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Béla Illés: Kárpáti rapszódia (Carpathian Rhapsody)

The English translation of this novel is in two separate books and rightly so, because they are really two separate, though closely related stories. The Corvina Press translation, long since out of print but not too difficult to obtain, is, frankly, not a great translation but still quite readable. The first book describes the childhood of Géza Bálint (clearly based on Illés himself), a Hungarian Jew born early in the twentieth century in what is known as Sub-Carpathia. When Bálint was born, it was in Hungary (technically the Austro-Hungarian Empire) but is now divided up between Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Much of the book, though primarily the second part, is about this issue.

The first book starts off being an interesting portrait of an idyllic portrait of life in the region coupled with the racial tensions that existed. I would suspect that Illés may well be looking back at his early years through rose-tinted spectacles (the book was written over thirty years after the events it describes). Bálint’s father is an independent-minded wine grower who, unfortunately for him, won’t play the political game. He also tends to drink too much of his own produce. Bálint is particularly close to his uncle Fülop Szevella (his mother’s brother), a doctor but also a man of strong left-wing views, who will continue to have a strong influence on his nephew throughout the book. Uncle Ferdinánd who seems to move between Sub-Carpathia and the United States, also plays a role. The racial tensions are also key in this book. There are four main racial groups. The first, and top dogs, are, of course, the Hungarians. However, as they are not in majority they make common cause with the Jews including, of course, Bálint and his family. While there is certainly racism towards the Jews, it is certainly not as strong as towards the other two groups. Third in the pecking order are the Ruthenians, now better known as Rusyns, most of whom have now been fully assimilated into the Ukrainian ethnic group. They are bitterly despised by most Hungarians (though not by Bálint, one of whose best friends is Ruthenian) and are generally treated badly. However, they are not treated as badly as the fourth group, the Slovaks, who get paid less at the local wood factory.

Because he won’t play the political game and because he drinks his profits away, Bálint senior ends up bankrupt and the family has to move around. They move first to Budapest and then to Ujpest. While Géza does well there, Bálint senior does not and the family end up in the small town of Peméte, near Máramarossziget in what was then Hungarian Transylvania. It is here that we learn of the exploitation of the forest workers and young Géza’s gradual political awareness, which had already started in Ujpest. The first book ends with plans for a strike.

The second book changes tone completely or, rather, follows on from the tone we have seen at the end of the second book. The very complicated political changes to Sub-Carpathia are followed in detail as various groups jockey for power. Prior to that, Géza very much gets involved in the local politics and does obtain concessions for the workers. However, the First World war intervenes and Géza, like others, has to serve. However, Illés is clearly mainly interested in what happened after the war and is clearly bitter about the annexation of Sub-Carpathia by Czechoslovakia. Indeed, he has little good to say about the Czechs. Matters are made worse by the intervention of the Great Powers. First the French appoint a General to administer the region, a man who is proud to have been born on the same street as Napoleon and has many of Napoleon’s bad qualities and none of his good ones. He had previously served with the Foreign Legion in Morocco and the joke is that he still thinks he is in Morocco. (He is the historical General Paris.) The USA gets involved by holding a high-powered conference on peoples waiting for liberation but, in true US fashion, appoints a governor for Sub-Carpathia who, while born there, has lived most of his life in the USA and has no idea about what is happening in the country. Add to this US missionaries, a Czech renegade, possible Soviet invasion (very much supported by Géza and his friends) and strikes and other worker disputes and you have a mess. Much of the book recounts the various battles between the various groups and the ultimate death of many of the key characters in these battles. Géza, like Illés, ends up being exiled to the Soviet Union, which is the end of the novel, though Illés will return as a Soviet army officer at the end of World War II. Illés tells a fascinating story about the region and its many political changes, which most Westerners will be unaware of, and he tells the story well, never letting up the pace.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by Sovestskii Pisatel’, Moscow
First English translation 1963 by Corvina Press
Translated by Grace Blair Gárdos