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Sándor Márai: A sziget [The Island]

The first point to deal with is the title. As the book has not been translated into English (but has been translated into seven other languages) we are left with a choice. The Hungarian clearly means The Island. The Korean, Italian and Polish have gone along with this, i.e. calling it their equivalent of The Island. However, the Catalan, French, German and Spanish have translated it as The Foreign Woman. As we shall see, the choice of both titles is relevant. A good part of the novel is set off the coast of what was then Yugoslavia on an island. We could also consider our hero, Viktor Henrik Askenazi, a French man of Hungarian origin, to be an island, in the metaphorical sense. However, there are two key foreign women in this book and it is not entirely clear which one is referred to by these translated titles, though I suspect it is the unnamed one who Askenazi meets on the island. It is still mystifying why four different languages chose the same, not really obvious title. Did the Catalan, French and Spanish copy the German, the first to be published of the four? Anyway, as I have said before, publishers do strange things.

As mentioned our hero is Viktor Henrik Askenazi. He is forty-eight for much of this book. He is married to Anna and they have a daughter. He also has a mistress, Elise. These three – Askenazi, Anna and Elise – are the only three characters named in this book. Everyone else, including the daughter, is either known by their function or description.

He teaches at the Institute of Oriental Languages, though the only class we see him giving has him teaching ancient Greek. His official title is Professor of Greek literature and languages of Asia Minor. We actually start with his holiday which will be defining for him but then later go back to his earlier life. The main issue, by far, as the naming implies, is his relationship with the two women. The implication is that he has had other desultory affairs but much of his life is spent, apart from his family and teaching, on his research (never defined) and his membership of a learned society (again never defined). Indeed, much of his life, apart from the two women, is only vaguely described. His daughter is barely mentioned and if he has any sort of relationship with her, we know nothing of it. His friends, of which there seem to be few, are only described generically and not specifically (with one minor exception).

One day he sees a woman carrying a heavy case. He offers to help her and they carry it together to a flat somewhere in Paris. She invites him in. She is Elise, a foreign woman, as she is Russian. This the early afternoon. He does not leave till the following morning. On returning home, Anna says nothing though she clearly knows. The affair continues and, eventually, he moves out of the marital home and moves in with Elise. This becomes the main source of gossip for his friends. We do not know if either he or Anna have any relatives. One member of his learned society actually comes to his flat and suggests that what he is doing is not a good thing. Later, though not immediately, he moves out, not back to the marital home but on is own. Eventually, Anna starts to visit him (again, no mention of the unfortunate daughter). All of these are described in considerable detail, in particular his thoughts about what is happening and what he might or should do.

It has been suggested that he go on holiday which he reluctantly does. Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of time pondering over whether he should go and, if he should, where he should go. We follow him as he drifts around, always unsure of what he is doing and why and where he is going. He also has something of a concern about leaving something behind when he moves on. But, eventually, he arrives at the island, not far from Dubrovnik. The arrival is not without incident. As the ship approaches there is clearly some disturbance, with the locals and the police running around. Is there a revolt? It turns out that a man who had murdered his family and had been incarcerated in a local asylum had escaped. He had fled to the port and even tries to board the ship.

Our hero does not do much, though remains somewhat disturbed and agitated. He writes to Anna and Elise, asking for a divorce from the former and proposing marriage to the latter. To his surprise, when he phones home a few days later, he learns from the maid that his wife and daughter have left for Brazil with Anna’s Spanish friend, leaving no message for him. He decides to return immediately to Paris but while making arrangements, he is struck by a young woman – another foreign woman as she is from Berlin – and follows her.

The rest of the book consists entirely of him wandering around the town and the island in what can best be described as a state of heightened anxiety, bordering on insanity. He passes by the travel agent where he was going to book his train journey back to Paris and had almost forgotten that he was going to book the ticket. No, God be praised, he says I will never be obliged to travel ever again.

Something has clearly happened though we are not told what but can, eventually, more or less work it out. He surmises that maybe he will only get a small fine or, at worse, a couple of days in prison, the same sort of punishment for walking on a lawn you are not allowed to walk on or running over a chicken.

The focus of this book is almost entirely on Askenazi and what can best be described as his gradual descent into madness, prefigured by the man we saw at the port who has escaped from the asylum. He is clearly a man who likes, indeed, needs a very structured life and that structured life is shattered when he falls for Elise and goes off with her. His brain cannot cope with the disruption. He struggles to get it back but fails and the holiday, instead of helping, makes it even worse as it really pulls him out of routine, to the extent he can no longer manage even the normal things of life. I thought that with kisses and love and embraces, something could be arranged. But when this is no longer possible… When it is no longer possible, madness ensues.

First published in Hungarian 1934 by Nyugat
No English translation
First published in Catalan as L’Estranya in 2008 by Empúries
Translated by Sabina Galí
First published in French as L’Étrangère in 2010 by Albin Michel
Translated by Catherine Fay
First published in German as Die Fremde in 2005 by Piper
Translated by Heinrich Eisterer
First published in Italian as L’isola in 2007 by Adelphi
Translated by Laura Sgarioto
First published in Spanish as La extraña in 2008 by Salamandra
Translated by Mária Szijj and J.M. González Trevejo
Also translated into Korean and Polish