By Sandor Marai, trans. George Szirtes
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When Roberto Calasso rediscovered the Hungarian writer Sandor Mrai in 1998, most of Europe rightly greeted Embers as a masterpiece. Since then we have had two more Mrais in English, Casanova in Bolzano and now The Rebels. Both are shot through with brilliance. But Mrai can also be mannered, obscure, and above all disturbing. So is Kafka, whom he translated; but I'm beginning to wonder about Mrai.
In a Hungarian school in 1918, the graduating class has shrunk from 50 to 17, the others having disappeared to the war. Soon these 17 will follow to the front, waved off by old men who tell the young how lucky they are to escape the endless training of their day. We meet four: bel the doctor's son and budding writer, through whose eyes we see most of the story; Tibor the colonel's son; Bela the grocer's son, and Erno the cobbler's son. They have nothing in common, but suddenly are inseparable. What binds them is resistance to the adult world. They mock it, they decline to partake in it, they turn all its rules upside down, daring each other to more and more pointless acts.
bel recalls this over a few days in May, when the gang can go to the local cafe without hiding from their masters. The moment of passage is brilliantly caught - the hatred of adults and the longing to be one; the realisation that this world may be less exciting than their dreams; the more sobering realisation, when they visit a prison, that their rebellion was unreal compared to others'.
Other details of adolescent psychology are pinned like butterflies to Mrai's page: the fake boasting about girls; bel's agonising love for Tibor. But - as always in Mrai - psychological accuracy is not the point. The point is, as in Embers: what happened, and what it means.
What happened is also much the same: a betrayal, or several. One of the gang has betrayed them to the adult world from the start; and the adults on whom they rely complete the betrayal. Appropriately, the novel ends before the consequences play out, but they will clearly be terrible. The consequence we witness remains within the gang's …