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This is quite possibly the best book I have ever read, and I am quite worried about not doing it justice in this review!
It begins: "On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys." (Chapter 1, first line).
This "trouble", you begin to realize as the narrator draws you on, forms the seeds of a rising panic which will ultimately take the main character to the brink of his sanity. Mihaly's quite idiotic weak-mindedness is oddly appealing, and is nicely summed up by his relationship to his own honeymoon destination:
"Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women." (Chapter 1, para. 3).
The story follows Mihaly's trip to Italy which becomes a panicked, angst-ridden "escape" from his new wife (whom he abandons on a train!) and a regression into the feelings of his childhood. It's as though he is being chased by a dread-heavy nostalgia and in an attempt to run away from it he goes on a kind of "walkabout" but finds himself face to face with his angst, having tracked down his bizarre childhood friends in the process. The whole atmosphere of the book is driven by this absurd, creeping anxiety which is presented in such a way that it strikes me as peculiar and familiar all at once. His predicament, of a fully-grown man who is suddenly terrified of growing up is deliciously ludicrous: Mihaly really is a likeable twit in the truest and deepest sense.
The improvisation games he played with his childhood friends are both knowingly melodramatic and taken (by them) terribly seriously, and these experiences are described so magically that they ache off the page with some unknown and irretrievable emotion. The question that burns stronger and stronger towards the end is whether, after this "dark night of the soul", Mihaly can re-integrate himself back into his real life as a "petty bourgeouis" businessman, concerned only with the most menial of everyday matters, or if he will completely surrender himself to this intoxicating backward-journey.
This book is strangely affecting in ways I can barely describe! The author must be some kind of wizard: he has invented an emotion, and will use it to pull you through the story to the very end (when YOU will have to do the letting go).
I invite you to surrender to the same experience!