The Book of Fathers

Mik­lós Vámos; Peter Sher­wood, trans.
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
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 regime. 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.

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