Embers is a novel by Hungarian author Sándor Marái. Set in a castle in the shadow of the Carpathan mountains it is a story of an old man coming to terms with an apparant act of betrayal by an old friend from his youth.
At the beginning of the novel, Henrik – the old General is presented with a letter. He recognises the writing from long ago. It has been exactly 41 years and 43 days since he saw the man who wrote the letter. Konrad, his old friend, now adversary, is coming to the castle. At dinner the men sit down and by the light of the fire, Henrik confronts Konrad about the day that he believes he was betrayed.
Embers is a beautifully written tale with elegant prose which creates an gothic atmosphere:
“Beyond the cool walls, summer buzzed and hummed and seethed. Like a spy he took note of the boiling restlessness of the light, the rustle of the hot wind in the dessicated leaves, and the noises of the castle.”
Marái’s language imparts a sense of decay and brings the reader into the castle, alongside Henrik.Patience is required of the reader. The old General cannot be rushed. He has waited for this confrontation for four decades and must get satisfaction by putting Konrad on trial.
At times I found the pace of the tale frustrating, at others it drew me in. I enjoyed the way that the actual source of the conflict was revealed bit-by-bit, yet at times found Henrik too ponderous. He is the very illustration of a person whose resentment has eaten them up inside like a disease. At times is somewhat tedious in his obsessive need to bring Konrad to account. Large parts of the novel are soliloquy as Henrik reminisces on their early days with occasional outbursts of anger and resentment at Konrad. One of the thing I found fascinating was the way that Henrik himself revealed his own flaws in his critique of Konrad. Although Henrik was wronged by Konrad, I wondered how he could have been so blind to his friend’s resentment against him. One detail in particular made me believe that he was a terribly controlling person – this was a diary that he gave his wife which she would write in and allow him to read each night. Was Henrik a bitter and insensitive person from the beginning, or did he become so because of they way that he was treated?
One of my pet-hates is misleading book cover commentary, and I felt that the quotation from the Evening Standard about it being “a novel of suspense” potentially sets the wrong expectation for Embers. Yes, there is something a little suspenseful about the way that the subject of the betrayal is revealed, however Embers is not an edge-of-your-seat mystery or thriller. It’s a novel about an old man, facing his adversary, and seeking resolution to the feelings of turmoil and anger that have haunted him over the years. Not much actually happens in Embers, yet everything changes for Henrik. I believe that some readers will find it a frustrating novel at times, as I did, yet if you just let yourself be lulled into the atmosphere of the book you may also discover an elegant and emotive tale.
Have you read any novels by Sándor Marái?