Theme: Eastern Europe
Hungary’s literary icon, Antal Szerb, was an figure that rose to well-respected status quickly and whose life ended too early. A Jew who died in a concentration camp in 1945, his last work, Oliver VII(1942), offers none of the dark and horrific circumstances that Hungarians Jews witnessed and withstood. The wittiness of Szerb has been repeatedly compared to Luis Pirandello, the Italian playwright, but there is much more to Szerb than mere mimicry. Oliver VII is a novel, Szerb’s lightest by far, that takes on the theme of self-identity, self delusion and the perception of reality. The story begins in the fictional Alturia, an unstable country where Oliver VII is king. He plots a coup against his own government, escapes to Venice, and ends up impersonating himself. As farcical as this sounds, perhaps too contrived and thin to carry a novel, it is not the case.
As Len Rix, the translator of Oliver VII points out in his afterword, this book holds the most weight when it is read in the context of his two previous novels The Pendragon Legend (1934) and Journey by Moonlightt (1937). The Pendragon Legend introduced Szerb as a stylist of ‘neo-frivolity’ which was he immediately turned away from in the heavy and slightly morose Journey by Moonlight. But the themes of his last two novels are the same, just dealt with in different ways. As Journey by Moonlight has the philosophical and spiritual overtones that reflect the historical timbre of the times, Oliver VII, addresses those same themes in a humor fueled by resignation to the limits of the self and the world we live in. Self-deception and identity are major players thematically, but in Oliver VII the reader gets to see how we can create our own reality even if we never truly know reality. As confusing as this may seem, it is a question we often come to later in life through some time of self-examination and reflection. As if Szerb wanted to reflect and re-examine his own work, Oliver VII is his answer to the questions he posed in Journey by Moonlight.
Oliver VII is a king who is tired of confines of the life he has come to know and decides that the only way to escape is to plan his own coup and run off to Italy. There he becomes comfortable as Oscar the trickster, falling in with a group of swindlers that include some ex-pats from his own country and some wily Italians. The deeper he becomes involved in the duplicitous plots to trick innocents out of money, the more he rises to his own idea of leadership. Ultimately, he impersonates himself to win back his won throne. It’s a lovely, light read that asks of the reader nothing much but to enjoy, follow the twists and turns and to perhaps question the realities we have created and our roles in them. As we follow Oliver VII through his identity slumming as Oscar, so too do we follow Szerb and his journey into himself and his style. Szerb is in full control and we should expect no less from a man who was elected president of the Hungarian Literary Society. His was a literary king in Hungary at a time when being a Jew was death sentence and even though he was offered many opportunities to leave his own country, his loyalty to his country, its literary history and culture and to his family prevailed. He, a king in his own right, was put to death in a labor camp in 1945. And if you wonder what he means by “king”, just a read a quote from from a Count who addresses Oliver in Oliver VII:
A king isn’t required to be a human being like everyone else. He must be the sort of human being who can inspire his contemporaries with awe and wonder. You see, in the long, hard year that is the life of the ordinary man, the king is a red-letter day. A holiday. A lifting up of eyes in adoration to the sky. There have been great kings who have achieved fame by destroying enemies abroad, and great kings who cared about the sort of chickens the peasantry cooked in their saucepans. But none of that matters; it’s not the point. Deeds and good intentions don’t confer royalty. The king fulfills his duty as a great man simply by being. Anyone can win win praise of his acts and achievements: the sole duty of the king is to exist in the world. Like a mountain. My young friend, plains can be cultivated, ships can be carried on the backs of rivers, but mountains are the only things that rise, tall and silent, above the plains, rivers and nations of the world. They simply stand there, and their existence directs man’s attention to his eternal values. If there were no mountains, and no kings, my young friends, people would think that everything in the world is flat, something merely to be exploited. A king exists to draw people’s attention to pure air of the peaks and the heights of destiny. He is a legend incarnate, the one great comfort and reassurance. That alone does more good for the country than fifty military barracks. It is a greater source of strength than fifty battleships. And for him to raise a nation to the heights of destiny he needs to do nothing more than emanate that strange, merciful gift we call royalty.
And that is exactly what Antal Szerb did.