My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I must have bought this book by mistake. I read Hungarian Quartet and enjoyed the short story ‘Logbook’, but it was dedicated to Ivan, not written by him. I should have been more careful, flicking back through Hungarian Quartet, it quite clear that Mandy’s short story ‘Left behind’ is written around the writer, ‘János Zsamboky’. I hate fiction about writers – “Write from experience” must be the least productive literary advice ever given. The author struggles to avoid autobiography rather than write fiction, and what results is an avatar not a character. Géza Ottlik, he’s your man; not Mandy.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sequence of stories about Mandy/Zsamboky’s trip to London, from which I have gleaned the following (of cultural significance if not of literary merit):
An allusion to ‘The English lawn’ joke, a significantly different version of which I have heard in conversation. In this book, an English lawn tended by an old Hungarian lady in exile is turned into a moment of self-loathing – “the cultivation of wretchedness”. As an middle-aged Englishman tending a Hungarian lawn I can empathise, but more about that later.
Also satisfying was Mandy/Zsamboky’s contrast of 1944 with 1956. The former a scene of physical and moral horror, “lost in a filthy sky”; the latter something that could be slept through. Last Wednesday I discovered another of my friend’s grandfathers had been sent to a Soviet labour camp. As Mandy points out Hungarians like to celebrate sadness, “Drinks and conviviality. But never a loud word spoken! Instead a deep pervasive sorrow.” but they don’t celebrate 1944 – too much misery, even for the Magyars.