A robust epic of a Mitteleuropa lurching out of totalitarianism into whatever passes for modern society—“not a terrain without perils,” as one of the principal characters grimly observes.
Hungarian novelist Nádas’ stories are parallel in just the sense that Plutarch’s lives are: They draw the reader to a moralizing conclusion. Otherwise, they are parallel only for short distances, like a train line out on the Magyar Plain, leading, as many of the characters here know, to horrible places of mass death. Nádas’ long tale opens with a scene befitting Stieg Larsson (though not indebted to it in any way: Nádas has been working on this book, it’s said, since before Larsson started writing fiction): As the Berlin Wall begins to crumble, a body, half-buried in snow, “half dangling off a bench,” is found in that city. The young man who found it lacks a sufficiently compelling alibi, while the police detective investigating the scene, a scholarly man with a doctorate and a classically derived sense of stoicism and gloom, suspects the worst of everyone. Who is this dead man, whose body bears “an odor that he had received during his last hours from another body”? From whose body does that sweet odor come? The detective theorizes that fetishism is involved—and indeed, Nádas’ book is as sexually fraught as anything by Kundera—while the suspect rabbits off to the countryside, opening a tale that involves dozens of characters: Jews, Gypsies, Communists, anticommunists, a Chaucerian parade of humankind, arrayed across what used to be called Central Europe. War is a constant as friends drift apart and come back together over the decades; sometimes the characters have names and addresses, other times they are nearly anonymous figures swept up in events, such as one Gypsy prisoner of war called “the man with the glasses.” Each character’s life overlaps with another’s, not always neatly. Nádas is forgiving of their many frailties (“Ilonka Weisz wasn’t hard, just a common little girl with a big mouth”), but in the end, under the rumble of artillery fire and the crush of history, all that is left of their lives—and ours—is “the ethereal shadows of poplars.”
A pensive, beautifully written tour de force of modern European literature, worthy of shelving alongside Döblin, Pasternak and Mann.