Book review / The forest of impossible love

A Book of Memories by Peter Ndas, translated by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein, Cape, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Reviewers can't do justice to books, as writers regularly remind us. I shall certainly not do justice to A Book of Memories. With 700 words, I can give precisely one word to each great, dense, difficult page. I'd like to tell you everything: about the book: about Peter Ndas, about the translation (superb); even about the printing, which is as amazing as the book itself. In 705 pages, I found not a single misprint - thanks to Farrar Straus Giroux, the American publishers.

Instead, I'll begin with a first betrayal. A Book of Memories is above all a "dynamics of emotions"; and itself moves with the mysteriousness of emotion, plunging us into the middle of everything, only very slowly (if ever) piecing together a rational explanation. When the narrator's friend Krisztian adds an explanatory chapter at the end, he calls himself, disparagingly, "too rational". It is even more rational to give you some of that explanation before you begin. But you may need it; I did.

Though you don't notice it at first, A Book of Memories has two narrators, whose stories interweave. The first, who is unnamed, is a contemporary Hungarian whose history parallels Peter Ndas's. His mother dies of cancer; his father, a state prosecutor, commits suicide shortly after the 1956 uprising. The second is a 19th-century German called Thomas Thoenissen, whose emotional story mirrors the main narrator's. Slowly it emerges that he is a fiction, in which the main narrator is exploring himself - much as Ndas, clearly, is doing in him.

Both are 30 years old. Both have loved, and still love, women; but both break through for the first time to the great homosexual love affairs of their lives. Both move back to their childhoods, and we see a repeated pattern: cruelly unhappy marriages, fathers with mistresses, a mother with a lover; sons in sexualised relationships with their parents; behind everything, the suppressed love of boys and men (and sometimes also of girls and women) for each other.

The main story is strongly political, a truly terrifying account of growing up under a rigid and paranoid ideology. The narrator's father is a ruthless fanatic who betrays his best friend; the boy's friends distrust him by association; painfully, appallingly, he and one of the girls spy on their fathers.

But the central focus of the book is personal and psychological. The political need to conform is only part of the general need to fit inner to outer, urge to inhibition, which is the real subject of this novel. And from the moment of his first kiss, the main narrator knows that his urges do not fit. His long journey is a desperate search for unity and fusion: between his instincts and his actions; his maleness and his femaleness: his real self and his ideal selves, his loves, Krisztian and Melchior. In all this - in his longing for the "perfect security of the male body", and in his (brief) illusion, impossible for lovers of different sexes, that he could make his own "the otherness of another man" - A Book of Memories seems to me a brilliant novel about homosexual love.

It is also a brilliant novel about the secret shifts of feeling beneath behaviour; and it is certainly a brilliant novel about the body. It makes you feel that no one has really, openly, completely described sex before (especially, oddly enough, heterosexual sex, as in a whole chapter on Thoenissen and his fiancee); or farting, or shitting; or best of all, perhaps, kissing (with a whole chapter on that first kiss).

My 700 words are nearly gone, and I haven't said a word about Peter Ndas. He is the first Hungarian novelist to write openly about homosexuality; he's very famous in Hungary, and even more famous in Germany, and it has taken 11 years for his novel to arrive here. Nor have I said anything about the philosophical dimension of A Book of Memories.

I'm afraid I've made it sound half hard slog and half hard porn. It is neither, but very probably a work of genius. It is very long, often very difficult, and occasionally overwritten and obscure. But mostly it is original, beautiful, and quite astounding. Just read the extraordinary central chapter, "On an Antique Mural". In language at the extreme edge of abstraction and imagination it describes the subject of the book, the forest of impossible love. If, like me, you're blown away, A Book of Memories is for you.