Róbert Hász: A Künde Novel, 400 pages (Ungarn, 2005)
Europe in the tenth century. To play a trick on the emperor Otto, Pope John XII offers the crown to the heathen Hungarian tribes who had settled in what had been Roman the central European province of Pannonia. The novel begins with Otto’s spies taking a papal emissary hostage, resulting in one of the monks of the Benedictine monastery St. Gallen again setting off with the pope’s message. The lot fell not by chance to Stephanus, the longtime scribe at the monastery. The abbot Virgil of Aquilea had never liked his brother monk, and Stephanus was convinced that his superior had deliberately given him this not undangerous mission. It was rumored in the West that the Hungarians, who until now had been plundering throughout Europe, had sunk into a deep lethargy after their fatal defeat in 955 against the army of Otto. No one knew the precise truth, but it was nonetheless inadvisable to travel to Pannonia.
In monk’s garb, Stephanus begins the journey to the Hungarians. His arrival and experiences there were variously recorded. One of the chroniclers was Alberich, a student of Stephanus, who learned from Virgil of Aquilea that his master had died a martyr’s death in carrying out his mission among the heathens. The abbot gives the young scribe the task of assembling the story of Stephanus’s life to prepare for his canonization.
But Alberich has heard a different version of the story: An old man was said to be living in the forest who was believed to be none other than the allegedly dead Stephanus. He was said to have been banished there by the abbot because among the heathens he himself had allegedly become a heathen and thus become unworthy to remain a monk. Such gossip is confirmed when Elsi, Alberich’s maid, reveals the secret: The hermit is in fact Stephanus. Alberich is amazed. When he unexpectedly seeks out the hermit’s hut, Stephanus seems to be not greatly surprised, as though he had expected the visit.
The aged monk asks Alberich to remember his story as he tells it so that his version, too, will be preserved for posterity.
Alberich appears to comply with his master’s wish. But here and there he improves the descriptions that in his view are not exactly as they should be.
Stephanus first becomes aware during his vicissitudinous journey that his superior’s purpose in sending him had not principally to do with the transmittal of the papal message. More to the point, Stephanus himself was the message together with the locket given him by Virgil before his journey. As Stephanus crosses the river Enns and is taken captive, he learns that no one cares about the papal emissary. The Hungarians are more interested in the few Hungarian words Hungarian words that he speaks out of fear and the locket that was found in his pocket. This locket has sacred meaning for the Hungarians: Decades earlier, it was carried by their spiritual leader, Kende Kurszán, who was murdered in a plot at the court of the Bavarian king.
In the year 904, the Hungarian tribes were ruled by two chiefs: Árpád the army commander and Kurszán the spiritual leader. The title of the army commander was “gyula,” while that of the spiritual leader was “kende.” Thus the title of the novel. The race of the kende was charged with preserving their myths, sagas, and beliefs. As Árpád attempted to become the sole ruler of the tribes, he was more and more bothered by his “colleague” spiritual ruler. The strife was furthered by Kende Kurszán by his falling in love with one of Árpád’s future wives. Árpád took the young beauty back by force. The woman bore a son, named Tas, whom Árpád know to be the son of Kurszán.
When the Hungarians decide to make peace with the Bavarians, the Bavarians do not trust the Hungarians’ word, and they demand a son of the gyula and a son of the kende as a pledge. Árpád brings Tas, and Kurszán must accept this; he can do nothing about the fact that two of his sons will be sent to the Bavarian court, and none of Árpád’s.
The original sin, whose shadow is cast across the entire future history of Hungary, begins here. Árpád’s allegiance instigates a plot against Kurszán, who is killed. The two sons, Csaba and Tas, are also to die. The Hungarians believe that the two were killed together with their father. But the youths live, hidden in different monasteries by the Bavarians.
When Stephanus suddenly appears among the Hungarians with his kende locket, knowing a few Hungarian words and proving himself an able horseman, many believe that Stephanus is the son of Kende Kurszán.
Stephanus himself is unsure and begins to believe that he is in fact the son of Kurszán and that he has been called upon to establish peace among the warring Hungarian tribes.
In addition to his monk’s insignia he wears the kende locket and is consecrated as the kende. He learns about love with the wife chosen for him, which he does not believe to contradict the vows of his order.
Later, Stephanus rides with the army to the Carpathian mountains to meet the young chief Géza. Now for him begin the real trials as a series of betrayals and intrigues begins. He becomes ever more aware that sacredness and respect toward the kende have been lost forever. Even the love of the young ruler is determined more by intrigues than by true feelings. Gradually, Stephanus comes to lose faith in his mission.
When he can finally present the papal emissary to the chief Géza, this has already lost its relevance. A new pope had been crowned in the meanwhile. Chief Géza had been prepared to retain the experienced monk as an adviser and send him to the pope as his emissary, but the nobility prevent this. Stephanus must flee. As he is crossing the Enns, he removes the locket, now longing for nothing beyond the peaceful walls of the monastery. But Virgil of Aquilea will not accept the inconvenient monk and banishes him to the forest.
On account of the discrepancies between the official version and Stephanus’s tales, Alberich discovers previously concealed facts that enable him to determine the true identity of Stephanus. He is Tas, the illegitimate son of Kende Kurszán. Alberich confronts the abbot with his discovery, since the latter should certainly know the truth. In fact, the abbot is himself Csaba, the elder of Kurszán’s sons, and it was he to whom Stephanus had become more and more of an inconvenience, until he sent the monk to Hungary with the papal missive. With this he accomplished several things: He hoped that Stephanus would die; he desired revenge for his father’s murder and wished to lead his people to Christianity, to make possible for them a better, more civilized, life. While for Virgil, the future signified the complete eradication of the past, Stephanus desired to fulfill his mission by joining past and future together harmoniously. The battle between the two remains undecided, for at the time of Stephanus’s death, Virgil also dies under mysterious circumstances.
Kritiken / Reviews:
a toute livre (FR)
Glaube Aktuell (DE)
Historische Romane (DE)
Index Veszprem (HU)
Le Choix Des Libraires (FR)
Le Figaro (FR)
Le Monde Diplomatique (FR)
Magyar Nemzet (HU)
Magyar Nemzet (HU)
More works of this writer:
A Vénusz vonulása(Le passage de Vénus)
Diogenész kertje (Garden of Diogenes)
A szalmakutyák szigete (working title: "Island of the Strawdogs")
Végvár (The Fortress)
Júliával az út (working title: The way with Julia)
<-- Róbert Hász