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Miklós Szentkuthy: Europa Minor

This is the fourth book in Szentkuthy’s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series, following on from his Spanish one, Eszkoriál [Escorial]. The title indicates, obliquely, what it is about. We used to use the term Asia Minor for what Wikipedia says comprises most of the Asian part of modern Turkey and the Armenian highland. The term is, I think, now deprecated but was still in use when Szentkuthy wrote this book (1941). Europa Minor is his riposte to the idea of Asia being in any way minor, as this book is primarily about Asia and Asia in relation to Europe. Apart from the opening section (see next paragraph), the text is based on manuscripts that Francis Drake brought back from his journey round the world. All these manuscripts are, of course, entirely fictitious or, at least were not brought back or seen by Drake.

As always the novel starts with the life of a saint, told inevitably in Szentkuthy’s colourful and less than historically accurate style. Our saint is Saint Toribio – this one from the sixteenth century, not the more famous one from the twentieth century.

The real Saint Toribio seems to have been a respectable and pious man. Szentkuthy’s is less so. He seems to have been something of a Robin Hood (Szentkuthy makes the comparison with Robin Hood on several occasions) and not averse to enriching himself in the process. However, he realised that Philip II, King of Spain at that time, favoured the church so he became a priest. He managed to ingratiate himself with the Bishop of Grenada but continues to behave badly.

Philip II had been a widower twice. His second wife was Queen Mary of England. His son by his first wife was Don Carlos (yes, he of the Verdi opera and Schiller play). He was somewhat inbred. Where most of us have sixteen different great-great grandparents, he had only six. Philip planned to marry him to Elisabeth of Valois but then married her himself. In this novel Toribio and Elizabeth fall in love and have an affair. (I can find no historical evidence for this). Philip, it seems, still worships Mary.

As we know, Toribio is made Archbishop of Lima and goes off to Peru where he continues his corrupt ways and mixes Christianity with the native religions, before being murdered, which did not happen in real life.

Philip II had thought about marrying Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary’s successor to the throne and younger half-sister. She turned him down. We meet Elizabeth at the beginning, condemning the English love for Italy and extolling China (about which she would have known virtually nothing). She also reads The Tale of the Genji, a book which would certainly not have been known in England at that time and which did not appear in English till 279 years after Elizabeth’s death. She calls it a fusion of mythic vision and analytical neurosis and praises its pandemic decadence. All of this, incidentally, she is explaining in a letter to Philip II.

Like several others in this books, she damns writing. Writing is she says, essentially lying – it is stamping on dreams and exterminating thought. We will find more tongue-in-cheek condemnations of writing and fiction later in the book.

We next move on to a Persian legend which seems to involve a love triangle, with Prince Aziz very much taken by the dancer Shadid (a man), who, in turn is taken by Wafa (a woman). Battles, magic, the (temporary) enslavement of Aziz, talking to birds and other Arabian Nights-type events take place. The same applies to the next story, which is even more complex. It starts with two sultans at war with one another but moves on to the Dalai Lame, water nymphs and the author of the previous story, Hatim, who is the son of the Dalai Lama and the water nymph princess. It gets more complicated after that.

We next move on to the Mogul Empire and the differences between three emperors: Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, who get together to talk, despite the fact that Aurangzeb was born thirteen years after Akbar died. Aurangzeb was more controlling and liked order. He was more concerned, he stated, with one comma in the Koran than any art. He hated literature, as it was too imprecise. Akbar’s view was that the only art was city-building and, as that was the responsibility of the sultan, only the sultan was an artist.

Our next stop is with Genghis Khan. Not surprisingly, he is not fond of literature and damns The Thousand and One Nights. However, he considers himself superior to the Western autocrats, as he just strips his prisoners and kills them but does not torture them as Western rulers do. We also get a a note from Genghis’ ambassador in Byzantium to Genghis, who compares Rome, Greece and Byzantium, while watching people sunbathing and applying sun-cream in Byzantium. He prefers the Romans but mocks the West (Sappho, Pindar, Shakespeare and love).

Back in England, we end up with Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry VIII’s third wife and erstwhile lover and then, after Henry’s death, husband of Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth, last and surviving wife.

Seymour and Catherine Parr brought up Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) after her father’s death (her mother, Anne Boleyn had, of course, been beheaded when Elizabeth was only two years old). Elizabeth was fourteen when she lived with Seymour and he apparently behaved quite inappropriately with the princess, in romps that were somewhat sexual, so much so that her governess and his wife objected strongly. After Catherine died Seymour had thought about marrying either Elizabeth or her older sister, the future Queen Mary. In this book, Szentkuthy has Seymour playing around with the very serious and devout Catholic Mary. Somewhat more surprisingly, having just seen a film starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck (who later married) (probably This Is My Affair), he compares Seymour and Mary to Taylor and Stanwyck. In particular, he points to Seymour’s mixture of charm and pathos, a characteristic he finds in Taylor.

This book is even more complicated and irrational than its predecessors. As always, with Szentkuthy, you have no idea where he is going or, indeed, what is going on and why. As always, though, it is great fun, if you can accept that things may not be clear. It is thoroughly original, witty and complex. It jumps all over the place, both in time and place. It is very much post-modern before there was post-modern. It is, of course, great fun.

First published in Hungarian 1941 by Hunnia Nyomda
No English translation
First published in French by Phébus in 2006