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A contemporary of Antal Szerb, Béla Hamvas was a Hungarian philosopher, essayist, and novelist who died in 1968. His masterwork, Karnevál, was originally written in the early 1950s, but the communist regime blacklisted Hamvas and the novel wasn’t published in Hungary until 1985. A three-volume work that spans some 1,500 pages in the original and whose story ranges from the late 1800s to World War II, Karnevál is, as the great Hungarian translator Tim Wilkinson says, “a satire on the human condition [that] touches on much of the religions and philosophies of the last two or three millennia.” The book is filled with dozens of characters and an apparently indescribable plot, the narrator and the main character of Karnevál are constantly in dialogue with each other, commenting on the story and the other characters: “They comment on the difficulties of narration, talk about time, reality, probability, style, common sense and the imagination, women, the body, misunderstandings, the masks that human society is wearing, and much more.” Or so Google, Wikipedia, Hungarian Literature Online (a great, great resource), a few emails, and hamvasbela.org tell me. Unfortunately, Karnevál is caught in the catch-22 that a lot of these kinds of books—long, complex, containing a whole world, and, God forbid, “philosophical”—are caught in: a) their commercial viability outside of their home countries appears limited; b) translators sense this and can’t afford to champion seemingly risky projects (especially 1,500-page ones); and c) due to a & b there is little information available to foreign publishers or anyone else. So from here, it’s hard to say if Karnevál is brilliant, a brilliant mess, completely unreadable, or some mixture of all three, but based on the info available, and the knowing smiles of every Hungarian to whom I mention the novel, I’d love to have the opportunity to read it in English.
E.J. Van Lanen is an editor with Open Letter.
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