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Category Archive for 'Hungary'

Focusing on elderly teacher Elsa Weiss and her life story, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the character of this teacher in Israel into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing. This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives developed in the aftermath of the war. Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss, a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous, someone whose life feels peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, someone who survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in. Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape and does. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying on some level to erase her naive decisions and to atone for her mistakes.

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On the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to “Budapest Street Scene,” painted in 1925 by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis. Author Mark Sarvas involves the reader from the outset of Memento Park as Matt spends a long night delving into memories going back three generations, considering whether they reflect truth or merely his interpretation of it based on his own experience. At the same time he also reflects on his present life in Los Angeles, where he has been working as a “reliable, drama-free,” B-list actor and living with his model fiancée, who spends her free time working on social causes. Ultimately, Matt relives his very recent trip to Budapest, describing what he has learned about the artist, and exploring his own Jewish roots for the first time. Staring at the painting in the auction house, he admits, “I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything I thought I knew.” For the reader, it is equally an epitaph on the self-centered, disconnected life Matt Santos has been living to date. As he shares his life and thoughts with the reader, the novel develops into a complex personal story, at the same time that it is also a story filled with mysteries.

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Magda Szabo (1917 – 2007), one of Hungary’s most celebrated authors, lays bare her own values and her soul in The Door, a rich and intensely intimate examination of the relationship between a character named Magdushka, a writer whose point of view controls this novel, and Emerence, her housekeeper-servant. As suggested by the choice of the main character’s name and occupation, much of the story here parallels aspects obvious from the author’s own biography, and she has admitted in an interview that much of the content here is based on similar experiences from her own life. How much is actually true and how much is an elaboration becomes irrelevant once the book gets underway, though it is difficult to imagine the author recreating Magdushka’s unwavering commitment to the temperamental and prideful Emerence, her affecting sense of responsibility, and her overwhelming guilt regarding her betrayal of a secret, if she herself had never experienced similar feelings under very similar conditions. In a brief opening chapter, Magdushka, now in old age, describes the continuing nightmare which has loomed over her adult life. In it she is behind the front door of her own house, unable to open it for rescuers and unable to call for help. Magdushka sees parallels between this nightmare and her experiences with Emerence at the climax of their relationship many years earlier. Since what happened then is now in the past, she knows that “none of that matters, because what happened is beyond remedy.”

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Written in 1933, and newly translated into English, Kornel Esti is Dezso Kosztolanyi’s last book, a unique combination of wild romp, thoughtful contemplation of life’s mysteries, and dark commentary on life’s ironic twists. Dezso Kosztolanyi (1885 – 1936), a Hungarian poet, fiction writer, and journalist, creates a narrator who is also a writer, telling us from the outset that the narrator, now forty, had not seen his oldest friend Kornel Esti, also a writer, for ten years. Now, however, the narrator has decided to contact him. Born on March 29, 1885, the same day and time as both the narrator and author, Kornel Esti also looks just like the narrator and is clearly his alterego, now down on his luck. What follows is a series of eighteen episodes, which may or may not be metafictional, ranging from Kornel Esti’s first day of school, in 1891, through a symbolic tram ride at the end of the novel, a brief chapter in which the author’s entire philosophy is summed up through Esti’s late-in-life experiences on an overcrowded tram. In between are moments of high comedy, poignant drama, and shocking cruelty, all reflecting aspects of Esti’s life, either real or imagined, and all contributing to the broad panorama of human existence.

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Author Elizabeth Kostova’s unusual debut novel combines her ten years of scholarly research on Vlad Tepes, the Impaler of Wallachia, sometimes known as Drakulya, with the stories that have become part of local folklore in Bulgaria and Rumania, and the legends created and perpetuated by Bram Stoker (in his novel Dracula). A sadistic prince from the mid-fifteenth century who killed up to 15,000 of his own people, often impaling them on stakes and leaving them to die horrible deaths, Vlad terrified his enemies from the Ottoman Empire, though it was Stoker who created the belief that he was a vampire. Historians and scholars will be fascinated by the detailed information revealed in this novel as the three main characters uncover key information about Vlad/Drakulya. Though the story is often exciting—and has a conclusion which packs a wallop–the novel involves serious, scholarly research, and the “novel’s” characters themselves are undeveloped.

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