Bela Zombory-Moldovan: The Burning of the World

January 8, 2015

51AbK1K0aOL._AA160_An interesting addition to the writings about the Great War; written long after the events described, this hindsight inevitably gives a certain cast to this memoir, to the way he writes, and what he remembers. It’s also haunting and tantalising because it’s such a brief slice of the time…

The writer is a Hungarian artist on holiday, and taken aback by the sudden declaration of war in late July 1914. He is instantly mobilised as a reservist: his response and behaviour is therefore certainly not that of an enthusiastic and patriotic volunteer. His plans are disrupted and this annoys him, but he does what he’s told. There are the unspoken fears of his family and friends, the words not spoken, even at this stage, where nobody really knows anything about what is going to happen.

He is a disillusioned man, and his heart is not in it, right from the start. He describes the chaos and mayhem as the Kingdom of Hungary tries to get its troops to the front, the utter carnage in the field as the generals, totally clueless at the outset, just throw men at the Russian lines. And he’s seriously wounded in the head – September 1914 – and his war service is over, though he doesn’t yet know it.

Most interesting are his thoughts and perceptions, his overall state of mind as he gradually travels back to Budapest to be treated for his wound. We see an artist newly aware of the value of being alive, observing the world with an artist’s eye, awake to the potential of a beautiful world.

His country treats him shabbily – no army pay because not on active service, no civilian pay because he can’t do his former job! We see how people are, even at this early stage, determined to avoid serving in the army if at all possible; conversations with a whole range of people he meets whilst convalescing, are very interesting and all tend in this direction. All very different from England in autumn 1914…

In the end, after his trauma, he wants to be alone, and to paint, although he seems unaware, or at least unclear in himself, as to why this might be. He finds happiness by the Adriatic sea. A sudden earthquake triggers all the horrific memories of combat – a very brief but very powerful section. What comes over most strongly is the sense of a nation utterly fed up with the war, and everything to do with it, before the end of 1914. It’s a sobering perspective, from a very different part of the world. Much is understated, though context is there, through an excellent introduction by the writer’s grandson, who also translated and edited the work.

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