Power of monologues



Power of monologues

WHEN the fugitive escapes from prison in Venice after 15 years of incarceration and comes to the scene of his crime, what was this near-death wish that made the culprit make this daring attempt? When one discovers that he is no ordinary criminal and that the era was one when things were done in style, one can understand the threads that weave this story. And when the narrator is no ordinary writer, you have all the ingredients that go to make a gripping story.

The fugitive, of course, is Casanova and he is visiting Parma where he had fought a duel with a much older Duke and was wounded. The Duke had taken the adventurer to a doctor and had, magnanimously, ordered that as soon as he got well he leave the city and never set foot here. It was to this city that he had come now and checked in at an inn without a penny and with just the coat on his back. He had sent his aide, a friar, to get some decent dress and toiletries so that he could make himself presentable for the rendezvous for which he had undertaken this daring journey. The young and captivating Francesca for whose attentions he had nearly paid with his life is not a young girl any more and she too has to prove a point.

These are the three characters around which Sandor Marai has woven this gripping tale of valour, daring and existential angst. Conversations in Bolzano is, in a sense, more a narrative of monologues than one of action. More than the action, it is the dialogue that heightens the tensions. When the Duke challenges Casanova to a duel for his trying to woo Francesca, he goes into a prolonged discourse on his concept of love and adventure. He also explains how shallow is the mission that Casanova has embarked upon and that these were always doomed. Even when they are facing each other in the moonlight for their duel, the Duke doesn't stop his sermonising. In fact, Marai demonstrates the qualities of each of the characters rather than describe them. It is a tough thing to do but such is his narrative power that one is in the grip of it.

Casanova's arrival does not go unnoticed. The mysterious Francesca sends a one-line note to him that, unfortunately, falls into the hands of the Duke. At their meeting the Duke confronts the fugitive with the note on which is written just the four words "I must meet you". The Duke then expounds on these words that could well have been a deconstruction exercise by Derrida.

The Duke ends his lecture with another challenge. That the fugitive must respond to the message and meet Francesca and he would arrange it. That is the second chivalrous gesture that he is making. Casanova is by now perplexed and his confidence deflated. Finally, when Francesca confronts Casanova, he is at the receiving end of her rhetoric. She punctures his postures and his exploits and illusions of conquest. "I love you therefore I have authority over you and I demand that you take courage," she says. "Are you afraid that boredom might one day grip you with its damp palm and strangle you... I hope I did not hurt you too much." She does not wait for an answer but leaves the room.

Marai plays with his characters and raises the narrative to such a pitch that it leaves the reader as helpless as the protagonist. The expectations that were raised when his novel, The Embers, was published in English a few years back, have been more than justified. And to know that this Hungarian author moved to the United States and took his life at the age of 83, leaving some 40 novels behind, makes one wonder what drove him to take that extreme step.

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