41 years ago, a man took up his gun to kill his closest friend. Instead, he fled. 41 years later, he returned to face his old friend and resolve what passed between them.
Two old men nearing the end of their lives sit together in a castle and one narrates the tale of their friendship. The story passes from the glittering ballrooms of Vienna to the old aristocrat’s isolated castle in Hungary, from childhood through to adulthood, until it was abruptly suspended by the deception by one friend of another. The men had been close, and shared everything; what belonged to one, belonged to the other. Their friendship prevailed in spite of the differences between them, and was valued by each. Yet one did not understand the other, could not see into his heart, did not understand the differences in his soul.
The book is narrated primarily through the voice of the General. For 41 years, he has waited alone in his castle for his old friend Konrad to return, and while he waited, he has contemplated the meaning of friendship, the nature of their friendship, and the reasons for Konrad’s actions 41 years ago. The story is delicately unfolded, and explores the themes of love, loyalty, togetherness and isolation. While recounting the General’s carefully thought out conclusions, Márai explores the character of the old man and reveals it slowly and carefully through the General’s explanations of everything he has considered over the years.
I found that as I read, I was prompted to think about my own close friendships and what friendship meant for the people involved. Márai’s book is not an exercise in philosophy, but it is extremely sensitive and relevant to everyone. My enjoyment of it stemmed not from the final folds in the story being smoothed out, but rather from the insights I gained about my own life, inspired by reading this book. (Incidentally, the copy I read had the most beautiful cover.)