'Billiards at the Hotel Dobray' by Dušan Šarotar (translated by Rawley Grau and published by Istros Books)
This novel is set in a very specific time and place: Sóbota (now in Slovenia), then a borderland between Hungary and what would become Yugoslavia, towards the end of the Second World War, March 1945. While actual conflict has not been seen in Sóbota, this turning point in the war's tide marks a time of confusion. Hungarian soldiers are billeted in the Hotel Dobray, which had once hosted dinners, meetings, concerts and a casino for the better-off citizens. Chandeliers still hang from the ceilings, and red carpets are still there, though they have been torn and muddied by soldiers' boots. The former maître d'hotel Laci, is still there, 'comporting himself like the captain of a slowly sinking ship,' serving drinks to the soldiers, a thread of normality hanging from the tattered cloth of people's lives.
Life – and time itself it seems – is locked into the small dimensions of this town, caught in a net. Everyone knows that the Russian Red Army is very close and could well arrive in the town at any moment. The Hungarian soldiers occupying the hotel know they will have to fight (or flee) and while they wait, try to drown their fears in alcohol. Anyone who, for different reasons, are out and about, are acutely aware of possible danger. Linna, a singer, also staying at the hotel, has been given a secret mission to accomplish (helping the partisan resistance movement) and has to cross dark and muddy fields at night, not knowing who might be lurking there (and barely escapes with her life).
Josip Benko, a businessman, factory owner, (and former town mayor) renowned for his famous sausages, has told local peasants and villagers that he will buy their livestock, and early in the morning finds his courtyard packed with kicking and stampeding out-of-control horses. It is also early morning when Franz Schwartz, a survivor from Auschwitz who has made his way across Europe, reaches the outskirts of his home town but has to remain in hiding in still-occupied Sóbota, for he does not know who he can trust.
While the main focus is on these two days in Sóbota, as everyone waits for the hinge of the war to move and open a door to the end of conflict, to a new era, to liberation, safety, to death or retribution, whichever way this turning point is seen, time also slips back to the previous year, and right at the end, to the future.
Going back to the past shows how this town does not escape the horrific round-up by the German army of the town's Jewish inhabitants. It also shows how the town's well-off and comfortable bourgeoisie conveniently ignored the forced removal of the Jews. The glimpse of the future shows the vengeful and hypocritical attitude of the new Communist authorities, the same people who had done nothing to help the Jews. They now want to 'expose and condemn the old elites, the bourgeoisie and the reactionary intelligentsia, to take away everything they have... so that we the people can use it'.
Šarotar paints a picture of such detail that it is as if you, the reader, enter into the story and are contained within its atmosphere. The outer weather (mostly cold and damp, with rain or light snow) mixes with the thoughts and emotions of the characters, of the conflict, of the not-knowing, of the rumours, sympathies, fears, loves. The landscape – both of nature, fields, trees, earth and the human habitations – all are affected, complicit, in this moment where the tide is about to turn, where the war is about to end, but no-one knows yet when this will happen, or how, and what the aftermath will be like.
Šarotar is a master of creating atmosphere, which is often brooding, claustrophobic, menacing. The sky – often described as having an all-seeing eye – is a felt presence, and the returning Franz Schwartz sees that: 'Storm clouds were multiplying out of the dazzling expanse and behind their foaming edges, the sky glowed red'. It's as if the sky is a reflector of people's feelings and even more, a collector of memories. And Šarotar seems to be saying that no matter how much some will strive to cover up what happened here – particularly the expulsion and murder of the Jews – the truth cannot and must not be buried. The sky operates as a camera, where the images of the past can be read, and are released as the story unfolds.
There are, however, unexpected shafts of sunlight: the love between Linna and the soldier Kolosváry, and Edina's love for the Jewish boy Izak. The businessman Benko also turns out to have a hidden side to his character, one that is not solely looking for ways of making money. He has helped the resistance fighters, the Partisans, and faces danger and personal risk by helping Linna and Kolosváry escape.
The subject matter is painful but the language is full of poetry and metaphor: 'Blackness hung beneath the long eaves as if night had wrapped itself in cobwebs to keep the stray cats from ripping it apart'.
Šarotar's lyrical writing has that rare quality to show character as being both within us and outside of us. He portrays people's complex motivations and reactions as they interweave with location and circumstances. The narrator does not judge the characters but that does not mean he is detached or unaffected. Just as the all-seeing sky throws down rain, you can feel that the narrator's heart too, is wrung. At the end of the book, it is the young woman Edina who refuses to consign what has happened to oblivion, to act as if it was no longer relevant, as if it no longer existed, as if it was in the past.