Synopses & Reviews
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.
In 1705, Kornell Csillag's grandfather happens across a gold watch--a magical watch that brings the gift of clairvoyance to the family's first-born sons. This gift offers the ability to look into the future or back into history--for some it is a blessing, for others a curse.
Joseph Strauss (a dentist and bachelor, client of the Eleven Titties brothel and of Der Große Bär beer cellar) leaves Prussia in the spring of 1866 and follows a captain of dragoons to Bucharest, where the officer is to ascend the throne as prince of the United Principalities of Romania. War is imminent in central Europe, but the company of a special tomcat, a guardian angel of sorts, helps him to overcome all dangers.
In Bucharest, Joseph will meet and fall in love with an attractive nanny, while the prince distances himself from the dentist, seeking to erase all stains from his past, particularly his involvement with a beautiful blind prostitute. But unbeknownst to him, she has given birth to a baby boy with a suspiciously aristocratic nose . . .
Nations are invented and dissolved overnight, kingdoms are for sale, Bucharest grows from a muddy pigsty into an elegant capital city, and love turns everything upside down in The Days of the King.
About the Author
Miklós Vámos is one of the most respected and widely read writers in his native Hungary. He is the author of twenty-eight books, eleven of them novels. He has taught at Yale University on a Fulbright fellowship, served as The Nations Eastern Europe correspondent, and was the host of a popular cultural TV talk show in Hungary. Today he is a correspondent for the Washington Post online. He is the father of three children, including a daughter who lives in London and five-year-old twin boys in Budapest.
Reading Group Guide
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 Va?mos 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?