My rating: 2 of 5 stars
For fiction there are two roads to translation: the low road from bestseller-dom, and the high road from literary-ness. Knowing nothing of Nádas’s sales in Hungarian, my hunch is that this book took the high road.
In my time in Hungary I’ve seen books on both roads. Hungarians waste much time translating and even reading rubbish like Bridget Jones (presumably on the basis that sales in English = sales in Hungarian) even when they have own exemplars of the genre like Állítsátok meg Terézanyut. I have to wonder what Hungarian singletons make of Bridget; femininity is done so much more seriously here.
In the case of Imre Ketész the road his work took was so high that it was simply out of sight for most Hungarians, and curiosity more than pride was their reaction to the news that he had won the Noble prize for literature. As a result his work must have become widely available in Hungarian and in English at the same time. I watched amused as Hungarians bought, struggled with and then abandoned Fatelessness. Abandoned in part, no doubt, because of the one, two, three page long paragraphs. I note they haven’t bothered for Krashnahorkai, the Mann Booker doesn’t have much currency here.
Which brings me back to this book, ever since Joyce, who adopted Hungarian quotation marks for his own work, playing about with punctuation has been a sure sign of literary high-roadedness. And this book, being the first person narrative of a growing child, owes a lot to the opening chapters of portrait of the artist as a young man – though for Nádas the quotation marks are not an affectation, maybe the stream-of-consciousness passages are.
My own thoughts are so staccato and disconnected. Indeed writing things out in sentences and paragraphs is the only way I come to understand what I think. So it has always eluded me why the absence of punctuation is seen as representative of the stream of consciousness. e.e.cummings does a better job, and he often seems to have more punctuation than words. Nádas is Joycean in this respect, though, and we have twenty page slabs of words. With a deep breath, twenty page slabs are just about manageable and thankfully, the sentence punctuation is traditional.
Inside these slabs one can find – or at least I found – a book in three parts. The first part is the child’s point of view on adult goings on; for example his father climbing in through windows late at night, or his friend’s mother parading about in the nude. Any connection between these events – though it seems possible now – entirely eluded me while I was struggling with the child’s perspective and the slabs of words.
The second part was much more satisfying, as it was a series of stories told to the child by his dying grandfather about their ancestors. This being a Jewish family, it starts in Jerusalem as the time of the first millennium, and the follows the generations around Europe as they are buffeted from pogrom to pogrom eventually finding some security in Budapest in the 16th century. All of these stories are reported to us by the child and appropriately garbled and truncated. The result of all this garbling and truncating is that I wished I was reading Book of the Fathers again, where the same material was covered by a writer at the height of powers and not by a pre-pubescent kid who spends his time trying a get a peek at his friend’s mum in the buff.
It was interesting that the third part of the book, in which the family story is brought to an end, is not set in 1944 – the year the brought the end to so many Jewish Hungarian family stories. In fact how the family got through that year, given that they were of Jewish origin and living the countryside, which was quietly but completely cleansed, is not discussed at all. Instead, it’s the 1950’s and following a show trail, the father is imprisioned, the grandparents die, and the boy is shoved into an orphanage. There he is punished by being made to be silent.
I realise that the child’s account is intentionally garbled and truncated, but I really can’t be bothered to go back and sort it all out, especially as I have to struggle through the same point of view and the same lack of paragraphs. Sometimes such literary affects (Absalom Absalom) really help the reader to realise the significance of the story, and sometimes they simply disguise the absence of a significant story.
One of the major problems of reading Hungarian literature in translation is that so much of if travels the high road, and because there is so much English traffic on the low road, Hungarian bestsellers are rarely translated. It not’s just that I’m not reading Hungarian, I’m not reading what Hungarians read.