Antal Szerb Oliver VII Pushkin Press 2013 (1942)
Anybody coming fresh to this novel might assume it was a straightforward comic novel set in some Ruritanian backwater. Many times I found myself thinking that it would make an excellent stage play — its plotting is as complex as a Feydeau farce, and at times it reminded me of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (though the latter is set in Bulgaria rather than an imaginary country). And yet hindsight informs us that this was the Hungarian author’s last work before he was murdered in a Nazi death camp in the closing year of the Second World War. It’s confusing then that there is no hint of the bloody turmoil in the European theatre of war from Szerb’s tale, one centred on a bloodless coup and laced with humorous misunderstandings and engineered coincidences.
Sandoval is a painter who, we soon find, is involved in a plot to dethrone the Catholic King of Alturia, Oliver VII. Alturia, financially insolvent, is on the brink of effectively selling itself to a tycoon from Norlandia, a neighbouring Protestant country. A ragbag of Alturian conspirators, owing allegiance to a mysterious figure called the Nameless Captain, infiltrate the palace on the eve of Oliver’s planned marriage to Ortrud, princess of Norlandia; they depose the hapless monarch (who then disappears into exile) whilst also demonstrating the king’s ministers to be incompetent fools and cowards. An aged cousin reluctantly becomes the new King Geront, but the country still slides down a slippery slope towards economic ruin as the treaty to save it remains unsigned.
Thus far the action all takes place in some central European Neverland. The golden sardines which decorate Alturia’s flag — representing one of the country’s remaining industries — however suggest that Szerb is telling us a fishy story. So many little details underline Alturia’s lack of luck over the years — Oliver’s predecessors include Balázs the Unfortunate and Philip the One-Eared — that I am reminded of the troubles in the kingdom of Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and, more recently, the seething unrest in Philip Pullman’s Razkavia in The Tin Princess (the capital of which he tell us he based on Prague). But events are about to take us to a more realistic setting, Venice.
“A lot of people feel at home in Venice,” a character informs us. Certainly Szerb himself felt “more completely myself” there, as he tells us in his travelogue The Third Tower. It is here that ‘Oscar’, the incognito Oliver, has ended up with his faithful aide-de-camp Major Milán Mawiras-Tendal (posing as a ‘Mr Meyer’). Unfortunately Oscar has also fallen in with a group of confidence tricksters led by the unforgettable Oubalde Hippolyte Théramene, Count Saint-Germain (presumably a descendant of one or other of the historical Comtes de Saint-Germain). Into the mix stumbles Sandoval, the painter whom we first met at the beginning of the novel. And it is here in Venice that, after more misunderstandings and confusion, Oliver finds himself faced with the possibility of pretending to be himself.
This is a splendid spin on the usual doppelganger theme that so many novels are based on, not least The Prisoner of Zenda. Along the way this comedy (very Shakespearean, there’s even some cross-dressing) also touches on duty and responsibility, expectations and misdirection, masks and identities. Of course, Venice is the place to have a masquerade, where virtually everyone plays a role, and while — as in many Shakespearean comedies — almost all the disguises are lifted for the audience (though not necessarily for the participants) Szerb still manages to forestall us in at least one instance: one character, about whom lots of ‘clues’ are dropped to suggest she may be other than she appears to be, not only turns out to be exactly what she claimed but also unexpectedly pairs off with another major player. I love the way Szerb plays with our preconceptions, displaying them as possible misconceptions.
I must here also heap praise on Szerb’s translator, Len Rix, who as well as providing a text that reads as though English was the novel’s original language also supplies a commendable and illuminating afterword. Here, for example, he draws attention to common themes in the Hungarian’s three novels, The Pendragon Legend, Journey by Moonlight and Oliver VII, especially the last two.
And now all that’s left to say is left to Rabelais, to whom is attributed this deathbed remark: Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée.
Another review: “the real test of life was uncertainty” by Max Cairnduff on Pechorin’s Journal