Tag Archives: Hungarian Literature

Embers, by Sándor Marái

3.5 stars3.5/5

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.

Embers, by Sandor Marai

Penguin, 2003 edition (first published 1942), paperback, 256 pages - personal library

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?

Fateless / Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

Fateless is a novel by 2002 Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Vintage Books, 2006 edition (first published 1975), paperback, 262 pages - library copy

I borrowed it from the library in advance of my recent trip to Budapest. It isn’t set in Hungary, but I thought I should sample some writing by local authors. I’m really not a big fan of the cover (left), as I have an aversion to movie-versions of books and if I’d have been buying it for myself would have had to get the 2004 Vintage International, or the 2005 Harvill Press edition which, also incidentally both have the more accurately translated title – Fatelessness.

The story is told by Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew. Gyuri has the day off school so that he can witness his father signing away the family timber business before being sent to a labour camp. Two months later school is closed due to the war (World War II) and Gyuri is placed in a group of boys tasked with physical jobs such as bricklaying. It’s not long before he is unexepectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the beginning of his journey to Auschwitz.

As it is told in the first person, one of the most striking things in the book for me is Gyuri’s voice. When I first began reading Fateless, I couldn’t help but draw parallel’s with John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (read my review here). Although Gyuri is older than Bruno, there are similarities in the way that the author has chosen an innocent-sounding tone for the narrator. This made me wonder, especially because this book in concentration camps, whether Boyne had been inspired at all by Kertész’ novel. Quite honestly, to begin with I thought that Gyuri sounded a bit simple, and then wondered if it was something to do with the translation, but actually as I read on the innocence of his tone felt authentic – especially the teenage-sounding comments such as “as far as I should know” at the end of nearly every sentence!

As the book continues, Gyuri does become less naive. He becomes aware of what is happening in the camp – previously he had just been going along with events, as I suppose a child on a school trip might. His simple reasoning though is actually an effective way of conveying the true horror of the the human decisions behind the circumstances:

“After all, people would have had to meet to discuss this, put their heads together… in all likelihood – gentlemen in in imposing suits…One of them comes up with the gas, another immediately follows with the bathhouse, a third with the soap…”

Through Gyuri, Kertész causes the reader to observe the many ironies of the situation: How a man who previously fought on the side of the Germans in World War I, is now in a concentration camp. How a young man like Gyuri who is actually considered an outsider by other Jews because he isn’t actually religious is singled out purely because of his race. I felt that the discursive quality of the book was very effective. It really drew me in, and while I never felt emotionally attached to Gyuri, the distance made his experiences feel even more chilling.

I interpreted the idea of fatelessness as freedom. Through a series of chance decisions, such as the choice to lie about his age, he survives the camp and also leaves with his sense of self intact, in spite of a gruelling experience. It is by an arbitrary fact of birth that Gyuri is in the camp to begin with but so too are the circumstances by which he makes it through. In this respect, while Fateless is not a cheerful book, it is actually uplifting. It is a provocative book, because the narrator has a unique view on the situation – he is very accepting, and in a way, it is as if this saves him. I wonder how many people who had been in a concentration camp would though, have the same perspective as Gyuri in the following passage;

“…even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is the experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that,of the happiness of the concentration camps.”

Fateless is a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas – for instance the description of the tattooed numbers on prisoners as “celestial phone numbers”. I can’t help but compare it to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I definitely think it was more hard-hitting. A less ‘enjoyable’ read, but more complex and intense. This would be a brilliant book group choice as there are so many elements to discuss. A fascinating perspective from a character who is neither hero nor victim.

Have you read any books with an unexpected perspective like this?