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August 05, 2007|Richard Eder

Fire and Knowledge

Fiction and Essays

Péter Nádas, translated from

the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 392 pp., $30

IN 1997, Péter Nádas' "A Book of Memories" -- a massive and complex Hungarian novel in which the past indistinguishably infiltrates the present -- appeared in English. This was 11 years after its publication in Hungary and nearly 25 years after Nádas had begun writing it.

Successively -- in Hungary, in its subsequent publication in Germany and in its appearance here -- the novel was hailed, with all its elaborate scope and difficulty, as a masterpiece. Comparisons were made to James Joyce, Jean Genet, Robert Musil and -- for its defibrillation of memory -- Marcel Proust. Critics noted that the spacious Modernist canon of the West had taken root in the narrow battleground between official and dissident art behind the Iron Curtain, producing a novel of shifting consciousness amid the diamond-hard clarity of parody and paradox in the literature of resistance.

Two previous Nádas novels later published here found less favor. They were shorter but (as a critic complained of one) took longer to read, obscurity being distinct from profundity. A literature of inward consciousness takes a while to mature. Written young, particularly in a hostile and isolating environment, it can be a solipsistic prison until the artist learns to forge it into a means of flight.

Nádas' steadfast publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has now brought out a collection of his shorter work, titled "Fire and Knowledge." It is a varied assortment, both in character and quality.

Nine of the 23 pieces are short stories: half of them early and relatively realistic; the rest introspective, stream-of-consciousness constructions. The others are essays, of which the finest are political and bite hard but in a dreamily associative style -- a stream of consciousness, you might say, with piranhas swimming in it.

The early stories deal with family, their most interesting aspect being the glimpses of class differences in an avowedly classless Communist society. In two of them, the child narrator is the son of middle-ranking party officials. The protagonist of "Little Alex" goes to a birthday celebration for a girl whose parents outrank his; in a kind of blind resentment, he wreaks havoc at the fancily laid table. In the more interesting, richly ironic "The Bible," a boy witnesses his parents' complicated relationship with their peasant servant, who, embarrassingly, is devout and wears a crucifix. They work at being tolerant (one thinks of wealthy Americans being extra nice to the Guatemalan nanny). Not so the grandmother, feudally lordly under her Communist veneer, who accuses the maid of stealing. What the maid, indeed, steals is a hidden-away Bible, a sacred icon she assumes can get no respect in an avowedly atheist household (with some reason; the boy has discovered it and torn it). It turns out to be an icon of a different kind: In their heroic underground days, the parents had used it to conceal subversive leaflets.

The more experimental stories tend to be turgid. A few (the virtually indecipherable "Minotaur," for example) are introspection carried to the vanishing point, like a snake that swallows its tail and keeps on swallowing until all that's left is serpentine absence.

There is a sinuous serpentine presence, on the other hand, in "A Tale of Fire and Knowledge," from which the collection takes its title. It is an essay (the new volume is at its most interesting in Nádas' nonfiction, which we've not seen before) that richly elaborates the totalitarian Newspeak George Orwell set out in "1984." It starts with a report of several fires, which is buried as the seventh item in the morning news broadcast and thus designated insignificant.

"Insignificant," of course, means "significant"; the fires were a widespread disaster. Nádas goes on to elaborate the grammatical rules of collective versus individual belief; Hungarians were required to keep the two separate. "[I]n no circumstance should any individual knowledge they had of things become collective knowledge," he writes. "[O]nly a collective not knowing of things could ensure the individual knowledge that no one should possess." This was mutually understood: "Those who govern could not limit the governed in the freedom of their individual knowledge, but neither could the governed limit those who govern in the freedom of their collective not knowing." That is (to adapt the old phrase about imaginary pay and imaginary work under Communism), the government pretends to tell the truth and the governed pretend to believe it.

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