Friday, April 20, 2007

Put this one on your list

I remain under-read in Eastern European fiction. I have had a good experience with older books like Bridge over the Drina and the Radetzky March. Then there is the Good Soldier Svejk, a sprawling anti-war satire. I liked it but, at the time, I didn't get all the fuss. That one is massively popular in Europe, but a professor claimed it was the least funny in English. He based this on reading it in Polish, Magyar, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, German and English.

Now I think I need to do more exploring. I've just finished an excellent novel from a Hungarian author named Sandor Marai. The book, Embers, is short and very simple in plot. An aging Hungarian general waits to meet the best friend of his youth, with whom he has not spoke for 40 years. Half of the book consists of the General unloading his thoughts on his guest. This has no right to work, but it does.

The heart of the book is philosophical examination of friendship and what people owe their friends, families and lovers. The General details his entire life, the tragic event that defined most of it and how he has come to understand it. He has some of the best descriptions of what friendship means, what duty means and how we deal with people different from ourselves.

I read one review that compared the style to that of Ishiguro. Certainly the characters are similar. These are 19th century people living in the mid-20th century. Despite their strong feelings, they act properly, hold quite a bit back, even from themselves. I think this reserve prevents the book from turning into the emotional free for all that a modern version would take.

I will certainly read more Marai. A movie has been made of Embers. This should go down well with the Merchant and Ivory set. Patrick Stewart portrayed the General in a BBC radio play. That would be something to hear.

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