The original title in Hungarian: A gyertyák csonkig égnek means “Candles burn until the end” which is equally apt although it implies a little more life.
The story revolves around a Hungarian general (his name is mentioned only once, most of the time he is referred to as “the General” or the less catchy title of “the son of the Officer of the Guards”) and his friend Konrad. Something happened between the two men 41 years ago and now Konrad has returned allowing the General to take his revenge. Which turns out to be long and rambling and I don’t quite see how it is fair that I was forced to sit through it as well.
The book starts interestingly enough with anecdotes from the General’s childhood, his life at home and later at the military training academy where he meets Konrad and their life growing up together.
We then skip a bit to the present and Konrad’s return. There is a nice bit of dialogue here between the General and his nurse, Nini, which produces a minimal amount of intrigue and at the start of their reunion Konrad talks about his life in the tropics which is entertaining enough.
Then we get down to the crux of the matter – the General’s revenge. The rest of the book is essentially a monologue on friendship; its true meaning, whether the General and Konrad were ever really friends, whether they are now, where friendship starts and ends and whether it really exists or not. The General is 74 so he can probably be forgiven for rambling a little bit but dear me he does go on!
His treaty is peppered with examples from his life and the lives of others, full of questions which he answers himself and generally rather long and dull. From time to time Konrad is allowed to chip in but his contributions usually take the form of “Do you think so?” or some other non-question indicating that he has clearly stopped paying attention as well.
In the very last pages we finally get to the point – the General has two questions that he wants Konrad to answer. There is then a rambling speech about the questions he’s NOT going to ask and when he finally gets round to asking the first one he then cuts off the answer to go on about his phrasing and reword it. The two men both then forget about the second question because dawn has arrived (did I mention how long the General talks for?) but the General remembers it as Konrad is leaving and goes on for another long while asking a number of questions to which the answer, when it comes, makes no sense.
So as far as I can tell nothing is resolved but everyone seems to go away happy. Apart from me, the reader, who goes away feeling that I have wasted my time reading this book and the only thing that I have learned is to avoid discussing friendship with Hungarian officers. Not that that’s something I do often.
So all that is left to do is to extend a very cool thank you to Carol Brown for bringing this book to the English market although I think she’ll find that there’s a reason it took 58 years for anyone to bother.