One spends a lifetime preparing for something. First one suffers the wound. Then one plans revenge. And waits. He had been waiting a long time now. -From Embers, page 16-
Sandor Marai was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 and became famous as a literary novelist. He was driven from Hungary after WWII due to his strong antifascist views and never again lived in his native country. Recently his work has been rediscovered and translated into English. Embers was first published in Budapest in 1942, and this translation was released in the United States in 2001.
The novel opens in a castle in Hungary sometime in the early twentieth century when an elderly General receives a letter from a boyhood friend he hasn’t seen or talked to for over 41 years. Marai then spirals back in time to orient the reader to the General’s early years growing up as the privileged son of the Officer of the Guards. Henrik’s future was laid out for him to become a soldier of status, and early in his life he meets Konrad – a poor, musically gifted boy whose roots lie in Poland. The two boys become unlikely friends. The reader is also introduced to Nini – a nursemaid who has been with Henrik for 75 years having helped birth him. She is a mysterious figure and the only person with whom Henrik seems to have developed a lasting and meaningful relationship.
And because she was always in the right place, nobody ever saw her; and because she was always good-humored, nobody ever asked her how it was that she could always be good-humored when the man she loved had abandoned her and the child who should have drunk her mild was dead. She suckled the General and raised him, and seventy-five years went by. From time to time the sun shone over the castle and the family, and at such moments of universal well-being people were surprised to notice that Nini was smiling too. -From Embers, page 10-
Once the stage is set, Marai returns the reader to present day – a day swathed in anticipation and secrets as Konrad arrives at the castle to dine with Henrik and discuss the last time they saw each other. Henrik has become a man of solitude, living mostly alone in the castle and waiting for the day when Konrad would return to reveal his motivations for abandoning Henrik.
A man who has signed away his soul and his fate to solitude is incapable of faith. He can only wait. For the day or the hour when he can talk about everything that forced him into solitude with the man or men who forced him into that condition. -From Embers, page 104-
Marai’s writing is drenched in mood and suspense. The castle stands in a wilderness filled with deer and bear, candles flicker, and the dead are brought back to life with Henrik’s recollections of a time long gone. The beautiful Krisztina, Henrik’s wife who has now been dead more than eighteen years, now seems to hover in the background.
With tremendous skill, Marai writes of guilt, betrayal, love and revenge while he unravels the story of Henrik and Konrad and why they parted many years before.
By the end, everything has happened and the sum total is clear. And yet, sometimes facts are no more than pitiful consequences, because guilt does not reside in our acts but in the intentions that give rise to our acts. Everything turns on our intentions. -From Embers, page 112-
Marai is a skilled writer who crafts a story of two men and their friendship. He asks difficult and thought-provoking questions about the nature of humans and why they do what they do. Marai’s writing is eloquent. His narration is magnificently constructed which creates the suspense in what is largely a character driven novel.
In the end, two questions are posed which are left for the reader to answer – not a neat ending, but a thoughtful one.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.