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Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Fever at Dawn (2010)

by Péter Gárdos

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Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos began with a box of letters, or, more accurately, the letter-writers, who would become his parents.

"But for fifty years I did not know that their letters still existed. In the midst of political unheaval and the chaos of moving to new apartments, my parents had carted them around without ever talking about them. They were preserved by being invisible." (This quote is from the epilogue.)

The novel is translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász, the language straight-forward, the cadence uncomplicated, and the tone ever-so-slightly formal.

Sometimes a metaphor shines forth. (Here's a gem: "The occasional Swedish nurse, with her braided hair, crisply starched cloak and bonnet, was squeezed in between them [200 soldiers] like a raisin in a bun.")

Mostly, however, the emphasis is on the broader story, and even though the two letter-writers are at the heart of it, they are not necessarily presented clearly to readers. (In some ways, they, too, are preserved by being invisible.)

Consider this description of Miklós, who has decided that he will send a photograph to Lili, even though he is not satisfied with his appearance.

"Tibor Hirsch, electronic radio technician and photographer’s assistant, hesitated. But Miklós was his friend, and was giving him begging looks, so he put aside his professional pride.
Within five minutes he had worked out how to take a photograph in which my father would be more or less recognisable. He posed Harry in the foreground. In half-profile, at the most flattering angle. A watery sun came out for the briefest moment. Hirsch positioned them with backlight for an artistic feel. He instructed Miklós to run up and down a few metres behind Harry."

Miklós is caught in the image, in a blur, behind his friend. This is highly appropriate, as readers are really only catching a glimpse of him as well, between the lines of letters that he wrote.

But somehow it also captures an aspect of a playful but shy, honest but off-beat man, who, while recovering from the horrors of WWII, in a Swedish hospital, wrote letters to many women seeking companionship, romance even.

When his doctor realises how serious Miklós is taking his pursuit, Dr.Lindholm is not impressed.

“'Last time I tell you, say good bye to her, remember? But even if you were healthy, and you are not, I don’t allow female visitor to male hospital. As a reading man you must understand this.'
'What should I understand?'
'You once mentioned The Magic Mountain? Sensuality is…how I put it…unsettling. Is dangerous.'"

But Miklós is determined: unstoppable and unflappable. He has a poet's heart, and he has something to say.

"The poem soared above the noise of the wheels. Miklós, like a cross between a troubadour and train conductor, marched the length of the carriages. He left half-empty compartments behind him without regret. He had no intention of sitting down. Instead he wanted to form some sort of bond with his fellow travellers, / strangers who were staring in astonishment or sympathy at this passenger holding forth in an unfamiliar language. Maybe some of them could sense in him the lovesick ministreal. Maybe some thought he was a harmless madan. Miklós didn’t give a damn; he walked on, reciting his poem."

Unlike his, Lili's photograph is straight-forward, but her story takes some unexpected turns as well. (Her experience in another Swedish hospital bears some similarities to Miklós' but the relationships between her and her friends are drawn in greater detail, and her prognosis is not determined to be fatal.)

In the wake of a genocidal war, there are deep and devastating themes at work here: freedom and recovery, faith and mortality, loneliness and devotion.

But these ideas are explored in a broader context, so that readers can explore the layers at will.

Rather like Lili's father's suitcase: "Every Monday at dawn Lili’s father, Sándor Reich, trudged down Hernád Street in Budapest carrying two huge Vulkan cabin trunks. In each one, like the layers of an onion, dozens of smaller and smaller cases and bags lay one inside the other."

Fever at Dawn is a simple and short story, but its reverberations cross generations and will attract a wide variety of readers.

This review originally appeared here, on BuriedInPrint. ( )
  buriedinprint | Jun 16, 2016 |
A strange and humorous novel, like a Catch 22 of Jewish refugee life post concentration camp. Sweden has resettled a good number of camp survivors who are broken in all aspects. Tuberculosis leaves Miklos, a Yossarian type, with a year to live, but instead of retreating into despair, he obtains a list and sends love letters to the 117 Hungarian women who are also recovering in Sweden. Miklos has good male companions and is pleased to share the women who correspond with him. All except Lili, whom he keeps for himself. There's something about her...

This is a true story of how the author's parents met. How fortunate that he found all of their letters after they died, and how lucky was Peter Gardos to have such funny, trusting souls arise from the wreckage of Europe and from their hideous memories to become his mother and father. ( )
  froxgirl | May 23, 2016 |
Quick little novel, a post-holocaust love story, based on contemporary letters, written by the resulting son. The story is blighted by 'holocaust porn', a page or two of no doubt true, but needless, descriptions by the son of what the parents must have experienced in the camps. ( )
  kcshankd | May 3, 2016 |
It’s July 1945 and Miklos is seriously ill having just barely survived the Nazi camps during WWII. In a Swedish hospital, Dr. Lindholm said he has no more than six months to live; he has incurable Tuberculosis (TB). Impulsively, Miklos began seeking a wife. He wrote to Hungarian women in hospitals and rehabilitation centers in Sweden — 117 letters in all. He had beautiful handwriting with “shapely letters” and “elegant loops.” Lili Reich was one of the few who took the time to respond. He tells his friend, “… she’s the one.” She was a patient at the Smalandsstenar rehabilitation hospital. After many letters, they finally agreed to meet. He traveled quite some distance. Lili had also suffered during the war and was left in a very frail state from the brutality she’d endured within a Nazi camp.

Peter Gardos is the author. He is also the son of Miklos and Lily. He tells this sweet romantic story from the letters exchanged between his parents – two people who survived the Holocaust. This book was originally written in Hungarian, so I’m not sure if it was due to translation issues, but the writing told in third person is broken periodically referencing ‘my father’. The story was charming, and of course based on reality, but I didn’t feel the author personified the emotional level I would have expected of their relationship. Rating: 3 out of 5. ( )
  FictionZeal | Apr 14, 2016 |
An interesting concept, but not a story that kept me enthralled disappointingly.
I was given a digital copy of this book by the publisher Random House via Netgalley in return for an honest unbiased review. ( )
  Welsh_eileen2 | Mar 14, 2016 |
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In July 1945, Miklós, a Hungarian survivor of Belsen, arrives in a refugee camp in Sweden. He is skin and bone, and has no teeth. The doctor says he has only months to live.

But Miklós has other plans. He acquires a list of 117 young Hungarian women who are also in refugee camps in Sweden, and he writes a letter to each of them—obsessively, in his beautiful hand, sitting in the shade of a tree in the hospital garden. One of those young women, he is sure, will become his wife.

In a camp hundreds of kilometres away, Lili reads his letter. Idly, she decides to write back.

Letter by letter, the pair fall in love. In December 1945 they find a way to meet. They have only three days together, and they fall in love all over again. Now they have to work out how to get married while there is still time…

This story really happened.

Fever at Dawn is a love story for the ages. Based on the letters of the author’s parents, it’s a sad and joyous tale that will stay with you long after its happy ending.
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