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Sandor Mirai's short novel, Embers, burst upon American readers in 2001 with all the dignity of a Knopf edition. One had never heard of the author, despite his long residence in San Diego, where he took his own life in 1989, but blurbs and reviews lodged him in the company of writers such as Joseph Roth and Robert Musil - of Franz Kafka, even. I bought the book but didn't get round to it until just a few weeks ago, when I swallowed it whole. I gather that two more translations are in the pipeline, and I look forward to reading them. The closest I've ever come to Mitteleuropa - aside from a few days in Vienna - was the second floor of a house owned by Hungarian refugees in South Bend, but nostalgia for that vanished world has always had a potency for me. Embers made such a strong impression that I had no choice, upon finishing it, but to plunge into one of the few Alan Furst novels that I haven't read yet.
On its surface, Embers alternates extensive evocation of the past with a vaguely menacing monologue. It is 1940, and we are at the castle of a Hungarian nobleman, perched high on a hill overlooking a town. The General receives word of the imminent visit of a friend whom he has not seen in forty-one years. While the castle is polished and aired, wines chosen and a menu reconstructed, the author tells us about the General's mother, a French aristocrat, and her wedding journey eastward, leading carriages laden with French silks and furniture 'from Versailles.' Her only child is soon packed off to a proper military school in Vienna, and there he becomes Damon to a Pythias from a remote corner of Poland. He, Henrik, general-to-be, has everything - wealth, military bearing, and a social finesse that takes nothing (save hunting) too seriously. His inseparable friend, Konrad, has nothing, or nearly; his parents have sacrificed everything to keep him in good gloves and boutonnières - not to mention tuition. Konrad accepts no money from Henrik, but he does spend his free time at the castle, where he is treated as one of the family - at least until one evening when he happens to play a piece of Chopin, arranged for four hands, with Henrik's mother. He plays with a passion matching her own that causes Henrik's father to murmur to his son that Konrad "will never make a true soldier." Konrad's music is a territory that Henrik can never penetrate.
By the time the older Konrad arrives, seventy-five pages in, we're pretty sure that the rest of the novel is going to explain why so much time has passed since the friends' last meeting, and how the General's late wife, Krisztina, figured in the matter. But first, the two old men have dinner, and Konrad talks about his time in the tropics - in Singapore and Malaysia. Marai continues to embroider his pages with images redolent of age and tradition; never have I found the idea of 'comme il faut' so beautifully laid out. There is an electrical storm that knocks out the electricity and, with it, forty-one intervening years. The General recurs to a summer day that has never, it is quite clear, been far from his consciousness. He has memorized everything about it. We begin to worry a little on Konrad's behalf.
Detail by detail, moment by moment, Henrik recreates long-ago events, and the shape of a chillingly unexpected story emerges. It didn't take long for me to feel that I was trapped in a retelling of Tristan und Isolde taking the form of a very abbreviated version of Henry James's The Ambassadors. Where Wagner's Marke is all wounded and betrayed forgiveness, the General is an armed man. And he does all the talking. Was I borrowing from the opera to fill in the omitted details of Krisztina's affair with her husband's oldest friend? Or was Marai managing to pull off, in a tenth of the space, the sickening epiphany suffered by Lambert Strether when he spies Chad Newsome and Mme de Vionnet in a rowboat? It's very likely that Marai was thinking of neither the opera nor the novel when he wrote Embers, but his book reverberates with the furious agony of concealed infidelity and ruptured love. We don't learn very much about Krisztina, but that's as it should be; her husband hardly knew her, either. There is even the suspicion - reminiscent of two other James titles, Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl - that Konrad knew Krisztina before his friend did. The General is not interested in the whys and wherefores of their treachery, but there is one thing, concerning himself, that he has wanted to know ever since the last time he saw either of them.
What gives the General's circuitous approach to his question its eerie brio is an apparent detour, taken through an anecdote from his own wedding trip, eastward like his mother's. In a Baghdad courtyard, Henrik and his wife (she the only woman present) witness a dark spectacle:
The Arab slaughtered the lamb, and as he did so, this old man in his white burnous, which remained unspotted by blood, was like an oriental high priest performing the sacrifice. His eyes gleamed, for a moment he was young again, and all around him there was absolute silence. They sat around the fire, they watched the act of killing, the flash of the knife, the twitching of the lamb, the jet of blood, and their eyes gleamed also. And then I realized that these people are still intimately familiar with the act of killing, blood is something they know very well, and the flash of the knife is as natural to them as the smile of a woman, or the rain. We understood ... that people in the East still retain their knowledge of the sacred symbolism of killing and its inner spiritual meaning. These dark, noble faces were all smiling, they pursed their lips and grinned in a kind of ecstasy as they watched, as if the killing were a warm, happy event, like an embrace. Curious, that in Hungarian our words for killing and embracing echo and heighten each other.
The last sentence is the General's way of identifying himself, as a hunter, with sanguinary 'Orientals,' and of letting his friend know that, however aged, he remains dangerous. As he talks into the night, as his friend sits in silence, as the candles burn down, the atmosphere becomes distantly Draculan - without the supernatural baggage. I will let you discover the General's question for yourself, along with the chance encounter that betrayed his wife's betrayal. And I'll let you wonder what sort of reckoning is visited on Konrad. (You can always do what I do, and read the last pages at the first prick of curiosity.) Slight though Embers may be, it belongs among the classic tales of dark adultery.
Originally published in Hungarian in 1942, Embers has not appeared in English before, and the translation, by Carol Brown Janeway, was made from a German version of 1999. (February 2004.)
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