The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 25, 2014

Apák könyve

The Guardian thought it was full of silly ideas, a veritable gamut of Bible-like begats. The New York Times thought it was graceful and alluring. The Guardian thought its women characters were only there as incubators and to bring disaster upon the men. The New York Times thought it was a virtuoso portrayal of idiosyncratic characters. When I read Miklós Vámos' The Book Of Fathers, I thought it was alternately moving and humorous, steadily descending into the morass of Hungarian history of the past three hundred years.

Each chapter had a pastoral overture, which baffled me. How did it pertain to the story that ensued? Vámos revealed in an afterword that he intended the overture to illustrate the zodiac under which the chapter's main character was born. Indeed (and I didn't notice this), each of the twelve characters in the book was born under a different star sign. 

These twelve characters are linear descendants, father-to-son, and they, Forrest Gump-like, pop up inadvertently or advertently, at major events in Magyar history. So far, so ordinary. Vámos then pointed out that the Hungarian language was an overwhelmingly rural, unsophisticated tongue until a big cultural explosion in the late 18th century led to huge innovations in its vocabulary and its establishment as a literary vehicle to rival German and French in the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Vámos therefore wrote the earlier chapters, which dealt with his characters in 17th and 18th centuries, in an archaic form, using only the extant vocabulary of the time, and gradually modernised his text as it moved to the 1990s. He admitted that it would be difficult to render this evolution in an Indo-European language, but that he hoped the reader would notice the language steadily change.

Well, this reader didn't notice it. Damn, I wish I could read Magyar, if only for this one linguistic treat.


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