BOOK REVIEW: Foamy Sky by Miklós Radnóti

Foamy Sky the Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti A Bilingual Edition by Miklós Radnóti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The short life of Miklós Radnóti was bookended by tragedy, and in the years between he wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful – if morose – poetry of the twentieth century. The event of his birth was marked by the death of both his mother and his twin, and he died in northwestern Hungary on the route of a forced march from the copper mine in Serbia where he labored toward a Nazi concentration camp that he never reached.

One might say of these bookends to a life that only the former event, his traumatic birth, could have left a mark on his poetry, and you’d probably be right. As a rational skeptic, I’m not a big believer in precognition. However, some of Radnóti’s poetry (e.g. “Just Walk On, Condemned to Die” / “Járkálj csak, halálraítélt!” [written eight years before his death, before the War began]) is as potent an argument for prevision as exists. Yes, it’s probably true that if one writes as much about death as did Radnóti, one is bound to seem prescient about one’s own death, but when one’s words are magic enough to make a skeptic consider the possibility, that’s a powerful testament.

The book contains about eighty poems. I could talk about a selection from across the collection that are among my personal favorites, but they are all great works. The more meaningful distinction to point out is that the last ten poems in the book (four of which are collectively labeled as “Razglednicas”) are Radnóti’s final ten poems and they arose from a grave, having been buried in his coat pocket. When his body was exhumed, the poems were discovered written in an address book in his pocket.

As the poems were all written in Hungarian, the natural question is how good is the translation. After all, poetry translation is a bit like trying to put a queen-size sheet on a king-size mattress (where the corners are: metering / arrangement, sound (e.g. rhyme, alliteration, etc.), imagery, and emotional content / message.) The more that one insists on perfectly capturing one corner, the more the other ends of the sheet curl up. Getting the sheet to hold on each corner takes skill and selective compromise. I think the duo of translators from the University of Texas, Dallas did a tremendous job. The team included one person with expertise in Hungarian, English, and translation, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, and one with expertise in poetry and poetic form, Frederick Turner. Both of these individuals contributed some prose to the book, Ozsváth wrote the Introduction and Turner offered a Translator’s Epilogue. The latter presents some insight into how the two went about trying to achieve the best translation possible. Meter and rhyme schemes were not sacrificed as they often might be in a modern translation.

One nice feature of the Corvina edition of this book is that it is bilingual with the English on the page opposed the original Hungarian. My (almost non-existent) Hungarian is far too sparse for the task of reading poetry. However, I was able to take in at least the sound quality of Radnóti’s original, and given that he wrote in metered verse, this is not inconsequential.

This is a fantastic collection and I would recommend it for all poetry readers – even if you can only read the English editions, you’ll be moved by these poems.

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BOOK REVIEW: Quarantine in the Grand Hotel by Jenő Rejtő

Quarantine In The Grand HotelQuarantine In The Grand Hotel by Jenő Rejtő

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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[Note: This book is published by Corvina Books, which is a Hungarian publisher that—among other things—specializes in translations of Hungarian literature (into mostly English and German.) I bought the book on a recent trip to Budapest. I mention these two facts because this seems to be an expensive and / or difficult to acquire work outside of Hungary. A cursory Amazon search brought up copies only at an exorbitant rate. In Hungary I paid 2500 forint (about $9 USD at the time), which I would consider on the high side of what the book is worth. It’s a good book, but it’s a 160-page pulp-fiction paperback novel written about 80 years ago.]

Quarantine in the Grand Hotel is a murder mystery set on a fictional resort in Indonesia (or thereabouts.) However, it’s not your typical dour mystery. It’s as much of a satirical humor novel as it is a mystery. I was hooked with the first paragraph, which reads, “When Maud returned to her room, she saw a man emerge from her wardrobe. Dressed in pyjamas and wearing a bright green lampshade on his head, the stranger beamed a friendly smile at her.” From that point, I had to know who the man in the pyjamas is and how he got there, and that information doesn’t come immediately or without false leads.

The premise is that the resort is quarantined and a murder takes place there (actually two murders.) It’s not a creative premise. The hotel setting allows the author to bring together an international cast of characters (suspects) some of whom would believably have secrets or be leading double lives. Where the creativity comes in is both in the humor, and in the skilled reveals. Rejtő used cliff-hanger chapter closings to good effect. He also plants false information, e.g. in the form of false confessions designed to protect loved ones that may or may not have actually committed a crime.

Rejtő (who wrote under the nom de plume “P. Howard”) was a Hungarian journalist and author. He wrote this and most of his books in the 1930s. He died in a forced labor camp in axis-controlled Soviet territory during World War II. He’d displeased the Hungarian Arrow Cross Militia (i.e. the Hungarian fascists) and was sent to a labor camp at the front.

I’d recommend this book for those who like light, humorous novels. If you’re a hardcore mystery fan, it might seem a little silly and ham-handed. If you are looking for a novel that offers insight into Hungarian literature, I don’t think this one is for you. The setting is not Hungarian, the major characters are not Hungarian, and I would hazard to say that most people wouldn’t know that this translation wasn’t written by a British, or other English-language country, author.

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