11. 26. 2007. 09:55

A royal gap year

Antal Szerb: Oliver VII

A dethroned king with a dreamy nature and little aptitude in matters of finance goes into exile. – Szerb’s unduly underrated last novel, written in one of the darkest years of the last century and set in Europe in the “piping days of peace”,  has been recently published in English by Pushkin Press.

Once a king who wouldn’t bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the law’s delay, or the insolence of office... The king of Alturia, Oliver VII, for once wouldn’t, and that is why in Antal Szerb’s novel he takes arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing ends them. Not that the young Oliver behaves like some more resolved version of Hamlet, bare bodkin in hand; on the contrary, he abdicates, more precisely, he is forced to abdicate his throne to continue, or rather, to start living. Oliver wants to get to know life “from below”, and as a first measure he stages a carefully planned revolt against himself involving everybody in Alturia, from the common people to the pretender. With a perfect sense of timing the Nameless Captain (the head of the conspirators whose identity remains unknown to all – at least for awhile) effects the remarkably peaceful coup d’état exactly when the king would enter into a highly disadvantageous treaty with the renowned Coltor, the greatest business tycoon in Norlandia. Oliver decides to go into exile, and sightings of him are reported from different places around the globe: he is spotted in London and Paris, then in Austria, Albania, Kansas City, and Africa.
But where might a dethroned king with a dreamy nature and little aptitude in matters of finance go into exile? Where would one start to get to know life from below? Of all places, Venice may be the perfect destination for an expatriate monarch, but perhaps the least fortunate choice for somebody with Oliver’s intentions. Yet Alturia’s former king chooses exactly this city which, with its grand squares and dark alleys, its tourists and frauds, is more like a great international stage than a great Italian town. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Szerb’s hero, under the pseudonym Oscar and in the company of his former aide-de-camp, joins a con gang (incidentally falling in love with one of its members); however, as the plot progresses, the unexpected happens, and much to the readers’ (and Oliver’s) astonishment, he is forced to impersonate the exiled king of Alturia. Faced with the dire choice of truth or dare, and the pervading pessimism of his aide-de-camp, Oliver takes the challenge and embarks on the risky business of acting for himself in grave diplomatic matters. Everything is perfectly set for the tragic ending of a nicely rounded moral tale of misplaced ambition and naivety, yet Oliver is not so naïve after all, nor does Szerb get off so cheaply, and through many intrigues a truly entertaining comedy of errors unfolds in the witty, lucid narrative.
Readers approaching Oliver VII having read Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight will find the novel’s Venetian setting and the major theme of mistaken and unstable identities familiar. Moreover, they will readily recognize the characteristically strong relationship between certain places and certain modes of behavior in Szerb’s world: in Journey by Moonlight it was also (and not coincidentally) in Venice that things started to go wrong. But Szerb’s unduly underrated last novel is not simply a comic adaptation of his most popular piece of fiction: the genuinely utopian scheme set in Europe in the “piping days of peace”, the narrator’s subtle irony, the remarkable lack of violence, and the generally amiable characters (even the bad guys win some sympathy) place Oliver VII in a class of its own. Whereas in Journey by Moonlight readers are kept in suspense by unpredictable events and strange coincidences the origins of which often lie in the background, i.e. outside the scope of the main storyline, in Oliver VII it is the tightly woven plot structure that holds the reader's attention, as even the most haphazard events turn out to derive from well-established motives. In the end, everything falls into place. What is more, throughout all the intricacies of the plot Szerb never neglects the development of his hero, so that readers are rewarded with a charming, if somewhat utopian, Bildungsroman within the comic framework. All this may seem too much to pack into a short novel, yet Szerb knows exactly what style befits a royal gap year disguised as exile, and his narrative never swerves from the playful, easy, natural tone that makes his novel so refreshing.
The strange contrast of the novel’s purely idyllic tone and the grim historical background of its first publication (1943) has been aptly pointed out, and Len Rix, the translator of the novel, has called the attention to how within the global historical context the tragic story of Szerb’s personal life stands both as a parallel and a contrast to what is presented in Oliver VII. In this review therefore it will be enough to consider the character of Sandoval, a painter who gets involved in the happenings partly through his own initiative, and partly through the scheming of great ones. As a proper Alturian citizen Sandoval never refuses to enter a conspiracy, when readers meet him for the first time, he is immersed up to the neck in plotting against the king; however, as Szerb’s narrator is quick to point out, it is his love of adventure rather than any personal resentment of Oliver that drives him among the rebels. Seemingly impeccable in appearance (his possessions amount to the two suits and the suitcase he inherited), but always hard up on cash, he has to take all commissions from hushing up an old aristocrat’s adulterous liaison through forging an “original” Titian to posing in a red waistcoat and a Renaissance wig as “the painter” for gullible American art lovers. Corrupting as his undertakings could be for anyone, they never taint his character, and even though he ends up working at the same time for both the usurper of Alturia’s throne and the former king, he never becomes a soldier of fortune taking advantage of both sides. All throughout the novel Sandoval remains loyal to himself, which, in Szerb’s utopian world means professing allegiance to a just cause, and it is to a large extent due to his independent critical spirit that the difficult problems built up in the plot are brought to a reassuring solution. It is impossible not to feel the bitter irony when one considers the all-too-painful contrast between Sandoval’s relatively effortless and highly successful self-preservation in the novel and the reality artists have had to face since time immemorial. Sandoval’s figure, however, is more than just an idealized portrait of the artist, far more than the mere projection of wishful fantasies about bohemian autonomy: his most appealing quality is his fallibility which has an important share in guiding him through the maze of intrigues and false appearances, and which he is modestly aware of to the end. Is it a wonder then that finally he is justly, and enviably rewarded?
Miklós Péti
Antal Szerb: Oliver VII
Translated by Len Rix
London: Pushkin Press, 2007

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