"Art is not a thing; it is a way."

Elbert Hubbard

Sunday, March 28, 2010

OLIVER VII (Antal Szerb)

Antal Szerb was born in Hungary's capital in 1901. The son of Jewish parents he was baptised Catholic and lived in Hungary until the age of 23 when he obtained his doctorate. He spent the next five years of his life living in France, Italy and England. He wrote his first novel, The Pendragon Legend, in 1934, a year after being elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy. He was only 32. His second novel Journey By Moonlight followed in 1937. Oliver VII was his third and final novel released in 1942 and published as a translation of an English novel as there were strict limitations on the publishing of Jewish work at the time. Deported to a concentration camp in 1944 he was beaten to death after numerous refusals to take opportunities to be removed from the concentration camp at the expense of others close to him.

The interesting thing about Oliver VII is the immense humour found within its pages. An almost illogical farce it centres on the life of the Alturian King, Oliver VII. As his kingdom fast approaches major bankruptcy and his people begin to revolt he manifests a coup to overthrow himself in guise as a secret captain. Escaping the situation he and a colleague leave for Italy where they end up shedding the royal garb in line for a more simple life with a group of conmen out to make a quick buck at the hands of the talented artist, Sandoval, the former Alturian painter. As the mess of the scam becomes ever more convoluted so does the realisation that the reader is in the hands of a master storyteller. For Szerb's use of humour is extraordinary in that amidst the chaos he intersperses clever little one-liners often about the cultural differences of the ever-dividing Europe at the time. His jibes at the French in particular leave a smirk on one's face.

"Being French, Marcelle liked to talk in moments of passion."

In the end Oliver VII is a funny but ultimately sad tale of a man born into a position he has an obligation to rather than a love for, which links poetically to Szerb's real-life end as he found himself amidst the mess of the Second world War. For here was a man who was a voice of a nation and he was in no way going to run from the affront being brought to his country and people. What is most sad, however, is that I stumbled across Oliver VII and Szerb merely by accident. A throwaway in the cheap section of Dymocks, Oliver VII should be a book held high as the words of a man we all should know far beyond the realms of his Alturia and Hungary.

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