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The Boston Phoenix Lost Time

Peter Nadas's newly translated first novel filters personal and political history through a haze of childlike confusion.

By Adam Kirsch

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

THE END OF A FAMILY STORY by Péter Nádas, translated by Imre Goldstein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pages, $23.

Last year, Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas's A Book of Memories was published in the US to great acclaim, earning comparisons to Proust for its delicate explorations of memory and past time. The End of a Family Story, his first novel (published in 1977) but the second to appear in English, is also obsessed with the past and with history, both personal and mythological; but its hectic atmosphere, its brew of magical realism and unreliable narration, is very far in tone and style from Remembrance of Things Past.

Rather than attempting to re-create the past through disciplined memory, Nádas plunges us into it, narrating his story through a child's uncertain perceptions. The narrator is a boy living with his grandparents, and most of the novel takes place in their constricted family circle: we simply look on as the child makes a tour of that small world, describing its pleasures (discovering hidden candy, playing with a ball in the hedges) and its mysterious calamities (getting lost in the basement, happening on a water snake, or, more ominously, observing his grandparents' illnesses). The pleasure of the novel lies not in its plot but in the fractured lens through which Nádas shows us the plot: a narrator reminiscent of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, he gives us information only as it occurs to him. (The boy's name, for instance, is Péter Simon, but we learn it only near the end of the novel, and then only when it is spoken by another character, a stranger.) Identities, locations, and crucial events are mentioned almost at random, forcing readers to pick their way back through the story in order to make the missing connections. Only in the novel's last third, when the illogic of the narrator's world is disturbed by the greater illogic of the Communist regime and its politics, does Nádas introduce what can be called an action. It is a grim one, resulting in the sudden "end" of the narrator's family world -- one meaning of the title.

To this initial strangeness is added the further strangeness of the stories told to young Péter by his grandfather. We learn early on that Grandpapa is a Jew who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. For most novelists, this itself would be the dark secret waiting to be detonated in the child's consciousness. It is characteristic of this writer, however, that just when we think we have figured out the mystery of the grandfather, Nádas adds another surprise: Grandpapa is not just a Holocaust survivor but a sincere convert to Christianity, something much more unusual in contemporary fiction. His conversion is premised on a crackpot theory of the family's history, which he reveals to Péter in a long monologue that consumes much of the middle of the book. In Grandpapa's myth, the family is descended from two Biblical Simons: Christ's disciple and the Jew who had intimations of Christ's divinity. Grandpapa spins out the fantastic story of their ancestors' wanderings across Europe, their travels paralleling the great migrations of the Jews; he believes that by his conversion, he has reunited the two branches of the family -- Jew and Christian -- and thus put an end to its travails. This is the mythic dimension of the title, which complements the personal one.

By allowing these two near-lunacies -- Péter's childlike confusion and Grandpapa's fantastic stories -- to rub against each other, Nádas creates a deep instability. The logic of the novel is, like the child's consciousness, not syntactic but paratactic -- elements are strung together with no ordering or hierarchy to indicate what to trust and what to discard as invention. Are Grandpapa's stories a kind of sagacity, we wonder, or merely colorful fictions? Nádas guarantees neither interpretation. Only when politics erupts into the novel, as the mysterious figure of the child's father comes to the fore, do we sense the real appropriateness of Nádas's method -- for he is chronicling a society and a period when the child's disorientation has infected the adult world as well.

At times, one misses the pleasures that Nádas has chosen to exclude from his novel: the sense of thematic integration, and of the story building to a fuller understanding, that a mature consciousness could provide. But the confusion of the novel is a vital part of its atmosphere; it is what makes it the powerful and disturbing book it is. That unfamiliarity, that strangeness, is the clearest sign that Péter Nádas is indeed a major novelist, and one with whom readers of serious fiction will want to be acquainted.


Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant at the New Republic.


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