The sorrowful history of Hungary underlies this 300-year saga of an imagined family much like the author’s. Its richly inventive twelve chapters recount the stories of the eldest son in each generation: the master of a glassworks, an estate owner who is an amateur musician, shopkeepers, a vintner, a gambler, an opera singer, a government functionary during the Communist régime. Their colorful lives are punctuated by chance happenings and the upheavals of history.
Most of them come to a bad end, particularly in the 20th century, since the family is intermittently Jewish. Even before then, one man loses his life after falling out of a window, another is executed by a firing squad for supposed anti-government agitation. One hangs himself. Random violence becomes systematic as Nazi persecution and deportations decimate the Jewish population.
The novel uses a touch of magical realism, giving first-born sons the ability to see the memories of their progenitors. In each generation they also record their own life stories in a handwritten Book of Fathers which is passed from father to son (and which gives this book its title). In the final chapters the Book of Fathers no longer exists and the power of recall has disappeared, fitting metaphors for a family that has lost its past and whose only hope for regeneration lies in the future.
Bob Goldfarb is president of Jewish Creativity International.