I suppose I should be happy that there is a recent, one-volume general history of the Hungarians. Their history is not exactly the stuff of bestsellers, even if Hungarians were crucial in everything from computers to the atomic bomb to Hollywood studios. Ten million people, give or take, speaking a non-Indo-European language in and around the Carpathian basin. Their exact origins unknown, their polity long divided, their armies prone to getting wiped out.
The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, by Paul Lendvai, does have much to recommend it. First, it’s written by a journalist for a general audience; that means it’s not as academic and cumbersome as one might worry. Second, it was published (originally in German) ten years after the collapse of Communism, so there is an open-endedness to the story that it might not have had if the book had been written a few years earlier. Third, Lendvai has lived outside Hungary a long time, so his perspective is not too insiderish. Fourth, it moves at a brisk pace and will wrap up in about 500 pages. (True to the title of this post, I’m about forty percent of the way through.) Fifth, it’s quite good on the early history, what is known about the migration, and it brings the early medieval period convincingly to life.
But I can’t shake the feeling that the book ought to be better than it is. In some cases, the virtues of the book bring corresponding vices. It is brisk and limited to one volume, but some parts feel hurried, as if the author knows he has to mention such and such a person or certain events, but does not take the time to put them in much context. For me, this was particularly true of the period between the fall of the Arpads (Hungary’s first ruling dynasty) and the Habsburgs’ firm establishment in the region. It’s a complex set of issues, but I’m not much smarter about them after reading this than I was before, which seems a shame.
Part of this hurry certainly stems from the choice to keep the history down to one volume. For me, Lendvai’s book stands in contrast to the two volumes of Norman Davies’ history of Poland, God’s Playground. Because Davies has more room to work with, he is free to delve into detail on complicated periods, and the story benefits. I’m sure it was a business decision as much as an aesthetic one, but I think Lendvai’s tale would be better if he had told more of it.
The second problem is translation. I say this with much regret, because I know very well how hard it is to translate 500 pages of German into good English. But goodness, the book needs one more thorough round of untangling syntax to make this into really nice English. I can tell from the sentences that the German is just fine–not overly ornamented or excessively academic. English, however, needs more movement and fewer digressions into dependent clauses. There’s also occasional antecedent confusion, where things that are artfully ambiguous in German just look unclear in English. Finally, there have been nearly a dozen typos in the first 200 pages. They’re almost all periods where commas are called for, but aren’t publishers supposed to take care of that sort of thing? (For readers of German, the answer to the stylistic questions is obviously to go to the original.)
One thing that Lendvai is good at is drawing connections between very early parts of Hungarian history and attitudes that are part of the culture today. He’s not just telling a story, he’s reflecting on contemporary society, and I like that aspect of the book very much. On the other hand, the story that he is telling is very much the tale of who ruled where, when and how. It’s mostly a top-level political history. There some culture and some society involved, but these are definitely secondary. Again, this is a choice made at the outset, and obviously not everything can fit into one volume. Greedy reader that I am, though, I would like to have a bit more of both.
It’s a good history, and it’s good that there is a recent and accessible history of the Hungarians, but at this point in the actual reading, I’m wishing it were a bit better than it is.