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Oliver VII by Antal Szerb
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Nov 14, 2010

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Szerb, Antal. OLIVER VII. (1942; this ed. 2007). ***. Szerb was an Hungarian novelist who published most of his books during the 1930s and 1940s. He was ultimately executed in a Nazi prison camp in 1945 for being a Jew by descent, although he was a practicing Catholic. He turned down several offers that could have led to his freedom, but refused them because he did not want to leave his friends and relatives in the camp without him. He is one of the few Hungarians who still have books in print in English. When on vacation in Hungary several years ago, I asked our guide – a young woman who was doing a post-doctorate in literature – who were some favorite Hungarian authors that I, as an American, might know, she hesitated for a long time. The only writer that she could come up with was F. Molnar (sp?), whose plays I remembered having to read as a student years ago. She made the comment that “the only people who speak Hungarian were Hungarians.” There is a connection with Finnish, but that doesn’t help much either. Anyway...this was Szerb’s last novel. To give you an idea of what it’s like, use the following recipe: take the situations of a P. G. Wodehouse novel and mix them with the plots of Evelyn Waugh. Stir in the situations often used by Oscar Wilde and Luigi Pirandello in their plays (add in Shakespeare, too). Gently mix in plot lines from “The Mouse That Roared,” and some Marx Brothers movies. Let these rest for a while, and soon you will have this novel. It’s the story of a king who is tired of being a king and wants to live the life of an ordinary citizen – just to find out what it is like. His kingdom is Alturia, and he is King Oliver VII. Alturia is an obscure central European state that is on the verge of bankruptcy, but is famous for its sardines and wines. A businessman from the nearby country of Norlandia, Coltor, has approached the governing body of Alturia, seeking to purchase a monopoly on its main products. Although the king has signed the agreement, he only does so knowing that he will be soon forced out of his throne by a popular uprising that he has instigated and organized. He will be forced to flee his country and go into exile. This is obviously to his liking because it will give him a chance to experience life as a common man. He and much of his staff flee to Venice, where he takes on the identity of Oscar, a beard that is supposed to hide his real identity. He is soon recruited by a bunch of con men to pretend that he is Oliver VII because he looks so much like the king in exile. He soon finds that he is working with the con men impersonating himself and dealing with Coltor once again. During this process, he soon learns more about himself and what it is like to be king and what being so really means. The story is told with humor and wit, but is mostly a variation on the oft-used mistaken identity premise that we have had with us since the time of Shakespeare – if not before. The book is entertaining, but doesn’t support the raves of the blurbs – although the most enthusiastic blurber is Ali Smith, an unknown to me. His comment makes me wonder: "His novels (Szerb’s) transform farce into poetry, comic melancholy into a kind of self-effacing grace...Antal Szerb is one of the great European writers.” We all have a right to an opinion.

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