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by Sandor Marai Translator Carol Brown Janeway

Category: Fiction / Literary
224 pages; ISBN: 0375707425

Rating: 10/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Martyn Colebrook


I was fortunate enough to come across 'Embers' at a ridiculously low price in a book sale and having had my appetite for foreign writers whetted by Italo Calvino's 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, I decided to plunge in at the deep end. When this review was first written, the novel was an unrecognised obscurity from Eastern Europe, but it has since existed in the top ten lists for many months thanks to the energetic and enthusiastic endeavours of various literary critics. For fans of the phenomenon that is 'magic realism' this will definitely appeal but, as much as I loved this novel, there is bound to be an emergent voice that will level the unjustified accusation of pretension at a text which ought to be treated with reverence rather than repudiation. Incidentally, 'Embers' is written with the same prose quality and the same level of erudition that haunts 'Invisible Cities' and 'The Castle of Crossed Destinies' (Both Calvino), and whilst the postmodern novel has become a term that is used liberally, loosely and more-often-than-not, incorrectly, Sandor Marai and Italo Calvino rank above many others in this particular genre.

On a purely superficial level, 'Embers' is a novel about the loyalty, platonic love and the seemingly inevitable betrayal of these values, the inexorable problems which derive from a woman coming between two men. Henrik is an aristocrat who has chosen to withdraw from the society around him and is awaiting the renewal of a friendship with Konrad, his former companion, who he has not seen for some 41 years. As he prepares for Konrad's arrival it becomes apparent that whilst universal time has continued, the temporal element of Henrik's existence hasn't adjusted from the moment that his faith in those around him was fractured by an act that he can neither explain nor rationalise. Having maintained an unquestionable fidelity to each other there came a point where the modern collided with the old-world and chose to progress rather than remain stoic to its traditions.

In this perennial bohemia, Henrik's only remaining companion is his nurse, Nini, and it is in this permanent isolation, continued stasis, that they choose to remain. The friendship between Konrad and Henrik was borne out of a childhood meeting and a military upbringing in which social deference and economic differences were acknowledged and respected. This feudal, hierarchical society demands a constant awareness of place and an individual's importance but Konrad's inability to adjust to rigid constraints leads him to seek expression through the arts, most notably music. It is worth bearing in mind this is a novel with a context that could be seen as politically stifled. Therefore, when Konrad discovers a form of communication that is dangerously free and personal he can break rank from the other soldiers around him. By transgressing the rules of his own military world this poses a threat to the life that Henrik has introduced him to and the opportunity that Henrik offers Konrad. This reflects the nature of Embers, as the remaining fires of a partnership smoulder and wait to be reignited, the fuel for this fire is simply the environment. Although the novel transcends generations it eventually returns to the point at which the decision must be made. Time cannot progress until a resolution has been found, Henrik cannot return to the outside world until he can explain and elucidate the problems within his own. It is a matter of duty and honour to his previous generations that Henrik atones for his error in allowing an outsider into the culture and values they created, but Konrad must pay his own penance for his decision to put love before friendship.

Given that this is a translation I would consider this to be one of the lesser-known gems that will find eventually find its way onto the bookshelves. Although this review is close to bridging the informative and the analytical (review vs essay) this was such an overwhelming novel to read that the only way to try and understand it is to strip away the surface narrative and peer below into what is undoubtedly a controlled and intellectually considered depth. 'Embers' is a novel about the desire to return to forgotten cultures, about the different levels of love and friendship but it is also the work of a writer whose prose is immaculate and must be sampled to gain the full flavour.


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