what it means to be a human animal


At the core of the novel, which Nadas took 18 years to write, are the major catastrophes and upheavals of the last century. They are the magma that is always present but usually not visible. The book tells of deportations, the closing of a camp at the end of the war and marauding prisoners; both wars appear as traumatic memories for a number of protagonists, and anti-Semitism is shown in all its colourations. The Holocaust itself is not an explicit subject of the novel; neither are the waves of Stalinist terror. Nadas portrays the monstrosity of the century through its people, through the traces and scars it has left on their psyches and bodies. No one is indestructible in this book. They betray themselves and others, fight and love each other, wear themselves out. Everyone is frayed, terrible, maimed by this epoch. “Parallel Stories” is primarily set in the region of Central Europe in the period between the two wars. The years 1938, 1945, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 are the focal dates. The novel is many things – also a product of scholarly research. While a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, Nadas combed through pertinent archives on the Third Reich to the point of exhaustion, but also examined those on architecture, criminology, fashion, those pertaining to any and all questions of this period in history. This is most noticeable in the brilliant and biographically grounded portrait of Otmar Freiherr von der Schuer, to name one of the most striking examples, who was the Director of the Institute for Hereditary Research in Berlin. The perfect German soldier, educated, disciplined, von der Schuer (in real life: Freiherr von Verschuer) had given orders for massacres in World War I and had gone through experiences that had destroyed his view of people and the world. But he never admits to this kind of “internal haemorrhaging”.

more from Joachim Sartorius at Sign and Sight here.