Parallel Stories

INDEPENDENT         16 DECEMBER 2011

PARALLEL STORIES by PETER NADAS
Jonathan Cape £35.00

Although critics in the author’s native Hungary have hailed Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories as a twenty-first century War and Peace, English readers are sure to be more sceptical.  At 1130 densely packed pages, it certainly has the heft of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, but there the similarities end.  Whereas Tolstoy created a gallery of richly drawn characters caught in the sweep of history, Nadas creates a series of elusive consciousnesses floundering in the whirligig of time.

The novel opens in newly reunified Berlin where Dohring, a student taking his morning run, discovers a corpse which, as Dr Kienast, the investigating officer, soon learns, has no identifying marks – even the labels on his underwear have been removed.  While this serves as a telling metaphor for a world in which national, racial and sexual identities are exceptionally fluid, it is one of the book’s many weaknesses that, apart from an inconclusive meeting between Dohring and Kienast hundreds of pages later, the murder investigation never proceeds and this entire plot strand is dropped.

Germany is also the setting for a chilling chapter in a Nazi eugenics institute for illegitimate boys (who are taught the laws of physics from the suicides of their classmates), and for several chapters in and around the Pfeilen concentration camp, featuring both the alliances, rivalries and even passions between Communist and criminal inmates, and the misadventures of two of the guards, Dohring’s forebears, who steal a box of gold:  a confusing episode, which is further complicated by being partly narrated in a dream.

The bulk of the novel, however, takes place in Hungary, from the 1930s, when the Budapest bourgeoisie flirt with politics and each other, through the Nazi occupation, to the 1956 Uprising and the subsequent Soviet invasion.  Nadas presents a wide range of characters, from a ‘Red Countess’ who, with her brain-damaged lesbian lover and their small circle of friends, desperately clings to pre-War elegance, through the extended family of a celebrated professor who, though reviled for his fascist sympathies, has managed to curry favour with the new regime, to bath attendants, taxi drivers and Jewish timber merchants.

For all its ambition, the novel is both unfulfilled and unfulfilling.  The title might serve as a warning that there will be no narrative convergence;   nothing, however, prepares the reader for the lack of narrative coherence.  The problem is not so much that so few of the plot strands are resolved as that so few are even developed.  Moreover, despite the range of characters, they all have very similar voices.  The novel might well have been entitled Parallel Psychologies, since the central characters are constantly bemused by their own impulses and frustrated by those of others.   This leads to a pronounced flatness of tone, not aided by Imre Goldstein’s translation, which seems to be more sensitive to the rhythms of Hungarian than of English prose.

As if to compensate for the rarefied self-consciousness, there is an inordinate emphasis on bodily secretion, from sweat and lactation to urination and excretion.  In one episode, Kristof, the Professor’s sexually ambiguous nephew, is covered in semen and urine by anonymous men;   In another, the young son of an aristocratic eugenicist finds fulfilment in sniffing the stains on his father’s underwear and searching the lavatory for traces of his excrement.  Above all, the characters are preoccupied by one another’s smell.  Never can a novel have been so pervaded by body odour – perhaps a reflection of the fact that, as someone puts it, ‘Hungarians wash only to their waists.

If there is any guiding principle to the novel, it is that human desire is never simple and rarely comprehensible.  Again and again, ostensibly heterosexual men express their longing for the touch of another male, whether it be an architect for a sea captain, the eugenicist for his fellow soldiers, the professor’s son for his friend at the steam baths, or a communist prisoner for a young murderer.  The professor’s wife, who once made love to a Sicilian hotelier’s daughter, is now attracted to her son’s girlfriend.  The sea captain’s wife and Kristof’s mother both ran off with another woman.  In one long chapter a woman watches in increasing fascination as her lover masturbates.

The reader finishes the novel with a sense of his  own achievement as much as the author’s. There are passages of great power, but they are insufficient to sustain one’s interest through the protracted chapters about people of whom we know far too little to care.  Above all, the lack of either a narrative arc or a philosophical kernel is an insurmountable flaw.  Students of contemporary European literature will no doubt need to read Parallel Stories; others would more profitably spend the time reading three or four average-sized novels – or even re-reading War and Peace.