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Embers by Sandor Marai

I don’t suppose you’d heard of Sandor Marai. That’s OK, neither had I. He is, one learns, generally considered to be the finest writer of prose in the Hungarian language. But none of his novels, until Embers, had ever been available in English.

Embers by Sandor Marai
Embers, Sandor Marai (Vintage Books USA, August 2002; Penguin Books Ltd, February 2003)

Coming across Embers is like finding one’s great-grandfather’s old stamp album in the attic: you always suspected that it should be there and when you find it, it’s a bit smaller than you thought, and a bit dusty, but in it you find forgotten countries, languages and and small gems of art. Indeed, the US publisher refers to the “rediscovery of a masterpiece of Central European literature”, as if it were a musical score or painting.

Although written in 1942, the novel feels a half-century older. It is the story of a dinner conversation between two friends, which have not seen each other for “forty-one years and forty-three days”, and who meet again at the same dinner table where they last saw each other.

The two are Henrik, son of an Officer of the Guards of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and born to great wealth and Konrad, born to impoverished, yet still aristocratic parents (and related to Chopin). They meet as boys in military academy and spend the next twenty-four years together, closer than brothers. And, after one dinner, Konrad abruptly leaves—ultimately for Malaya—without notice and explanation.

Embers is a story of art and passion vs duty, love vs loyalty, betrayal and obsession all compressed into a few hours over dinner. The reasons for Konrad’s abrupt flight are revealed layer by layer, as if a painting were being cleaned in front of our eyes. Embers is both a psychological novel and, almost, a crime novel, but told with fin-de-siecle elegance.

The embers of the title (“Candles Burn to the End” in the original Hungarian, according to Tibor Fischer in The Guardian) refers to the dying fire of two loves, and at least as many lives, but also to the dying of empire and of a way of life. Sandor Marai himself was, like Konrad, born into an impoverished branch of aristocracy in dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Life echoed art for Marai: he couldn’t stay in a Communist Hungary and left in 1948, ending in San Francisco, a location almost as exotic as Konrad’s Far East. He committed suicide in 1989.

Asian readers will probably smile at the brief descriptions of life in Malaya:

The English know how to defend themselves [against the tropics], says Konrad. They arrive with England in their suitcases. Their courteous arrogance. Their reserve. Their whiskey. Their evening dress that they change into every night in their tin-roofed houses out in the middle of swamps. Not all of them of course. That’s just a legend. Most of them turn brutal after four of five years just like the others, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch. Oxford and Cambridge rot down. Back home in the British Isles, everyone who has spend time in the tropic is suspect. I’m convinced that their entries in the security files are annotated with the word ‘tropics,’ the way others would be stamped ‘blood disease’ or ‘spying.’The denouement, the conversation over dinner, turns into a monologue. Several reviewers have criticized this as unbalanced, and readers might wish for Konrad to be more active in his defense. I, on the contrary, found Henrik’s veiled aggression and Konrad’s passivity to be entirely in character. “Why do you ask me?” asks Konrad quietly at the end, “when you know that the answer is yes.” Precisely. That was Henrik’s problem all along and it took him forty-one years and forty-three days to find out.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.