Miklos Vamos translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

The Book of Fathers

Publication Date: Oct 13, 2009

480 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590513392


List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590513569

When in 1705 Kornell Csillag’s grandfather returns destitute to his native Hungary from exile, he happens across a gold fob-watch gleaming in the mud. The shipwrecked fortunes of the Csillag family suddenly take a new and marvelous turn. The golden watch brings an unexpected gift to the future generations of firstborn sons: clairvoyance. Passed down from father to son, this gift offers the ability to look into the future or back into history–for some it is considered a blessing, for others a curse. No matter the outcome, each generation records its astonishing, vivid, and revelatory visions into a battered journal that becomes known as The Book of Fathers.

For three hundred years the Csillag family line meanders unbroken across Hungary’s rivers and vineyards, through a land overrun by wolves and bandits, scarred by plague and massacre, and brutalized by despots. Impetuous, tenderhearted, and shrewd, the Csillags give birth to scholars and gamblers, artists and entrepreneurs. Led astray by unruly passions, they marry frigid French noblewomen and thieving alehouse whores. They change their name and their religion, and change them back. They wander from home but always return, and through it all The Book of Fathers bears witness to holocaust and wedding feast alike.

Excerpt from The Book of Fathers

Farther up, where the stream curled away to the right, ancient willows swept the water, the branches lightly slapping its surface again and again. The boys had tired themselves out and lay down in the shade to eat the luncheon in their saddlebags. The monotonous little noises soon made them nod off.

Bálint stirred and turned to suddenly see beauty that made his eyes ache. A girl was bathing on the far bank, almost stark naked. Her faultless skin was as white as swansdown. Her luxuriant hair, wound around her head, was the color of blackest coal. She was splashing in the water with the abandon of a puppy. At first he thought he must be dreaming and that the slightest movement on his part would make the image dissolve.

In the evening he found out that he had seen Kata, the only daughter of the new glassmaster, Imre Farkas II. His excitement knew no bounds. He could not sleep a wink all night: he kept seeing the girl again and again, her slightest movement came to life, every curve and crevice of her body was deeply etched in his brain. The following day he spent in a moonstruck daze: he would neither eat nor drink; in his usual summer pastimes, whether hunting or ninepins, he took no pleasure at all. He was pining, pining for the bank of the stream where he might again glimpse the figure of Kata.

“Graceful and alluring, a leisurely introduction to the last 300 years of Hungarian history and an often affecting depiction of the way individuals must appear and disappear, alive for a few years and then lost entirely, even to their own descendents…The Book of Fathers is a serious novel that, while sometimes agonizing or even shocking, is never somber. Inevitably, its theme is that life goes on, and that every son is no less interesting than every father, that each generation’s search for wisdom is different, but no less important or dramatic than the previous generation’s. Miklos Vamos’s literary skills are such that he can sustain the reader’s interest in each doomed generation (doomed by nature, if nothing else). His virtuoso portraits of his idiosyncratic characters are fully backed by his evocative portrayal of the world they live in and the history they live through. Note to Vamos’s publisher: More, please!” —Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review

“Vámos’s novel chronicles a Hungarian family from 1705 until the present, as its members pass down their recollections of joy and hardship in the carefully preserved manuscript of the title. The novel proceeds via discrete episodes, each focusing on the life and death of a male progenitor with the ability to see into the past and, often, into the future. Steadily, a portrait emerges of an artistic, emotional group of men with a tendency toward violent death…Vámos’s fatalistic narrative follows in the tradition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it stands as a unique and affecting illustration of the vicissitudes of Hungarian history.” —The New Yorker

“[The Book of Fathers] is a book worth spending time with.” —The Huffington Post

“In this sprawling chronicle of the Csillag family, celebrated Hungarian author Vámos depicts the lives of 12 generations of men, each a first-born son, and in the process offers a whimsical 400-year history of his native country… the book has many sublime moments, from meditations on the nature of time to a sly investigation of how words accumulate to form books.” —Publishers Weekly

“A bestseller in Hungary, this family chronicle focuses on firstborn sons across 12 generations…Widely read in his homeland but rarely translated into English, Vámos should win a new American audience with his beautifully crafted novel of connection and continuity.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A superb family saga that draws the reader effortlessly through nearly three centuries of turbulent history . . .it records the political upheavals of an entire nation. The characters are fascinating and Vámos’s writing is a magnificent, seamless blend of the general and the personal.” —The Times (UK)

“Vámos is capable of producing incredibly acute and economical observations of the most extreme human conditions.” —The National

1. This book closely examines ethnic identity and the ways in which we classify ourselves and create a self-identify based on our heritage. Think about the descriptors you use to quantify your own identity. How do Jews (or Christians, Hindus, Muslims, etc.) know they are Jews? And what does it mean to you when you lay claim to a specific nationality based on your ancestry? In what ways do you celebrate your heritage? In what ways do you attempt to instill an appreciation for your heritage into future generations within your family? What does it mean to you to be an American?

2. As is true for many of his contemporaries, as a result of the Holocaust, the author Miklos Vamos had no knowledge or access to information about the history of his family. Discuss how The Book of Fathers, despite being a work of fiction, serves as an imagined memoir. What is the value of this to Vamos? To others with a similar history?

3. The Book of Fathers has been published in thirteen languages and has had a deep impact on readers around the world. Many have gone to visit their older relatives, interviewed them about their life, made notes or videotaped the conversations, in the end creating their own “book of fathers.” Think about your own family. Are you satisfied with the level of knowledge you have of your own history? How did you come upon this knowledge? What attempts have you made-or would like to make-to fill in the gaps?

4. A sense of shared history defines the Csillag family through the centuries. What major events in the history of your own people do you identify with even though you may not have lived through them yourself? In what ways do events in our history (e.g., genocide, war, slavery) reverberate through generations, shaping our politics, career choices, love lives, and our very identities? Is it important to you to continue to bear witness to the triumphs and burdens faced by your ancestors? Why or why not?

5. When Kornell finds the family’s gold pocket watch, it becomes a totem for the long line of Csillag men. Discuss the significance of the fact that their family touchstone comes in the form of a timepiece. What items are cherished within your own family or have been passed down from generation to generation? What meaning do these items hold for you?

6. Though they may be interested in the history of their own nation or that of their mother country, many people lack an interest in the history of far-off countries. How would you classify your own level of interest in world history and international affairs? What factors influence the scope of your interest? How does one’s knowledge of world history add to or limit one’s understanding of the history of their own nation?

7. The Book of Fathers examines language and the effect it has on our identity. Does your family mix various languages or incorporate foreign words and phrases that were used by previous generations? What does this add to your overall mental picture of your family? Think about how the English language is evolving and how much it has changed since our country’s founders first arrived on American soil-or even in your own lifetime. What are your thoughts on these shifts? How does language evolve over the course of this novel?

8. The Csillag men are clairvoyant, able to glimpse both the past and the future. Were you able to suspend disbelief and go with this construct? Why or why not? Discuss other writers who have employed magical realism in their work. How does Vamos’s work compare?

9. The names Csillag and Stern both mean “star.” Discuss the many ways in which solar imagery is used throughout the book. Why do you think Vamos chose this imagery? What meaning did he intend?

10. Women play a fairly insignificant role in The Book of Fathers. What are your feelings about this? In thinking about your own family, what role do the men play in defining who you are and the way in which your family views its place in the world? Is gender more or less important now than it was in previous generations? In what ways?