Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Book Of Fathers by Miklos Vamos

The Book Of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
First published in Hungarian as Apak konyve in Hungary by Ab Ovo in 2000. English language translation by Peter Sherwood published by Abacus in 2006.

How I got this book:
Bought at a charity shop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1705 Kornel Csillag's grandfather happens across a miraculous gold fob-watch gleaming in the mud of an ancient Magyar battlefield, which is to improve dramatically his family's shipwrecked fortunes - for the timepiece bestows an unexpected gift on succeeding generations of male Csillags: the gift of seeing. And each clairvoyant first-born son in turn passes down the Book of Fathers, a battered folio in which the family records its astonishing and revelatory visions and which takes in three hundred years of Csillag history, bearing vivid witness to holocaust and wedding feast alike.

Headlong, exuberant, riotous and packed tight with stories, jokes and tragedy, THE BOOK OF FATHERS is an irresistibly rich Central European feast of a book - parable, folk-tale and epic all rolled into one - that is set to become a European classic.

My partner, Dave, read this book before I did and said it was ok, but he obviously wasn't overwhelmed by the story or the writing so I didn't rush to read it until now - some eighteen or so months after its purchase. At the end of the book, Vamos talks about his inspiration for the novel which is partly based on his own limited knowledge of his family history, embellished with the story of twelve historic Hungarian Everymen, and also with the influence of astrology because each Father in this Book Of Fathers embodies a sign of the zodiac. I wish I had known that prior to reading as I completely failed to pick up on the astrological aspect until it was pointed out to me!

I initially bought The Book Of Fathers because of its Hungarian author (WorldReads!) and with the intention of learning more about the country's beleaguered history prior to our Budapest visit in September 2017. (So I'm very late on that second goal!) Vamos tells the story of Hungary from 1705 to 1999 through the linked stories of twelve men, each the first-born son in the family line, who are almost all gifted with a supernatural gift. Obviously, as a feminist woman, the necessity of this gift being only passed to the first-born son did rankle somewhat. It is only a literary device so surely a first-born daughter or two could have been included? However, that gripe aside, The Book Of Fathers is an interesting and rewarding novel.

Featuring twelve overlapping life stories in the space of fewer than five hundred pages meant that I didn't get to know each man as well as I would have liked, however I did appreciate seeing how family traits repeated across generations and understanding how events which seemed random coincidences to the people involved had actually been foretold or seemed inevitable with the benefit of a reader's oversight. The central family is Jewish so persecution is a saddeningly common repeated theme across the three hundred years this novel encompasses. We see succeeding generations displaced or attempting to brave out bigotry against them. Names are changed as are official records of religious faith. I had an increasing sense of foreboding as the story headed towards the 1930s and, of course, this era turned out to be horrifying.

Women, as I have already mentioned, aren't the prime focus but I was pleased that Vamos doesn't relegate them all to wife/mother/daughter shadows. Instead there are forceful characters and successful businesswomen among their ranks. I didn't feel as though I was given a good sense of how the various towns and villages looked and I would have appreciated more details of the characters physical surroundings. I did like how Vamos portrays people though and could easily understand actions and motives, especially in the often intense situations we encountered.

Overall I did enjoy reading The Book Of Fathers and would happily pick up other Vamos novels when I saw them available. He has an engaging voice and a good way of enabling readers to care about people who come across as real and authentic. They are flawed and not always likeable, but I appreciated the time I spent reading their stories.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Miklos Vamos / Historical fiction / Books from Hungary


  1. oh wow this may be too long and complex for me with the 12 stories but I'm glad you enjoyed it! I don't do very good with generational saga but I would have enjoyed how women were portrait

    1. PersonallyI could have done with maybe half as many generations and spending more time with each of them, but I understood why the author went for the dozen and I think the device does achieve what he set out to do

  2. I know what you mean. Sometimes reading around the book and knowing some of the author's inspiration or the symbols/meaning in a book can really unlock what the book is about and make the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

    1. Exactly! I'm glad I got to read Vamos' essay, but wonder if it might have been better placed as an introduction rather than an afterword