This was a powerful read that pulled my heart along with the narrator Henrik’s soul-searching dialogue (perhaps monologue is more appropriate) with his best friend and enemy Konrad whom he has not seen for forty-one years. The story is set in the 1900s in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The speech evokes a past love triangle between the two and Henrik’s wife, long dead, and a murder attempt. Henrik chose to stay silent about the double betrayal and to live on stoically. Konrad chose to escape to the tropics. Henrik’s wife chose to die.
Henrik’s mordant observations about fidelity and betrayal between intimate man-friends, passionate and possessive man-and-woman relationship, dark human nature like arrogance and cowardice, and the solitude and sorrow of aging are beautifully woven into a web of silky smooth words that has the power of swallowing one’s heart and mind whole with no reprieve.
I find these passages especially striking:
It’s the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag. The human night is filled with the crouching forms of dreams, desires, vanities, self-interest, mad love, envy, and the thirst for revenge, as the desert night conceals the puma, the hawk and the jackal.
Every exercise of power incorporates a faint, almost imperceptible, element of contempt for those over whom the power is exercised. One can only dominate another human soul if one knows, understands, and with the utmost tact despises the person one is subjugating.
There is this question of otherness….So just as it is blood alone that binds people to defend one another in the face of danger, on the spiritual plane one person will struggle to help another only if this person is not ‘different’, and if, quite aside from opinions and convictions, they share similar natures at the deepest level.
Is the idea of fidelity not an appalling egoism and also as vain as most other human concerns? When we demand fidelity, are we wishing for the other person’s happiness? And if that person connot be happy in the subtle prison of fidelity, do we really prove our love by demanding fidelity nonetheless? And if we do not love that person in a way that makes her happy, do we have the right to expect fidelity or any other sacrifice?
Do you also believe that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades our heart, soul and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives?.... Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself? Or perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual’s qualities or behavior?
This novel forces one to ponder on one’s own intimate relationships.