The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
“The Book of Fathers” follows the Csillag family through 400 years and 12 generations from first son to first son. Each son inherits not only the Book of Fathers, something similar to a journal that has been added to by each man, but the ability to see into the future and the past at certain junctures in his life. For some, the gift allows them to see the woman they will marry, for others they are able to gain the knowledge of their forefathers without studying, because they can reach into the past for that knowledge.
So the writing and translation were good, but I was really, really bored while reading it, which is a shame, because I was really excited about this book. Bored enough that I soldiered through a little over half of this 500+ page book and then just couldn’t go any further. Two main things contributed to my boredom and inability to finish the book:
First, was the format through which the story was told. Each son was given his own chapter of about 40 pages. Some of the chapters felt interminable – because 40 pages are pretty long chapters, especially in a book that isn’t a very quick read – but at the same time they were far too short. How can you tell a man’s entire life in 40 pages? This resulted in the men’s lives tending to be condensed into him meeting/marrying the mother of his children, something bad happening, and him dying. This is not to say that every chapter was like this, but by virtue of how the story was structured, that was the general format. In addition to this being a bit monotonous, I never really got the chance to attach to any of the members of the family, because just as I was starting to get interested in one of them they would die, or otherwise transfer their story to their son. I should also say, I didn’t think much of the magical realism element of this book, I didn’t really think that much was added to the storyline by the first born sons being able to see into the past and future.
A bigger problem than the format, though, was partly my own deficiency. This was a translation from Hungarian and I can see how it would be a very interesting book for Hungarians or those who have a good deal of familiarity with Hungarian history. There was so much happening in the background that I didn’t fully understand because I don’t have a good grasp of Hungarian history at all. Sure, I could figure out a lot of what was going on, but I think it was meant to be more of a reference to things that happened, looking at the story of a family set against the backdrop of Hungarian history. If you already know Hungarian history, it could be a very instructive look at how people actually lived through these 400 years, but if you don’t know the basics already, it doesn’t really teach you much about Hungarian history and you miss a lot that other people would pick up on while reading this.
If you’re interested in and informed about Hungarian history, I think this could be a very interesting book, but if you don’t know anything about it already, I really cannot recommend this.