The Book of Fathers: Miklós Vámos(Hungarian)
Posted by Frank Burns
Hungarian literature does not feature as a high priority amongst translators. But when Milklós Vámos published The Book of Fathers (2000) in Hungary, he sold over 200,000 copies, and it caught the attention of the world. It now appears in 14 different languages. But does its commercial success reflect its quality as a piece of fiction? Opinions differ.
The structure of the novel is most unusual. Historically, it begins in the year 1705, and in neatly constructed 35 page chapters (each with a reference to a sign of the zodiac) proceeds to tell the patrilineal story of 12 generations of the same family, through the eyes of the first-born son of each generation. Each generation is set against its own relevant historical backdrop, and we learn from the concluding ‘Author’s notes’ that the whole novel is an attempt by Vámos to create a fictional autobiographical history to fill the gap left by his own ignorance of where he came from and who his own ancestors were.
The great strength of the novel (in my humble opinion) lies in its historical settings covering, as it does, over 300 years of Hungarian history. We learn much about the dominance of the Hapsburgs and the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the 1848 revolution, the attempts to regenerate the Hungarian language, the plight of the Jews in the 20th century, followed by the grim days of communist rule. In terms of the multi-generational family history of the Csillags, feminists will have a field-day ripping this novel apart. Its myopic argument that all that is worth inheriting in a family is passed down through the male blood-line, that every first-born child has to be male and will have extraordinary powers of perception and imagination, and that women in general serve only as the child-bearers of society…………. none of this will win the hearts and minds of female readers.
What we have here is the grim reality of Hungarian history (“One well-known fact is that Hungary…has lost every important war and revolution since……1490”) over-layered by a story infused with surreal, male-supremacist characters whose world is governed by the supreme need to sire the next male heir.