Hungarian elegy

They Were Counted

Miklos Banffy, translated by Patrick Thursfield and Kathy Banffy-Jelen <em>Arcad

"God hath numbered thy kingdom . . . Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting . . . Thy kingdom is divided . . ." With this Old Testament condemnation of folly and inadequacy in mind, Miklos Banffy named the volumes of his grand trilogy, of which They Were Counted is the first. The "they" in question is Hungary's ruling class, who drink, dance, quarrel and gamble their way into the disasters of this century as unprepared as Belshazzar himself. Count Banffy - politician, diplomat, Transylvanian landowner - wrote from the heart of the world he was depicting and, unusually for someone in his position, he could see how precarious it was. The trilogy, a big success in Hungary when it was published in the 1930s, and again now, was only able to resurface in the 1980s. This first (and very readable) translation into English makes a wonderful book accessible to many more people.

The story centres on two young aristocratic cousins, Balint and Laszlo. Balint has chosen to represent his local constituency in parliament, modernise his estates, set up co-operatives and reading rooms. Laszlo, without the blessing of his guardian, is studying music. Through this weft of fictional characters in a factual warp, Banffy offers the reader a stretch of Hungarian history, which, by the end of the trilogy, reaches the Great War. We first encounter the cousins in the late summer of 1904. In common with all good society, but separate from each other, they are travelling along a dusty country road to a grand party.

Most of the guests have been at the races, but Balint is coming straight from the station in an open fiacre. The nearer he gets to the castle, the more often he is overtaken by the smarter, faster carriages of the racegoers. With an admirable lightness of touch, Banffy uses this journey to set the tone for the whole novel, the reflective pace of Balint's ride increasingly interrupted by what is rushing up from behind. It is also a chance to introduce many of his large cast as they rattle past, and to sketch in hints of what is to follow. Laszlo, for instance, is first seen sitting not inside a chaise, but relegated to the outside seat at the back, with a coachman.

Once at the castle, an eloquent little scene occurs, typical of Banffy's gift for letting his readers look with their own eyes. Balint asks the old butler where he can wash. He is politely shown the guest room, but it has already been messed up by other visitors. By the time the butler has shouted, doors have banged, and the sighing, barefoot housemaid has brought fresh water and towels, the butler is no longer so gracious.

A recurrent theme of They Were Counted is as pertinent now as ever - the difficulties of governing nations or regions of mixed ethnic population. Balint is not presented as knowing the answers, but as being more aware than most that quarrelsome Hungarian nationalism is not enough. As a landowner in what later became Romania, he is both lofty and naive. His attempts to improve the lives of peasants and foresters have an amiable buffoonish air, although he does show signs of greater grip towards the end of the volume.

The ideal of marrying for love rather than for money or rank is almost as strong a thread here as it is in Jane Austen. Indeed, in one subplot, the unscrupulous soldier Wickwitz behaves remarkably like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Banffy himself had to struggle against opposition to marry for love, and his handling of Laszlo and Klara's doomed feelings is wholly sympathetic. The wheels of Laszlo's misfortunes are oiled not only by snobbery and ambition, but also by malicious gossip. One of the least endearing characters is the old tittle-tattle, Aunt Lizinka, whose notion of veracity is "I know it because it is so!"

Banffy's loving portrayal of a way of life that was already much diminished by the time he was writing, and set to vanish before he died, is too clear-eyed to be simply nostalgic, yet the ache of loss is certainly here. Laszlo has been brought up a homeless orphan, Balint's father died when he was young and the whole country is suffering from loss of pride. Although comparisons with Lampedusa's novel The Leopard are inevitable, Banffy's work is perhaps nearer in feel to that of Joseph Roth, in The Radetzky March. They were, after all, mourning the fall of the same empire.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong