“…But I remain here, and I know everything, and yet there is one thing I do not know. And now, the time has come for me to have a response. Answer, please.”
This was a reread from long ago, and I loved it this time around as well! (Always a bit of a gamble with rereads, I find.) Sándor Márai’s novel, Embers, is a taut psychological plot about two old men, the General and Konrad, who were close childhood friends, but who had a significant event 41 years ago. Nothing more has been said about this event since it happened, and in fact, the two friends haven’t seen or spoken to each other since then. One unexpected night, one of the two sends a note to say that he will be in the area, and they end up having a rather uncomfortable meal that night.
Márai is a master at unfolding the clues to the plot in drips and drops as the book progresses, and it is this not-knowing that elevates the anticipation for the reader. The two friends obviously know what happened, but we as readers have to piece it together – it’s really well done and as the book progresses, the tension is ratcheted up.
The entire book is mostly a one-sided dialogue of one of the two men as he recounts his thoughts, feelings and actions. He feels that he has been the victim of this whole unspecified event from long ago, and as he recounts his story, the reader starts to feel that way as well. But what exactly happened? You and Konrad, the old former friend, are reduced to listening to what the General recalls. It’s nail-biting, to be honest.
Its English title, Embers, reflects the smoldering small almost-a-fire that remains when a fire is almost extinguished, but not quite, and is a perfect image for how things have been burning inside these two friends’ minds for years. Its Hungarian title, interestingly enough, was a phrase that meant (in English): “The Candles Burn Down to the Stump”, which is also reflected in the narrative as candles play a role in this as well.
Márai was born in Hungary, but his family traveled to Germany and France. Despite his travels, he chose to write in Hungarian – his work wasn’t published in English translation until the 1990’s after he had committed suicide due to depression and significant health concerns.
This is a short read but a powerful one.