They were counted [Megszámláltattál]

BÁNFFY Miklós



One of the marks of a successful novel must be the author’s ability to draw us into his world. Miklós Bánffy triumphantly pulls off this feat in his The Writing on the Wall, also known as The Transylvanian Trilogy, where we soon get caught up in the turbulent world of Hungary between 1904 and the start of World War One in 1914. This was the golden age of Mitteleuropa, that semi-mythical Central Europe in which internationally minded gentlemen bought their guns in England, took the waters in Karlsbad, went to the races in Paris and holidayed in Venice.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t golden for everybody. One of the strengths of this compelling trilogy is the author’s determination to throw into relief the glittering scenes of banquets and shooting parties on grand estates by focusing on the plight of the minorities suffering from the vagaries of history. It was such a vagary that in 1920 truncated Hungary of so much of its territory — including the region of Transylvania that is brought so vividly to life in Bánffy’s three volumes. And this fast-paced novel also provides the historical backdrop to recent events in former Yugoslavia, helping today’s readers to understand the complex ethnic and social problems that, in the words of the author Jan Morris, writing about this book, ‘still snarl up the affairs of eastern Europe and even now threaten its stability’.

For once this tripartite novel justies the use of that over-worked label ‘a rediscovered classic’. It was written in the 1930s by a Transylvanian aristocrat who spent most of his life either at the Baroque family château near Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca in Romania) that is lovingly described in the novel as ‘Denestornya’, or in the Bánffys’ town house in the Hungarian capital Pest. He came from a highly distinguished family, was himself a diplomat and politician, and briey became foreign minister in the 1920s. The rst two volumes of his ‘Transylvanian Tale’, as it is called in Hungarian (Erdélyi Tőrténet), came out in 1934 and 1937, to great acclaim, but the third volume’s appearance in 1940, right at the beginning of World War Two, inevitably attracted little attention.

Under the post-war Communist regime work by members of the former ruling class was clearly unacceptable, though the rst volume was eventually reissued in 1982 in Hungary. It was shortly after this that translator Patrick Thurseld started work on the draft in English that had been prepared some time before by the author’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen. The two of them have done a splendid job in making this long trilogy — nearly 1400 pages in all — immensely readable, and in amending certain references to historical events and public gures so that English-speaking readers can easily understand what is going on politically and in foreign affairs, as well as enjoying the racy plots and sub plots, the love affairs and duels, and the magnicent set-piece scenes.

Bánffy’s Transylvania has nothing to do with the Count Dracula legend. In this rst book we are introduced to the young Count Balint Abady who, with his strong sense of social responsibility, not to mention his passionate (and constantly thwarted) love affair with the lovely Adrienne Miloth, will turn out to be the trilogy’s hero. We also meet his cousin, Count Laszlo Gyeroffy, whose dissolute lifestyle will eventually lead him to ruin, despite his dashing good looks and his musical gifts. Laszlo symbolises the frivolity and lack of social awareness, the failure to read the ‘Writing on the Wall’, of Hungary’s aristocracy. Combined with political folly this inevitably leads to the tragedy of World War One, and so to the country’s subsequent dismemberment.

But though the book has a serious purpose, it is very much a novel, full of pace and drama, with a cast of colourful and often comic characters. As writer Patrick Leigh Fermor says in his foreword, ‘Bánffy is a born story-teller’. Leigh Fermor was a good choice to contribute the foreword: the novel is a must for anyone who has enjoyed his marvellous Between the Woods and the Water, telling of his wanderings through just this part of the world at around the time when Bánffy was writing his book.

While Balint is launching into a political career, Laszlo loves and eventually loses his cousin Klára, embarks on a doomed love affair and enjoys a brief period of social success before succumbing to the lure of the gaming tables. Bánffy smoothly weaves in a number of subplots; Adrienne’s younger sister is pursued and subsequently dropped by a fortune-hunting Austrian hussar; Balint’s mother is deceived by a scoundrel of a lawyer; Klara’s social-climbing mother plots and schemes; and Klara’s young maid is seduced by the butler. On the political front, attempts are made to recruit Balint to anti-Hungarian private councils, while his social conscience is illustrated by his efforts to improve the lot of impoverished Romanian peasants up in the mountains.

This rst book, which ends with Balint and Adrienne experiencing joy followed by grief in Venice, is studded with dinners and shooting parties, duels, seductions and suicides. But the folly and insularity of Hungary’s land-owning class is an ever-present theme. VMI

Sample


Up in the mountains it had been snowing hard for two days. Almasko was already blanketed in snow, as was the whole Kalotaszeg district. The wolves started to appear.

As soon as this was known to Honey, he cut up some goat meat and poisoned it with strychnine, threaded the pieces on lengths of wire and going to the edge of the forests, tied them to low boughs of pine and juniper. He covered the whole region, making sure the poison was placed wherever the presence of wolves had been reported, in the woods beside the waterfall or in the district of Szentyisora and in the country around Pejkoja; everywhere that the wolves were known to gather. That night, his work nished, Honey returned to his forester’s hut in Scrind.

That night, too, a band of silent men left their houses in Pejkoja. They were all dressed alike, in felt jackets, rough peasants’ boots and black sheepskin hats. Each man, as always, carried something else, something that hung on long wires, red and chunky, like an outsize bouquet held upside down. Without making a sound they moved quickly through the heavily falling snow with the sure movements of men used to the ways of the forest. 517-18