Lajos Zilahy, The Dukays (Prion Books Limited, 2001)

As I look out the window at the piles of white snow, it's hard to imagine that last summer we had days so hot that no one wanted to move. On those dog days, we'd often visit the local Borders Books and Music after supper to cool down in the air-conditioning. When you're in a store to while away the time and not to buy anything in particular, you develop interesting forms of entertainment. One of mine last summer was to take a wall of shelves in the literature section and just peruse it. Because I have read so much Emile Zola, I often start at the end of the alphabet. And that is how I found The Dukays, a paperback with a spine that's exactly 2 1/4 inches thick. I bought it with the intent that I would tackle it during the winter, when I spend more time reading.

The cover illustration, repeated on that wide spine, is an intriguing black and white photo of a well-dressed woman leaning against a bridge balustrade and gazing across a body of water toward a row of buildings. The thumbnail sketch on the back cover -- although not an entirely accurate portrayal of the contents -- gives a reasonably good idea of what the book is about. It is the saga of a very old Hungarian aristocratic family from the end of the nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War. While the cover copy refers to the family's "decay" and "decline," the story is more about the effects of the modernity on a culture still clinging to vestiges of feudalism.

The 800-page narrative is divided into three sections of unequal length. The first, a mere prologue of sixty pages, introduces all the main characters, provides a brief family history and genealogy back to the fifteenth century, and offers a tour of some of the family holdings, including the 92-room Castle at Ararat, a somewhat smaller palace in Budapest, residences in Vienna and Paris, and a hunting lodge in Willensdorf (probably Austria) where family members retreated during the Great War. The second section concerns the family's oldest daughter, Kristina, and her relationship with Charles Habsburg, the last crowned head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The third and longest section focuses on the family's youngest daughter, Zia, who is as close to a true heroine as one will find in these pages. When we first encounter Zia in the summer of 1919, she is a lonely, anxious eight-year-old greeting her new French governess, Madame Couteaux. Because their parents travel, attend parties and amuse themselves in other ways, both Zia and her closest sibling JŠnos spend most of their time with their respective caretakers and so adopt many of their worldviews. While JŠnos's tutor Dr. Kliegl leads him toward Nazism, Madame Couteaux tells Zia stories of the French Revolution, and inadvertently gives the child her first realization that the aristocracy might not last forever.

Zilahy does a marvelous job of unfolding Zia's emergence as a person, using foreshadowing, humor, suspense and more than a little pathos. Zia and her father, the charming Count IstvŠn, are the most sympathetic and well-drawn characters in this book. They are acutely conscious that their family cannot make the plunge into modernity with all its properties -- and proprieties -- intact. Their struggles -- as individuals and as father and daughter -- to cope with these changing realities provide a clear thread of continuity through Zilahy's otherwise rambling narrative.

I read a lot of historical novels, and only rarely find one that deserves a review in the Green Man. I wasn't expecting The Dukays to be one of these, but I changed my mind. In part, this is because the Green Man seems to be turning his gaze slightly eastward. There's old Bela wandering around the offices, muttering to himself in Hungarian and teaching the rat fiddlers gypsy tunes. Then Jack and company took off for that holiday in St. Petersburg, of all places, and came back with pictures of incredible buildings and tins of even more incredible Beluga caviar.

But The Dukays belongs here on its own merit. Like John Berger's Into Their Labours, The Dukays decries the end of an era in Europe -- but it does so with a remarkable lightness and charm. I often giggled as I read it, because many of the characters and situations offered elements of completely unexpected humor. Zilahy also reveals numerous glimpses of the impossible glory of the age that is passing. Both the interiors and exteriors of the Dukay residences are full of priceless artifacts: gold and jewels, lush fabrics, paintings, sculptures, exotic species of trees and fountains. Zilahy's description of Budapest on Charles Habsburg's coronation day is scintillating and also a bit eerie, with its reference to the catacombs under the city that served as a refuge from the invading Turks in the past and would give that service to the residents again as future tempests, both Nazi and Communist, successively overwhelmed them. Zia's wedding to Prince Filippo Ozzolini at Ararat is meticulously modeled after the nuptials of her ancestor, whose wedding took place in 1632. Zilahy spends nearly forty pages of text detailing the present wedding and comparing it to the descriptions of the past wedding that its chief planner, Zia's Uncle Peter, found in the family archives. It is replete with folk motifs, including ceremonial dances and games, a procession from the castle to the village on a carpeted path, gypsy violin and cimbalom music, dancing, feasting and other revelries -- in which both the nobility and the peasants take part.

Some parts of The Dukays are definitely less appealing than others. I found the second section to be the most tedious. Unlike the rest of the book, which is written in third person by a narrator who occasionally speaks as an omniscient -- and wry -- observer, this section is written as a series of entries in Kristina's journal. Kristina appears to have suffered from an excessively vivid imagination as well as from a variety of physical and some mental health problems. In fact, in his omniscient observer role, Zilahy occasionally challenges the veracity of her narratives. Despite these shortcomings, this section gives a thought-provoking picture of the ill-fated Habsburg's brief rule and not much longer life.

Another noteworthy problem with The Dukays is a direct consequence of its vast scope. The story is positively dense with minor characters, some of whom reappear at various crucial points throughout the narrative. For example, a group of journalists and would-be playwrights act as a veritable Greek chorus in a number of scenes, trying to make sense of the activities of the aristocrats. Likewise, some of the Dukay aunts, uncles and cousins show up for weddings and other significant family gatherings. Then there are the fifty-plus members of the household staff at Ararat Castle, and a whole village full of people on the island of Mandria, which Zia visits more than once. Even Hitler and Mussolini make meaningful cameo appearances. In an apparent effort to help the reader keep all these people straight, Zilahy reduces many of them to literal stock characters. This strategy works -- most of the time.

According to the few English-language references I found, Lajos Zilahy was one of Hungary's foremost 20th century novelists, fought in the First World War, and wrote The Dukays during the Second World War, which he spent hiding from the Nazis. He was born near Budapest in 1891, emigrated to the United States with his family in 1947 and died in 1974. In addition to several novels, he also wrote poetry and plays for both stage and screen.

Zilahy wrote The Dukays in Hungarian; John Pauker, a poet and playwright born in Budapest but educated in the U.S., did the translation. Since I cannot read Hungarian (and have not asked Bela for an opinion), I can only surmise that Pauker did a fine rendering. I say this because the text flows nicely and doesn't show any of the clumsy phrasing that I have observed in less-elegant translations. Because this translation was originally done for the first English edition, I suspect that the author may have had a voice in the final draft. Because the characters are multi-lingual, the narrative contains numerous phrases, words and song lyrics in French, Italian, German and even Latin. With the exception of the simplest and most common phrases, such as c'est magnifique, these are all subsequently and quite gracefully translated into English.

The publisher is a London-based house that has established a "Lost Treasures" series, featuring a number of important books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many otherwise out of print and thus not readily available. The Dukays is one of three Zilahy novels in this series; the other two are Century in Scarlet (the first novel in the Dukay family trilogy) and Two Prisoners, a love story set in Budapest during the First World War. Prion has not released The Angry Angel, the third novel in the Dukay trilogy. Some copies of the Prentice-Hall English language edition, initially published in 1953, are still available from on-line used sources at very decent prices.

[Donna Bird]