Books: Hungry Hearts of a Lost Empire ; EMBERS Sndor Mrai, Translated by Carol Brown Janeway Viking, Pounds 12.99, 213pp
Chamberlain, Lesley, The Independent (London, England)
SANDOR MARAI was a prominent Hungarian writer in the 1930s, driven from his country by the post-war Communist regime. He committed suicide in the US in 1989, shortly before the changes that made his rehabilitation possible. In Hungary, Embers, originally published in 1942, was swiftly republished in 1990. It is now the first of Mrai's many novels to be translated into English.
It's easy to see why this story of love and loss narrated by an elderly general, Henrik, sitting in his lonely Hungarian castle, has caused so much excitement. The remembered years of Henrik's long friendship with Konrad, from childhood through to married life, glitter with the splendour and romance of Austro-Hungarian pomp. The rich and the poor boy meet at cadet school and embark on a military career. Their relationship, passionate but proudly chaste, between two quite different characters, reminds me of the early years of "Colonel Redl", so memorably portrayed in Istvan Szabo's film. Mrai, however, never brings the tension between the two characters into the political realm. What estranged them was something personal 41 years ago, and when the book opens, a final reunion is about to reveal it.
When Henrik first brings Konrad home, the difference between the boys is apparent to his father. In scenes that share some magic with the opening of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, the general's father, the "Officer of the Guard", notes that the young visitor, who is deeply musical, will never make a good soldier.
When, later in life, the general recognises music as an invitation into a world of dangerously unrepressed feeling, the narrative acquires an eroticism reminiscent of Thomas Mann, a potent theme with war and the crumbling of the Empire in the offing. Like Mann in his search for a cultural counterweight to the force of North German Burgertum, Marai combines the element of music with foreignness. Henrik's mother, with whom the Officer of the Guard has an uneasy marriage, is French. Konrad, partly Polish, is related to Chopin. And when Henrik himself marries, it is to a woman with half Central Europe and Russia in her blood.
All this has the makings of a fine traditional story, which gradually deepens. Lonely, cold castles have long been associated with the breakdown of love. The general's marriage turns out to replicate his parents' life: a pattern of love silenced by incomprehension. …