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The eponymous parallel stories are tethered by the homoerotic camaraderie of three childhood friends; each is allotted roughly a volume (though nothing fits so symmetrically). They are aristocratic men who spent their childhoods abroad, refined but brutal intelligence agents who now work as literary translators for the state news agency service. The Hungarian, Agost Lippay Lehr, is the scion of a powerful political family, and his infinitely nuanced affair with the working class opera singer Gyöngyvér is the keystone of social connection. Nádas has publicly commented about the similarities between the book’s structures and those of the Internet, which was being developed during its writing. For, as friends are linked through social networking websites, so characters in the book are literarily linked by a vast web built from bonds of desire.
In subsequent chapters, Lehr’s aunt plays cards with her opera teacher, who is the unrequited object of his father’s love. Such connections multiply exponentially. Lehr’s erstwhile case officer and foil is Andrass Rott, a man who committed murky acts for the state. Stationed abroad for most of his adult life, he now spends his evenings prowling the city park looking for anonymous gay sex which, when he finds it, is described no less systematically, nor in less physiological detail than the plentiful heterosexual sex scenes.
The last of the three protagonists is the ethnic German, Hans von Wolkenstein, who undergoes hideous medical experiments during the war. All three are dislocated, having grown up outside of Hungary but, to some extent, embodying Hungary, each having had disturbed, sexually violent or alienated childhoods. For Nádas, the erotic is intimately intertwined with the political. Together, they wait to be reactivated into active service and fresh conspiracies. Their interconnected pasts and the stories of their friends, relations, lovers and servants constitute the proverbial “casts of thousands.” No class, layer or sector of Hungarian society goes unobserved. This quintessentially Magyar book charts the historical fates of myriad Slovaks, Germans, French, Gypsies and, not least, Hungarian Jews, whose occasionally precarious place in 20th-century Hungarian society Nádas charts astutely. One major sublot is the story of the family of Elemér Vay, the former high-ranking government commissioner who facillitated the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to the concentration camps. (His daugter, who plays cards with the other ladies and is connected in the same manner to everyone else, hides the prime minister’s powerful private secretary in her apartment at the end of the war. The secretary has his own case of unrequited love and now prepares to reactivate Lehr.)
The threads of the narrative braid and blend together seamlessly to knit a kind of webbing over a fundament of shifting digression. Laconic digressions about Hungarian history, philosophy, Soviet politics, music and the constancy of memory lead to further laconic digressions. Mnemonic figuration is the essence of the book’s erotic epistemology. The ruminations on the nature of love, animal attraction, the mechanics of sex — the mixing of odors, reveling in the “incidental scents and stains,” visceral sensations, the rushing of blood, the texture of flesh, accretion of liquids, throbbing of minutely described body parts — continue on for dozens and hundreds of pages.
Every sentence is utterly luminous. Nádas’s eroticism is the quintessence of his humanism and the foundation of his resistance against the grinding dehumanization of the dictatorship under which he lived for 42 years. The desire to touch another human being is not only the final private consolation in the face of totalitarianism, but also the primary source of grace necessary for the rebuilding of civilization. The appearance of this book after its decades long gestation is hallmark as well as history of that rebuilding.