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Sunday, November 20, 2011

"A Transylvanian Tale" by Miklos Banffy (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Miklos Banffy at Wikipedia
Order the Kindle versions of They Were Counted (#1), They Were Found Wanting (#2) and They Were Divided (#3)

INTRODUCTION: Published originally in Hungary in 1934, 37 and 40, the old fashioned romantic epic written by the count Miklos (Nicolae) Banffy that has finally been translated in English in the late 90's as The Writing on the Wall to avoid the silly Dracula connotations that the original A Transylvanian Tale/The Transylvanian Trilogy had, had previously been one of the lost masterpieces of history.

First WW2 and then the Russian occupation and consequent communist takeover of both Romania and Hungary coupled with the status of "class enemy" of the count conspired to that, but as recounted in the foreword to the first volume, circumstances allowed the English translation by Patrick Thursfield in collaboration with the count's only daughter Katalin Banffy-Jelen.

The UK publication by Arcadia press has been available in print on and off and sometimes the asking prices were a bit high for some if not all volumes, so while I really wanted to read the trilogy for a number of years now, the recent publication in the Kindle edition at a very reasonable price (6.66$ each or 20$ all three) allowed me to do so and I have to say that despite the roughly 1600 pages of the three books together, I went through them quite fast, so compulsively readable the story is. Now They Were Counted (#1), They Were Found Wanting (#2) and They Were Divided (#3) are really one click away...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Transylvanian Trilogy takes place between 1904 and 1914 with episodes in Budapest, Cluj Napoca aka Kolozsvar which was the capital of the province of Transylvania under the Dual Monarchy, the wonderful countryside and the noble estates, most notably the castle of ‘Denestornya’ modeled on the author's famous castle of Bontida/Bonchida who is now in reconstruction as a European Heritage monument after its destruction by the retreating German army in 1944 and neglect during the Communist era after, as well as interludes in various European cities, most notably a superb one in Venice.

The best description of the trilogy is Gone with the Wind of the Hungarian half of the unstable contraption that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire at least in its original and quite unworkable form which was based on the oppression of most of its people who were of other nationalities. An unjust and oppressive world on the brink of being swept away from history, but you still cannot stop and empathize with the main hero and author's alter-ego, politician Count Balint Abady and his tries to improve things - pathetic to start and laughed at both by his peers and by the representatives of the oppressed for different reasons, but still gaining the grudging respect of the people he was trying to help in the end - or with his love for the unhappily married Adrienne, while also following the tribulations of his orphan gambling but sympathetic cousin Laszlo and of various aristocrats, fortune hunters and noblewomen....

The first novel, They Were Counted, takes a little to get going but once the stage is set and we start understanding the delicate set of rules and relations that govern the aristocracy of Hungary and Transylvania, it is a true pleasure to read. The parts set on the hero's estate and in his castle are lyrical while his love affair with Adrienne is one of the most touching that I've read in a long time.

Very strong characters abound - not least the hero's mother, the widowed Countess Roza Abady who rules their lands, while the young Balint moves from diplomacy to politics and becomes a deputy in the part time Parliament of Budapest. Duels, parties, intrigues and even a touch of Jane Austen with the rogue handsome officer out for seducing young noble girls in hope of marrying a rich heiress, elopements and all, the tropes of the romantic epic are there and they sweep the reader of his or her feet...

Here is our first meeting with Adrienne:

"Adrienne came slowly up the steps, a smile on her face, conscious that she was looking her best and knowing that others thought so too. She knew how well the diamond stars set off her for once carefully dressed dark hair. She had put on her newest and most ravishing dress, which was cut princess-style in one flowing line from bust to flaring hem. Of flame-coloured shot silk, its folds glistened with subtly changing shades of colour as she moved; and she knew it would cause a sensation when she removed her cloak.

She was smiling, too, for another reason. She was pleased with a piece of news related to her by her youngest sister Margit – she who always knew everything – namely that Balint Abady had arrived that morning and so she would have someone to talk to who was more than a tailor’s dummy and who knew how to dance. At the same time a fleeting thought crossed her mind, a thought which also carried an unanswered question; did she have any reason to be made happy by this news? Did not the fact that he had not joined them at the skating rink show that he was avoiding her? It was only a passing doubt, so transient that she was still smiling when she joined her husband at the top of the steps."

The second and third volume follow the first and then one another naturally and the same exuberant but also wryly ironic on occasion style sweeps us in the events that lead inexorably to the end of the empire. The more we advance in pages and years towards the fateful summer of 1914, the more politics takes center stage, but the main story of Balint and Adrienne is still dominant. The trilogy has also a great ending which I found very appropriate and open to imagination!

Overall, A Transylvanian Tale (A++ and indeed worthy of all the praise showered upon it) is an epic romance that reminds one why great storytelling is immortal, while literary fashions come and go... While not speculative fiction in any way, the series is much closer to the epic side of the genre today than to a lot of what passes as literature and shows among other things why generally rejected by today's literary mandarins, the great storytelling which moved to the sff side is so loved by the readers!


chrisd said...

It sounds lovely. I'll have to finish it off in November after NaNoWriMo.

I read the Russian biography "Journey into the Whirlwind." Highly recommended.

The writing excerpt is lovely--lyrical.

Thank you for the recommend. A good book is a good book, regardless.

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