Friday, January 9, 2009

Book #5: "Embers" by Sandor Marai (translated by Carol Brown Janeway )

A short review for a short book.

"Embers", written by Hungarian author Sandor Marai in 1942, was a surprising find. One of the reasons I'm loving the Cannonball Read so much is that I'm getting the chance to read books I would never have given a chance to before. I am determined to read whatever falls into my hands, whether by chance or by recommendation. My dad found "Embers" in a used-books store, and handed it over to me saying "you might like it".
I did. Knowing absolutely nothing about the book, I found myself getting through it in less than a week, both because it's a very short read at 213 pages (in rather large font) and because it's an engrossing, relaxing read that was unlike anything I had ever read before.
"Embers" takes place during two days in the life of an old retired General, who lives in complete seclusion in a vast, largely abandoned mansion in the mountains. The General receives a letter announcing the arrival of a former friend, whom he hasn't seen in 41 years. We slowly discover, as the General prepares the mansion for his friend's arrival (so that it looks exactly as it did the last time they saw each other) that the two men had a remarkably strong friendship during their younger years. The General meditates on the meaning of friendship between men, and while some of the ideas here might feel a little dated to modern audiences, the writing is smooth and the story moving, and we come to understand the two characters perfectly from only a few pages.
On the second day, the friend arrives. During a dinner, the General leads a calm but passionate conversation where we learn how the seemingly unbreakable friendship was broken, and what has happened to each of the men during the 41 years they were separated. It's a powerful, long scene, with some beautifully detailed descriptions that really made me feel like I was in the room, and hearing the General's voice as he spoke. In the course of a single night and one conversation, the friends speak of loyalty, love, the country around them and each other, and it's a truly engrossing, insightful read.
"Embers" is a book entirely about its characters, with little in the way of plot, so I wouldn't recommend it to people who are looking for action-heavy reading. It's certainly something different, relaxing and beautifully written. It's also very, very short, so even if you don't like meditative character studies, it will be over pretty quick. I think it's also the first time I've ever read anything by a Hungarian author, which fits perfectly with the idea of the Cannonball Read: give things a chance, and read something different every time.

1 comment:

Marra Alane said...

I like stories where nothing really happens, so I might see if I can find this somewhere.

Also, I was reviewing my Pajiba list, and 'read something different every time' may not apply to me. I have the same author 12 times. How did I let that happen?