ZSOLT MIKLÓSVÖLGYI LUSTFUL PLACES. SPACES OF DESIRE IN PÉTER NÁDAS’ PARALLEL STORIES
“Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about genderfuck and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night.” Zsolt Miklósvölgyi explores the literary spaces of Hungarian writer Péter Nádas by critically approaching the notion of queerness as liminality.
According to numerous international literary critics, the trilogy of novels Parallel Stories (2005) by the renowned contemporary Hungarian author Péter Nádas is undoubtedly the pinnacle of contemporary European literature. His earlier novel A Book of Memories has been praised by Susan Sontag as “the greatest novel written in our time.” A few years ago the prestigious German weekly newspaper Die Zeit selected Parallel Stories as part of its post-1945 European literary canon.
By describing in 1500 pages the parallel stories of a German and a Hungarian family from the 1930s and 1940s Germany, through 1960s communist Hungary until the present era of post-communist, postmodern Germany, the novel traces a grandiose panorama of the late modern cultural history of the Central and Eastern European region. Within these non-linear and rhizomatic stories that, among others, take place in Annaberg, Berlin, Budapest, and Mohács, the anthropological and scientific images of humanity are confronted with the perspective of a hidden, usually repressed, archaic, and symbolic sphere of human existence. The excavation of these tectonic forces drives through highly sophisticated analyses of landscapes, cities, buildings, furnitures, and other forms of cultural objects, thus vitalising microhistorical investigations with the sensual language of literature.
This essay aims to conduct a literary space centred analysis of Péter Nádas’ work with particular regard to one of the most enigmatic episodes of this monumental novel, a nocturnal homoerotic scenes at the Margaret Island in Budapest. In the form of sensuous literary geography of a homosexual heterotopia, Nádas’ text provides a vivid and accurately narrated insight into (and thus give literally voice to) the world of the secret gay cruising subculture of socialist Hungary. Within the particular chapter to be analysed hereinafter, as well as in the novel in general, Nádas depicts a peculiar attraction to and a craving for imaginary literary places where desires can be placed and fulfilled. This affinity articulates itself through a precise and sensuous description of a secret and intimate locus in which the poetic imagination of the carnal desire can be ensconced. Thus opening up the possibility of a certain path of escapes (or in Deleuzian terms a ligne de fuite, a “line of flight”) through which the repressive and dominant biopolitical, social, and spatial powers of the totalitarian regime are being subverted, even if only temporarily, in the subject’s favour.
Although there are shreds of historical evidence that are pointing towards that, besides other major city parks (i.e. Népliget or People’s Park; Városliget or City Park) in Budapest, Margaret Island has been a popular destination of the officially persecuted gay cruising scene during the socialist era. For Nádas’ text, however, the choice of location is rather resulting from the precise narrative strategy of the novel itself. On the cartographic surface of the fictional Budapest that exists in Parallel Stories (that is both historically and geographically identical with the actual city), Margaret Island forms an organic, drop shape in the very heart of the city. This is juxtaposed against the rigid structures of the pseudo-modern urban landscape of the Újlipótváros district, another significant scene of various parallel stories in the novel located on the Pest bank of the Danube. Concerning the tightly woven, richly layered archaeological formations of the fictional Budapest, the placid image of the island appears to be almost mythopoetic. From the perspective of a satellite, its urban geological formation appears to be identical with an abstracted shape of a ship. Thus reverberates the allegory of the ship, whether it is the Ship of Fools from Plato’s Republic, Noah’s Ark as a microcosmic image of the universe, or other ship-metaphors.
Nevertheless, Margaret Island can be construed as a spatial exception that has blended into the topography of the city. The island is a residual wilderness that still preserves some qualities of an Arcadian nature. This obscure image amplifies after twilight; moreover, it comes to life in the dark. The libidinous geography of this literary landscape, at least in narrative terms, is shaped by the excited senses of Kristóf:
He ran from the encroaching figures, from having to respond to this magical attraction; his feet pounding on the hard trail, he ran ahead of them like a wild animal, trusting himself to his sharpened senses, his feet carrying him blindly.
The spatio-poetic image of the public park of Margaret Island, however, can also be interpreted in social and political terms, as a heterotopic space that irritates or even opposes the homogeneity of normative social spaces. However, it is not the place itself that diverts the dominant normative structures of social spaces, but rather the rituals, habits, symbols, and desires related to it. In Nádas’ novel, the alternation of day and night not only separates the different narrative perspectives as well as the social dynamics of the island but also multiplies the persona of Kristóf:
On the very first night, he’d decided to return the next day. In daylight, however, his nocturnal decision lost its validity. It was like returning in the daytime as an ornithologist to a research area; the birds were screeching, singing, twittering, chirping, billing, and cooing, some of them offering impudent retorts. He might in daylight see into the secret chambers of a stranger’s conscience here, but he didn’t want anything to do with anyone or thing. The ones who had disappeared from his earlier experience were precisely those who in daylight might have guided him to some useful anthropological discovery, but in daylight, no special interest linked him here, so he became a total stranger to his nocturnal self.
As he states in the very first sentence of the second volume of Parallel Stories: “I’ve got another life.” This thesis statement of Kristóf not only anticipates the poetic program of the second major part of the novel entitled In the Very Depth of the Night but also eerily resonates with the manifesto of the queer community of 1990s New York: “Being queer means leading a different sort of life. [...] It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about genderfuck and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night.”
Therefore, besides its literary values, the most important spatio-political aspect of the Margaret Island depicted in the novel is that it perfectly exemplifies that these counter-spaces are not always only inverted or excluded spaces of the hierarchic orders of normative spaces, but in certain cases, they can also be “inscribed” onto them. According to Michel Foucault, who in his renowned essay entitled Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, writes the following:
The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another.
One might argue, thereby, in the spirit of Foucault’s thoughts, that every heterotopia is a manifold, a pleated, or multilayered topological realm of various spatial orders. But Foucault’s theatrical metaphor is also perfectly capable of highlighting the scenic aspects of the “homosexual theater” of Nádas’ novel since within the scenes of the nocturnal Margaret Island male desires are always staged in dramaturgic forms. In other words, the island transforms into an obscene territory, into a counter-stage of the subject where it can be freed from the oppression of the dominant heteronormative gaze.
Nonetheless, for Kristóf, the secret libidinous geographies of Margaret Island are rather being mapped out by his amplified non-visual senses (such as smell, taste, touch, sound) in the dark. Thus, in George Bataille’s words, his nocturnal voyage of discovery in the public park can also be interpreted as submersion into the spheres of “base matters”. In other words, into the formless realm of “base matters”, such as blood, snot, pus, urine, and excrement, representing a non-hygienic domain that destabilises the normative social categories of purity, transparency, and the ontological primacy of reason vis á vis the carnal. As the unnamed, omnipotent narrator puts it:
“[T]o discern in the darkness the buffeting and the waves of odours—of tobacco, shit, stale urine, sperm, the hostile or friendly emanations of bodies excited or cooling; these signals always steered him aright. Because of them, he became like an animal, following a scent and letting his feet carry him on. He felt more at home as an animal than as a human, because he recorded and preserved his need for objectivity with senses that worked only on an animal level. This smooth feeling of animality was one of the fascinating discoveries of the night—strong enough to absolve him, to neutralise his feeling of guilt and to erase his moral doubts. However, not even his feet or sense of smell could guarantee him total safety on the dark trails.
Thus, on one hand, the nocturnal landscape outlined by the overstimulated senses of Kristóf disestablishes the hygienic, symbolic, and social order of the place, but on the other hand, it also inscribes a complex map of routes, paths, trails, and lanes onto it. One might even say that the prevalent spatio-poetic dynamics of the chapter are constituted by a hodological literary space that is being shaped along with the constant moves and rushes of Kristóf. Indeed, his cartographic perspectives of this dark landscape might remind us of the idea of hodological spaces described by the German philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow. In place of focusing on the abstract, geometric ideas of Cartesian spaces, Bollnow rather focuses on the phenomenology of “lived spaces” (Erlebter Raum), of the qualitative and sensual aspects of places. According to the description of the narrator:
[T]he trembling darkness, mottled by lights from distant gas lamps, was full of hard‐packed paths and trails. The men who stepped off the trails and headed into thickets were the ones who wanted to offer up their bodies as free prey, or who wanted someone who would mutely and willingly offer up his. This was one of the general rules of the place. Shortly after ten o’clock in the evening, when unsuspecting strolling lovers disappeared, naked limbs and other body parts flashed in the depths of the darkness that neither gaslight nor reflections of the city’s sky could penetrate.
These paths and trails, however, are not inscribing sharp contours, fixed, traceable, cartographically verifiable points onto the landscape, since the narrator, at least through the description of the intense stimuli of Kristóf, is not systematically unfolding the surrounding environment, but rather guides the reader along the main character’s erotic submersion into the terra incognita of his desires. Therefore, following the narrative logic of the chapter, the erotically and sexually oversaturated nocturnal landscape of the island functions as an imagery screen for Kristóf onto which he can project his ecstatic desires. This peculiar narrative logic can be best grasped in the excessive spatial maneuvers of Kristóf, accelerated by his erotic curiosity. As the following quote highlights, his excessive maneuvers are represented in the elliptic narrative formations of his rushes and runaways:
As he ran he lost his way in the complicated network of paths, lanes, and trails—nothing but the topography of senseless desires, the imprint of pampered fantasies and futile wishes on this filthy planet. Of course, if he could see everything, if he could observe the entire system of their existence, then he’d definitely understand.
The “imprint of pampered fantasies and futile wishes” as “the topography of senseless desires” inscribed onto the filthy and base matter of muddy soil will become a concrete ecological-architectural example in the ritual walks of Dávid, another character parallel to Kristóf in the third volume of Parallel Stories. Dávid, acting like a possessed monomaniac, is walking in a circle by stepping onto his footprints again and again without any objective purpose. As Nádas writes:
Moving this way he circled the pond, and by the time he stepped out of his masterfully calculated last footprint, the outline of the first one had faded almost to invisibility. Now he had to step into this one so the wet sand would not drink or swallow forever his former steps. He stepped exactly, precisely, into his own footsteps; this peculiar passion, to continue his way around the pond in his own fading footprints, was so powerful that he may never have missed a step.
One might say that this notorious act can also be interpreted as an elliptic hodology by which Dávid becomes capable of deepening his ecological and aesthetic contact between the landscape and his corporeality. In that sense his pagan spatial ritual functions as a vivid literary example of the Parmenidean motto of Parallel Stories: “It is all one to me: Where I am to begin, for there I shall return.”
In his own and unique way, Kristóf also creates his routes in the hodological space of desires accumulated by rivaling libidinous energies. However, the “very depth of the night” is not only a spatio-poetic abstraction, but it is also a specific architectural space in the fictional Margaret Island of Budapest in Nádas’ novel: a remote public toilet of the island where his chaotic spatial excesses and his feverish lust for sensual raptures, even if only temporary, are finally being fulfilled in the form a cathartic description of a group orgy.
Given the fact that the orgastic scene in the novel breaks in half with a brutal raid of the state police, followed by an attempted suicide of Kristóf, the following questions arise: should we consider the scenes of the orgy on the Margaret Island as a temporary inclusion that is encircled both in urban and textual terms? Could they be considered, as Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zones” that are characterised by the spatial operations of continuous translocation, disappearance, by the elimination of traces and the continuous diverse actions from the coercion of dominance structures? Do these temporary autonomous zones of excessive desires within the absolute immanence of a totalitarian regime have the capacity to become liberating places or “line of flight” that, nonetheless, will never become permanent, neither inside the novel nor outside of it?
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Zsolt Miklósvölgyi is a critic and editor based in Budapest. He is a co-founder of Technologie und das Unheimliche and Melting Books publishing projects and editor of Café Bábel essay journal. He was a visiting doctoral research fellow at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin, and at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. This essay is an abbreviated version of a chapter from his successfully defended doctoral thesis about the literary spaces of Péter Nádas. The thesis is about to be published in 2021 in a book format in Hungarian by the Kijárat publishing house.
All images used are provided by the Fortepan archive.