A bestseller in Hungary, this family chronicle focuses on firstborn sons across 12 generations.
Kornél Csillag is born in 1701; his many-times-removed scion Konrád Csillag as a three-year-old witnesses the famous European solar eclipse in 1999. In between we meet multifarious Csillags and Sterns (Hungarian and German respectively for “star”). Despite the diversity of characters over the course of three centuries, certain family traits become familiar. The sons, who later become fathers and then grandfathers, have a supra-sensory ability to connect with their ancestors; they have visions of the lives that have unfolded before they appeared on earth. They tend to be supremely intelligent, gifted with an ability to read and write at an astonishingly early age, and many are excellent singers. In addition, they struggle with ambivalence over their Jewish identity. Some embrace it; others repudiate it, most notably Balázs Csillag, who converts to Catholicism in August 1945. Throughout the narrative, the patriarchs record their thoughts, visions and experiences in the “Book of Fathers,” which is handed down from generation to generation, occasionally hidden and rediscovered. Family history entwines with Hungarian history; we witness the rise and fall of scholars, shopkeepers and intellectuals against a background of economic turmoil, political intrigue and the struggle for independence. One of the most engaging characters is Henryk Csillag-Stern. Born in New York, he finds himself drawn to the mother country and emigrates back to Pécs, the town of his ancestors. Henryk goes on a mission to uncover his family history, marries a local girl and fathers the remarkable Konrád, who “at a year and a half was able to recall and recite stories he had heard, word for word”—just like his forbears.
Widely read in his homeland but rarely translated into English, Vámos should win a new American audience with his beautifully crafted novel of connection and continuity.