ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Week 10--last thoughts on distancing


Reading the first pages of Péter Nádas’s epic is like settling into a comfortable chair: the reader waits for the mystery to be unfolded, for Döhring to reveal his true nature, for Kienast to prevail. Given the setting of the story, it is natural to hope for a political dimension to the crime: perhaps the corpse will turn out to be a spy or a dissident, someone implicated in the Cold War that is just coming to an end. Even the reader who has uneasily noted that Parallel Stories is 1,133 pages long will breathe a sigh of relief. The murder draws the bow of the novel tight, and the released arrow of the plot will surely keep flying to the very end.
But as any reader of Nádas’s earlier fiction could have predicted, every part of this supposition turns out to be wrong. We never find out who the dead man is, or why he was killed, though we get a pretty good idea of the identity of the culprit. Nádas has nothing to say about the end of the Cold War: most of the novel turns out to take place in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and not in Berlin but in Budapest, where Nádas himself was born in 1942. Kienast and Döhring disappear fairly early in the book and do not resurface for another eight hundred pages, and then only briefly.
By opening the novel with this kind of blow to readerly expectation, with such a defiant deflation of suspense, Nádas makes clear that the characteristic movement of Parallel Stories will not be forward but lateral. In a skillfully disorienting manner, Nádas slides from one story or character to another, and then to another; the alternation takes place not from chapter to chapter, but from page to page and even from sentence to sentence. Pronouns are a mystery and a challenge: when a chapter opens “I did feel it on my back,” or “He could not go back during the next few days because of the steady quiet rain,” it generally takes a while to determine which of the book’s stories we are hearing. And while these many stories are not, strictly speaking, parallel—they do intersect, sometimes quite elliptically—they also do not culminate. In fact, the last hundred pages of the novel are largely devoted to an entirely new character, who is the relative of a very minor character introduced long before.


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