In their final year of high school four boys - Abel, Tibor, Bela and Ernö - form a gang. It is May of 1918, the month of their graduation. Their nation (the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy) has plans for them - they will be conscripted, given only cursory training, and thrown into the battle-lines of one of the war's lethal fronts as hapless cannon fodder. They may be facing death in the near future. Another distasteful possible future presents itself to them in the person of Lajos, Tibor's older brother who participates in the gang as a senior observer and counselor; he has returned from the Isonzo battleground missing an arm. He is angry, he fears the future, he pities himself, and he conspicuously refuses to "convert" to full adult life. He is an able co-conspirator in the gang's activities, the purpose of which is to wage their own war against adult society, which they fear and despise. They hate authority in each of its incarnations, understanding that its purpose is to either intimidate them (the patriarchal fathers) or plead with them (the pathetic mothers and aunts). They sense that the adult world is withholding secrets and privileges from them but also suspect that when uncovered and experienced, these secrets and privileges will prove to be utterly banal. Parents and teachers are special objects of their wrath and disenchantment. The members of the gang steal, lie, smoke, drink and engage in elaborate hoaxes upon selected adult townsmen. They have even rented quarters in a shabby inn on the outskirts of the city as a hide-out and storage bin for their loot. Much of their stolen money is spent on fanciful objects which are never used or displayed - indeed, the wastefulness of their acquisitions is a conscious element of the gang's overarching principle, which is that each act of their war justifies itself because of the grandeur of their purpose and the unworthiness of their enemies. Yet they remain tentative and uncertain if their risky "games" are truly meaningful or merely a desperate attempt to hang on to the comforts of childhood which have already vanished.
Recently they have formed a strange alliance with an adult whose life and manners, like their "games", seem to gainsay the solid middle-class virtues which they flee and mock. This is the "strolling player" and stage-director Amadé Volpay. He is a large, perfume-scented, epicene creature who enjoys being the center of their attentions when he tells the boys tales of his adventures or when he comments dryly on their new way of life, analyzing without judging; he is not above accepting handouts and gifts from them. The actor also has an open (yet secretive in its aims) connection with the town's pawnbroker, Havas, who, obscenely fat and coarse in his habits while delicate and respectful in his language, both repels and fascinates the boys. As petty thieves they also have recourse to his services, establishing an asymmetrical bond which may prove to be one of bondage.
Within the gang forces are also not equal. With the exception noted presently, the members of the gang may not even be fond of each other in the way that more conventional friends are, but they are still determined to work and live together in their common enterprise of deceit as a form of ultimate self-honesty, signaling to themselves the authenticity of their rebellion. Abel is infatuated with Tibor, who is handsome, polite, generous and athletic; in Abel's mind he is an idealized love object, a feeling which both pleases and frightens him. Tibor is also accepted as their natural leader by Bela, the weakest and most malleable of the four, and by Ernö. It is Ernö who is the most enigmatic, and his true sentiments toward his companions remain opaque. He is a scion of the working class, the son of a cobbler. But, due to his intelligence and independence of spirit, he has been accepted by the other members of the gang (all middle-class) after a life of being patronized by their parents. His father, Mr. Zakarka, also fascinates and sometimes frightens the boys. Zakarka is a small, malformed man who speaks in prophetic Biblical idioms and tones about the coming "settling of accounts" between the haves and have-nots in Hungarian society. He is also proud of the fact that during his days as a soldier his aristocratic officers granted him the privilege of hanging three Czech officers whom they deemed treacherous; he feels that this has "cleansed" his soul, and he intimates that more cleansing of soul and society through murder is just around the corner. His relations with his son's friends and with his social superiors crystallize the class and ethnic divisions which permeated Hungarian society at the time. (On the latter point it is very likely that Marai, whose full name was Sándor Károly Henrik Grosschmied de Mára, and who originally wavered between writing in German or Hungarian, was deeply and personally aware of the unpredictable, and often unsavory, consequences of "strong ethnic claims".) Zakarka's character and mental world are reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's dark and obsessional creations.
Family life within the social circle of Abel and Tibor (whose fathers are, respectively, a physician and a career military officer, both absent at the front) is dispiriting, a natural medium for breeding contempt and discontent. The portrait of Tibor's and Lajos's mother, who feigns illness in order to establish control over her disintegrating family, is especially sharp and demoralizing. Abel's aunt is treated more sympathetically, but her horizons are as narrow as those of the colonel's wife and her situation equally futile. And the whole society of the Austro-Hungarian empire in its fourth and final year of war seems to be sinking into a terminal state of indifference and fatalism, perhaps more apparent to the adolescents than to their elders, who are still blithely willing to send their children off to the pointless war. Joseph Roth's "The Radetzky March" can be seen as an elegiac farewell to the twilight years of the Empire that arrived at "the beginning of the end" in 1914, a backward look tinged with melancholy and fond nostalgia. "The Rebels" looks at the same world four years later, just prior to its final collapse, as the harbinger of an unpromising future in which melancholy will turn into rage and nostalgia itself will become venomous.
Events move toward a crisis that will coincide with their graduation ceremonies and which may unmask them all before the adults. Each of them now longs to end the gang and hopes that the crisis, whatever shape it takes, will liberate them from their mental and emotional burdens - they all feel that "something has to break". One of the gang is a double-dealer, having his own private arrangements with the adult world and betraying their secrets to Volpay and Havas. I won't disclose the identity of the "traitor" or the nature of the group's final crisis here. Suffice it to say it is both surprising and extremely sad, and the book closes on a note which brings to mind the perfect combination of calm objectivity and emotional dismay that Chekhov evoked so well.
The theme of rebellious youth is an old one that has often been treated in literature, on the stage, and in films (of more recent efforts, the English movie "If" and the American movie "Rebel Without a Cause" come immediately to mind, especially in their depiction of the intensity of relationships among adolescent rebels). Marai's handling of the theme avoids the pitfalls of the trite and is exemplary in its sophistication. The translation by George Szirtes reads very well, and one assumes that it reflects Marai's style, which establishes the adolescent mind's inner convolutions in plain language that is used to build complex conditional sentences. The unnamed small city where it takes place seems to be Marai's hometown of Kassa (now Kosice). Marai himself graduated from gymnasium in 1918, so the temper of the times which he depicts so vividly here is based on personal experience. He has created a social and temporal portrait in which the most trivial details of the town's appearance and life are naturally saturated with meaning for its youth, while at one and the same time the place seems to be spiritually empty and devoid of intelligent purpose. This is an excellent novel that serves the reader well as an introduction to a long and accomplished literary career. It is the third of Marai's novels (along with a memoir) that have recently been published in English translations as an ongoing project of "rediscovery" of a very talented writer (noting that, although he spent much of his life outside his homeland, including his last forty years in exile, his reputation has always been high in Hungary). The Knopf edition is compact and handsome in its paper, binding and typography.