Péter Nádas: The Salt of Life
Apr. 24. 2016.
The booklet, already remarkable in itself as an object, contains illustrated essays originally published on, and is a real bonus for the author. BY PÉTER POGRÁNYI.
“Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.” (Matthew 5,13)
The volume consists of twelve short units, signifying the months of the original publication: from a distance this could provoke associations with the Yearbook, but its brevity and reticence amongst the Nádas books is more striking. Péter Nádas, the author of gargantuan novels, at times writes sentences that are longer than this book: the seemingly risk free escapades in the history of a “little southern German town” can therefore certainly be recommended as appetizers for future readers of Nádas.
Péter Nádas
Péter Nádas
Short it may be, but there is room for astonishingly many things in this booklet. Based on the title – which today may sound a little archaic and dated, but elevated and refined all the same – we might be expecting some kind of philosophical summary, the “gist” of the writer’s life experiences. The first twist is that salt is not meant first and foremost metaphorically, salt is indeed a material of life, a product in the little southern German town that is painted in the essays. So among other things, we learn about the procedures of salt distillation.
The meanings beyond the description – and the same goes for the entire volume – are not overemphasised, the text is not crammed and jammed with scholarly homilies, and yet intriguing observations keep popping up, offering delights for the readers who are familiar with the oeuvre, as they call to mind several earlier text encounters. For instance, we read the following about various salt types: “In nature purity does not exist. The crystals [of salt] in their natural state may contain lithium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, flourid, bromid, more fortunate salts can contain iodide and different organic pollutants obviously in various proportions depending on the location. Not to mention decomposing plants and animals, and the already salty perspiration trickling down the sunburnt or congenitally black bodies of seaside workers.” (12.) The ocean in a drop, I could say jokingly: Nádas (as one of the greatest Hungarian writers) possesses excellent skills to smuggle powerful, palpably worded observations into the description of seemingly inconsequential matters.
The same applies to the meticulous description of the bells. The comprehensive inventory of the bells of the town is complemented not only by the portrayal of their practical functions, their roles in everyday life, the Biblical quotations on them are also woven into the narrative train of thought. Above all the sentence cast into the body of “Saint Michael’s bell, the sonorous fundament of the town”:   „Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new.” The essay lingers at this sentence, has a go at different translations, and as we encounter it roughly in the middle of the book, it is perhaps not unjustifiable to highlight it.
Nádas writes the following about the same bell, the largest one of all: “For the sake of harmony all the others need to adjust to this one. And who gives, who receives, who does not receive this harmony with all its gauges, I am at a loss to say”. (58.) The uncertain, resigned tone of the second sentence, which does dominate the text at places in the form of similar asides, makes the writing painfully beautiful and movingly personal, and keeps it somewhat lyrical to the end despite the objective descriptions.
The clerical, religious, theological references make up the backbone of the reasoning anyway. The terminal point of the sketched historical curve is the reformation. As we read: “Quietly labouring interests lead to hazardous undertakings, and beyond lie the uplands of ideologies. On the landscape of history the rivulets of self-interests join to form the great river of emancipation, carrying the reformation on its waves.” (38) The last two chapters tell the tale of Johannes Brenz, the town’s “preacher famous far and wide”, his meeting with Luther and his ending up in the town. The history lesson even shows a glimpse of the theological dispute on the subject of receiving the communion under one or both elements. This closing is, however, arbitrary. The fable-like conclusion shows that the writer has not run out of topics, merely out of time.
The text uncovering aspects of society, local history, history of thought at the same time is accompanied by the drawings of András Forgách. With their distinctive atmosphere they make the volume a little bit like a book of fairy tales, and form a distinction of sorts: the drawings do depict elements described in the text (bells on the cover, the picture of the town, the steps leading to the Romanesque church etc.), nevertheless, they do not document the same way photographs would. The essay-document relationship at work in W.G. Sebald’s books comes to mind as a point of reference; in the case of the present volume, this relationship is much more playful, I would even venture to say, more poetic.
The readers of Nádas can probably hardly wait for the memoirs announced to come out next year, which is said to bear the title “Illuminating Details”. The (re)reading of the matchless corpus so far has serious challenges in store, and now we have this charming booklet too, this bonus track: something else to set the mood.
Translated by Péter Papolczy