Sandor Marai’s “The Rebels”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Sandor Marai’s “The Rebels”

The Last Waltz

It is 1918 in Eastern Europe. In March, the Brest-Litvosk Treaty has been signed by the Soviet Union and the Central Powers, but war continues on the Western front. In May, graduating seniors in Kassa (Kosice, Slovakia today) prepare for graduation. Their original class of 50 in 1914 has been reduced by war to 17.

In Kassa, trains arrive daily from the west bringing vacationers to spas in the nearby Tatra Mountains and wounded soldiers home. Trains depart daily carrying new recruits to the front in Western Europe. A ratcatcher has been called in to rid the town of an epidemic of rats. The river, "dragged corpses through at a run," Sandor Marai writes of that year of his own youth in Kassa in The Rebels. "The dead were fast swimmers. Sometimes they kept company, arriving in twos and threes, racing each other through town at night." Life would not be the same again, particularly for graduating seniors whose futures were already foreclosed by war.

Four members of the Class of seventeen, no longer children but not yet adults, form a gang to thumb their noses at "the terrifying rule of the father." Drawn together by their "longing for the irreplaceable lost 'other world' of childhood," they rob and steal (including from their own parents), jeer adults and adult ways, drink and get drunk, retreat to a hideaway in the countryside where they can laugh, talk, be themselves, kids. The four comprise a microcosm of the Habsburg Empire from the German to the Slav, the rich to the poor, the children of professional classes and military to those of peasants and, like the Empire itself, feel they are brothers, a community.

They are taken up by an actor, a mountebank of indistinct national origin common to the culture of Eastern Europe (think of Istvan Szabo's film, Mephisto or Marina Tsvetayeva's long poem, The Ratcatcher), who leads those drawn to him down the path to disaster. With the help of the town's pawnbroker, who has received items from the boys that they cannot redeem, and Erno, one of the gang, the son of a cobbler who is a Communist, the actor gets the gang to stage a play that he has written in order to ruin them. The boys are virgins and the actor manages to corrupt their innocence by kissing one of them during the play. Unknown to the boys, the pawnbroker is also in the theater as witness in order to spread a tale of homosexuality. He intends to blackmail them, since they cannot redeem the valuable family household items, including jewelry, that they have pawned and the pawnbroker wants his cash. Having set out to do what he has done, the actor leaves town (as presumably he has done elsewhere).

The community of the gang, like that of the Empire itself, proves to be an illusion. An anticlimactic graduation party picnic, the return of the father of one of the boys, an important army officer, presumably to set things straight, and the suicide of Erno bring the novel haltingly to a close. "You may deny the world I set aside for your torture," Erno tells his friends before he dies, "but it matters to you." It is the ressentiment of the underclass, which has already occupied the stage in Russia. The hour of cleansing is nigh, the cobbler endlessly tells the boys. Several months after the picnic that ends the novel, Czech troops fighting for an independent Czechoslovakia occupy Kassa. The following year the Hungarian Commune stages a successful coup d'etat for 131 days. The Habsburg world is gone.

"With any writer," Cesare Pavese writes, "one can apply the term 'mythical' to that central imaginative idea, quite unmistakable, which moves him most fiercely and to which he always turns." For Marai that central imaginative idea is the failure of the Habsburg Empire to keep diverse ethnic groups together in harmony and peace. His better known novel, Embers, deals more extensively with that monumental failure*, as does the work of Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, writers of his generation and class in Central Europe.

"One's hometown is not merely the church tower or the square with a fountain," Abel, one of the boys in The Rebels, is projected thinking later in life from a big city (likely San Diego, where Marai lived and committed suicide). "It is the doorway where some thought first crossed your mind...a lie the consequences of which gave you nightmares for the rest of your life, an object in someone's hand, a voice you hear at night through an open window and cannot forget."

It begins in Kassa and ends there.

(The Rebels is the first book in a six-part sequence Marai wrote under the title, The Work of the Garrens, about German bourgeois life in Kassa. Originally written in 1930, Marai revised it for publication in 1988. Inexplicably, this English translation of The Rebels is based on the 1930 edition.)

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.

*The illusion that the Empire had succeeded and would continue to succeed has been difficult for the German bourgeois of the Habsburg Empire to let go. It is not an illusion the Slavic underclass shared.