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Péter Nádas - Own Death


Péter Nádas (1942–) is one of the greatest contemporary Hungarian writers; many critics and readers, including me, think that he would have deserved a Nobel Prize for literature for long. Nádas is not only a writer but a polyhistor as well: a playwright, an essayist, and an art photographer. His widespread classical and also modern erudition can be traced in all of his writings. Some remarkable novels of his oeuvre have been translated into English along with his shortest book, Own Death. Now I would like to give a short account of this less estimated work in the English speaking countries. Although it was published in English translation in 2004, it does not seem to have received enough attention among critics or readers.


As mentioned above, this is Nádas’s shortest prose; reading it out loudly takes no more than two hours. It is a rather interesting question what the literary genre of this work actually is. It seems to be a banal, even boring story whose ending can be guessed by the reader long before the last pages. Nádas, however, manages to make a masterpiece also in this book. Although the plot might seem banal, which can be summarized in a couple of sentences, the writer uses it brilliantly as a pretext in order to ponder about the big questions of life and being. The language of the book is so simple that one cannot imagine how it is possible to speak about ‘big issues’ in such an inartificial way; Nádas manages to achieve his aim for he is an extraordinarily talented writer.


At about the half of the book it turns out that actually, it is not a short story or a novel but rather an epos. It is a kind of Odyssey which approximates, and, at the same time, draws away, as if a mirror effect controlled the book. Until the half of the book, many small things happen to the first person singular writer-narrator at the dentist’s, in the street, at the restaurant, in the street again, and at home. Later, when the writer gets naked on the physical level at hospital, as all his pieces of clothes are removed from him, he also gets gradually naked on his mental level. At that point of the book the epic invocation takes place when he says,


“In the infernal hubble-bubble that I be able to speak. Oh, Mother of all narratives, Polymnia, be merciful to me, help me with everyday words through the Styx.”


The writer wants to express the inexpressible; therefore, he asks Polymnia, or Polyhymnia (Πολυύμνια, Πολύμνια) for help. The name of the Muse, Polymnia in Greek means “the one of many hymns;” she was the Muse of sacred poetry, religious hymns, as well as eloquence. These two sentences are elliptical, sounding like Latin or Ancient Greek, and thus rather eloquent in Hungarian. Nádas invokes the Muse in order to have words for the ineffable before starting his Odyssey. The writer is not a passive endurer of his own death but he is an active collaborator in its process. This seems to be evident when he claims,


“My mother gave birth to my body, I shall give birth to my death.”


When the Self dissolves and nothing remains of it, the conceptual thinking discontinues; at that point, in the infinite moments of clinical death, the reader can get some ideas about the operation of the mind. Later, when the mind does not work, he tells the reader about his special ways of perception.


The form of the book is bright and witty because not only Péter Nádas, the writer’s literary and philosophical work can be read but also the Nádas, who is an art photographer, can be traced simultaneously. One hundred and sixty photographs of one single pear tree can be seen in the book; he took photos of the pear tree standing in his garden in different times of the year and the day, and the pictures were taken from different angles. The left pages of the book show the pear tree, while on the right pages one can read the text resembling journal entries. This arrangement of the book seems at first sight as if the finiteness of Life served as an interpretation of the infiniteness of Being.


On the surface, the text traps the reader with its seemingly being linear. Temporality of the text is expressed through linearity, but if one regards the work as a synthesis of text and images, one can understand that Nádas challenges the traditional linking of the ineffable to another space and time, to another word or afterlife. The narrative, in contrast to the mere text, consists of words and images. Traditionally, images have been interpreted as icons of intemporality, while texts have been considered being subjected to temporality. The images of the pear tree show the momentary state of Being since they embody continuous change. As the images were taken with different techniques and different periods in time, they mirror the passing of time in its temporality, in infinite change.


The experience of coming to the state of clinical death and returning from it is depicted by Nádas as if one got through the birth canal. The question remains where the “here” and the “over” is, that is, the reader first thinks that he/she reads a usual story of coming to the gate of death, as described by many, who had experienced clinical death and had returned from it. In Nádas’s description the same is done with a significant variation; coming to the gate of death is depicted as if one is delivered to life through the birth canal. Coming to death is described as the process of being born. The totality of Being cannot be comprehended on the conceptual level, brought into existence by language, neither the experiences of the function of the mind. Birth and Death miraculously cohere, since the beginning of something is also the end of something else. Furthermore, there is no Ego but it seems there is, or there does not exist mind as such, however, it exists—there are so many illogical things in the book but Nádas speaks of these with a strong critique keeping a big distance from the most personal experiences of his life and death.


It is rather moving how the writer estranges himself from his own experiences and the narration of these, trying to spectate his perception, feelings, and thinking from the viewpoint of somebody else. He does so without any pathos or heroism; his book lacks the usual pathetic prose of the survivor. He speaks even about the doctors who saved his life as if they were craftsmen like a joiner or a locksmith; the cardiologist in the narrative is depicted as a locksmith, who, in his case, does not mend locks but human hearts. Nádas comes the closest to himself, and, at the same time he distances himself a light-century for there is no Self, although there is. He mesmerizes his readers and then he disillusions them—a very similar technique used by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in his dramas.


The photographs in the book are writings (cf. Greek “φωτογραφία” meaning “φῶς, φωτός” as “light” and “γράφω” as “to write”), while his writing is picture-like.


Is the book hymnal poetry? Or narration? Maybe an epos? Perhaps mysticism or philosophy? While we are trying to argue and be clever, the wise is already over the trap of any discursive concepts. Nádas is wise. His book is written in a rather everyday language without any academic reasoning; however, it is a masterpiece. The reader can see again, what he/she had known also from his other books, more precisely, that he knows everything about the world. Own Death is pure sagacity disguised as a special combination of literature and artistic photography.



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