I knew nothing previously about Antal Szerb (a Hungarian who was a brilliant literature professor, but who tragically ended up beaten to death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945) nor the book and only picked it up on the off-chance during a random bookshop browse – and what a find! It was a great holiday read – and if you’re after something light but not vacuous, refreshingly escapist but in a far from irrelevant way – this is it.
Having been unknown to English readers until as recently as 2007 (first published in Hungarian in 1942), Oliver VII is a beautifully written and perfectly paced novel, wonderfully capturing the atmosphere of middle europe with its interwar ancien regimes now dimly and distantly lost.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Sandoval, a painter, as he takes the role of bit-part player and fixer in the political chaos of his country. The focus of his (and our) attention is the young, eponymous king of a fictitious central European country (Alturia). He feels constrained by the unreality and sycophancy of his world, as well as the obvious fact his country is facing such a major economic crisis (whose only solution appears to come in the form of a foreign venture capitalist who wants to buy the country! all very contemporary…) – so plots a coup d’etat against himself and disappears to Venice where he ends up with a bunch of conmen. The farce culminates in his impersonating himself in a con followed by his restoration to his throne. It’s all absurd – but that’s really half the point and all of the fun.
It’s a great antidote to the more aggressive and cynical writing around these days – a charming but very unexpected cocktail of:
- the world of old European monarchies on whose behalf Tintin might have gone in search for missing jewels or investigated coups d’etat
- the ‘long-con’ world of Micky Stone’s Hustle gang – Count St Germain is a perhaps a prototype for Albert (Robert Vaughn) Stroller!?
- a gentle political satire – nothing like as biting as Orwell or Private Eye of course – but not completely divorced from their work either.
There is some seriousness to it all (though never in a heavy-handed way) – running themes like the nature of reality and how we know who we are, behind the masks we wear and the roles we carry. But its delight is derived from its gentle whimsy. It would make a wonderful play… now there’s a thought. Perhaps one a rainy afternoon when I’ve nothing else to do, I might just have a stab at a script…
A final note about Len Rix’s translation – it wonderful evokes Oliver’s world and while of course I’ve no idea what it was like in the original Hungarian, it flowed and felt thoroughly authentic. The joy of a good translation is that it’s invisible – you never for a moment consider it is one. And that was certainly the case here.