DEGREES OF NIGHTFALL
Novel (Kalligram), 2006, 232 pages
„He was staring into love as into a lightbulb suddenly flipped on by his bedside.”
The hero of this wartime love story is Gábor Unden, olympic gold medalist of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and son of a wealthy and influential family, his father being an important diplomat at the British Embassy, his mother an aristocrat of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy – an empire that suddenly fell apart during the First and Second World Wars, leaving behind a once-powerful class yearning for a Habsburg restauration while gradually losing status and political power as the Russian troops liberate the country from the Germans and start to reshape the country’s political landscape with the help of the Hungarian communists.
But in 1946, when the story is set, nothing is decided yet: no one knows wether the Russians will leave after the end of the peace negotiations in Paris, or if they’ll stay in Hungary for good to make it part of the Eastern Bloc. Russian and American culture mixes on the streets of cosmopolitan Budapest: in the cinemas, Johnny Weismüller plays Tarzan, and Gábor’s artistically talented mother earns a living by colouring Dick Tracy comics for a Hungarian newspaper – but Russian soldiers become a more and more familiar sight on the streets still littered with ruins and trash left over from the catastrophic siege of Budapest.
It is in this devastated environment that Gábor notices a girl on Marguerite Island – the green heart of the city – walking her dog and looking so unusually elegant as if she came straight out of a Dick Tracy comic strip. She instantly becomes the young man’s prime obsession, whom he starts to follow in secret and even breaks into her apartment before managing to get formally introduced to the mysterious girl. It turns out that Sophie lives in Budapest as the protégée of her aunt, Countess Zichy who organises obscure esoteric gatherings in her private palaces for the remaining aristocrats who still dream of the rebirth of the Empire. While courting Sophie and entertaining her with his newly-acquired knowledge of the Mithras cult – one of the old rivals of Christianity in ancient Rome which had important strongholds in Hungarian territories – Gábor also gets involved in a resistance movement fighting against the threat of Russian hegemony, almost getting caught by the secret police. As his romance blossoms, Gábor recieves an invitation to London for the preparatory meetings of the 1948 London Olympics, and he takes along with him Sophie, who is studying to become an English teacher and has been longing to see the British capital for decades – only to be informed upon their arrival that his father was arrested for treason, and that he should stay in London for the time being, together with Sophie, who decides to link her life to Gábor before they could even spend one night together.
In the vein of Sándor Márai and Antal Szerb, Zoltán Poós paints a vivid picture of the decline of the high bourgeois and aristocratic world which came to a sudden end when the war began, and manages to grasp the ambience of this confusingly colourful and undecided interval from an unexplored moment of Hungarian history. This charming and nostalgic novel is full of minutious details about everyday life at that time, while rewarding the reader with a story of love which is touching and peculiar at the same time.
FROM THE PRESS
„Poós’s protagonist, Gábor Unden is not a rebel at all. But in 1946, in the times when Socialism slowly invades the country, everything counts as rebellion. Notable ancestors, individual thinking, existence in itself – all is suspicious for the communists. It is simply good to read Degrees of Nightfall. Poós writes in a concise, expressive language while depicting the movements of the soul in a very authentic and precise way.”
Zoltán Szentesi Zöldi, Magyar Nemzet
„While Sophie slowly loses her mysteriousness during the novel, the young man’s other affairs become more and more exciting, since part of the country is crazy for the communists, the other part is crazy about fighting against them, and even Gábor’s best friend gets involved in the resistance movements. The short, but complex story is completed by Gábor’s investigation for the first happy memory of his life, making this slim volume a perfect read for anyone who’s up to some past-searching and nostalgy.”
„Poós used all his energies and craft to carefully construct the world of this novel, the atmosphere of this peculiar year, and he came up with an elegant solution – he designed a structure comparable to those of Umberto Eco in it’s playfulness, which is the heart of his book.”
Tibor Legát, Magyar Narancs
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zoltán Poós was born in 1970 in Battonya. Since 1992 he has published four books of poetry and three novels. He has also written a book of essays on the emblematic objects of the sixties and the seventies, and on the 50-year history of Hungarian pop music. He was the founding editor of the WAN2 pop-cultural magazine and works as a journalist. His play Insults was published in 2010 and won several awards.