The new novel from popular Hungarian author Péter Nádas sprawls over 50 years of Eastern European history as it strives to chronicle the intimate lives of the Hungarian political elite and those who serve them. Parallel Stories is impressive from moment to moment, but the accumulation of those moments impedes Nádas’ push toward a resonant conclusion.
In 1961 Budapest, privileged political scions Ágost and his friends Hans and András assemble regularly in a bathhouse, taking advantage of their status and enjoying the seclusion from families and jobs. When it comes to the country’s future, though, they keep their comments vague and platitudinal, restrained by their own needs to keep secrets—Hans once played underfoot as his parents hosted Nazi-sympathizing barons and lords, while András is a nationalist standard-bearer hiding his true heritage. As for meek Ágost, who ought to be rushing to the deathbed of his powerful father for guidance, he chooses not to stand up to either his fretful mother or wife Gyöngyvér, whose passion for him has turned into an obsession that frightens him. Juxtaposed against their concerns and paranoias is a murder investigation in 1989 Berlin, as a detective pursues Carl Dohring, the college student who found a corpse in the Tiergarten—suspecting, correctly, that he knows more than he admitted at the scene.
Parallel Stories sets out in narration like an epic, then lowers its sights to sit on the shoulders of its expansive cast and travel with them, minute by minute, through crumbling mansions and burned-out villages destroyed in World War II. When this approach works, it’s dazzling, particularly in the scene of a tryst between Ágost and Gyöngyvér early in their relationship that spans more than 80 pages—including an interruption by Gyöngyvér’s landlady, and the horrified reactions of her society friends—then picks up hundreds of pages later as if the characters have been in bed all along. Pushing away from the historical trauma backing their decisions, however, removes the significance that these everyday events might otherwise contain, severing the ties between action and outcome.
That choice, in addition to a phallic obsession rivaling Alexander Portnoy’s, renders some of Nádas’ late setpieces claustrophobic instead of immersive. It’s not enough to know what Agost and his confidantes are plotting without seeing the consequences, and in refusing to give a few characters the privilege of towing the narrative back into the tide of history, Nádas is forced to drop some more captivating storylines (like Carl Dohring’s introduction to Berlin’s seamy underworld), producing a shallow panoply of characters whose digressions fail to illustrate his larger point. For all its effort, Parallel Stories yields an inert, overstuffed bulk of a book and an impenetrable history.