Monday, September 13, 2021

Tales from Jókai by Mór Jókai

Lukewarm Hungarian goulash
Mór Jókai
Mór Jókai (also known as Maurus Jókai) is the Hungarian equivalent of Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy. That is to say, he is widely considered his nation’s greatest man of letters, at least prior to the 20th century. Tales from Jókai is a collection of short fiction in English translation by this distinguished Hungarian author. This volume was published in 1904, the year of Jókai’s death. According to the book’s introduction, Jókai published over 300 volumes worth of writings, including over 200 novels. With any artist so prolific, there’s bound to be some masterpieces and some failures among his works. Tales from Jókai is evidence of this, as the seven short stories and two novellas included are an assortment of the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

To open the volume, the editor, British linguist R. Nisbet Bain, provides a pretty extensive biographical essay on Jókai, but the reader practically needs a master’s degree in Hungarian history to understand all of it. Hungary is a nation that has spent much of its history occupied by conquerors, whether the Ottoman Turks of centuries past or the Austrians of Jókai’s lifetime. Life under tyranny is depicted in many of the stories, sometimes even to satirical effect. If any common thread could be said to unite the selections, Jókai seems to have a fascination with concocting creative means of torture and execution, a recurring theme in several of the stories.

Readers hoping that a volume of Hungarian fiction might shed some light on the history and culture of the nation in question may be disappointed to find that few of the selections are actually set in Hungary. Instead, the stories take place in locations as diverse as Ottoman Turkey, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ancient Carthage, and the mythical land of Atlantis. Much like Poland’s Henryk Sienkiewicz, Jókai was a romanticist with a taste for fairy tale and fable. The function of these tales is not to serve as realistic historical fiction, but nevertheless some nuggets of European history can be gleaned from the romantic plots. The selections cover a diverse range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, comedy, and military adventure.

Many of the short stories fail to impress, but luckily the lengthier novellas are more successful in captivating the reader’s interest. In “The Red Starosta,” the book’s best selection, the son of a nobleman and the son of a minister go off to study at a university together. After graduation, the minister’s son is amazed to find how much lowlier is his lot in life is than that of his aristocratic friend. In this entertaining and surprising story, Jókai makes fun of class distinctions, but he ultimately relents in his irreverence to conclude with a socially acceptable ending. The second novella, “City of the Beast,” is an unexpected journey into the realm of science fiction. On a Mediterranean voyage, a merchant from Tyre and his Carthaginian wife are blown off course and land at a pre-sunken Atlantis. Much of the novella is a utopian and/or dystopian description of Atlantean society. With a devout Jew as protagonist, however, Jókai ultimately turns the story into a fable of faith that contrasts the Sodom of Atlantis with the righteousness of Jehovah.

Since this is the first book by Jókai that I’ve read, it’s hard to say how indicative this grab-bag of stories is of his writing as a whole. While the two novellas were pretty strong showings, the collection as a whole is rather mediocre and didn’t really live up to the author’s reputation. If anything, this volume demonstrates that Jókai is more successful in long-form fiction, which would lead me to recommend one skip his short stories and hunt for a masterpiece among his novels.

Stories in this collection
The Celestial Slingers
The Compulsory Diversion
The Sheriff of Caschau
The Justice of Soliman
Love and the Little Dog
The Red Starosta
The City of the Beast
The Hostile Skulls
The Bad Old Times

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