The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

This compelling memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován, a Hungarian artist and illustrator, is at once both historically insightful and deeply personal. It spans the eight months from the outbreak of WW1 at the end of July 1914 to the spring of the following year, a period that resulted in sustained losses to the Austro-Hungarian forces, the nature of which left an indelible mark on Hungary in the years and decades that followed. It’s a remarkable piece of work, very moving in its depiction of the experiences of the war through the reflections of one man. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone with an interest in the Great War or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general.

As the memoir opens, Béla, a member of the Hungarian privileged classes, is holidaying with friends at the Adriatic resort of Novi Vinodolski. He is twenty-nine years old at this point, enjoying life and everything it has to offer.

All too soon Béla’s carefree existence is dramatically interrupted when word reaches the group that war has broken out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (with Russia swiftly following in support). While some of Béla’s immediate friends are of the belief that the war will be swift and not too serious, Béla himself remains somewhat unconvinced. Rather presciently, our protagonist senses a broader threat to society, a feeling that socialism has been creating significant unrest and anxiety for a number of years. As a consequence, Béla fears a long and complex period of conflict ahead.

After a brief visit home to say goodbye to his parents, Béla reports for duty at Veszprém where he is assigned the rank of Ensign in the Royal Hungarian Army – he is also given the role of platoon leader. To Béla, the prospect of war is terrifying – a totally unknown quantity he must face with little in the way of experience or understanding.

I had no experience to fall back on. Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it had held no meaning for me. No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up there in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here. (p. 13)

This is a challenging work to summarise as it really needs to be experienced in person rather than second-hand through a review. There is a cumulative effect here – the sense that Béla’s reflections build in power with each chapter, thereby giving the memoir a greater sense of weight and importance.

It is especially strong on the sheer foolishness of some of the decisions that were made by those in command – in particular, the drive to conform to certain principles of honour or ceremony at the expense of soldiers’ lives. For example, Béla’s regiment is ordered to march the seventy-five kilometres from Veszprém to the point of deployment near the front. However, by the time they reach their destination, half the troops in the group are unfit for battle due to damage incurred to their feet and general exhaustion. The lack of any clear sense of foresight is completely galling. Then, in the thick of the action at Rava Ruska, it is rumoured that the Colonel in command plans to outlaw any digging of foxholes for protection as it would be considered cowardly and ill-disciplined on the part of the troops. Luckily for Béla, this veto doesn’t quite come to pass and the instinct to survive soon kicks in.

As one might expect, the memoir is also fairly explicit on the horrors of war, the physical and emotional effects of being trapped at the front with death and destruction everywhere. The scenes Béla describes are urgent, chaotic and utterly terrifying.

The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me; something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. (pp. 53-54)

Having sustained a head wound in one of these early battles, Béla is dispatched back to Budapest for further treatment and a period of recovery. There is an anxious scene in which Béla only just manages to make it out of the battle zone on one of the last railway wagons to leave the territory before the Russian Army moves in – a fortuitous break for our protagonist, particularly given the nature of his injuries. As Béla travels back to the capital, he is incensed by newspaper reports of the conflict, clearly penned by fêted writers cocooned in the relative safety of the city’s coffeehouses, far away from the harsh realities of life at the front.

Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera. It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed these people were from the agonies, the mortal fear as shells exploding around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. (p. 72)

Back at home, Béla tries hard to reconnect with his former life, his family, his friends and, of course, his love of painting. However, the trauma he has experienced on the battlefield makes this very difficult to achieve. It is as if something inside him has ruptured, possibly forever.

It was impossible. All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. […] Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out. (p. 114)

Béla is declared unfit for military service for a period of three months, after which time he will be assessed again. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been through at the front, he is experiencing what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).

As the memoir draws to a close, Béla finally finds some solace in the form of a trip to the coastal town of Lovrana where he stays with the Mausers, a generous and caring family who support his recuperation. It is here, in the spring of 1915, that Béla reconnects with nature and the enduring beauty of the world. His love of painting returns as he strives to capture the energy and subtleties of the waves in glorious watercolours. This is the most touching section of the memoir, a period of relative peace and calm which ends with Béla travelling back to Budapest to see what the future might hold for him.

This striking book comes with an excellent introduction from Béla’s grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldován, who also translated the manuscript. It offers an invaluable insight into the political context of the time and the extent of the losses endured by Austria-Hungary during this devastating war.

While it is never easy to read about these experiences, it is almost always rewarding in some way, and that’s certainly the case here. This is an absorbing memoir, written in a natural, unaffected style, shot through with moments of beauty amidst the traumas of war. I’ll finish with a passage that illustrates Béla’s painterly talents, his eye for a beautiful scene. At this point, he is on his way to Rava Ruska, marching to the front and the decimation which lies ahead.

We were passing through a wood. The beauty of nature in August reigned everywhere. The boughs were a deep green, but the sprigs of barberry, the wild rose hips and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange. Beauty before death, for autumn and decay were coming. In the meadows and fields, nothing but stubble and fine ploughed soil, the stalks of maize left tied into bundles. Subjects for landscapes: the colors from burnt sienna and ochre to gray umber. Marvelous colors in the shadows. (p. 29)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Burning of the World is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

30 thoughts on “The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

  1. BookerTalk

    We so seldom here about this conflict from the Austrian or Hungarian perspective – it’s almost always, French, British, Belgian or German, so this book is a key one for that reason alone.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. That’s one of the things that prompted me to read this book in the first place – the opportunity to gain a different perspective of the war, one from the eastern front as opposed to the western side. It’s well worth seeking out.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. It’s been a while since I read this book, but in an attempt to catch up with a few reviews I thought it was worth writing about. (There’s been plenty of comfort reading going on as well, I must admit.) It’s a fascinating memoir, all the more affecting in light of what happens to Bela once he leaves the battlefield. Definitely recommended if you have an interest in this period of history.

      Reply
  2. Lady Fancifull

    This DOES look interesting – and it’s a real pleasure to see you popping up in my ‘reader’ again. BTW I will be posting a thoroughly-enjoyed-that review of Deep Water soon, linking back to an earlier post of yours as it was that post which alerted me to the disturbing pleasures of a Highsmith i didn’t know. Tremendous. I did toy with the idea of a picture of snails mating but it made me feel queasy……

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you – that’s nice to hear. It is interesting, especially in light of books like All Quiet on the Front as it gives the reader a different perspective on the Great War.

      I’ve just seen a link to your Deep Water post in my reader, so I’ll be along shortly. So glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Highsmith could be described as the original queen of domestic noir, don’t you think? What a talent she had for creating these charming psychopaths. And the snails! I had almost forgotten about Vic’s rather nerdy hobby…

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        I have to admit I felt MOST for Vic when Melinda was trying to engineer that those beloved snails should be eaten for dinner!

        And, yes, you are quite right in your description of her as ‘queen of domestic noir’

        Reply
  3. heavenali

    This certainly sounds like a powerful and uncompromising work. I don’t think I have read anything taken from the Austrian/Hungarian perspective. How wonderful that after all that Béla was able to return to his love of art.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is very powerful, but not in a bombastic way if that makes any sense. The style/tone is very open and honest without too much bitterness or sentimentality. It’s not always easy to read about these things, but in this case I’m so glad I did. It’s a very affecting memoir, especially towards the end.

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    I’ve read some very positive reviews of this, so it definitely goes on the list. As you say, the Hungarian angle on WWI isn’t often encountered, though it’s there indirectly in the Miklos Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy that I read recently – though that’s set in the long-simmering build-up to the war. The central character goes off to fight right at the very end – but we know what’s coming. NYRB do put out some great stuff.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would have no hesitation in recommending this to you Simon, especially given your interest in the Banffy trilogy – I read that series a couple of years ago, and certain elements of the story have really stayed with me. By the way, I don’t know if you follow Scott’s blog over at seraillon, but he’s just posted a piece on his recent visit to the Bànffy Castle at Bonţida. There’s a link here if it’s of interest:

      http://seraillon.blogspot.com/2018/05/a-visit-to-denestornya.html

      And yes, NYRB do seem to have a talent for unearthing little treasures like this. It’s very ‘on brand’ for them, just the kind of lost or overlooked work they seem to specialise in.

      Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    It’s easy to be prescient in a memoir. You are writing with the benefit of hindsight after all…

    Still, I had this noted after Guy’s review and all the more so now with yours. I wonder though if I should read some more Roth and the Banffy trilogy first to get a bit more cultural context (and because Roth is marvellous and Banffy looks marvellous).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very true. Maybe that had an influence on his memories of that time in the resort – I guess it’s difficult to tell.

      I didn’t mention it in my review because Guy had already covered it, but there’s an interesting observation about the guests at the hotel once the outbreak of war becomes apparent. The broader political divisions between the countries are soon reflected in the way people position themselves in the hotel dining room – all of the previous mingling between different nationalities disappears as individuals begin to cluster together with their fellow countrymen and women. A natural reaction, I guess – but even so, it’s a striking passage.

      I’m glad I had read Banffy’s trilogy before embarking on this. As you quite correctly intuit, the broader political/cultural context is pretty relevant here, and having some understanding of that probably helped with The Burning of the World. And the Banffy is rather wonderful. It has something of the sweep that I suspect is present in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (but without those historical ‘essays’ you referred to in your posts). Yes, there are passages about the political machinations of the time, but they feel integral to the books – and they serve to provide some of that sociopolitical context.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Thoughtful review as always Jacqui. And as others have said such an interesting perspective. I think it’s definitely worth trying to read historical memoirs that give us another side of events – important not to forget that no one really wins in war.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. That’s very true – there are no winners in all of this. One gets a sense of these vast, ill-equipped legions of soldiers sent off to fight for a cause that so few involved could really understand. It’s very sad…

      Reply
  7. Scott W

    So glad to see your review of this, Jacqui! I thought this was a knock-out, an essential companion to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I found it more immediate than that book, more raw, less worked (which I intend as a positive). And like Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate does for the eastern front of WWII, Zombory-Moldován’s book gives a perspective on WWI that is rarely seen by those of us brought up knowing almost almost nothing about what happened on the eastern front. I liked his drawings and paintings too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. It’s a very affecting book, isn’t it? A real find on the part of NYRB. I liked the naturalistic quality of it too, the fact that it isn’t as polished as All Quiet on the Western Front adds to the feeling of authenticity — not to say that All Quiet isn’t a ‘true’ representation of how it was on that battleground, but there’s an openness to Bela’s memoir that makes it very compelling.

      I don’t know if you saw Max’s comment above, but I did feel that having some prior knowledge of sociopolitical climate of the time probably helped me to get the most out of this book. Anyway, I’m glad I had already read Banffy’s trilogy by the time I embarked on Bela’s memoir! And yes, it was lovely to see a couple of pictures of Bela’s artworks, especially the watercolour from Lovrana. How wonderful that he was able to recapture that scene.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I’ve always loved fiction from this period / area so this sounds right up my street, but perhaps I should read Banffy’s trilogy first having never got past volume one. (It’s also true that our idea of ‘world’ wars can be quite parochial).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes to finishing the Banffy trilogy! In fact, I’m tempted to ask if there was a specific reason why you didn’t move on to the other two volumes – was there something in particular that held you back?

      As for The Burning of the World, I think you’d find it very interesting. This period and the political context really appeal to me too.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! I know what you mean mean about the long books thing – they can be such a big commitment, especially if there are other pressures going on your life at the time. That said, I do think the Banffy books more than repay the investment in time. There’s something very satisfying about following a character like Balint over a number of years.

          Reply
  9. Caroline

    This sounds excellent. Since I might rekindle the Literature and War Readalong this could be a very good choice. On the other hand, I’m always scared these books drag me down too much. That’s why the readalong is on a hiatus.
    Did you find it very depressing?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been wondering if your Literature and War readalong series was still going. I can understand the need to take a break from it though – too much emotional trauma can be too hard to bear. This would make a great choice if you do decide to bring it back again, especially as it offers a different perspective on the Great War – one from the somewhat overlooked eastern front.

      Oddly enough, I didn’t find it too depressing, possibly because it was quite a while since I’d read anything else about this war. A break is as good as a rest and all that…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s really worth reading – a very touching story, beautifully written. As others have touched on above, we tend to hear more about the war from a British, French or German perspective, so the Hungarian angle makes this memoir particularly interesting. All credit to NYRB for publishing it.

      Reply
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