I didn’t love Miklós Vámos’s novel The Book of Fathers (I received a review copy from the publisher), but I admired it and felt like I learned something from it. It’s the kind of novel that can tell you so much about a culture and a country and how it changed over the course of centuries. It opens in the early eighteenth-century, and tells the story of the Csillag family who live in Hungary, although various family members move elsewhere temporarily. We hear first about Kornél Csillag, whose grandfather returned to Hungary from Germany and brought him along. What they find on their return, though, is a village under threat of violence, and soon that violence overtakes them. What follows is a harrowing tale.
But this is only the first chapter. The novel has an interesting structure: each chapter tells the story of a new generation of Csillags (or Sternovskys, Sterns, or Berda-Sterns, as the family is variously known through the years). The story gets passed down from father to son through twelve generations that bring us up to the present day. So as the family story is told, the country’s story is told too, and it’s a story full of war, uncertainty, and change. The family fortunes rise and fall; there are gamblers, singers, actors, businessmen. At times they have money and at other times they have nothing. Most of the time, the father dies young and violently, sometimes never knowing his son.
All this is very well done; it’s interesting to see how the fate of the country and the family intertwine. Although the Csillag family is not initially Jewish, one of the descendents marries a Jewish woman and converts, and from that point on, the history of the family becomes partly a history of Jewish persecution, on up to the Holocaust and beyond.
The Csillags are at typical family in a lot of ways, but they share an unusual characteristic: each father passes down to his son the ability to see the past and sometimes to see the future. The Csillag sons see visions during significant times or times of stress, visions that turn out to be glimpses into the lives of their fathers. Some of them inherit the whole body of knowledge their ancestors possessed and are able to sing songs and speak languages no one had taught them (no one living, that is). Others have visions of their future, which in some cases causes trouble, as knowing what will happen to them affects the choices they make. This special insight is as much a burden as anything else; the visions of the past and future they see are often troubling. These men do not lead easy lives.
The Csillag fathers also passes down a book — the Book of Fathers — to their sons. Each generation makes its own contribution to the family saga, writing down events, thoughts, and feelings, and the history of this book — eventually becoming multiple volumes — is as varied as the history of the people who write in it.
There was much to admire in the book, but I did find that once I figured out the structure and got into the rhythm of the story, it got somewhat repetitive. The events within each generation varied, but the overall structure of one generation moving on to the next stayed the same, and it was sometimes hard to care about what happened to each character, as I knew I would be reading about him for only one chapter. I prefer the kind of story that takes more time to develop each character and allows me some space to come to know the characters well. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the book; it’s just that it sets out to do something different than what I most enjoy. This is a book about history and ideas, not so much about depth of character or plot. If you know and accept that going in, there’s a lot to enjoy in the book.