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The Book of Fathers: Miklós Vámos(Hungarian)

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.

Two Hungarian novels

A recent city break to Budapest was the occasion for coming into contact with some of the rich literature to come out of Hungary. I really did not know what to expect. But, instead of buying copies of noted authors and being charged for excess weight on the return flight, I made a note of several authors and titles and scanned the local Library website when I got home. To my surprise, several were listed and within a few short days I had three in my hands.

Esther’s inheritance: Sandor Marai. A slim volume that can be easily read in one extended sitting, but a narrative that kept me spellbound throughout. The author had been an exile from Communist Hungary in California and, sadly, committed suicide just months before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. His novel recounts the story of the unmarried Esther, now in her late 40s, who had been jilted 20 years earlier by “the only man I ever loved”, but who also happened to be an inveterate liar and thief. Lajos sends her a telegram to announce his return one day, and this sends Esther into a flurry of activity preparing for the day. Although Esther knows that Lajos is coming to cheat and lie, and rob her of her few remaining possessions, there is a curious inevitability about her willingness to be duped once again. The reader will naturally hope that Esther will exact her revenge on Lajos, but the impelling force of her past infatuation might once again reign supreme.

The Door: Magda Szabó. When I put this book down, I found it hard to understand how the plot had kept my attention for so long. I could say that the plot might be summed up in the following few words: a young female writer employs an elderly woman, named Emerence, to be her housekeeper, and the ensuing narrative explores the complicated ups and downs of that relationship. Szabó skilfully delves into the inner workings of the human psyche, exploring the incompatibilities of two divergent personalties: the writer who lives in a world of letters alongside a hyperactive domestic who has no time for reading and philosophizing; a woman who is deeply attached to her religious background against a woman who has almost made a career out of maligning the Church and a belief in God; a person who, through the growing success of her writing, finds herself increasingly controlled by the ‘will of society’ versus a lady who will do anything in her power to keep society at bay and prevent anyone defiling the inner sanctum of her home. This narrative almost has an autobiographical feel to it.

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