Kitabwallah: Embers by Sandor Marai

The novel, written by Hungarian author Sandor Marai, takes place in the late nineteenth century and explores various facets of human life. From royalty and castles to solitude, emotions, love, friendship, deceit, betrayal, an extramarital affair, and a failed murder attempt, it presents a captivating story that delves deep into the complexities of the human experience.

The story opens with the introduction of the protagonist, the general, who receives a letter informing him of the imminent arrival of his long-lost friend, whom he has not seen in over four decades. Another critical character is Nini, the ninety-year-old nurse who had nursed the general in his childhood and had been a refuge for him in troubled times.

The narrative then follows the preparations for the guest's arrival at the castle, depicting poignant scenes from the dining hall and leading to the salon, where the two friends settle in, sipping vintage wines, smoking cigars, and basking in the warmth of the fireplace. The conversation between the two men then begins, as they reminisce about the past, with the plot progressing through a series of flashbacks.

Sandor Marai artfully reflects his wisdom throughout the conversation between the protagonist, Henrik, and his friend Konrad. In the isolation of his castle, Henrik immersed himself in books and absorbed their wisdom, which he eloquently shared during his discussion with Konrad. Henrik recounts how he met Konrad in the academy, their friendship, and how his father accepted their relationship, despite initially being wary of fruitless acquaintances. He shares stories of hunting and his honeymoon with Krisztina, as well as his travels through Europe and the Arabian world, where he encountered various cultures, people, and places.

The dialogue between Henrik and Konrad, which comprises most of the book, is filled with stories, assumptions, perplexing questions, and accusations. Henrik persistently questions Konrad about the events that have troubled him for the past 41 years, namely Konrad's attempt to murder him during a hunting game and his subsequent flight from the town. Henrik also speaks candidly about his love for Krisztina and the day he raided Konrad's abandoned apartment in search of answers. Henrik describes Krisztina's reaction upon learning of Konrad's cowardly actions, labeling him as such in her anger.

The novel's most captivating aspect is its poetic writing style and the gradual unfolding of facts. At times, the reader suspects that the general and his friend Konrad had a different kind of "affair," which is unacceptable given their professions as soldiers. However, the story moves on to reflect on the general's relationship with his wife Krisztina. Throughout the text, wisdom is expressed through dialogues and commentary on specific events. As you read, you constantly change your mind about the characters' strengths and where your sympathies lie.

The general's character is memorable because he had to deal with betrayal, deception, and a failed murder attempt by a friend he adored. Konrad is also a memorable character because of his helplessness in dealing with his life and surroundings, poverty, and thoughts of being disadvantaged. The general reflects on who was the stronger of the two, and according to him, it was Krisztina. She suffered significant losses, pursued a romantic relationship with his husband's friend, and was eventually abandoned. The general and Krisztina stopped talking and lived apart for eight years until Krisztina died. The general believed that Krisztina had character in a different sense than men use, as she, too, had been wounded by those she loved. Konrad fled from love, not wanting to be consumed by a fateful liaison, and the general knew the truth but said nothing. "Things didn't just happen to you and me during those years; they also happened to her," the general reflects on Krisztina's experience.

This reveals how much he loved Krisztina despite everything and how much she meant to him, even though he hadn't seen her in eight years until she gasped her last breaths.

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