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Sándor Márai: A zendülők (The Rebels)

The novel is set in May 1918. We, of course, know that the Austro-Hungarian Empire has just six months before it disappears. The character, of course, do not. Four young men have just finished school and their final exams (with mixed results). Immediately afterwards, they went to the house of one of them, Ábel, to celebrate. The celebration is long since over and Ábel is just recovering. The party was wild – Ábel seems to have lost some money at gambling – but all may soon be irrelevant. In six weeks times three of them will be uniform, Ábel,Béla and Tibor will be off while Ernõ, the poorest will not, as he is handicapped, though his father has served and has returned, wounded.

Ábel lives with his father, a doctor and his aunt Etelka, his mother having died. His father is away, with the military. He generally has a good relationship with his aunt. Tibor’s father is a colonel in the army and is, therefore, absent. Tibor lives with his mother, who has taken to her bed and constantly indicates that she is recovering and will get up, but does not or, rather, she seems to do so secretly, e.g. at night or when Tibor, his brother and his aunt are absent. He also lives with Lajos, his elder brother, who had been in the army but had lost an arm. In the book he is frequently referred to (by the narrator) as the one-armed one, rather than by his name. Ernõ’s father is a cobbler and, as mentioned has returned from the war, wounded. The father has a strong sense of class differences. Béla’s father is the local grocer and is doing very well.

The four boys had been at school together for some time before they formed a gang. Initially it is just four boys being four boys. They are naturally anti-authority, which means anti-teachers and anti-parents. They mock the teachers and sort of misbehave, the way boys of that age will do. Then things take a turn. They start stealing, primarily from their parents who, in the case of two of them (Ábel and Tibor) are absent. They steal both for the fun of it (stealing both money and property, which they sometimes pawn). They soon collect so much stolen property, they have to rent a place to store it.

Much of it seem to be just rebellion. Béla, for example, steals money from his father’s shop and then uses that money to buy things he could have bought from his father’s shop, going elsewhere where the goods are generally more expensive. Eventually, they realise – or, at least Ábel and Tibor do – that when their fathers return, they are going to realise these items are missing and their respective sons will be found out. The pawnbroker, Havas, something of a sinister character, is somewhat like Ernõ’s father, superficially fawning to the gentlemen but, in practice, happy to take advantage of them.

There are two other part-time members of the gang. The first is Lajos, Tibor’s brother. It is he who introduces them to Amadé, an itinerant actor, who they become close to. He is also happy to take advantage of the gentlemen and it is he who helps bring about the final denouement.

While all this is going on, there is a war being fought. It does not seem to have much direct effect on the town. The town has become accustomed to the war. No one talks about it, rushes out for special editions of the local paper, or bothers to pick up the national press at the station. It does give some pause for thought to Ábel, the more sensitive of the four. Ernõ’s father had hanged people. One heard of other things like that. The world he had known had smashed and he felt he was walking on its shards. It might be that in a few weeks or a few months he too would have to hang people.

We also follow the relationship between the four boys. There are two sons of gentlemen, one a doctor, the other a colonel, one a son of the local successful grocer and one the son of a poor cobbler. On the surface, the social distinctions between their fathers are irrelevant but, beneath the surface, they matter very much and will come to the fore towards the end and bring about the final denouement. The individual characters of the boys are also important. As mentioned, Ábel is the sensitive one, a would-be writer who struggles with being a writer and who has an imaginary friend. We also have repressed homosexuality and, indeed, repressed sexuality in general, with all four admitting to their virginity. Márai skilfully shows these differences and the influence they have on the story.

This could just have been a straightforward story of four young men waiting to go to war but Márai makes it much more with the hidden tensions, the out-and-out rebellion against adults, manifested in the stealing and elsewhere, the class differences, superficially buried but very much there and the influence of the outsider, the actor Amadé. It becomes quite a dark novel and, though nominally about World War 1, the war is almost completely irrelevant, except at the beginning and the end and the influence it has on Lajos and Ernõ’s father. Márai focuses almost entirely on the relationship between the four young men and their attitudes towards the enemy, the enemy being adults and not the allied forces opposed to Germany and Austro-Hungary.

The real question has to be, why did it take seventy-seven years for it to appear in English translation, when it is clearly such a fine work?

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1930 by Révai Kiadón
First published in English 2007 by Alfred A Knopf
Translated by George Szirtes