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This book is much more than a history lesson. It’s a story of how our allegiances and alliances, set against our grounding in what we experience in daily reality, including personal relationships and sense of community, plays out in modern times. This is the story of three boys, Pál, István, and Dávid, as they grow to adulthood and old age. Each one comes from a different social and economic background, and has beliefs formed by experience in their particular families as well as in the village. In each life humor and love occur along with hints of madness and sorrow. They are swept up in the turbulent socio-economic and political changes of the early and mid-20th century. They have to make decisions they determine best for them, their families, their country, and ultimately what they hope is on the side of the greater good. Each one has a moral and ethical sense, which tempered or informed by a survival instinct, is at the heart of their major decisions. And sometimes they make choices that put their freedom and their lives in danger. At the same time these exact same choices are necessary to give them a chance to survive, with or without integrity.
Several women play large and equally interesting roles. Elza is adopted by a Jewish family after found wandering in Budapest and taken to their home in Tövispuszta. She is passionate and independent. Then there is Lucky Gizi, another wonderful character, steadfast and resourceful. She is both lucky, and unlucky, to be married to István’s father. These and other female characters give the story much greater depth.
Kepes takes the characters through the decades of change. World War I “had left people hungry, defeat had left them bitter, and the disintegration of Hungary had humiliated them.” Word of worker and peasant power came with soldiers returning from the Russian front. Inequality between the landed gentry and peasant farmers threatened to blow up into armed conflict. By the 1930s, with Russian communism on one side, and German fascism on the other, Hungarians struggled with a choice of futures. By allying with Germany, some Hungarians believed their country could take back territories ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War 1. Other Hungarians were attracted to communism as a hoped-for improved form of socio-political arrangement. People in the small village took different sides. Some simply tried to survive. Kepes makes it clear that no one—the educated or uneducated, idealistic or pragmatic, rich or poor—escaped harm in the ensuing conflicts.
Another current was anti-Semitism. The Jewish people were blamed by the Nazis for tainting the strong native character of Europeans. Even though, as the author shows with ironic amusement, Hungarian families had tangled ethnic and racial roots, this prejudice became part of the nationalistic movement. The mass killing and deportation of Jews is told in the context of the characters’ lives in chilling detail.
The book has its flaws, but it shines in those episodes where the personal stories take center stage. Some of the most moving stories are about the Jewish family in Tövispuszta. The father’s abiding faith in human compassion is powerful. Although it doesn’t save his life, he chooses to face reality with courage and makes his life positive, so much so that one of the boys, now a young man, is moved to punish his killers and publicly honor his memory. There’s a twist at the end in the tale of one of the other boys, in which his choices are re-evaluated by his family and country, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away.
The Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross were brutal, but the Soviet-backed communist leaders practiced a pervasive and corrosive control of people’s lives. People were imprisoned and tortured for having said the wrong thing or spoken to the wrong person. Then years later they were released and re-instated to their jobs and position, only to have it later taken away again. Under both systems, children were removed from families, names were changed. No one was safe. Personal control and responsibility, and the sense of community, were under siege. Who could be trusted?
While I was reading I wondered at the concerns of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Hannah Arendt. Can evil be institutionalized and made the norm? Apparently it can, to a certain degree and only with popular complicity, for months, even years. Even so its destructiveness is terrifying, though it must be endured as part of the daily reality. Then, sometimes sporadically at first, but always eventually, evil breaks out of efforts to contain and distribute it. But in those moments when it terrifies most, it begins to lose its power. To read this book is to remember those who have gone before in this struggle, and to see how they responded. While cruelty and oppression have often won the day, we can also see the perseverance of people toward what Sartre said is the most fundamental aspect of being human: freedom.
At one point or another, this bitter half century of high-flown ideologies, whose fascist and communist totalitarianism spread its spidery web throughout Europe, humiliated everyone, those implicated as well as onlookers. Hungary was not spared, people disappeared over night, names were changed often, estates were carved up and families forcefully re-located. The interlude of the 1930s seemed like a fading dream.
In these fascinating accounts, the subtle and idiosyncratic exchanges of characters brim with humour as well as tragic poignancy - and belie all black and white accounts of history books. Loyalties are fluctuating. Interpretations and opinions of incidents are many-shaded, from naïve to fanatic to cynical. The archetypal theme of human tragedy - one moment your neighbours are friends, the next moment they are enemies and likely to betray you in order to save their skin, the lives of friends and those of their own blood.
After the Soviets had left Hungary, religious statues were restored, others, including Lenin's, were toppled or buried as symbols of broken promises. At the same time values slipped, greed took hold, business lost its personal touch, and even previously honourable craftsmen shed their sense of shame as something they could no longer afford.
The characters, each one them, enchant with their peculiarities. At times I wanted to dive deeper into the story of one or the other, like Elza, the rejected and adopted girl who suffered premonitions. Equally, I'd have liked to hear more about the fascinating traditions of people in the Carpathian Mountains - narratives yet to be told. With the epic fates of three families and the fictional village that connects them, the author is speaking to grandchildren the world over, because the lessons of the twentieth century cannot be conveyed in numbers and algorithms - an approach still adopted in schools, It alienated me from taking up history as a study subject, as it did my son, so enthusiastic at first, three decades later.
Stories allow us to absorb the human complexities and secrets hidden in our tangled histories. With a little magic thrown into realism it becomes possible to explore our preconceptions and fears, have a dialogue with the enemy inside and outside, and become more tolerant. This, for me, sums up this mesmerising novel.
My English classroom education pretty much left the twentieth century Hungarian experience off the European map so it was fascinating to learn more as Kepes creates an immense perspective through his characters by taking us to Budapest, Paris, London and New York. It is in this way he is able to communicate a profound sense of universality regarding the troubling inconsistencies and often touching complexities of human experience.
Added to this is an epic narrative that remains succinct and unpretentious in its use of language. Each sentence is not just accessible but loaded without ever being heavy or dull. I especially enjoyed the way Kepes was able to draw me, with a simple phrase, into the psychological depths of his well rounded characters about whom I was always left wanting to know more. Is not that what a great book should do? Invite the reader well beyond the boundaries of what is written to formulate their own images and perceptions. The unknown photograph cleverly chosen for the cover with three masked boys invites us to do just that.