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Péter Nádas

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P arallel Stories, the colossal new novel by Hungary's Péter Nádas, demands 20th-century attention but offers 21st-century rewards.

Commit to immersion and this consummate novel, which leans back to 1848, reaches out to 1989, circles the Second World War and Hungary's incendiary 1950s and 60s, will generously bestow plentitude, diversity, its endless reserves of discovery.

Eighteen years in the making, and now available in a stately and helpfully annotated English translation, Parallel Stories is not only a treasury of closeted 20th-century perspectives, but also an audacious affirmation of the beleaguered 21st-century novel.

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Very large books are inevitably brought into the same critical arena. We compare them ruthlessly, like boxers, by size alone. When Parallel Stories appeared in Hungary in 2005, critics declared it "the 21st-century War and Peace" – a superlative comparison, but apt for more reasons than weight.

On the surface, both novels stride through time, interweave historical and fictional events, and are inhabited by a cross-section of society. Nádas takes Dickensian care to draw each character in three dimensions, from aristocratic ladies to fascist intellectuals, boarding-school boys to public-bath attendants, Jewish lumber merchants to communist agents.

But more centrally, both Tolstoy and Nádas select history, and our flawed comprehension of it, as their leading subject. War and Peace famously implored humanity to explode its historical method, to replace the study of isolated events and personalities with that of "the unconscious, swarm-like life of mankind," the senseless storm of causes that shapes history.

In Parallel Stories, we hear Tolstoy's historical vision in the thoughts of young Kristóf, cruising sex on Margit Island, Budapest's teeming epicentre of gay nightlife: "Since everything was open, changing continuously, and continuing awkwardly to stay open, I could reach no final knowledge; the most I could do was notice the repetitions, or sense in the rhythm of recurrences vague signs of an elusive natural law."

Yet War and Peace opens, develops, resolves; Tolstoy is a master of the symmetrical 19th-century novel. Nádas, writing on this side of modernism, is free to develop Tolstoy's messy historical method in more formally appropriate ways. In this sense, Parallel Stories earns comparison with Robert Musil's lopsided masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, which maintains an open architecture, an elasticity able to withstand its author's distracted strumming.

That novel's asymmetry has much to do with its incompleteness, Musil having died before executing his plan. But Parallel Stories is asymmetrical by design. Nádas's prose, now elegant, now fragmented, juxtaposes dissociated events and brings unrelated characters into close proximity; this friction suggests connection but withholds resolution. Like the 20th century, this is a book impossible to close completely.

In keeping with Nádas's mission to glimpse, if only partly, our swarm-like lives, Parallel Stories is an unabashed epic of nerve endings. Perhaps no novel since Ulysses has done so much to light up the body. The novel has come under fire for the scatology of its first third, a sexual/excremental salvo the reader must appreciate or at least tolerate. But the tectonics of the body are key to the novel's ethic, which demands we attend to all – and Nádas means all – of history's hidden movements. Indeed, we ought to look askance at those who don't heed the body's murmurs and moans.

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A pitch-black comedy of manners, set at the family table of a prominent Nazi eugenicist, suggests the menace of those who deny their bodies, a moralized repression Nádas identifies with bourgeois, Victorian and fascist decay. His depiction of the human animal is a faithful reflection of life in a nation where conflict cycles through like winter frost, and one realizes that "his neighbour, with whom he'd been talking just a minute ago, [is]a wild beast."

In the foggy, unravelling opening sequence, a corpse is discovered in a Berlin park, where, Nádas writes with characteristic precision, "many things have happened already, or, more correctly, hardly anything can happen here that hasn't occurred before." Many say the same of novels at large. But Parallel Stories suggests, with tireless vigour, fearless honesty and boundless daring, that we've yet to mark the outer limits.

Michael LaPointe is a Vancouver-based literary journalist and editor.

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