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Book Review

The Betrayals of Life, Through a Boy's Eyes

THE END OF A FAMILY STORY by Peter Nadas, Translated from the Hungarian, by Imre Goldstein, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 245 pages

November 30, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Hungarian Peter Nadas' 1986 novel, "A Book of Memories," appeared in English last year, it evoked rapturous comparisons with the works of Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. His latest, "The End of a Family Story," however, has a patchwork quality that defies easy typing. Written between 1969 and 1972 but published only in 1977 after passing the editorial clip of Hungarian censors, the novel is as concise as "Memories" was bulky. Set in the 1950s and written in 10 chapters, each a single, long paragraph, the book is divided into three distinct family stories. One recounts the childhood imaginings of the narrator, Peter Simon, filled with the usual toys of sex, secrets and betrayal--the naked mother of friends, the hidden attics of contraband, the bald head of a grandmother and broken dentures of a grandfather.

The second plays on the externals of his "family story." Young Peter has been left in the care of his paternal grandparents: a churchgoing grandmother and a Jewish grandfather. Peter's Jewish mother is absent in body and memory, and his father, a counterintelligence officer for the state, returns home only occasionally for a meal, sleep and the chance to have his clothes washed in benzene to rid them of the smell of the barracks. His father's betrayal in a show trial broadcast over the national radio signals the beginning of the end of the family, as Peter is spirited off to an institution dedicated to the political training of the children of enemies of the people.

It is the third string of the story, however, that binds the novel. In a series of rambling tales, reminiscent of Louis Ginzberg's multilayered "Legends of the Jews," the grandfather passes down the 2,000-year-old history of the Simon family to the grandson. It is a history of wanderings, from biblical Jerusalem to diaspora Spain. "Whenever someone knocks on your door, don't be surprised, you never can tell," he tells Peter. "Don't be surprised if in your dreams you speak in unfamiliar languages--Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin, and, because of later times, many other tongues. It may be only a dream, but everything is true and everything is probable."

Above all, this third is a history of betrayal, founded on the name Simon. Peter's own name is no accident, with its overtones of the apostle Simon Peter, who was marked not only as "the rock" upon which the church of Jesus was to be built, but also as the man who denied his Lord. The grandfather condemns the betrayals and conversions of his Jewish people at the same time as he justifies their behavior and his own. "Let us die so that we may be saved," he says to Peter, "kill everything so that we may go on living." It is a confused and confusing motto.

And indeed, "The End of a Family Story" is a confused and confusing book--at times a maddeningly difficult wade through many streams of childhood consciousness. And yet the resonance of the three strings of the novel remains long after the family story ends. George Bernard Shaw once asserted that he knew that he'd spent a powerful evening in the theater if he came out of the lobby and walked three blocks in the wrong direction. It is a mark of Nadas' power that the reader finishes his book and continues to wander.

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