Book Review: Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)

783505Embers by Sándor Márai
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars

My fingers were interlocked around my Baba’s arm and my head was resting on his shoulders. I was stealing a glimpse of his face every now and then, convinced that the lines of exhaustion were going to creep upto his tongue any moment, tendering me an apology to relieve him of our evening chatter for the day. However, my apprehensions were misplaced. The exhaustion stood defeated in the face of the radiance that slowly, ever so gradually, filled his visage, displacing the fatigue like a magic potion, as he reached for the cassette player and put one of his most favorite songs in loop. He also fondly went on to explain me its meaning.‘Smruti Tume’, originally composed in Oriya language, is an ode to ‘memories’; in Oriya, the two words literally translate to ‘Memory, You’. The translated lyrics go like this:

Memory, You are the indiscernible breeze of a spring evening;
Memory, You are the seething ember beneath the ash;
Memory, You are the dancer’s teasing frill at a temple’s entrance;
Memory, You are the glimpse of tender moon from the mane of Casuarina trees;
Memory, You are the passionate note left behind in a traveller’s lodge;
Memory, You are the departed lover’s village…
Memory, You are the red stain on the stone guarding shoreline;
Memory, You are the dusk’s glow that lights up a dull widow’s countenance;
Memory, You are the paper boat on the river that won’t reappear;
Memory, are you not my treasured Beloved?

As I read Embers, this song hung heavily on my psyche due to its similar metaphorical luminosity:

With age, memory enlarges every detail and presents it in the sharpest outline.

When the rhapsody of those evening lyrics dissolved into the heartbeat of these present words, I heard a tremor that wasn’t a simulacrum of a faint earthquake but the obstreperous throbbing of a vein – a matter of delicate urgency where an inflammation not arrested in time leaves a spot defunct; worse, violated. Such violated lumps of memory hover around a life like the spirit – unseen, unlit, frequently uncouth but always undone.

In Embers, two boys forge the best kind of friendship, two young men test the toughest kind of friendship and two old men relive the only kind of friendship.

Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all the emotions that will last a lifetime. And like all great emotions, this one contained within itself both shame and a sense of guilt, for no one may isolate one of his fellows from the rest of humanity with impunity.

Over a period of seventy-five years, the birth, maturity and death of every emotion is held between the tender palms of decision and indecision, truth and cowardice, fate and loss, and is flannelled against life filters. A single deed, thus crushed and sieved, comes to haunt one for forty-one years, enmeshing him in the web his exploring fingers had unsuspectingly sewn around his own house. Did the deed trickle down in the same abnegating, granular texture beneath the pillow of the other too, robbing his sleep for those very forty-one years? Márai invites us to find out over a course of a cold, dark night; lit exquisitely by one’s questions, suspended excruciatingly by another’s abstinence and held inadvertently by a few embers, standing witness to a debilitating relationship, slowly meeting her fate.

In an all-encompassing, surreal, lyrical, almost devastating monologue, Márai trounces everything supercilious, including answers, for a man at his twilight doesn’t require answers; he seeks peace. Words become mere instruments of wrapping time into bearable currents, getting their echoes despatched to silent death in the confines of a mind engaged in altering memories, if not erasing them. When a sigh can expel the biggest burden off the chest and impart purpose to one’s living, hypothesis await no longer the stamp of verification. Endurance of a life-time denudes all justifications and arguments, leaving a residue that intends to simply burn and become smoke.

Smoke they did become, the memories. But the vestiges persisted, like the embers; silent, hidden, simmering and expectant of revelation on yet another cold night, subjugating the breeze of words and emerging triumphant.

[Note: My apologies for any mistakes I might have committed in translating the Oriya song. My memories of it are a decade old and I might have faltered at few places in comprehension or recollection.]

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[Image courtesy http://www.flickr.com ]

 

 

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