February 2008

Chris Winters


Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays by Péter Nádas

Péter Nádas is one of the leading lights of contemporary Hungarian literature, although only about half of his publications have been translated into English. A journalist by training, he started writing in the 1960s (although it took a decade before he started publishing frequently) and has born witness to Hungary’s transformation from brutal communist dictatorship to benevolent socialist dictatorship to its current incarnation as a freer, but flawed democracy.

Dissidents in the former Eastern Bloc -- Nádas among them -- developed a variety of strategies in order to keep publishing in their repressive societies. History, allegory, surrealism, postmodernism -- all are tools used to impart meaning without bringing the attention of the authorities. Nádas used all of these techniques over the years -- with mixed success, as he was officially banned from publication at various times.

Fire and Knowledge is a new collection in English of his fiction and essays that spans his career. There is no overriding theme to the pieces, except that in reading the collection Nádas emerges as an astute critic not only of society behind the Iron Curtain, but also of the failings of the West during and after the fall of communism. As the years pass, he becomes critical of the enduring practice of “peaceful coexistence” by which there is an implicit agreement between West and East to preserve the status quo so that both sides of the Cold War could retain their power -- a permanent state of mutually-assured opposition. The communist system, he writes in the essay “Our Poor, Poor Sascha Anderson,” is predicated on a philosophy of being eternal. The choices one must make in such an environment in order to survive have at their heart the question of whether or not to bestow legitimacy upon the system:

All those physically and mentally, existentially and morally fragile beings who, deprived of all real hope, lived on in these systems designed to be immutable and eternal, had but two possibilities: either they could accept the system and thereby, within its frameworks, strengthen it, or they could reform it and thus de facto confirm that the framework was eternal… Acceptance was not morally justifiable, but if one took seriously one’s own wish for reform, in a couple of short steps one came up against the arbitrary limits of that framework, which should have been blown to pieces; rationally, one should become a revolutionary, not a reformer.

This essay, written in 1992, takes its title from the discovery, after the opening of the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, that the noted poet and filmmaker Sascha Anderson had in fact been informing on his contemporaries and friends in the East Berlin art community. But Nádas understands, if not forgives Anderson’s decision, and in doing so explores the very real dilemmas faced by anyone with an interest in doing what is morally right. This includes his own experience being interrogated by the Hungarian secret police, and the actions of western officials, such as the then-West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose visit to East Germany was one example of pragmatism trumping morality. Nadas writes, “The task of modern democracies should be to establish equal relationships among independent persons as well as among independent states; and none of these relationships should have priority over any other or over our relationship to nature. There is no doubt that modern democracy in this century has failed in this task.”

Nádas’s other post-1990 essays expound on similar themes: “Fate and Technique” delves again into the hypocrisy of “peaceful coexistence,” “Parasitic Systems” revisits the dark days of communism to redefine concepts such as “secret” and “fraternity” in the context of working in the Hungarian Military Intelligence Service at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The overall impression you get is of one observer’s disappointment in his society’s failure to learn the lessons of the past and the present, and also what he sees as the failures of supposedly more mature democracies to act in accordance with their ideals. While in the 1999 essay, “The Citizen of the World and the He-Goat,” he notes with approval (if it could be called that -- less apprehension may be a better term) the NATO air attacks on Belgrade to end the Kosovo conflict, he does so only because they were the only real military action since World War II that validated the principles behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; as a result, however, the existing framework under which the western powers operate has been upset by the application of this standard. The bombing made visible the hypocrisy under which all nations acted, and which had previously lain, if not invisible, then unacknowledged for the sake of pragmatism: “Individual states within the United States would no longer be allowed to make separate divisions in matters such as capital punishment; no individual member state of NATO could conduct a punitive war against the Kurds.” These questions pose serious implications for nations, especially since 1999 with the expansion of the European Union, the erosion of rights in the U.S., and the resurrection of Russian autocracy. Nádas was not optimistic of the outcome then, and presumably would be less so now.

Nádas’s fiction also runs the spectrum of style. His earlier stories follow more traditional narrative styles, but he writes with an eye for detail and multiple layers of meaning. “The Bible,” from 1962, explores a family’s hiring of a maid whose religiosity contrasts with the family’s conformity (it is implied the parents are communists, as Nádas’s own parents were), and whose poverty contrasts with the parents’ distinctly middle-class lifestyle. “The Lamb” explores the incestuous politics of a planned housing development on the outskirts of Budapest, and how a community garden comes to divide the residents. “Lady Klára’s House,” a longer centerpiece of the book, focuses on the relationship between an aging doyenne, the wife of a deceased party official attempting to write her memoir while her mind fades, and her serving girl, Jucika, who is poor but intelligent and fiercely independent-minded. The characters are clearly symbolic, and the power struggle between Lady Klára and Jucika is played out not in direct conflict but through subterfuge and evasion.

In other stories Nádas begins experimenting with form. “Lady Klára’s House” includes several examples of authorial intrusion, and he develops from there. “Vivisection,” from 1968, plays with an unreliable narrator and deconstructs the act of painting a model in an art class, “Family Picture in Purple Dusk” (1975) contains a long Molly Bloom-esque stream of consciousness rant, a motif he introduces in the 1970 piece “Minotaur,” consisting of one long paragraph, whether dialog, monolog or internal soliloquy is deliberately undefined. There’s a biblical element as well, but whether the story’s eponymous monster is a savior or destroyer is likewise left ambiguous. Nádas is clearly working within the tropes of postmodernism, and readers will find similarities with his contemporary Péter Eszterházy, in addition to James Joyce, John Fowles and Italo Calvino, especially in the book’s closing piece, “Way,” a page-long prose poem that describes a neighborhood.

Readers of fiction in English from the former communist countries have mostly had to contend with the collected oeuvres of Milan Kundera and Czeslaw Milosz, and scattered pieces by less-known writers, many of whom, such as Hungary’s Imre Kertész, achieved renown as expatriates. Hungarian work in translation skews toward the prewar classics of the national literature, such as the poet Attila József (who died in 1937), and the expats, such as novelist Sándor Márai, who left Hungary shortly after the war, and Kertész, who has lived in Germany for much of his writing career after receiving lukewarm attention in his native country. (His novel Fatelessness was not widely read in Hungary until after it won the Nobel Prize in Literature). Nádas has been one of the luckier writers still living in Hungary, in that while his outlook has been shaped by the rise and fall of communism, he remained in his native country, and there has been a concerted effort to translate his work since the collapse of the communist system (the autobiographical A Book of Memories, Nádas’ second novel, was one of his more widely-read books in translation). While the postmodern approach has fallen out of favor in American literature -- at least among those who review for the few remaining book review sections of daily newspapers -- reading Nádas is a reminder of the different ways in which stories can be told, and how writers are not just outside observers of their societies, but are also reflections of them.

Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays by Péter Nádas
Farrar Strauss Giroux
ISBN: 978-0-374-29964-4
400 Pages