Miklós Vámos' popular Hungarian fiction is a grand picaresque spanning 13 generations of the Csillag-Sternovsky-Stern family, tracing its roots through the last 300 years of Hungarian history. As Vámos himself makes clear in his Afterword, that history is not a pretty one, revealing that the Hungarian people have seldom been on the winning side of a battle, and the Csillag-Sternovsky-Stern family, whose names represent the Hungarian, Polish, and German equivalents of "Star," suffer the fate of their homeland.
The fiction begins in the village of Kos in a territory of Hungary regularly attacked by both the Kuruc forces (vagabond guerrillas against the Habsburgs) and the Labanc (Austrian collaborators and reactionaries). The people in between these two groups are killed, their homes and businesses destroyed.
When Kornél Csillag's family is attacked they hide, with other villagers, successfully in a cave; but when the marauders temporarily retreat some are lured outside, and when they return they are followed, the cave bombarded. Everyone within, accept for the young 4-year-old Kornél, are slaughtered. He survives only by accident.
Each of the generations is given large chapters in which they and their families play out, in ordinary and amazing ways, their personalities against the backdrop of Hungarian landscape and history. And there is no question that Vámos is a man of great literary talent. Yet it is the very generational structure he his imposed upon his work that brings with it a kind of flacidness defeating some of the dramatic narratives he relates. After a while, not only do we know the patterns—birth, short or long life, sudden death—but we lose interest in family members, just as they seem to lose interest in themselves. That is not say there are not brilliant moments throughout, and this reader, at least, was not at all exhausted by the 466 pages of the text. But one might have longed for more radically stylistic differences, more variance of the narrative method.
Los Angeles, March 23, 2010