend me. Being vaguely aware that there had to be somthing I should object to in this outrageously unlawful, dilettante farce —though I had no objection—and that there should be another law-abiding and humane person within me to protest my moral indifference and oppose my aesthetic naiveté—though there was no such person to be found—created a strange vacuum.

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    His works translated into English include the novels A Book of Memories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), The End of a Family Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), and Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), as well as A Lovely Tale of Photography (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 1999) and Own Death (Steidl, 2006).

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