Parallel Stories: A Novel

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Overview

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

Parallel Stories is a novel of extraordinary scope and depth, a masterwork that traces the fate of myriad Europeans—Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Gypsies—across the treacherous years of the mid–twentieth century. Three unusual men are at the heart of the novel: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose German mother has ties to the fascist-Nazi collaboration of the 1940s; Ágost Lippay Lehr, whose influential father has served Hungary’s ...

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Parallel Stories: A Novel

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Overview

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

Parallel Stories is a novel of extraordinary scope and depth, a masterwork that traces the fate of myriad Europeans—Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Gypsies—across the treacherous years of the mid–twentieth century. Three unusual men are at the heart of the novel: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose German mother has ties to the fascist-Nazi collaboration of the 1940s; Ágost Lippay Lehr, whose influential father has served Hungary’s different political regimes for decades; and András Rott, who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad. Nádas weaves the social and political circumstances of their lives into a magnificent tapestry, aligning the uncanny parallels that link them across time and space.

Fifteen years in the writing, and four in the translating, Parallel Stories is Péter Nádas’s masterpiece—a daring and momentous novel from one of the great writers of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Hugely ambitious, breathtakingly inventive."---The New York Times

"Parallel Stories makes the case [for grandeur] in sheer ambition, unspooling in a vivid succession of epochs and genres---a Cold War thriller, a 1950s Budapest romance---evoking the quests, spiritual and erotic, that link us across time."---Vogue

"One of his country’s strangest, most ambitious literary achievements."---New York magazine

"We’re living in Péter Nádas’s time now. You’ll never read anything else even remotely like Parallel Stories....Enjoy." ---Slate

Publishers Weekly
Nádas’s (A Book of Memories) immense chronicle of Europe before, during, and after WWII largely succeeds in summing up a wide swath of Europe’s pre- and post-Nazi experience. Reaching as far into the 20th century as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the book is girded by the interconnected lives of three Hungarians with strong links to both the Nazi era and the socialist period that followed the war. But these elements share space and importance as the canvas broadens enormously to include repressed homosexuals, a Nazi boarding school with a suicide epidemic, concentration camp prisoners, Hungarian aristocrats, and numerous others. The book is by turns absorbing and stifling, oddly pervaded at virtually every turn by Nádas’s obsession with bodily excretions, transgressive sex, and the many parts used in the completion of both exercises. Endowed with an encyclopedic fascination in the minutiae of sexual perversion, and destined to share a place with other monstrous curiosities, this book offers a powerful and necessary counterhistory of a Europe now being reconfigured. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Make no mistake, this is a magnum opus, with the operative word being magnum. Nádas (A Book of Memories) is said to have spent 15 years in the writing, and his sweep is both grand and minute. He describes a simple sex act in excruciating detail for endless pages, then plunges without transition into different historical eras. His purview is Europe from mid-20th century forward, with much attention to the carnage and destruction visited upon his native Hungary during World War II and the revolution of 1956 against communist rule and Soviet control. But while detailing this, he's likely to cut to a conversation among friends in a Budapest apartment, and his prose here can be as repetitive and banal as it is revealing. Apparently a principal aim is to show how the stories of his various characters are related even if they don't intersect. Curiously, there is not a single question mark in this probing work. VERDICT The author's broad tapestry will likely hook literary addicts but may leave others behind because of its dense prose and sudden, unexplained shifts of time and place. This colossal book would be perfect for a reading group led by the late Susan Sontag. [See Prepub Alert, 5/9/11.]—Edward Cone, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250013903
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Edition description: First Edition, Parallel Stories
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 1152
  • Sales rank: 1,363,323
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Péter Nádas was born in Budapest in 1942. Among his works translated into English are the novels A Book of Memories (FSG, 1997), The End of a Family Story (FSG, 1998), and Love
(FSG, 2000); a collection of stories and essays, Fire and Knowledge (FSG, 2007); and two pieces of short fiction,
A Lovely Tale of Photography and Péter Nádas: Own Death. He lives with his wife in Gombosszeg, Hungary.
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Read an Excerpt

Parallel Stories

A Novel
By Péter Nádas

Picador

Copyright © 2012 Péter Nádas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781250013903

Patricide
 
 
In that memorable year when the famous Berlin wall came down, a corpse was discovered in the Tiergarten not far from the graying marble statue of Queen Louise. This happened a few days before Christmas.
The corpse was that of a well-groomed man of about fifty, and everything he wore or had on him appeared to be of better quality. At first glance a gentleman of some consequence, a banker or a senior manager. Snow was falling slowly, but it was not very cold, so the flakes melted on the paths of the park; only the blades of grass retained a white edge. The investigators did everything by the book and, because of the weather conditions, worked quickly. They closed off the area and proceeding clockwise in a narrowing spiral course searched it thoroughly so they could record and secure all existing clues. Behind an improvised screen of black plastic sheets, they carefully undressed the corpse but found no signs indicating suicide.
A young man who ran in the park every dawn had discovered the body. He was the only one the investigators could question. It had been completely dark when he set out, and he ran almost every day on the same path at the same time.
Had it not been so, had not everything been routine and habit, had not every stone and shadow been engraved in his mind’s eye, he most probably would not have discovered the body. The light of distant streetlamps barely reached this far. The reason he noticed the body, lying on and half dangling off a bench, was, he explained excitedly to the policemen, because on the dark coat the snow had not melted at all. And as he was running at a steady pace, he related a bit too loudly, the whiteness flashed into his eyes from the side.
While he was talking, several men busied themselves inside the roped-off area. They were working, one might say, in ideal conditions; there was not a soul in the park besides them, no nosy curiosity seekers. Using a flashbulb, one of the men photographed something on the bare, wet ground that two forensic technicians had already labeled with a number.
As he began his story for the third time, the young man noticed nervously that every clue had been numbered and the sight made him very anxious. He felt as if he had been not the one who discovered the corpse or reported it but, rather, the culprit instantly confronted with physical evidence of his crime.
He was like a blade, though he could not tell of what, perhaps of a razor or an icy thought, but of that he said nothing.
In fact, his first thought was that he had murdered his own father. He could not understand why he had such a thought, why he would wish the death of this man, but of that too he said nothing to the police officers.
Hardly anything remained of which he could speak aloud.
But they paid little attention to him; both uniformed and plainclothesmen were going about their business, and from time to time they mumbled to one another phrases the young man could not understand.
They would not delay him further. Twice he had given them his personal data, they had registered his willingness to give evidence later in court, and still he could not leave.
Some of the policemen were being relieved by others around him.
When he runs, he repeated excitedly in his report, he does not look at anything or in any specific direction, and he does not think. From a psychological viewpoint, that is the essence of running at an even pace. But when twenty minutes later he again ran past the body on the bench, it occurred to him that the snow could remain intact like that only on a cooled-off corpse.
He had read something like that somewhere. And that’s when he stopped to take a closer look.
In Berlin’s Tiergarten, or game preserve, many things have happened already, or, more correctly, hardly anything can happen here that hasn’t occurred before. The police officers listened to the report impassively. One of them simply moved on with his plastic bags to continue his work. In a little while, another one stopped to listen, and the rest of them promptly left him there alone. However, the young man could not calm down. He told his story to this new man as if every detail had another hundred details and every sentence needed a further explanation, as if with every explanation he were revealing earthshaking secrets while keeping silent about his own.
He was not cold, yet his whole body was shivering. The plainclothes officer offered him a blanket, go on, wrap it around yourself, but he rejected it with an irritated gesture, as if the condition of his body, an impending cold or the awkward and embarrassing shivering, did not interest him in the least. He probably had some kind of nervous fever, a phenomenon not unfamiliar to law-enforcement people. Neither could he be certain of the impression he was making. He felt he was not making a good one, which in turn compelled him to present everything in ever greater detail. This last policeman, however, regarded him with delight, with an enthusiasm bordering on love, as he observed the agitation in the young man’s facial features, body, and individual limbs, and his ceaseless gesticulation, wondering whether to think of him as choleric or ascetic, as someone with above-average intelligence and sensitivity or simply as a city idiot interested only in himself.
As a person so starved for speech that he could not stop before tomorrow. As one to whom nothing ever happened but who now was becoming tangled in a suddenly arrived great adventure; as one entrusted with nothing less than the secrets of the universe.
He elicited pity and some worry. In the end he could talk only to this one police officer, but he completely enthralled him with his feverish words, his vehement but disciplined and therefore fractured gestures, and his mental makeup that defied classification.
After methodically scanning the various surfaces and points of the young man’s body and attire, and because the observed exterior seemed so average that even its social situation would prove hard to determine, this detective asked the young man which university he was attending and what he was studying, slyly adding that he asked not officially but only as a private person. Theoretically he had no right to pose such a question, but he knew from experience that sometimes a few innocent words will stanch sickly and senseless gushing. The death of strangers can cause real hysteria even in the most endomorphic persons. At the same time he did not mean the question to be a formal one; he was interested to see how the young man might be steered by such an innocent query, how far he might be led from his self-admiration, or perhaps how he could be trapped; how tractable he was. Although he was one of those well-trained detectives who usually avoided being misled by an unexpectedly deep impression or a labyrinthine imagination, the plainclothesman could not resist the experiment, at least to the extent of asking the provocative question.
However, whether with this or some other approach, whether in the first hours of an investigation—in police parlance the “loop” questions, or “first foray”—or at its peak, when the results somehow hang together however precariously, it was impossible not to lose some equilibrium. Here and there, he set little traps. Because detectives like him consider their own ideas preferable to the general criminal procedures used by their less daring colleagues. They were more creative, though their methods were sometimes high-handed. In one professional idiom, they preferred heuristic means to syllogistic ones, and, being guided by the former, they sometimes violated the law.
Under the influence of the compassionless investigation, the young man interrupted his report to answer; he is studying philosophy and psychology, he replied, taken aback. And while he answered, he wondered what the police official was observing in him or what conclusions he had reached.
I should have thought, said the detective impassively.
What was he looking at on his neck, or what did he notice on his T-shirt, and now on his sweat suit.
All these thoughts stemmed the flood of words. As if realizing that nobody was interested in what he was reporting. Not only the others, but this detective too was considering the details on a different level, in another dimension. He was not busy with the reporter; he was not listening to the report.
For quite some time, he had gone running in tight pants, yellow or red, and the detective continued his investigation by looking at his thighs and loins.
Which was uncouth, and cut him to the quick, so that he caught himself and finally noticed the person standing before him in this bare park at dawn, snowflakes falling peacefully around them. He noticed the detective’s lips, eyes, the exceptionally thick, highly arched eyebrows, and everything he had been seeing until now: the forehead, the insanely curly hair, the calm disposition. A man who looked at him penetratingly, almost woefully, as if he knew everything about him. As if to take account, individually, retroactively and in advance, of all his most hidden secrets and even to offer empathy. In fact, the amused detective was merely recalling what he had read in some silly magazine, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room a few days earlier, namely that in Germany every year about seventeen thousand students enroll for studies in philosophy and twenty-two thousand in psychology. This would mean that during a whole generation more than a million people would be busy with the mechanics of the spirit and the soul, a big number indeed, though the number of people dealing in commerce, finance, and military matters is several times larger.
Sensing the detective’s disesteem, his underestimation of scientific interest, the young man fell silent, though his wretched body kept shivering in his damp sweat suit.
With which he made himself vulnerable.
And in the sudden silence the policeman, who may have been about ten years older than the young man and had a law degree, quickly asked whether they might drive the young man home and added even more quickly that they’d be happy to do so. Seeing that the young man had refused the blanket, they would not like their only eyewitness to catch cold. He used the plural as a sort of shield; he was not alone in making the offer, it was the entire law-enforcement community. Yet it was he who gazed out so penetratingly at the young man from the shelter of that community. As if scanning areas considered suspicious from a criminal point of view. Or as if glancing out from the protection of his profession, taking a long hard look at this other specimen of the masses.
No wonder the young man refused the offer of a lift home.
Unnoticed, this man had done something to him, appraised him and categorized him, which meant there was no way of knowing what he might do next. He was looking at a clear forehead and curly dark hair that somehow held his gaze, and wide, full, soft lips. He must be on his guard. He declined the offer with a single gesture, in fact quite rudely, while thinking, I must get away from here, though with his voice he was able to control his mood.
He said that if they needed him again—of course not during the holidays but right afterward—he’d be glad to be at their disposal.
This did not interest the detective at all, however, though he would have preferred to hear the young man accept the lift. They had his personal data, along with the deposition, they had recorded his voice as well, but he had no documents to corroborate his identity. In the absence of direct suspicion, they could not even demand them.
Tomorrow he must travel home, the young man added in his confusion.
His ears registered the tiny noises made by his teeth as they knocked together with every word he uttered.
So you live in Berlin, the detective noted, but your home is elsewhere.
He did not understand how one’s own body could abandon and humiliate one.
The detective may have understood something of this; he thanked the student for his comprehensive if circumspect help, and then they mutually nodded to each other.
Berlin is my temporary home, the student added, minding his teeth, as if to express his gratitude for so much understanding.
They seemed unable to part from each other.
My parents live in Pfeilen, that’s where I was born. Well, a little ways from the town.
What is the name of the place, the policeman asked, and for a while they looked at each other suspiciously.
North of it, of Pfeilen, he said, pointing with his finger, Niederrhein.
Never heard of it, which of course is my fault.
We’ve had a farm there for a long time now, but my parents live in town. It’s a very insignificant place, no reason you should know it.
The young man wanted to smile politely, but the smile turned into something closer to a snarl.
It was impossible to know whose hand was extended first. In any case, they shook hands; the handshake threw them both into embarrassed confusion.
The policeman, in the meantime, introduced himself: I’m Dr. Kienast, he said.
The doctoral title was what remained in the air between the two of them. In the contact of their bare hands, in the mutually felt humps and knobs there was something too physical. The doctoral degree had more to do with healing. As if making a promise to that effect. And mentioning it also had to do with the fact that he, the young man, does exist, after all, in the boundless mass of humans of which they are both insignificant parts. But at this degree of personal closeness, the young man froze up completely and did not reciprocate the bashfully hesitant, promising introduction.
And then, convinced that without further ado he could continue his interrupted run, the young man started off. If the other man really wanted to know anything, let him look up the personal data in the notes just taken by his uniformed colleague.
In the end, nothing happened.
After a few steps, he had to realize that again he had failed to gauge the situation and his abilities correctly; again he had presumed more of himself than he could deliver. Because something fatal had happened, something that would be very difficult to put behind him. If indeed he could get away with it at all.
With his stupid loquaciousness he had given himself away; why did he have to blurt out where he was going to, why did he go on and on with his explanations. He slowed down and then, changing pace, applied more force to getting away; but his thighs trembled and his knees shook, his breath could not find its proper rhythm, and most of all he felt in his back the challenging gaze of that damned cop.
Indeed, the policeman’s eyes followed the young man for a long time, and then he instructed his technicians to record the footsteps left behind. In the muscles of his palm, he felt the imprint of the other man’s grip; the other hand’s heat clung to his skin and worked its way into the fibers of his muscles, which was more than pleasant, though the evaluation of the contact belonged strictly to the investigation. Kienast, who had written his doctoral thesis on evidentiary processes in the magical, mythic, and rational periods of history, was considered a great fantast among his colleagues, who followed scientific rationales and adhered to strict professional regulations. They would have scorned him for his method were it not for his all-encompassing attention span and thorough practical knowledge.
Slowly it was growing lighter, though falling snowflakes were still visible in the beams of distant streetlights. As if in the young man’s grip he had felt both a terrific strength and an insane trembling that the hand’s owner could not reconcile. He had to think that the young man might be a drug addict, his periodically recurring need accounting for why his facial features were so nervously, prematurely old and used up.
He could still see the thin figure in the snowfall among the trees.
Hopeless, he said to himself, though he couldn’t have said to whom or what he was referring.
As if his fate had been to have this hopelessness added to another hopeless case. For this he could thank the coincidence that he had not been relieved on his shift. And as if the approaching Christmas holiday served only as a means to deepen the complications. Yet in fact, in this new case, Kienast needed only to deal with two primitive matters: to determine the unknown person’s identity, and to exclude the possibility that the death was a suicide. He could see that the case would be simple, yet that he wouldn’t be able to solve it to his own satisfaction. This boy would somehow mess him up. His other hopeless case was more exciting; he had been at it for more than two months—a patricide in which the wife took the blame for the child who had been regularly having intercourse with the father.
After his night shifts, Kienast often felt dejection followed by a justified anxiety. His natural laziness sought this sort of excuse or explanation. He was like a large canine that loves softness, warmth, and comfort.
It took a long time to identify the corpse, especially since no one came looking for it, not even after the holidays.
Before it was put on ice, it went through only the first, most necessary coroner’s examination. The forensic technicians searched through the corpse’s belongings. They found nothing on the body or in the clothing to indicate violence. Most likely a heart attack had finished him off on that park bench.
Kienast noted, however, that no article of the corpse’s clothes had labels. In cases where personal identification is difficult, these labels can be very helpful. One should look for them almost automatically. Overcoats and jackets are to be turned inside out; the labels are there, sewn into the lining. In shirts and sweaters, they are on the collars, in pants on the inside of the belt band. In socks and underwear they may be embroidered or woven; in cheaper merchandise they are printed in bright colors. Often these labels are of more use than the so-called bertillonage, those eleven items of physical measurement and characteristics that must be recorded to make a positive identification but that are useless for anything else and find themselves at the bottom of desk drawers or in unused databases. This dead man did not wear cheap clothing. Dr. Kienast, examining the third or fourth item, with gloved hands lifted them carefully out of their marked plastic bags. When he found no trace of any labels, in his surprise he hissed involuntarily.
He was alone in the large room; his lonely hissing echoed within the empty tiled walls.
Well, all right, it’s possible that a person finds these labels offensively colorful, or they irritate the skin, or one simply does not feel like being labeled and one removes them. It’s also acceptable to get rid of them on one’s shirt and pullover because, let’s say, they irritate one’s neck; but why in hell would anyone peel them off the inside of the pants’ waistband, where they can’t be seen or felt. A mania; but what could be the sense or significance of such a mania. As if he were angry at the living person whose corpse was lying before him.
What maniac would get rid of every possible mark on his clothing that might be used for identification. Other people do not even notice labels, or they like them because they are proud of the brands they wear. His mind automatically supplied the answer: persecution mania, compulsive self-concealment, justified or unjustified anxiety, a desire to leave no traces behind. He gazed at the corpse, he gazed at its belongings.
At the shockingly small underpants, made of translucent, shiny, almost glittering material, where he found a large stain of sperm. Whatever else, he had been a man who liked the color blue; everything he wore was blue—light blue or dark blue.
A man who only in the blue of his shirt allowed some white stripes.
There was too much blue here, much too much.
Must have been a boring man.
He must have been a man who used this boring stylishness as a disguise but in fact was some kind of compulsive or a maniac. That’s characteristic of a fastidious man: while his passions rage within him, he maintains his self-respecting exterior; must have been an unbearable person. He found no labels on the diaphanous dark blue woolen socks either. The label had been cut off at the seam of the glittering silvery blue underpants, but a tiny sliver of it, frayed by frequent laundering, remained. The underpants: an exceptional piece. Hardcore fetishistic gentlemen wear such items. He glanced at the corpse and then with his naked eye measured the place of the substantial sperm stain on the unusual underpants. The result of prolonged erection, prolonged seepage or a minor emission. There will be something to look for on the pants too. He could almost see the sharp leather-cutting scissors with which the small label had been removed with a single snip.
This man must have behaved most mysteriously and was probably prepared for the end at any hour.
On his thin bony wrist, there was no visible sign to indicate he wore a watch; neither did he wear a ring. Still, the detective thought he’d been married. If unmarried, he would have been more daring in his passion and probably would have worn not this sort of brief but rather a jock strap of red or white satin under his conservatively tailored clothes. In his soft, black wallet they found a surprisingly large amount of money but no trace of personal identification. This also showed he was after quickly purchasable intercourse and that he managed to get it cheaper than expected. Finally, his black-laced low quarter shoes were items that revealed something if not of their owner then of themselves: Italian shoes of a most reliable brand. Such sturdy Italian shoes one can purchase only in London. And there was something else Dr. Kienast did not know what to do with: the bare body’s pungent smell. It was not an unpleasant odor, in fact rather pleasant. Something like an enticing female fragrance that somewhere, not so long ago, the detective had encountered close up or even enjoyed.
Or he had been exposed to a waft of it and found it not repellent.
Perhaps it reminded him of another fragrance, and that is why he thought it was familiar though he could not recall the original. He thought it must be a feminine fragrance because he found it sweeter and somewhat heavier than the deodorants, colognes, or aftershaves used by men, and it emanated not only from the corpse’s clothes and other belongings but also from his body.
The body had at least another half hour before cooling off completely; its scent would live that long. Dr. Kienast felt a strong urge to sniff the entire body as a police dog would. Although he did not dare do it, in his professional eagerness he could not fend off the attraction of the dead body. He sniffed the air, he sensed the bitter smell of stale tobacco piercing the affected fragrance of the body. As if he were wary of such a perfume. In fact, he was amused by his temporary cowardice.
No doubt about it, yellowish brown spots of discoloration were there on the corpse’s fingers, testifying to the habit of an inveterate smoker.
Still, no cigarettes, lighter, or matches were found on the body. Under the bench, in a black leather case, they had found a bunch of keys.
The body itself was clean and untouched. Untouched, that was the first word that came to mind when, still outside, they had first undressed the body for him and he in the beam of searchlights began to examine the carefully removed articles of clothing. This also made the body’s odor so surprising. The body laid out before him was that of a man who had probably been reluctant to touch anyone or anything. Not a rare thing among fetishists. They bow only to their strongest compulsions or most powerful attractions. They establish contact not with each other, not with the other person, but with symbolic objects touching the other’s body. In this sense, they truly and wholly deviate from ordinary urban egoists who, even in the presence of the other, pay attention exclusively to themselves.
As he looked at the almost hairless, smooth, and well-proportioned corpse, it occurred to Kienast that this was a dry man. He had first come across concepts of bodily dryness or moistness when he had studied ancient investigating techniques for his dissertation, reading original texts on Greek healing methods. This manner of death was not appropriate to dry persons. According to Galen, death by heart attack is most characteristic of damp or moist people.
Nor could he dismiss the notion that this odor was not the man’s own, was not caused by a scent he had used, but was an odor that he had received during his last hours from another body and that clung to him.
After a misstep, one always takes home a strange, unfit fragrance. Shower, soap, or thorough scrubbing notwithstanding, these strange fragrances, be they repulsive or sweet, are incredibly loyal.
Sometimes, on the morrow, one feels that such a fragrance is as pervasive as if it had settled in the fine hairs of one’s nostrils, and one cannot but yield to the guilty attraction and return to the source of it. Dr. Kienast had married when very young and was divorced soon afterward because of his continued missteps. While in the presence of the corpse and aided by undoubtedly pleasant memories, he was daydreaming of the sweet occasions of making up, he was recalling the hoarse, intelligent woman whom no one suspected was conducting a clandestine, insane, passionate, and desperate struggle against her ugliness, who on her wide bathroom shelves, which she could lock, had amassed an unprecedented arsenal of perfumes, creams, facial ointments, bubble baths, lipsticks, and powders, even though by profession she was an evaluator of fragrances and should have been wise about using cosmetics moderately, should have known that she could not achieve much with their help. That woman could probably have told, she could probably have identified the heavy scent with its deep-seated acrid undertone, he thought, and from his pressing thoughts it followed that he should lift the dead man’s dark blue woolen pullover to his nose. Perhaps he could recognize the smell by himself.
Perhaps that woman occurred to him only because he knew this smell from her body.
He seemed to feel the tension in his tendons, the fine and disciplined trembling of his muscles.
The body does not forget.
This woman reached her climax gaping mutely, she screamed only seconds later, once past the peak of her pleasure, and even then she did it as if she had hoped to swallow it all back into herself. But no, he could hardly smell the perfume on the dark blue pullover; it smelled more strongly of tobacco smoke.
The perfume’s scent issued only from the body.
From the large room illuminated by fluorescent lights, two swing doors led to the corridor. Corpses were trundled in through one; through the other they were taken to the refrigerated room and from there to the official autopsy. The wings of one door kept flapping quietly because somewhere someone had left a window open.
Dr. Kienast heard no steps in the corridor. While he listened, the telephone rang next to him on the desk; he started a little; the phone rang again but he didn’t pick it up.
It wasn’t the first time that professional curiosity had swept him into a critical situation, and sometimes he had to cross the boundaries of his own good taste or even those of the law. If it had not been so, he probably could not have followed the thinking of criminals and would not have chosen this profession. He put down the pullover, picked up the blue-and-white-striped shirt and could tell with absolute certainty that the unknown man had not spent the last day of his life in this shirt and most probably not in this pullover, but had changed clothes in the afternoon or, he quickly corrected himself, in the early evening. These are rather simple matters. One could still smell the laundry detergent and the rinse on these articles, or even the deodorizer in the clothes closet. And his last hours the man must have spent in a place full of tobacco smoke, in an inn or bar, a cheap restaurant, a place unworthy of his social standing.
The perfume was detectable only on the lower third of the shirt and on the underpants. On the latter, the quickly perishing sperm was also sensed as an odor. The telephone kept ringing, but otherwise no action was heard anywhere. He stepped up to the legs of the corpse and, as if begging the indulgence of a fellow human’s mortal remains for what he was about to do, he touched the man’s foot and leaned over his loins. That is when the telephone finally stopped ringing, and in the still existing draft one could hear again the wings of the swing door flapping. He closed his eyes, perhaps involuntarily, because he did not want to see the dead man’s genitals from so close up while he took a whiff of them. He was immediately assailed by the strong smell of the penis. Otherwise, everything was as he had expected it would be. This penis could have been involved only in oral intercourse, not in a vaginal or anal one; the secretion tests would provide exact details. The odorous perfume had been smeared on the thick rich pubic hair and on the graying thinner hair running in a wedge shape up on the abdomen; from there it permeated the air in the large room. He did not want to lose a moment. He heard steps approaching in the corridor and he wanted to check his observation before the coroner returned. There was no smell on the chest, around the armpits or behind the ears, the last questionable locations. And now he felt he had done everything that had to be done and found out what he wanted to find out: the perfume was not the dead man’s own but a freshly applied strange one that was later smeared over his body. The swing door’s wings flapped open just as he raised his head.
As if he had been kissing the corpse.
At the noise of the door he quickly turned around and said he had finished doing what he needed to do.
Have you found anything encouraging, asked the coroner pleasantly.
He was the Pathological Institute’s physician on duty, with whom the detective had a daily and very cordial relationship. That meant that they had their unavoidable smaller or larger frictions but, as they say, could live with them.
I’ll leave that to you, Kienast replied politely, but I’d be very grateful, he added without the slightest trace of embarrassment, if you also smelled his stomach and pubic hair. There’s some kind of perfume, scented soap, who knows what.
Maybe you’ll recognize it, he added.
Sometimes, out of sheer self-defense, his colleagues pretended not to hear what Dr. Kienast said or requested. And not only those with whom he had rare contacts but also his immediate subordinates. Most of them used the informal address among themselves, yet they tried to keep Kienast, along with his obsession, at a safe distance. He was considered weird, a person who had to be allowed to have his way and be told to stop only if he was about to mix one up in some dark or unclean business. That’s what happened this time. Dr. Kienast waited for a while to see if the other man would do his bidding, but he did not. And not as if expressing disapproval, but as if he hadn’t even heard Kienast’s request.
Typically, Dr. Kienast would be stunned and mumble to himself.
He could not fathom why others were satisfied with so little of the obtainable knowledge, or what they did with their natural human interest or professional curiosity.
When he had finished the requisite tests, the coroner declared that the death of the well-kempt, well-nourished unknown male, about fifty years old, most likely occurred a few minutes before being discovered by that early morning runner.
Though possibly it happened a little later.
What’s more, it might also be possible, Dr. Kienast added somewhat sarcastically, that the corpse is still alive.
This man is a very recent corpse, replied the slightly insulted coroner, go on, look at him, please. He raised the lifeless hand, showed Kienast the fingernails, and then let the hand drop. And as if that had not been sufficient, he pressed his fingers into the corpse’s thigh muscles.
It’s possible, he went on explaining, that he gave up the ghost during the ten minutes it took your men to get to the scene in your cars. If that runner had come across him earlier, or reported him earlier, or if you and your coppers hadn’t fussed around so much, the ambulance people might possibly have revived him.
Dr. Kienast asked whether the body wasn’t in too good shape to have succumbed to a heart attack.
The coroner laughed, relieved, and asked him to stop his stupidities, he was talking like an amateur.
Oh, no, Dr. Kienast pleaded; he merely asked the question in such a silly way because he was wondering whether they should be investigating in an entirely different direction.
If he were fond of hairsplitting, replied the coroner, who did not quite see where Kienast was going with his strange reasoning, he would agree that, at first glance, the heart attack might not have been inevitable, but that is no basis for judgment.
Let’s wait for the autopsy, he added after a brief silence.
Doesn’t look like a used-up body, Dr. Kienast insisted.
Look at his legs, his chest, didn’t have a belly, must have swum or played tennis or who knows what, but he exercised seriously. And we’d better take samples from his abdomen and loins, he added casually, there is a good-size sperm spot on his underpants, and please take a sample from his anus too.
Who knows, the sperm may not be his. We should also know something more concrete about the mode of the intercourse. Judging by the look of his penis, he was not participating in a vaginal or anal pleasure.
He was very sorry, replied the coroner impatiently, but to say anything more or anything else now would be sheer irresponsibility. He must have a more thorough examination. Of course, he would have the sperm looked at especially. He would probably receive Dr. Kienast’s wish list, as usual. As to the corpse’s legs and his exercises, he thought that in his younger days the man bicycled a lot.
Why didn’t I think of that, the detective cried out in surprise.
The swollen veins, of course, the man definitely did bicycle.
And then everything continued on in the usual way.
In those anxious days, by the way, many people died of apoplexy or heart failure unexpectedly, suddenly, but on all the others there were identifying documents.
The weather changed all the time; now it was warm as if spring were coming; now the temperature dropped and it became bitter cold. Dry cold with some snowflakes. As if the weather wanted to contribute to the general upheaval.
The corpse was wheeled out through the other door and pushed into its temporary place. Cooled somewhat, that is where it would wait for its autopsy and the legal permits for samples to be taken from it. There was a small spot on its neck. Someone must have hugged him from behind, surprising him, and clung to him with lips stuck to his neck so vehemently, perhaps even bit him, as to “kiss out” the skin, as Hungarians would say, causing a black-and-blue spot, a love bite or hickey. Someone who had not seen him for a long time. Neither the coroner nor Kienast spoke of this, though both knew that this mark had to be recorded immediately. They’d pour dental wax over it, the negative would be filled with dental plaster, thus gaining an imprint of a stranger’s lips or teeth, which might determine the outcome of a case, because it might be the culprit’s lips or the teeth of the last eyewitness.
Thus far, no one had had a chance to compare the student’s statements with the coroner’s opinion.
Nor had anyone asked what the hell such a seemingly well-situated gentleman was looking for at night or at dawn in the disreputable park, or, if he had not been a corpse for very long, why was it that the snow on his arms and shoulders had not melted. Anyway, the detective still had many other things to take care of in the other case, of the patricidal girl. He also knew there was no point in racking his brain before he had all the forensic evidence in hand. The mother did not take the blame upon herself as an act of self-sacrifice but because it was her only chance for an acquittal. If her daughter admitted her deed, the mother could be punished for continued complicity. Sometimes it was better that Kienast put his cases to sleep in his mind, letting them continue working on a solution by themselves. And when in the afternoon, half-asleep and tired, with barely enough energy to mail some of the completed reports to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and to the Federal Investigation Department very quickly, his glance fell on the young man’s name again: Döhring.
Interesting, how these deeply neurotic characters enroll, if they can, to study psychology and philosophy. Which rather harms than improves their chances. In a few years, they become much smarter, but this does not necessarily make them more aware of their own problems.
He laughed aloud, and when he saw the young man’s address, Fasanen Street, he added several contented nods to his self-contented laughter. The young man has no worries, can go about getting educated with no fear of going to the poorhouse, he thought to himself, and then he quickly put the freshly opened file into an envelope—that is to say, assigned it to his current cases.
And early the following morning, the student, just as he had planned before, took the train out of the city.


 
Copyright © 2005 by Péter Nádas
Translation copyright © 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Continues...

Excerpted from Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas Copyright © 2012 by Péter Nádas. Excerpted by permission.
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