The Sindbad whose adventures the great Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy recounts has very little to do with the dauntless character whose name, we are told, the Hungarian Sindbad picked out himself from the Arabian Nights, his favorite book. He could even be accused of passing under false pretences. Yes, this Sindbad is incorrigibly restless, frequently in a tight spot, and not a little wily, but he is hardly a man of action and in no sense a hero. He is not young but ageless, wandering grayhaired in a green hat across the Hungarian plains or turning up in a Carpathian mountain village when not haunting the streets of Buda and Pest.
As to Sindbad’s adventures, they are exclusively amatory. He loves women indiscriminately and pursues them indefatigably, women who often are in no less hot pursuit of him, not least because he is as fickle in love as he is passionately persuasive. And yet if Sindbad is both a lover and a liar (“When precisely did the lies begin?” he wonders at one point; there is, at all events, no end to them), he is hardly a Don Juan. He doesn’t seek to conquer and possess but to find a place in a woman’s thoughts and dreams, to exist there in a state of ongoing suspense before his or her affections drift away to attach themselves to some other object of desire. (Of course he complains bitterly and quite unreasonably about women’s faithlessness.)
Sindbad and his paramours are often seen languishing broken-hearted or on their way to drown their sorrows in the Danube, and at times it appears that these adventures are doomed to end badly and sadly for all concerned. And yet it isn’t so. Everything in these stories is a matter of regret, but in the end somehow nothing is. Everything happened long ago and is now over and lost for good, while at the same time everything comes back and goes on. (“I have never completely forgotten you,” Sindbad reassures an old flame, who responds, “You really should have given up lying by now.”) Love is nothing if not unreal, and what is a good story if not a good lie? It seems altogether appropriate that most of what happens to Sindbad in these stories happens when he is already dead, while in one he exists for several pages as a sprig of mistletoe.
Krúdy’s stories, at all events, don’t set out to describe events so much as they seek to set a mood. The mood is melancholy, languorous, worldly-wise, teasingly romantic, funny, sometimes silly. Certainly it is all Krúdy’s own. The stories are exercises in seduction. “What did Sindbad like,” “An Overnight Stay” begins. “He liked snowdrifts and women’s legs… He liked hands, hair, women’s names, voices and caresses. He liked to appear in young girls’ dreams, to court fallen women at masked balls… He liked lies, illusions, fictions and imagination.” Krúdy can strike that note, but he can also display an unsettling clarity of observation, describing “a child sitting on a low stool, apprehensively, almost fearfully watching the garden yawning with autumn” or a teacher of mathematics whose “face always smelled of cold water.”
It seems a curious coincidence that the Sindbad stories were mostly written and published in the course of World War I, when they were a great success, making Krúdy’s name and even making him some money. (Krúdy, even more of a wastrel than Sindbad, soon lost it all.) Otherworldly as Sindbad’s adventures are, one supposes they may have offered readers a refuge from the mind-boggling brutalities of the war, and yet I wonder whether they aren’t better seen as a response to the war than an escape from it. A response, in fact, not only to the war but to the explosion of modernization that preceded it (and in some sense led up to it) in the course of which Budapest became for a time the fastest-growing city in the world. The old Hungary that Sindbad haunts is an archaic world, long since destroyed by modernity, and yet it also stands as a haunting reminder that the modern world is no less condemned to destruction. And the modern world, sadly, will never have had a moment to enjoy the wasted nights and days and deliciously unproductive pastimes that lie at the heart of, as Krúdy puts it, “Sindbad’s not altogether pointless and occasionally amusing existence.” Sindbad, with his endless loves and lies, has all the time in the world, and perhaps he is as intrepid a hero, and as artful a survivor, as his Arabian namesake. Krúdy’s Sindbad stories, beautifully translated by George Szirtes, find a way to outpace the forced march of what passes for life in the modern world.
Edwin Frank, Editor