Péter Nádas turns 80 and his novel “Scary Stories” is published. – Culture
When he was approaching sixty, the Hungarian writer and photographer Péter Nádas wrote about a large wild pear tree with the respect of a close neighbor in the essay “Careful localization”, published in German in 2006. By then, Nádas had been living in the small town of Gombosszeg in south-west Hungary for almost twenty years. He retained a residence in the capital. Yes, he is one of the great figures of cosmopolitanism in Europe literaturebut only if one does not exclude from this figure the village and the wild pear tree, the hills and ridges of the landscape that surrounds it.
Nádas was born in Budapest in October 1942, with a false surname on the birth certificate, since his parents lived illegally as communists. When he witnessed the failure of the Hungarian revolution in autumn 1956, he was old enough to forever distance himself from the victors. Three years earlier, his mother had succumbed to cancer. He inserted his father’s suicide in the year of the revolution into a biographical sketch in “Lighting up details. Memoirs of a narrator” (2018). The story about the day of his own birth in bombed Budapest, nourished from family tradition and research, is inseparably welded together in a large parallel montage with a view of the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Misoch in today’s western Ukraine by a German task force.
Again and again, Náda’s narrative and essayistic work includes retrospectives on the Europe of his origin, on war and destruction. No less stubbornly and especially for his Western European audience, Nádas has the Eastern European experience of dictatorship revealed after the Second World War. Shortly after the tanks rolled in Prague in 1968, he gave up his job as a journalist and went to the countryside to Kisoroszi on the Danube island of Szentendre, which is surrounded by two arms of the river been prevented for years. The demons of Stalinism came to life in this novel, and like its author, the adolescent first-person narrator came from a Jewish family.
The narrator’s voice comes from the village and acts like a choir
Even if the place name Kisoroszi is not mentioned in the new novel “Haunted Stories”, the Danube Island with its ferries and boats, the small towns of Vác and Visegrád, in which some scenes take place, point to this landscape. Looking at the Gombosszeg wild pear tree, Nádas noted that “when the locals say ‘village’, they don’t just mean this place by its geographical name. They use the word in the sense of world, like the French do when they tout le monde to say. The village is synonymous with everyone and everyone, but those who live outside of this environment are of course not part of ‘everyone'”.
This village novel becomes a horror novel in that it presents the village as a world in its own right, as a linguistic cosmos of its own order, in which horror and violence already vibrate before the horror finally comes into its own in the plot. Two women work on the front page in a vineyard. They hardly exchange a word with each other, “if they did, it was more of nagging and whining, a grim babble”. Even here, the translator Heinrich Eisterer shows that he is up to the task of this novel. Where “grim babble” prevails, a cautious description of the location is of little use: “Let her say what she wants, fuck it.” The flow of language carries with it countless curses, dirty jokes, insults, exclusions – for example of the Jews and the “gypsies”. Anyone who has mastered the first two hundred pages has encountered the shitting, shagging and fucking, the peeing and the farts, the cocks and cunts in high frequency. Anyone who takes the crude jokes and raw sexual innuendos at their realistic face value may groan in annoyance. The idea behind it is not sociological, but musical. The narrator’s voice comes from the village and acts like a choir. No microphone captured this linguistic cosmos. Its polyphonic index, especially at the beginning, is taken from the fourth level of the dictionary. As in some pieces of music, the repetition alienates the phrases.
Teres Várnagy, who comes from an old family of boatmen who still have a vineyard and accommodate guests from Budapest in the summer, may be notorious for her loose tongue. But it is only a distinctively condensed upper voice in this chorus. The action is likely to take place at some point in the real socialism of the late 1960s, the memories of the war and the post-war period are still fresh, but above all the present demands its due. The Calvinist pastor and the Franciscan priest, the mentally handicapped Rosa, who was struck by epilepsy, the small woman with the tall, handsome son whose father the village is raving about, they could all be revenants from village novels of the 19th century. But just as the villager and neighbor of the wild pear tree is in the European cosmopolitan author Péter Nádas, the anonymous narrator’s voice in this village novel has the knowledge circulating in the metropolis at his disposal. She identifies the sunken Roman legacy in the characters’ speech profile, recognizes “the collective unconscious” in the logic of the grim babble, and the harbingers of disaster in three old sailors.
Everything here has a second side that is difficult to understand, including young Mischike’s progressive muscle atrophy in his wheelchair. He is the son of one of those summer holidaymakers who associate the village with life in Budapest. Piroschka, a student of curative education, is at the center of the novel’s furious narrowing, flanked by the beautiful son of the short stature and by the frail Mischike. In the gothic novel, enlightenment is powerless against demons and obsessions, as it is here. A small dog is tormented beyond measure. The dog can be saved, not the tormentor. In cuts and reverse cuts, modern psychology, including psychoanalysis, and the traditional rituals of exorcism work in vain to tame the evil that casts a spell over the characters. Father Jónás, who practices the ritual, has an unhopeful name but is not a caricature. The narrator also reckoned with the devil. In the end, the water rises, a thoroughly unbiblical plague of hornets develops biblical power, and death receives the victims it is entitled to. That they touch the heart springs from the fanning out of the prose far beyond the obscene polyphonic chorus. And the fact that the mythic elements of this village novel are not decoration but trap doors leading to the elemental layers of desire, desire, love and hate.
In the slim volume of essays, which was published at the same time as the novel, Nádas writes, among other things, about the importance of paragraphs in prose texts. There are plenty of paragraphs in the “horror stories”, if only because of the many dialogues. But no chapters. This strengthens the impression of a “roman fleuve” https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/.”Haydn im Plattenbau” is the title of the essay on language music: “As a young man, I studied counterpoint with Master Haydn “. But that’s just the start. The focus is on looking back at the friend who died in 2016, the writer Péter Esterházy, whose ancestors were one of Haydn’s employers. The second essay “In the Colors of Darkness” is a farewell to analogue photography. And “Writing as a Profession” a pleasingly concrete self-reflection focused on the sentence structure and the conditions of the possibility of writing.