Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Twelve

If there’s one book which stands out on the longlist of the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it’s Péter Nádas’ epic novel Parallel Stories (translated by Imre Goldstein).  A monster of a book, eighteen years in the writing (and four in the translating), it runs to 1133 pages, and the hardback copy I obtained from my local library weighs a ton.  It’s a book with themes heavy enough to match its bulk, a story of a country and its inability to face its recent past.  The question is though, (ignoring its size) is it any good?

What’s it all about? 
Parallel Stories is a book which is extraordinarily difficult to pin down.  There are two major strands, revolving around events in the small German town of Pfeilen and various places in Hungary, particularly Budapest.  The main characters come from two families – the German Döhrings and the Hungarian Lippay Lehrs.  Within each half of the story though, there are several different timelines and viewpoints, meaning the reader has to pay a lot of attention and remember a vast array of names, many of them extremely unfamiliar.

The novel start with a suspicious death in Berlin, but we are soon torn away to Budapest in 1961.  Right from the beginning, we never stop jumping from time to time, place to place, part-way through chapters, even mid-sentence.  At times it is difficult to make out (or even believe in) a coherent plot of any kind.  The reader experiences vague connections, echoes, parallels between events, and while it is tempting to draw conclusions from the information we’re presented with, it’s hard to imagine that we are really meant to be any the wiser by the end of the book about any underlying grand plan.

We’re not even really sure who the central characters are supposed to be.  The dust cover of my version focuses on André, Hans and Ágost, three Hungarians who, having lived abroad, felt like exiles in their native Budapest.  Having read the book though, I’m not all that convinced by what seems a very convenient (and arbitrary choice).  For me, the key characters are Döhring, the young German student whose discovery of a body begins the book, and Kristóf, the youngest member of the Hungarian family and the one whose path we most often cross.

One reason why these two characters stand out, apart from the relatively-extended appearance time they have, are the obvious parallels between them.  Both are psychology students, introverted and struggling to make sense of the world, despite (or perhaps because of) their insights into the human psyche.  Both have confused sexuality, yearning for the unavailable or forbidden.  Both spend time on bland, yet tension-ridden, conversations with a person they’re intrigued with.  There’s a lot they have in common…

And the parallels don’t stop there – in fact, as you may have guessed, the novel is packed with them.  The word is ubiquitous, to the point of being overused.  Nádas carefully constructs parallels between anything he can think of, from the two countries and families, to the actions his characters take.  Lesbian mothers, children snatched and later returned, names adopted and discarded – wherever there’s an action, there seems to be an equal and similar action somewhere else among the many, many pages Parallel Stories has to offer the reader…

Of course, the problem is keeping all that straight without having to take copious notes (something I started doing half-way through the book…).  As well as being incredibly long, the book doesn’t exactly make it easy for the reader to keep up with events.  Characters pop up briefly, disappear for what seems like enough time for glaciers to cover Europe again, then reappear in another place entirely.  As a child.  You think I’m joking?  The detective Kienast, whom the unsuspecting reader would have taken as a major character at the start of the novel, promptly vanishes, not to be seen until close to the end of the book.  However, another Kienast, a child who may or may not be the same person, does get a mention a little earlier – about 600 pages in…

Regardless of whether there is any real overarching structure to the book, there are several themes that crop up repeatedly.  The one that probably gets the most attention, and may put many people off the book, is the prominent position sex has in Parallel Stories.  I don’t think I’ve read a work of literature which has such lengthy, detailed descriptions of sexual acts, smells, positions and fantasies, passages which test the stamina of the reader just as much as that of the participants.  For the most part, Nádas is a tease, spreading anticipation and memories of sex over several pages, preferring anticipation to the actual consummation (and when you think again of the size of the book, that may come as no surprise!).

At times though, the sex is graphic, leaving nothing – absolutely nothing – to the imagination.  I’ve read that this idea of hedonism was a reaction to the lack of freedom Hungarians had, a way of reclaiming their identity and independence, and it’s an idea which does make sense.  There’s a pervading sense of sexual liberation and freedom of choice in sexual identity, one particularly evident in Kristóf, what with his pursuit of the entrancing Klára and his nocturnal adventures in Budapest’s gay underworld.  The forty-page session enjoyed by Ágost and his girlfriend, Gyöngyvér, is surely pushing this idea to the limit though…

Another interesting idea is the focus on mental illness and schizophrenia.  This takes us back to Döhring and Kristóf, both of whom appear to have some sort of issue, unable to cope with the parallel desires they experience.  This may also be a metaphor for the whole book, as Budapest itself is a schizophrenic city, and not just in the divided, geographical sense.  Nádas repeatedly mentions the split between the normal folk on the street and the Hungarian aristocracy, and the Lippay Lehrs, with both noble origins and communist leanings, are particularly torn between these two opposing poles.  The country as a whole, however, could also be seen as schizophrenic, needing to pretend that everything is alright, ignoring the political realities and the ever-present brutality in order to stay sane…

In the end though, it’s probably pointless to dig too deeply into all of this madness.  If it took Nádas as much time to write Parallel Stories as it takes to raise a child, there’s little chance that I’m going to unlock its secrets in one insignificant review.  It’s a book which takes a lot of reading, but it does reward the reader, even if the first half is rather slow going.  A more thorough knowledge of Hungary and its recent history would probably make things a little clearer, but one thing is for sure – this is not a book for the faint-hearted!

Oh dear!  Nádas' love of elaboration is obviously catching - I'm only half-way there...  Join me tomorrow for the second half of my Parallel Stories review, in which I discuss its linguistic qualities and whether it was good enough for the shortlist :)