Posted by: koolwine | December 2, 2010

Hungary: Embers

“From the first moment, they lived together like twins in their mother’s womb.  For this they had no need of one of those pacts of the kind that is common among boys of their age, who swear friendship with comical solemn rituals and the sort of portentous intensity invoked by people when for the first time they experience, in unconscious and distorted form, the need to remove another human being from the world, body and soul, and make him uniquely theirs.  For that is the hidden force within both friendship and love.  Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all the emotions that will last a lifetime.  And like all great emotions, this one contained within itself both shame and a sense of guilt, for no one may isolate one of his fellows from the rest of humanity with impunity.”

By Sándor Márai; translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Originally published in Hungary as A gyertyák csonkig égnek in 1942
My edition: Vintage International, 2002.  213 pgs.
Acclaim: International Bestseller; A New York Times Notable Book; Márai was “one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s”

Country Focus: Hungary (Magyarország in Hungarian)

To make a long story short: Henrik, a widowed Hungarian general, receives word that his best friend Konrad has returned to the country after a 41-year absence.  Henrik confronts Konrad about his abrupt and secret departure so many years before, the hunting trip that instigated his flight, and the nature of friendship and love.

My opinion: Márai’s Embers is half suspense novel, half philosophical treatise.  From the opening paragraphs when Henrik learns of Konrad’s reappearance, to Henrik’s memories of their uncommonly strong friendship, to the tension between the two upon reuniting, until  Henrik finally broaches the subject of the fateful hunt, I was kept guessing – what happened between these two men in the forest?   After the pivotal event is revealed, Márai sets Henrik loose to discourse on the complications, beauty and repercussions of significant relationships.  This half of Embers, although stirring and profound, is unrealistically long-winded; I kept thinking that Konrad was either the best listener on earth or else had fallen asleep with his eyes open.  Beautiful and intelligent as it is, Henrik’s 70-page monologue became a bit tedious for my taste.

The armchair travel experience: The hunt takes place in 1899, when Hungary was part of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.  Henrik and Konrad met for the first time at school in Vienna, and Márai describes the Austrian capital more fully than any other locale, although it is intimated that Henrik’s castle (where the two men confront their past) is located in Hungary.

In my book (or, what Hungary means to me and maybe you, too)

To me, Hungary = “Hungry.”  I just can’t disassociate the two.  I go from “Hungary” to “Hungry” to “must eat something now.”  This usually winds up being a cookie, but it would be more appropriate to crave goulash – a stew of beef, onions and paprika that was invented by Hungarian cowboys.  Mom had a pretty good goulash recipe she used to whip up for us.

Hungary for magic?
When I was a kid, I read books about a magician named Harry.   But his last name was Houdini, not Potter.

The Hungarian-born Ehrich Weisz (who changed his name to Harry Houdini) was renowned for being an escape artist and could free himself from handcuffs, straitjackets, jails, chains and ropes.  He frequently performed his escapes within plain sight of the audience, underwater and/or while hanging upside down.

Here’s a cool party trick courtesy of Houdini:

“To cause the face to appear in a mass of flame make use of the following: mix together thoroughly petroleum, lard, mutton tallow and quick lime. Distill this over a charcoal fire, and the liquid which results can be burned on the face without harm.”

Hungary for a challenge?
Hungarian Ernő Rubik licensed his “Magic Cube” to Ideal Toys in 1980.  The company changed the puzzle’s name to Rubik’s Cube and has sold over 350 million of them, an amount that makes the Cube the world’s best-selling toy.

I could only ever manage to solve one side of my Rubik’s Cube.  The other five sides routinely displayed my failure in bright, scrambled color.  Emanating a distinct ratcheting noise whenever its faces were rotated, this 1980s mathematical IQ test proved time and time again that I was doomed to remain in remedial math class.

Hungarians in Missoula and Missoulians in Hungary

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! (Headline news from Hungary)


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