Book Review: Peter Nadas' A Family Story
An Important (and Demanding) Novel Of the Hungarian Uprising, in Which Little Can be Taken at Face Value
The End of a Family Story, the debut work of the Hungarian writer and former photojournalist Peter Nadas, is a demanding novel, requiring unceasing concentration from the reader to ensure a full grasp of the action. But maybe that’s as it should be, considering its history: Completed in 1969 but withheld from publication by Hungarian authorities for another eight years, it was finally published in English by Penguin Books in 2000.
Yet, the result is worth the effort for those with the necessary patience. The End of a Family Story is not a novel one can read through in a few days.
There is little in this book that can be taken at face value, and often the reader catches himself checking back to see whether a reference on one page might be applicable to what has come before. Nadas demands attentiveness to the historical context, but also seems to seek a sense of distress, transferring the emotional strain and insecurity of the tale onto the reader.
For Nadas himself, whose efforts have focused mostly on Stalinism and post-communist Europe, The End of a Family Story is perhaps his most significant and personal work. It’s subject, the ambient of the Hungarian Uprising, is a theme that carries weight not only for Nadas, but also for the whole of Hungary. Nadas who was himself present at the incitement of the revolution that was to be doused violently within thirteen days, relates the events as seen through the eyes of a child, Peter Simon, living a solitary life in the home of his grandparents. Surrounded by little more than nature and his playmates Gabor, Eva and Csider, the child builds castles in the air that are innocent, but contain flashes of voyeurism that have an ominous sexual tone to them.
Due to the limits of his situation, the child relies on his thriving imagination, causing the narrative to merge real occurrences with fiction. Nadas chooses to present the plot in the first person, telling the story in the tone of a child whose perception of reality is radically different from that of an adult. Although authentic, Peter’s narrative causes an inconsistency in the reading. A child’s train of thought is susceptible to distraction, often unaware of the logical flow of its revelations, resembling more a stream of consciousness than descriptive narrative and ignoring structured argumentation.
Therefore Peter’s thoughts often drift.
"The courtyard was small; sitting on the bench you could see the snowcapped mountains. In clear weather, over the stone fence. The stone fence stank, still we played there. No matter how hard my grandmother had tried to chase them away, the drunks came to urinate by the stone fence.
"My grandfather sold wine and spirits, but he also sold oil, salt, thread, candles, sugar and fabrics. For fine fabrics he would go to Vienna, Berlin, or Budapest. Of course it was more for books and good conversation that he traveled so far. He’d bring back two bolts of material. One was dark green, the other dark brown. It took him a year to sell both. Then he could get on the road again. Once, from Vienna, he brought a parasol for grandmother; it was mauve, or rather, cyclamen colored. Grandmother wrapped it up nicely and put it in the closet."
Additionally to these wayward perceptions and at first glance unimportant pieces of information the reader can never with certainty determine what occurrence is real and which is a product of the child’s renegade imagination, drifting back and forth chronologically and leaving sentences open to interpretation and placement in the whole of the text. It is up to the reader to establish the connection, if any can be made.
Nadas’s formats at times might cause more confusion to the shallow reader, omitting paragraphs and leaving us to make sense of the relations of one passage to another, creating a multitude of possible definitions towards what we are actually reading. Peter Simon’s uncertainty about what is happening around him and his inability to grasp the impact of his environment passes to the reader. Only after Peter leaves his isolation is it clear that this logical irregularity reflects his disorientation and social neglect, the shared reality experienced immediately prior to the 1956 uprising.
Peter’s Grandfather, the driving force of the novel, emphasises this lack of identity by his need to eradicate Judaism from the family’s bloodline. Their identity must be lost to ensure that they can survive in a new environment that may be the complete opposite from what it is now. By changing the factors that constitute identity in an environment, the individual too must change to fit in. By feeling contempt for the situation we are in, we assume the need to transform it, because of the gap between what we are and what we want to be.
However this environment has molded what we are and has given us an identity, no matter how much we might despise it. Consequently, discarding the environment is not possible without changing one’s own identity. And who can guarantee that we will find our niche in our new world? Who can guarantee that the individual can adapt to it to use its potential to the fullest extent?
Although not as prominent as his sophomore effort A Book of Memories, Nadas’s debut shares parallels with it, using much of the same narrative inconsistency and introducing a subtle voyeuristic tone, incestuous tendencies and homoeroticism in the relationship between the main character and his immediate minute social circle.
A style of relationship evolves that symbolises a highly developed longing, physical as well psychological, for affection that needs satisfaction regardless of by whom, a concept that would reach its full exposure in his 1979 effort (again not published until 1986). Peter and Gabor and Eva often indulge in role playing in the garden, impersonating a family but shifting roles constantly:
"Now I could feel the touch and weight of both bodies at once. ‘Let’s make love instead!’ And I took her in my arms…‘How?’ I fell back and her body fell with me. Now I have to kiss her, now I have to kiss her. ‘Like this.’ Her naked belly on mine. The child’s warm head on my groin…Sometimes we also played that I was the child and Gabor the Papa. What made that interesting was that he behaved very differently…When they played at making love I had to close my eyes…And sometimes we played that I was the Papa and Gabor the Mama."