The Burning of the World is a short but powerful book that lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page. A true story told through the eyes of a talented painter, it pulls the reader gradually into the most extraordinary and horrific circumstances imaginable, yet never loses its elegant style, or its calm and detached tone.
Picture this: in 1914, a close-knit group of well-heeled young artists, professionals, and intellectuals take a summer vacation on the Croatian coast. They swim and stroll, eat and drink, swap gossip from home (mainly Budapest), and discuss the big cultural and political issues of the day. According to the book’s excellent, context-setting introduction, these are privileged citizens accustomed “to deference and courtesy”, who “tip their way through life”, in a society that “managed to combine deep complacency with an unease that things could not go on as they were”.
Things, however, take a far nastier turn when the happy holidaymakers hear that their country, the mighty Austria-Hungary, has just declared war on troublesome little Serbia. Within hours, the stakes are rising and a continental conflict seems unavoidable, for all concerned.
Sure enough, one of the tourists, artist and academic Béla Zombory–Moldován finds himself in military uniform just a week later, and is soon heading for the front line one thousand kilometers away, where he narrowly survives chaotic and bloody battles with the Russians. Caught in the carnage of ‘total war’, our sensitive young painter spends most days scrambling for his life and clawing into foxholes as artillery shells rain down on the forests of Galicia. Needless to say, Béla sometimes wonders why, and therein lays the tale: he wrote a private and secret journal about his experiences.
Béla’s manuscript was discovered by his family after his death in 1967, and eventually reached his grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován, who rightly felt he had something special on his hands and translated it in 2012. Published this year, the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it makes for a timely and remarkable read.
Your reviewer was drawn back frequently to the book’s cover, which shows a photo taken just three days before war was declared. In it, debonair Béla sits on a rock, wearing a casual white suit and stylish cap; he’s a sturdy and handsome fellow with a piercing gaze who seems to dominate the scene. He has no idea, of course, what is coming his way. But he has plenty of ideas when it does, and they resonate from every page of this carefully worded memoir.
When Béla first learns he must go off and fight, he writes: “I was born to create and I loathe destruction of any kind.” But soon, he’s questioning the specifics, such as how it might feel sticking a bayonet into a stranger (just as we might worry, if our normal job was sticking a brush into a paint-pot). Assigned the rank of army officer, he puts on a brave face to lead his platoon into combat, but is quietly determined to survive – a rather subversive idea best not revealed to his gung-ho superiors in the Royal Hungarian Army.
Life, i.e. death, at the Russian front pushes Béla to his physical and psychological limits, but the battlefield section is told from the perspective of a sensitive and savvy outsider. His laconic tone and existential musings seem to anticipate Albert Camus’ archetypal refusenik Mersault (L’Étranger was published in 1942 – another short book, another long war?). A similarity is, both narrators ration their words to great effect. A difference is, Béla sees the world as an increasingly frustrated artist, and eventually questions his ability to function, to recover, to carry on, to paint:
“All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. Alien. No longer relevant. Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out.”
In fact, luckily for Béla, there was a way out: injured in battle, he is withdrawn from the frontline to recover in hospital, and at this point his memoir segues into thoughtful, concluding sections.
There is much to recommend throughout The Burning of The World. For example, the sparse lyricism and telling detail:
“The Eastern Station was more neglected than I had ever seen it. The little park by the departures had disappeared, its lawns trampled to mud.”
Also, several of Béla’s concerns ring true today, such as his frustration at military top brass – are they bonkers? Likewise, he hints presciently at difficult but important issues that have blossomed in the decades since the seed of Europe was slain. This, for example, on our fragile planet and its response to carnage:
“Nature has equipped man with every tool, every facility, with body and soul, brain and strength. If he puts these to bad use, he suffers the harm, but nature cares nothing of this. Until he turns against nature: then it gets its revenge.”
Diagnosed with ‘traumatic neurosis’ – what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Béla finds himself in what we now call a classic Catch 22, and captures it perfectly with a gag that would sit well in Joseph Heller’s satire about army life in World War Two:
I attempted a joke. “Doctor, don’t make me too well, or they’ll take me away again.”
“Well, better to die healthy than live sick,” was his riposte.
When Béla’s military masters decide they cannot despatch him back to a foxhole, some bureaucratic bean counters usher him into unemployment limbo (another combat vet out of ammo and heading for the scrapheap, sound familiar?). Béla wanders his old haunts, sometimes wondering if Budapest’s by now war-weary public will see him as, “another nutcase from the battlefield.”
That line is just one of many that show how assiduously Béla’s grandson Peter has translated (and edited) the Hungarian; all credit to him for what was surely a labour of love. His decision to conclude the book with Béla’s brief anecdote about János Drafi, the army’s gypsy drummer, is a masterstroke and very moving.
One gripe: numerous crucial footnotes interrupt the flow of what feels like a short and fast novel. But perhaps that’s why I read it twice, in quick succession. ‘The Burning of The World’ does that to you: one hundred and twenty-three pages proving good things come in small packages – even if they are about bad things.
Mike Ormsby is a British author. He lives in a mountain village in Transylvania. His book Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania was published in 2008.
The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 by Bela Zombory-Moldovan is published by New York Review Books Classics, and can be purchased from Amazon for £8.99.