What We Become

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Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories illustrates the haphazard, psychological violence of a century of ideology, disruption, and the search for the meaning of personal freedom.

The Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet famously called Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories “the twenty-first century War and Peace,” and when one first beholds the 1152-page Parallel Stories, it’s difficult not to worry that the comparison was made mostly due to the book’s size.

Indeed, it takes a long time to note the true connections. Tolstoy wrote of aristocratic dames and gentlemen during the short years of the Napoleonic war. Nádas sweeps across a good part of the twentieth century, complete with military conflict, dictatorship, economic downfall and sexual liberation. Tolstoy weaves a complex tapestry in a very specific social circle. Nádas traces multiple protagonists whose lives occasionally intersect, but which ultimately progress (as the title suggests) in parallel. Tolstoy’s characters are upstanding figures, and remain dignified in the face of uncertainty. Those shown in Parallel Stories display questionable ethics at best; when they are not torn by egocentric angst, they spend their time scheming, lusting, masturbating, pummeling each other to death, and contemplating the best method of killing a domestic cat.

There is no temporal logic to Parallel Stories, and beginning each chapter feels like starting anew. In truth, it is not the length of Parallel Stories which will alarm the savvy reader, but its seemingly absent sense of purpose. Told through repetition, double-backs, and interiority which must be mined to reveal a relevant detail, the book’s narrative flows as easily as unabashed streams of consciousness will tend to do. Nádas’s language is polished – one might plunge into a paragraph and emerge an easy dozen pages later; yet looking back, one may wonder what it was, exactly, that one read. It is easy to feel flustered, even toyed with by Nádas. In contrast, Tolstoy leads his readers by the hand, with generous asides for his personal ideology and agenda.

Yet considered against the backdrop of their respective eras—War and Peace of the nineteenth century and Parallel Stories of the twentieth—the books share the role of a sprawling, anxious social commentary. Each is a zeitgeist of style and subject matter. War and Peace had no choice but to be measured and prim: such are its characters, and such was the society of the readers to which it was delivered. Eighteen years in the writing, Parallel Stories grew from vastly different soil. With its characters’ physical malaise, paranoia, decay, and melancholic ennui, Parallel Stories is the twentieth century condensed into the private thoughts and small-scale worries of a few fractured families.

War exists, but it is somewhere on the edges. It is also a more clandestine, more warped kind of war; when it strikes, it is apt to affect civilians as much as its direct participants. In one brief account, Nádas shows the liberation of a concentration camp from the vantage point of a nearby village. Far from the way an American reader might be predisposed to imagine the event, it is a chilling hour full of foreboding, ultimately spilling into the continuation of empty violence. Moments like these are jarring even as they illustrate a time when war scathes the innocent, politics crawls into our beds, and propagandist speeches seem directed at us personally.

Péter Nádas

Péter Nádas

The rest of the book progresses in a similar style, with intensely private settings—a post-coital bed, a young man’s solitary train ride to a rare visit home—punctured with sharp detours into the darkest folds of Europe’s modern history. Nádas is a masterful omnipotent narrator, delivering lengthy, psychology-laced introspection for every persona that happens to cross his page. This method throws into relief the all-encompassing sense of secrecy and deception which envelop central European society. In the era before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “people’s varying behavior was determined daily, rather like the daily fluctuation of a stock exchange. There were rules of etiquette determining what might be the subject of public discussion, what must remain a secret, and, most important, what was forbidden, recommended, or allowed for whom.” These are characters who lust, agonize, and scheme in private, then turn an entirely different face towards those with whom they’re closest.

Nádas uses his universal knowledge to highlight the tentative, awkward steps each character might take to assert themselves, as well as the ache of their ultimate failure. “Concerning the secrets of their lives, which they could not share with anyone, it seemed more propitious to retreat behind flagrant nakedness,” he writes. The novel’s emphasis on sexual desire, often in a forbidden form, is Nádas’s own method of illustrating political repression.

Nádas shows an impressive willingness to highlight detail and give each scene its due, despite the breadth of his multitude of plot lines. One ever-present element is his delight in the description of the body, and his characters’ interaction with it: “It was interesting that on his shinbone, along the edge of the scraped-off skin, blood, and a clear watery fluid sat in separate drops. He looked at the drops for a long time and then smoothed them carefully with his finger as though it would be better to combine the two.”

Through such odd asides, Nádas shows the mundane perpetuity of life, and the ongoing focus of the individual upon their private, petty, and frequently abhorrent troubles, their personal urges and ticks in the wake of surrounding change. The historical realities of politics, revolution and communism exist entirely on the periphery of Nádas’s vision. One must know to recognize their influence in the majestic apartment with peeling wallpaper, the peculiarly nervous young man on his bike in pre-dawn Berlin.

War and Peace was remarkable for its portrayal of the core nature of war in a time when it was perceived as noble, methodical, and romantic. Parallel Stories illustrates the haphazard, psychological violence of a century of ideology, disruption, and the search for the meaning of personal freedom.

Ana Grouverman is a writer living and working in New York City. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, and you can see her writing here. More from this author →