Sandor Marai has been on my radar literally for years, because a dear friend pointed his books to me in the mid-1990s when his work was being rediscovered, just after his death in 1989. But because his work is often paralleled with Schnitzler’s, Joseph Roth’s and Stefan Zweig’s, I’ve been prejudiced and mistaken him for a writer of the old bourgeois world, of intimate dramas behind thick curtains.
But Liberation is quite the contrary.
This novel, based on Marai’s experience in 1945, is set during the last days of the Budapest siege, when the remaining Nazi troops, and their local fascist Hungarian supporters organized in paramilitary, resist for more than a month in front of the Soviet troops. The local population hide in cellars for weeks, without much food or water and under constant shelling, until the “liberation”. But even as they all fear death, the perspective of the Soviet troops’ arrival is nothing to rejoice about: everyone braces for summary justice, retaliation, rapes and looting.
The story is seen through the eyes of Elisabeth, a young woman, daughter of a well-known scientist persecuted by Hungarian fascists and obliged to go into hiding. The cellar she moves into is full of a diverse crowd of workers and bourgeois, healthy and wounded, supporters of the fascist regime or low-key opponents, even one Jew amid anti-Semites. At the beginning the atmosphere is rather civil, everyone trying to make do with the circumstances and keep up appearances, but soon enough the impeding danger, exhaustion, hunger and fear make people less civil, more egoist, cynical and cruel, more true to their real selves.
It’s a rather sobering tale, because Elisabeth doesn’t keep much illusion about life and human nature, without being a cynic herself. She keeps her dignity and her energy for life, even in the darkest hour. She still believes her father to be alive, to have been saved by the miraculous generosity of a mysterious Good Samaritan even if she has no proof of it. During the wait she has to make immediate life-or-death decisions whether to trust some people, and sometimes she does come across good people. When a lone Soviet soldier comes into the cellar, the wait is up, events move faster and Elisabeth must face all the ambiguity of this liberation.
I was brought to this novel by Marguerite Duras’ account of the last days of the war in France. I wondered about it meant to live daily the slow enfolding of a historical event, especially near the end. It reminded me of the avian flu epidemic when I was in Asia. It was of course a lot less tragic than a war, but scary events were so slow to arise and to penetrate in daily routines, that most of the anxiety came from our boredom, our inability to act and our having a lot of idle time to imagine the worst. Likewise in the book there’s no black-and-white separation: one day you’re under the nazi rule, the next you’re free. Well, officially it’s perhaps so, but in true life there is a grey period of in-between that probably doesn’t bring out the best in ordinary people. Yet it’s a credit to Marai’s humanity and wisdom that the novel shows this without bitterness nor despair.
At the same period, I started the diary of an Anonymous woman in Berlin, a true account of the last days of the war in Berlin. I found the two books so disturbingly parallel, that I had to stop the German book in order to concentrate on Marai’s. I still intend to finish the German book this year, but as I read it in German and the facts are bleak, things are rather slow on this front.