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Sándor Márai: Szabadulás [Liberation]
This was one of the many books written by Márai published after his untimely death by suicide. It is somewhat different from his earlier ones and recounts the liberation of Budapest at the end of World War II, from the Germans and their Hungarian supporters, primarily by the Soviet army. Hungary had supported Germany during World War II but Hitler had been worried that the country might make a separate peace with the Allies. so the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944. The Hungarians had denied the Jewish population many rights but they were not sent to the gas chambers. That changed with the German occupation when the Germans, aided by the right-wing Arrow Cross Party, clamped down not only on the Jews but also on anyone they saw as their opponents.
In this novel, our main character is Elisabeth Sós. It is not her real name. Her real name is Elisabeth but she has had to disguise her real surname and has forged papers in the name of Elisabeth Sós. She had been studying biology at the university, but the university was closed and the students ordered to leave Budapest. Elisabeth stayed because of her father, pretending to be a nurse.
Her father – his wife had died long ago – was a distinguished scientist, an astronomer and mathematician. For some reason, neither she nor we know why – he has been earmarked as an enemy of the people and is being hunted by both the Gestapo and the Arrow Cross. He has not been politically very active and while he has Jewish friends, he has not been particularly outspoken in support of them. Nevertheless, he now has to hide out, changing hiding places frequently.
He and Elisabeth did have a nice flat but the Gestapo raided it, then various people stole from it and, finally, it was hit by a bomb and the building and all the contents were destroyed. Elisabeth’s father does not yet know this. Elisabeth, with her forged papers and because she is not known, can get around Budapest and the early part of the book sees her hunting for a new hiding-place for her father. She does not have much luck. Places have been raided and therefore are on the radar of the Gestapo and Arrow Cross or they have been destroyed or they are locked up.
While she is running around Budapest, Márai gives us a wonderful picture of Budapest under siege. The phones, electricity and water still seem to be working. Even some trams are running though, when there is an air-raid, they stop and most of the passengers flee and shelter, though some bravely sit it out in the tram, occasionally paying the ultimate price. German troops and Arrow Cross bands can be seen running around. Newspapers are still being published and Elisabeth was even able to go and see a play at the theatre. There are, of course, many ruined buildings as the city is being bombed by not only by Russian bombers but also by British and US ones. The sound of cannons firing can be heard continually. She also sometimes see bodies as people take advantage to settle scores and bodies are dumped in the Danube.
Rumours, of course, abound. It was assumed that the Germans would not last long and the Russians would soon drive them out but this has not been the case. The Germans arrived in March and it is now November and the Russians are threatening but not advancing.
Elisabeth did have a boyfriend – Tibor – but he decided to leave. He wanted Elisabeth to come with him but her first loyalty is to her father so she stayed. Her job has been to find him accommodation and, with difficulty, she finally does so this time.
But gradually, things get worse. Food starts to get scarce and the normal water supply is cut as bombing is intensified. The people in her building have to move down to the cellar where they all live, cramped in together. Next to her is a woman who barely seems to move at all and a man who, she later learns is paralysed in his legs. The men take it in turns to go and hunt for water and food.
Elisabeth takes something of a fatalistic approach to the situation, assuming that, sooner or later, the Russians will come. However, both in her mind and in discussion with the man with paralysed legs (who is a professor and who knows of her father), she wonders what life will be like under the Russians. She has, after all, been taught to hate the Russians. She does, however, assume that they will not persecute the Jews.
Indeed, we learn about the Jews as the woman next to her had been in a concentration camp and recounts some of the horrors and there is another Jew in the cellar, clearly hiding from the Germans and the Arrow Cross.
She also wonders what the fighting is like. They can hear guns and artillery most of the day, as well as the planes but naturally have not seen any fighting.
Finally, the inevitable happens and the fighting reaches their cellar. First the Germans come and then the Russians.
Not a great deal happens in this book but Márai paints a superb portrait of a city under siege and, in particular, the views of Elisabeth and the others in the cellar who are very close to the fighting, yet removed. in the sense that they can see nothing, only hear the noise. Márai goes right into their psychology – how they feel about the Russians, the Jews and one another, what will happen when the Russians finally arrive, how long will the war continue. But me, when will I be free? Elisabeth asks herself, And what is freedom?
First published in Hungarian 2000 by Helikon
No English translation
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