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Antal Szerb: VII. Olivér (Oliver VII)

There is a story, almost certain untrue, that Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and came second, third, twentieth – it varies according to the teller of the tale. This is relevant to this story, as King Oliver VII, while in disguise abroad, is mistaken for King Oliver VII and then has to impersonate Oliver VII, with some people who do not know him implying that he does not do a good job.

At the start of the novel Oliver is King of Alturia, a small country in the South of Europe. Its economy mainly depends on the export of wine and sardines but, at the start of the novel, it is not doing well and there is considerable discontent in the country. Oliver is not skilled in financial matters and inherited the problems from his father, who had modernised the country but at great expense. Indeed, there is a plot to usurp Oliver and replace him with Geront, Duke of Algarthe, uncle of Oliver. Geront is not the slightest bit interested in being king and much prefers to be spending time with his extensive art collection. We suspect, however, that things might turn out all right as Szerb tells us very early on that Oliver is the hero of this novel.

However, we are also following the conspiracy to overthrow Oliver. While Oliver may be the hero of this novel, Sandoval is the second hero. He is a portrait painter by profession but has joined the conspirators. His profession gives him access to Geront, whose portrait he has painted. Geront is kept under close guard and few people are allowed to see him. When Sandoval meets him, it does not seem that he is an ideal successor to Oliver. He is seventy-five, in poor health, becoming senile and clearly very much not interested in becoming king. The plotters, however, are preparing for the revolution. The main reason for this is that the only way to save the Alturian economy is to accept the Coltor Treaty. Coltor is a rich man from neighbouring Norlandia. He proposes taking over the entire wine and sardine industries, in return for bailing out the Alturian economy. Part of the deal requires Oliver to marry Princess Ortrud of Norlandia. Oliver is not averse to this per se. He knows the princess as they played together as children, but he is somewhat opposed to the treaty though, like his ministers, accepts that Alturia has little choice. As the wedding and the signing of the treaty are imminent, the conspirators have to act soon. The people are opposed to the wedding, not only because it is part of the treaty but because they are a Catholic country and the princess is a Protestant.

The conspiracy seems to be led by the mysterious nameless captain who may or may not exist, though, once the revolution starts, we meet him and have already guessed his true identity. Indeed, the revolution goes off quite smoothly. The mob bays at the window of the palace, the ministers are all petrified and try to flee and/or hide and Oliver seems not only willing but almost eager to leave office. Geront nominally takes office but, in practice, the country is run by an outspoken journalist, now prime minister, and Geront’s daughter, Clotilda. Sandoval does well, as all the new people in power want their portrait painted.

But where is Oliver? He has been sighted on an African safari, in Kansas City and, more reliably, in Venice. Clotilda sends Sandoval off to Venice to see if he is there and, after a few days enjoying the sights, he looks for Oliver. He does not find Oliver but Oliver’s aide-de-camp, Major Mawiras-Tendal, finds him. Oliver is living under an assumed name, Oscar, and working with a group of swindlers, lead by Count Saint-Germain, descended, so he claims, from the legendary Count Saint-Germain, the occultist/mystic/vampire of many works of fiction. Sandoval is brought in because they need a fake Titian. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to a plot to swindle the aforementioned Norlandian businessman Coltor out of a large sum of money using a fake Oliver VII, i.e. Oscar, the very real Oliver VII, Sandoval, Marcelle, a young woman Oscar/Oliver seems to fall for and various associated people. We have a pretty good idea what is going to happen but not how or why and certainly without any ideas of the details.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable story, told with tongue in cheek, of course, mildly mocking in tone and with Szerb having a lot of fun. There are no great insights but lots of humour, a generally sympathetic account of both royalty and the downtrodden, though happy to make fun of the politicians. There is none of the darkness or gloom of his other novels but just a good story, well told.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Széchenyi
First English translation 2007 by Pushkin Press