While it was hardly a deliberate decision on my part, Embers is the third “dinner-based” translated novel that I have read in the last year:
Herman Koch’s The Dinner involves two contemporary Dutch couples. The first third of this one is an hilarious put-down of those restaurants where the waiter spends more time explaining what is on the plate he just put in front of you than it takes you to eat it. Then the book takes a turn to the dark side and the four become increasingly selfish and dislikable as the novel proceeds — by the time you finish it, you can’t stand any one of them.
Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast opens with a mother and two children preparing the meal of the title while they await the arrival of father. Again, about a third of the way through the book it turns noir as the child narrator begins revealing more and more about her father’s abusive nature. The feast is anything but joyous.
Embers, first published in Hungary in 1942, predates both those works by decades but a quick Google scan shows that it has been a reader favorite ever since. The dinner in this one involves neither a pretentious restaurant nor a waiting family — rather it is a meal involving two military men who have not seen each other for decades.
It does involve appropriate formality: in the opening pages, the host (“the General”) instructs his gamekeeper to harness the Landau, don full-dress livery and head to the White Eagle in the nearby town and tell them that the carriage awaits the Captain who is staying there. And author Marai wastes little time in letting the reader know that this dinner will involve a return to an ominous shared history:
There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long ago and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “Forty years”, he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he want back to staring at the letter [which announced the Captain's impending arrival] with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”
The General has been living in a single room of his castle since that day:
For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.
He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.
It is worth noting the details in those excerpts, because that approach will continue throughout the 213-page volume. As you can probably tell from the foreboding in those brief excerpts, the General has been nursing vengeance throughout those 41 years — when he instructs his “nurse” (he’s 75, she’s 91, but the clock has effectively been stopped for some time for the two of them) to open the dining room in the castle and set the table for two, we know that the dinner will serve as his excuse to exercise it.
Just a bit of back story, to help set the stage. The General and the Captain first met as pre-teenage youths at a military academy and became inseparable friends. While both came from military families, the General has both breeding and money — the Captain came from a military tradition but his Polish parents have fallen on tough economic times and are sacrificing everything to enable him to attend the academy. And to add a bit of spice to the story, he’s a distant relative of Chopin and is musical himself — even as a child, the General could not understand this “emotional”, non-rational interest/talent of his friend.
Once that back story is in place, the dinner can begin. While it is ostensibly a conversation between the two, Embers, like The Mussel Feast, is effectively a monologue — the General has been preparing for this occasion since that fateful hunt 41 years ago and he gives his guest precious few openings to take part in the conversation.
Part of what is so impressive about Embers is the careful, precise way that the General proceeds with his story over dinner and I don’t want to spoil that by revealing details. He is a deliberate, non-emotional, calculating soul — like any accomplished military man, he has prepared his “assault” with careful precision. For the reader, part of the strength of the book is the chilling way that he moves in on his target and what happened on that day of the hunt — and the lonely pain that has dominated his life ever since.
The result of all of this is an engrossing, compelling read. If anything, the General’s total lack of emotion makes the story even more fearsome as it unfolds. To Marai’s credit, it felt like I was sitting at the dinner table myself, between the two combatants, watching with horror as his attack gathered force. Embers is a quick read (I finished it in two sessions) and it is a good thing — I think the author would have been over-reaching if he tried to sustain it for another 100 pages. Having said that, I would be hard pressed to name a more powerful novel that I have read in the last couple of years.
One final observation: All three of the “dinner” books that I have cited invite an allegorical interpretation. Vanderbeke has said that The Mussel Feast is intended as an allegory of life in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Koch’s novel can certainly be read as an allegory for contemporary Europe. And Embers is set in 1940 Hungary during the Nazi era — Marai never references it directly but the Empire that the General and Captain were trained to defend has been replaced by an even more frightful one.
I don’t like to offer my interpretations of allegories in reviews here. It seems to me they are best developed between the author, his story and the individual reader — and putting my version forward here is worse than a bad spoiler. Suffice to say that you will probably find one if you choose to pick up the book — and it is probably every bit as valid today as it was in the war era when this fine novel was written.