In his retirement, when he wasn't watching military history documentaries on the television, my grandfather, once a lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army, was busy with the retrospective task of growing his family tree. From the stories and images of the wars that cut down entire forests of generations, Grandpa would turn to historical records and archives on the Internet, records from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, the resources of the local historical society, following from the leaves of his current generation the crowning branches of his parents' further down to the trunk and roots of the distant past.
It is with an eye to the same end – the quest for one's origins – that acclaimed Hungarian author Miklós Vámos has written his novel, The Book of Fathers. I must admit to a faint shock upon learning of the distinction Vámos has claimed for himself in his career (among them one of Hungary's top literary awards), for after having read The Book of Fathers, he seems wholly undeserving of them.
The Book of Fathers tells the story of twelve generations of firstborn sons of the Csillag family, from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Each Csillag son is given a single chapter before he is ushered from the book, most often by means of a violent death. This is Vámos's first mistake. Chapter after chapter we are introduced to new characters, but we cannot invest in their presence, for we know that they are destined to be replaced. The structure stutters. Vámos's pen is like the needle of a gramophone that never slips into the groove and from which we never hear any music. It is like a car engine that won't start, but that doesn't bother the driver because he believes it's enough to be simply sitting in the car to be driving it. The analogies are as boundless as the characters are shallow.
It is unclear whether Vámos wanted his novel to be a family saga or a historical novel. I believe he wanted it to be both, but he has managed neither. As a family saga, Vámos bites off far more than he can chew (12 generations!), and he has not the skill to populate any of his dozen generations with any real characters whatsoever. The book has the feeling of a childhood spent hopping from school to school. We are unable to get to know anyone intimately; we can have no friends in this novel, nor indeed any enemies. But it is not just the constant production-line of “characters” that prevents this – there simply is not anybody to know. The best of writers – Chekhov, Maupassant, Dickens, others – are able to supply in a single sentence enough power for their characters to escape the gravity of the page and orbit our thoughts. They, the characters, have gained as much reality as an absent friend, present in every way but the physical. These authors achieve in a sentence what Vámos is unable to do over 450 pages. You can't have a family saga without a family.
A large part of Vámos's mistake, as I mentioned above, is in the structure of his novel and the presentation of his characters. He has taken as his model the schematic form of a family tree. But the fruit of a tree bears no resemblance to the tree on which it grows: an apple is smooth and round and green, not rough and forking and brown. Vámos, in presenting his characters as he has, has disguised them as the tree itself, and they have disappeared in the foliage, indistinct from one another. In his chain of generation after generation, one seeks the fruit but only finds more branch; one thirsts for wine but finds on the vine no grapes to press.
As a historical novel, The Book of Fathers is in some ways worse. Vámos gives himself 300 years to play with, from 1705 to 1999, bracketed (rather too neatly) by two solar eclipses. These three centuries are some of the richest and most chaotic of Hungary's history and provide a banquet of enlightenment and upheaval from which to choose. But it is a table at which Vámos never really sits down to eat. Rather, he hovers over certain dishes (early German-Hungarian conflicts, Hungarian enlightenment and language expansion, the Holocaust, etc.) tasting the tiniest amounts before moving on to the next thing. In his broad survey of Hungarian history, Vámos's touch is so light that the events he depicts – all of which, in the hands of a capable author, could supply the core milieu of a novel – are treated with far too much levity to be taken seriously. It is perhaps fitting, though, that the Hungary that Vámos presents is as faceless as the pronouns he conscripts to tell us about it. The energy and momentum of a novel can be generated in a number of ways, but it is most often done by the friction of characters rubbing against plot, or against other characters, like striking sparks from flint. Vámos's method here has been to toss stones into a void: they strike nothing and thus generate no heat.
And all of this superficiality could have been avoided, one feels, with a narrower focus. In an Author's Note at the end of the novel, Vámos provides a few notes on the period of Hungary's history that is encompassed by the novel, and his reason for writing it.
“Some personal history first. The Hungarian original of this
book was my twentieth publication in Hungary and my ninth
novel. An earlier novel was about my mother, whose character,
for me, was similar to that of the socialism that dominated our country
for four decades...Some years later, I felt as though I owed it to my
father to write a novel about him, too. Unfortunately, he was a man of
few, if any, words. He had died when I was nineteen, and I didn't know
much about him.”
And so off Vámos goes to research his family history. But his questions remain largely unanswered.
“Many readers in Hungary, and some in Germany, have written to say how
envious they are that I know the story of my ancestors so well. I wish
that were true. As must be clear by now, I know virtually nothing. I have
made up a family because I lost my real one. But I am not unhappy if
readers think they are getting the story of my forebears.”
This decision to “[make] up a family,” in light of Vámos's father's real personal history, is unconscionable. A narrowing of his focus (again, 12 generations!) would have greatly benefited Vámos's novel and he does not make it clear why he disregards the potential of his father's narrative.
“My father spent longer fighting in the Second World War than it
actually lasted. He had been called up for maneuvers even before
the war, targeting former territories of the Hungarian kingdom that
had been swallowed up by neighbouring countries after the First
World War. During the war itself, he was a regular soldier until the
enforcement of the Jewish Laws, when he became a member of one
of the unarmed Jewish forced-labour brigades, sent ahead of German
troops to sweep the minefields clean for them as they advanced on
Moscow. He was one of the very few to survive. When the front
collapsed, he fled with some others and was captured by Soviet troops,
becoming a prisoner of war. He escaped with a friend, and it took him
several months to walk home to Pécs. He arrived to find that his whole
family had been killed by the Nazis.”
As a précis, this passage is far more interesting than anything found in the novel proper. It is all the more perplexing and nonsensical, then, when Vámos goes on to say:
“Back to my father. Somehow he became a secretary to a minister,
László Rajk, who was the victim of a showcase trial and executed.
My father was fortunate to escape prosecution. He worked for seven
years in a factory before he fell ill and, after a long period during which
he was in and out of hospital, died. That's all I could find out about
him – hardly enough for a novel.”
Well, that is a novel, one written by John Grisham et al., many times over. Yes, I am being glib, but it strikes me as remarkably irresponsible that Vámos rejects chronicling the life of a single interesting man (one who was, he professed, the whole reason for the novel), in favor of the brief vignettes of twelve overwhelmingly mundane men. It is a sad thing that the Publisher's Note is the most ironic thing in the book: “This is a work of fiction...any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead...is entirely coincidental.”
There are some novels that suffer from a weak plot and weak characters but may still be read with some enjoyment thanks to a magnificent prose style. We are blind to the fact (or just don't care) that there is nothing going really going on, that there is no “heat” being generated, because we are warmed instead by the music of the words themselves. This stylistic saving grace was Vámos's last refuge – and, I hoped, my own – from the nocturnal agoraphobia of his empty, starless novel. I read on seeking the entrance to that shelter of rhythm and cadence but was soon sapped numb by the vampiric ennui of sentence after featureless sentence.
Vámos has been unfairly likened to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“...lost younger brother long exiled in silence to Eastern Europe.”) - unfair for the latter, that is, for there is nothing in The Book of Fathers that is equal to Marquez's long elliptical paragraphs that loop wide with divagation just long enough for the reader to forget his point of origin, that curl back in such a wide arc as to not seem to be turning at all until, with a pleasant shock, we realize that Marquez has expertly steered us back to his beginning. Nor is there any kind of magical realist element to the novel (the inherited clairvoyance of the first-born Csillag sons is not treated with the ready acceptance common to the genre) that gives the paradoxical extraordinary-but-ordinary flavor of magical realism. The only similarity here is in the fact that Marquez has also written a family saga (One Hundred Years of Solitude). But, as Vámos has so aptly shown, not all families are created equal.
In the Author's Note, Vámos also mentions his nation's poor military history. “One well-known fact,” he says, “is that Hungary and the Hungarians have lost every important war and revolution since the time of the Renaissance king Matthias Corvinus. He occupied Vienna and became Prince of Austria. He died in 1490.” And yet they persevere. Hungary held out. And their history deserves better than Vámos can give. All he has done is to strengthen this tradition of defeat. One of his many faceless characters says, “Books and papers should never be thrown in the fire...you never know when they might be needed.” This is a sentiment I would normally share, but for The Book of Fathers, I am willing to make an exception.