Oral history of an imaginary German town

Cover for Péter Nádas' "Az élet sója" (The salt of lifeI love reading challenging books and novelty, hence I loved Péter Nádas‘ “Az élet sója” (The salt of life). Having no preconception of the book, i.e. I didn’t know anything about it before starting to read it, it took me a while to get into it. The challenge: I kept thinking, why would the author write such an uninteresting book. If it is fiction it is all wrong as it doesn’t have a single character, person to focus on. And if it is intended to be non-fiction then what it is supposed to teach us. Once I realized what it is, however my bewilderment from reading a label defying book turned into pure delight. It is a novel, with rather strong character development and all the usual journey and tribulations of a hero, except that the hero is the town itself and not a person. It was much easier to identify the style: it was obviously told in 12, monthly, installments, starting with April, i.e. spring, but the key to understanding it was that these are the written words of an oral storyteller and not designed not to sound and fell like a book that started its life in written format. This was novelty for me, and I relished the novelty of reading something in a new (for me) style. (Note added after reading reviews: each chapter was published on an online literary portal, hence the format. Just like Dickens’ novels (and later others’), which were published in a similarly serial fashion.)

I am a contextual reader, meaning the circumstances of where and when I read a book heavily influence my opinion of it. I read this book at an airport then on a flight from Budapest to Berlin. The contrast between what I read and what my body experienced couldn’t have been wider. The days I start in one city and end up in another one a thousand kilometers away (ok, in this case only 688 km, or 428 miles) are disconnecting. The mind follows much slower the body and takes longer to fully absorb that one is a different part of the world. (To my US friends: particularly in Europe, where it means that the people speak a different language and the local culture has a long history of being different from where one came from). So while I was flying fast I read a book steeped in the middle ages, where the pace of change is measured by generations and not by mph. The contrast made me more aware that what we gained in our modern times–the ability to change our surrounding fast– is not necessarily a blessing. The accelerated tempo may have detrimental effect on the depth and strength of our roots. The town in the book, with all its enmity between fractions of the population, was still depicted as well-established, well-rounded person, who developed its sense of being by interacting with its inhabitants. Can you say the same thing about someone who hops around the word and the circle of people he interacts with is much wider, but maybe not as deep. In my opinion it takes a special effort, that not everyone is capable or willing to put in.

A major part of the book are its drawings by András Forgách. They are subtle enough that they allow the reader to imagine the town any way one can, but strong enough to guide this imagination to a direction that may not be too far from the real feel of this non-existent locale. Most of them are black and white sketches, but a few in the middle have one extra color, usually yellow. Their sizes and level of details also vary from a few lines to full fledged townscapes. Even the extent they feel finished is on a scale, e.g. one my favorite is on page 54, where the inscription of a saint’s name around her head stops after “sanc”. It comes before a chapter that talks about the tenuous relationship between the town’s catholic and protestant history. This incomplete word symbolizes the essence of the conflict. Like good illustrations in any book it adds to the content of the book inspiring discovering further connections in the text.

Another reason I enjoyed this book so much is that I am interested in religion and sociology too and Nádas’ book provides plenty of observations in both areas. The societal changes, how groups of people interacted with each other over the centuries are often in concert with their religions or perceptions of the other’s religiosity. It is a quick and entertaining read with elements that will stay with you long; e.g. how bells’ have their own nuanced history or how your reactions change encountering an epithet (“a town known for its salt”) over and over from curiosity, through annoyance and acceptance to anticipation.

  • Published by Jelenkor Kiadó, 2016
  • ISBN: 9789636765606
  • # of pages: 115
  • Price: 2999 Ft (~10.50 USD)

 

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