Portrait – 11th October, 2013

A forgotten one hit wonder

Rodion Markovits: Siberian Garrison

Portrait–11th October, 2013


Rodion Markovits: Siberian Garrison

There was probably only one, unique moment in history when Hungary dictated world fashion in literature. And that was not due to one of our canonized writers, but a dilettante; a loutish philistine from Satu Mare.

Rodion Markovits (1888–1948) was considered as a literary Messiah, or at least as a circus spectacle, by many in Budapest after his novel Siberian Garrison had acquired international fame.

To be sure, this was not the first time a Hungarian writer became world famous: the plays of Ferenc Molnár were played on Broadway, adapted for the movies, and his The Play at the Castle was adapted by Tom Stoppard and P.G. Wodehouse. But there was probably only one, unique moment in history when Hungary dictated world fashion in literature. And that was not due to one of our canonized writers, but a dilettante; a loutish philistine from Satu Mare.

The major work of Rodion Markovits, Siberian Garrison, was a classic one hit wonder, like the song "Macarena". However, unlike the hit of Los Del Río, this novel was all but forgotten in the last eighty years. But since both the author and the novel are creepily tragic and embarrassingly entertaining, they definitely deserve to be recalled.

In the beginning of 1928 a dozen copies of a mysterious book were handed around among Budapest literati. Siberian Garrison, the grim-looking, two-volume POW novel published in Cluj was enthusiastically devoured by all. This was unusual indeed, considering that, apart from some vague rumours, the author was virtually unknown. A lawyer by training, he was taken to Russia as a POW during the war (just like his novel’s anonymous protagonist), and was currently working for a newspaper in Satu Mare. His original name was Jakab, and he was probably renamed after the popular fool of Crime and Punishment (Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov). He was married and had two sons.

And here's the first (but not last) comical occurrence in the story. While the opinion leaders of Hungarian literature were glorifying Siberian Garrison, a provincial, insignificant-looking, jovial, middle-aged gentleman arrived from the Partium (the region between Hungary and medieval Transylvania, annexed to Romania with the Treaty of Trianon as part of Transylvania) to the Eastern Railway Station of Budapest with the sound determination to find a publishing house for his novel.

This novel had previously been such a "success" in Transylvania that out of 2000 copies approximately 1800 were laying in some extremely sad and depressing basement in Cluj. In vain was Rodion Markovits going around for three bitter days from one place to the other, he was refused everywhere. The respectable but apparently nor particularly trend-oriented publishers of Pest did not even give him evasive, polite promises. So the author celebrated by Budapest's intellectual elite fussed around for some time like a misfortunate travelling agent, then got tired of it, jumped on a train, and travelled home in anger.

Hysteric success, international glory

So the story could have ended on a sad note, but, fortunately, something happened. Markovits had sent a copy to Lajos Hatvany, the founder of the legendary periodical Nyugat and great art sponsor, who was spending the last months of his forced emigration in Paris. Allegedly, when Hatvany received the book, he threw it into the waste basket unread. However, his maid took it out and packed it neatly into his suitcase. So Hatvany finally ploughed through Siberian Garrison and became such a devoted advocate of the book that after his arrest, following his return to Hungary, it was the only thing he dealt with.

The most influential and respected Hatvany wrote an article titled "A New Name in Hungarian Literature" about his new protégé, and quickly translated Siberian Garrison into German. So the novel was finally published and its short but unique glorious world tourney began.

The reception of the novel was quite hysteric, both among critics and the general reading public. No matter how many copies were printed, they were sold out immediately, and within a few weeks the book was translated into several major languages. The Daily Mail published the novel in installments, and soon POW novels became a world fashion.

They expected the Messiah and got a lout instead

Victorious Markovits soon marched in to Budapest with his wife, Erzsébet Pheiffer (Böske). Budapest literati expected Markovits partly as the Messiah and partly as a circus spectacle. The grey-haired, potbellied, jovially smiling Markovits, a quintessential provincial intellectual, was taken from one café to another, from one literary evening to another. Everybody was curious to know What the Great Writer Would Say.

But it soon turned out that Markovits was one of the least appropriate men for the role of the Great Writer. All his public appearances were disastrous. He didn't seem to have an opinion about anything; when asked about art or politics, he either avoided answering or told the audience the same silly Jewish joke for the sixth time. Although he was a committed Leninist and anti-Capitalist, he would talk exclusively about the success of his novel and the afflux of money due to new publications and translations. This, of course, embittered his poor colleagues who were writing their short stories for a few pennies on a diet of black coffee and eggs.

To add insult to injury, he regularly referred to his novel as "the product", with a typical dilettante manager attitude. His fans gradually fell out of love with him.

Then one day Markovits left, saying that he would make a brief visit to Satu Mare. He never came back. He was planning a triumphant comeback, worthy of a world-renowned bestselling author. However, the long-awaited and desired success at home did not come about. Satu Mare received Markovits with stubborn and cold indifference, something he could probably never get over. So he engaged in a different activity, and became addicted to the passion of card playing. His new passion led him to lose all the wealth he had earned with his novel's world success, within a few months, a fact that elicited no little Schadenfreude in Budapest. Moreover, Golden Train, the continuation of Siberian Garrison, was not very successful. Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, swept away the short-lived success of the novel written by the Satu Mare lawyer. Later Markovits wrote another novel, titled Cripple Carneval, which also remained unnoticed, then he moved to Timișoara and returned to journalism. During the Second World War he received advancements from literary sponsors and about dubious characters for a never-to-be-finished book.

He died in 1948, somewhat over sixty.

Whether Rodion Markovits was a talent gone wrong, an unfulfilled promise who could have actually become a great artist, a classic one-volume writer, or a mere literary curiosity, it is hard to tell. But it is a matter of fact that for a few months the son of a provincial Jewish merchant, a former POW and ex-member of the Red Army, a Hungarian lawyer of Romania enchanted by literature, was the number one literary sensation.

Siberian Garrison

Although its huge contemporary success was largely due to novelty, Siberian Garrison is by no means worthless trash. The novel was partly based on Markovits's own experiences, and partly on narratves by his fellow war prisoners (hence the unusual subtitle: "A Collective Report Novel"). Its subtle black humour recalls The Good Soldier Švejk, and the portrayal of the desperation in the everyday life of the middle classes, more desperate even than war, reminds one of Kosztolányi. The narrative is quite fluent, as in any true-blooded bestseller.

The first quarter of the novel is unusually strong: the description of the young lawyer looking for a job, with the backdrop of Budapest preparing for the war, is the most moving part of the book. Then the narrator's intonation dramatically changes; the tragically absurd events of military training and life on the front line hold the potential of a war comedy, whereas the endless train journey to Siberia and the foggy, romantic Russian landscape are described lyrically. By the time we get to the description of the POW camp in Siberia, the stylistic roller coaster ends, and from then on, depressing, tiring and often functionless scenes follow, with some spectacular flashes.

Although in certain places Markovits could describe the most insignificant things very effectively yet without tear-jerking, he often got lost in tiny details which make his novel annoyingly out of focus. Consequently, reading Siberian Garrison is often a laborious struggle from page to page, which, although a nice metaphor of the everyday life of war prisoners, does not account for a pleasant reading experience. And sometimes the 'report novel' becomes so 'collective' that the altogether decently drawn and sympathetic protagonist simply disappears, and we must follow the life of faceless characters, whose characters are so strongly overlapping that the reader has difficulty telling the handsome cavalryman, the Communist teacher and the Jew apart.

So it would be exaggeration to call Siberian Garrison a forgotten classic. However, despite the obvious shortcomings, I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in that historical period, especially if they don't mind to leave some of the chapters unread.

The story of the author and the novel was written by Andor Kellér in his novel Tökász [Bells, Ace].

This article was originally published in Hungarian at Kötve-Fűzve (Origo Kultúra).

Csaba Sz. Szabó

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