The Siege of Beszterce, by Kálmán Mikszáth

I’ve read a few novellas by Kálmán Mikszáth before, but I don’t remember them being anywhere near as good as The Siege of Beszterce. Mikszáth was a Hungarian, writing around the end of the c19th. His other novellas were similar to the longer and slightly less interesting stories in the Arabian Nights (excluding The Tale of Sympathy the Learned, which I’ve been stuck on for half a year, and which is undoubtably – so far, at least – the most tedious story in the collection); but The Siege of Beszterce isn’t so much like that, as much as – say – Don Quixote.

I suppose I should reiterate at this point that I’ve never read Don Quixote, though I think I’ve a fair idea of what it’s like. It’s Mikszáth himself who works in the comparison. The basic story is this: a Hungarian count, István Pongrácz, living in the middle of c19th, when Hungarian counts have largely lost the feudal powers they once possessed, ignores the reality of the modern world and continues on as if he’s living in feudal times. This manifests itself in him dressing his servants up as soldiers and getting them to conduct military manoeuvres; and then occasionally getting another local count to raise a similar army and come and besiege him in his castle. It’s generally accepted that Pongrácz is quite mad, but he’s put out one day when someone takes it into her head to start reading Don Quixote to him, and he decides to cease such childish games. (If there’s actually one thing this book reminded me of, it’s Vivian Stanshall’s mad film, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, in which Sir Henry builds a German prisoner of war camp in the grounds of his estate and hires people to try to escape from it).

Anyhow, eventually a guest offends Pongrácz in some way, so he locks him up in his dungeon, which sparks off a chain of events which ends up with him raising an army and marching on the town of Beszterce. The whole novel is quite amusing and mad. No doubt it has much to say to us about Hungary, and its inter-relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the middle of c19th. It was published by Corvina Press a long while ago. Nothing by Mikszáth is in print these days. Some of his books can be downloaded (at least 60 volumes worth, if you speak Hungarian).

In English, you can download Heathen Mister Filcsik here, and St Peter’s Umbrella here, neither of which I’ve read.

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5 thoughts on “The Siege of Beszterce, by Kálmán Mikszáth

  1. Sounds like a Michael Koolhaas-type scenario as well. The “quite amusing and mad” is the clincher.

  2. With its feudalism and arbitrary law, perhaps it is like Michael K; but on the other hand its half-decently plotted.

  3. Do you mean Mikszath or Kleist? Mikszath was translated by one Dick Sturgess. Kleist I will have to come back to you on; it is hidden away in a box somewhere. I fear the problems with Kleist though extend beyond translation issues.

  4. I meant the Mikszath, sorry for not being clear. There’s a new translation of the book, by the aforementioned Ms Whitlock.

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