The Two Beggar Students, by Kálmán Mikszáth

I’m reminded of a tutor at university telling me that if I read

Nonnos’ Dionysiaca in Greek, I’d join a club up about ten people in the whole of Britain. Needless to say, I didn’t; but reading a book by Kálmán Mikszáth, even in English, fills me with this same sense. For Hungary’s second most

read writer (apparently), he hasn’t much been translated into English: – only, I think, three of his books, by the Hungarian imprint, Corvina Press,

and that was back in the period 1966-1971. (Hungary’s most read writer – Mór Jokai, whom we’ll get around to soon – doesn’t fair any

better).

This was really a novella, and at first had the sense about it of a pre-Cervantes Spanish novel – a Lazarillo de Tormes, say. Two

impoverished students go off into the world to make their fortune: at a cross-roads, one goes one way, the other the other – and naturally one is

lucky and becomes rich, and the other is unlucky and finds himself in jail. At some point, Mikszáth name-checks the Arabian Nights, and again I

recognise where I am: back in that world of universal storytelling; -although it has to be said, this is the Arabian Nights with a strong dose of

Hungarian nationalism.

Like another book I read relatively recently, von Eichendorff’s Life of a Good-for-Nothing, I was misled too by what

appeared the simplicity of the story: – in fact, since it’s unlikely you’ll ever read this book, I might as well tell you: – one of the two students

discovers one night, in the street, a horde of buried treasure – and this is how he becomes rich. Now, in the context of the story, this seems

ridiculous: a modern reader can’t accept a plot device foisted on him in this way; he can only pass on, thinking to himself: ah, back then they

weren’t sophisticated enough to think up clever plots and twists as we can now; we don’t anymore put up with this clumsy deus-ex-machina absurdity.

But, of course, I am deluded: it is only later that the true reasons for the treasure being in the street for him to find are revealed, and I am

pleased again all of a sudden to have been taken in by my own sense of superiority, and to have found a crafty and satisfying tale after

all.

There’s some great humour in it too (which I’m now going to ruin). I laughed a lot at the passage, a propos of nothing during a drunken

revel, a complete non-sequitur:

“I don’t believe you, doctor,” interjected the jocular Mózes Thoroczkay. “I don’t believe that wine

does increase the rate of mortality. You said yourself not long ago that the highest rate of mortality occurred among children from one day to four

years old. In a word, precisely among those who do not drink wine.”

Anyhow, you’re probably never going to read it.

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