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Szilárd, RUBIN
( 1927 - 2010 )

» Roman Numeral One (2010)


Roman Numeral One

Szilárd Rubin, who died a few months ago at the age of eighty-three, was among the most mysterious figures of contemporary Hungarian literature and will almost surely remain so amid a revival of interest in his works both in Hungary and Germany. Rubin, who opted for internal exile, wrote with every bit as much difficulty as he wrote well; as if his suffering through the creation of every single sentence somehow imparted his oeuvre—thin in size, rich in riddles and mysteries—with the bulk of its narrative, aesthetic, and ethical authenticity. After first appearing in Hungary in 1985, Roman Numeral One all too easily fell out of the public eye in its native land along with its author amid the country’s changing literary landscape during and after the fall of communism. In this respect, this now newly released novella is itself without a past to speak of; it is a historical find, but as soon as we allow ourselves to be swept into its feverish world, we forget every external perspective, every referential point that literary history might offer up to place this work “in context.” The narrator-protagonist of this autobiographical novella is Rubin himself, who sets out to tell the story of his most stirring love affair. This is not just any sweltering memory; for Rubin embarks on this obituary of love while under treatment, contemplating the matter while deep in swirls of steam in the thermal baths of a sanatorium. Roman Numeral One also provides an evocative glimpse into the adventures of a circle of friends associated with a legendary pair of Hungarian artists from the 1960s, the poet János Pilinszky and the film director Miklós Jancsó. We read about proddings and pranks, betrayals and loyalties. One of the novella’s most memorable chapters immortalizes the famous film festival of the western Bohemian spa town Karlovy Vary, bringing alive the essence of its social buzz. Dreams and doubts overlap in this book. And why Roman Numeral One? This is the number on the bathing chamber in which the narrator is getting his treatment in Karlovy Vary, but once inside he ends up falling headlong into the chronic throes of memory. As we also learn, this is also the number written on a railway freight car that, in the winter of 1946, transported a group of ethnic Hungarian babies from their homes in Czechoslovakia to a remote, ethnic-Hungarian-free corner in the north of the country. Because of the number, the freight car was confused for another, and the mistake ended up costing the babies their lives. Indeed, a single number can decide fates. In this and other respects, Rubin’s writing evokes that of the French existentialists, and in particular, Camus’s dispassionately passionate works.

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