A veiled young woman, with her advocate and a chaperone, travels across Europe to get an annulment from her tyrannical husband; a puppet in the hands of his avaricious secretary and sly mistress. In comes a knowledgable, enigmatic and aloof stranger who scares the bad secretary away.
“If the princess has a woman’s heart in her bosom,” he declares, “she will throw her million away in return for the love of a true man!”
I was involved in the story right from their first meeting on the first page. When I wasn’t even sure these were the main characters, I still wanted the man and woman to meet again.
The young woman, Blanka, wanted freedom from the sadistic Prince she was married to. The stranger, Manasseh, she meets on the train journey, spoke of his divorce (which we soon come to know is his desire to break free from the govenrment whose views he doesn’t share). Could this unlikely pair be the hero and heroine of this romance in Transylvania?
Maurus Jokai or Mór Jókai is a Hungarian writer from the 19th Century. This translated work of his reminds me of numerous Russian novels of Tolstoy and Pasternak that I have started to read, but got confused and given up mid way. There is some disconnect and jumps in the storytelling, but there are hardly any confusing names that you get lost in. Neither are there characters that come and go with no impact at all, except to burden the poor reader with another name to remember.
Broken threads and occasional inconsistencies are found in all his works, and if they are met with here, it is not because of, but in spite of, the abridgment which the book has undergone. – from the translator
The Hungarian title of the book is “Egy az Isten,” – “One is the Lord,” – the watchword of the Unitarians of Transylvania. As per wikipedia, the defining belief of Unitarian Universalism is that religion is a matter of individual experience, and that, therefore, only the individual can decide what to “believe.”
The author takes the reader on a journey through varied landscapes, strata of society and years that fade into the past as one lives through the present.
In Rome, the scenes describe the royal society and the church. A glimpse of the beliefs of the common mass, the power that the rich hold, prevalent hypocrisy, fine forms of exploitation and the restrains that fall upon any person, specially a woman. It was eye opening to read of the faith and fear the church inspired in the people.
“Oh, no, not lost,” returned Manasseh; “what belongs nowhere and to no one cannot be lost.”
In contrast to all that Blanka has known all her life, Manasseh seems untouched by all this, or rather, chooses to stay away. His small pocket of Transylvania is close knit, but has its own share of problems.
While his brothers are hungry for justice, Manasseh allows himself to show mercy to the man that has wronged his family. The literal translation of Manasseh can be – “who makes to forget“. At times, Manasseh almost naively stakes his life and happiness on the hope of peace. He is strong and unwavering in his beliefs. When he loves he does not shout it, neither does he hide it.
“Art it is, moreover, that makes woman the equal of man. The woman artist is something more than man’s other half; she is complete in herself.”
I was touched at how simply his love is acknowledged in his painting of Blanka, that he refuses to sell for any price.
The 2nd half of the book journeys to a land strangely familiar, yet far removed. Amidst battle and bloodshed are hard working, honest, warm people with a strong sense of community and family. Where the bride and groom have to take the blessing of the church, and wait for the appropriate time for the wedding, before which they do not even share a kiss.
Different tribes with long lasting feuds, and external influences instigating war for their own gains, threaten to tear apart the loving couple and the society they hold dear. At one point, the peace loving Manasseh is tempted to take up arms, for his people. Blanks and he stay apart, she toils hard, his patience is tested, through sickness and health, their story goes on.
“You worship that Jesus in whose name the massacre of St. Bartholomew was perpetrated, the burning of heretics sanctioned, and the crusades undertaken; but you are no true follower of that Jesus who came with a message of peace and good-will to mankind, and who said to Peter, ‘They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
Another love story as powerful, though much more difficult to understand, is of Manessah’s sister. I initially rolled my eyes at her undying devotion towards the man who has wronged her and is willing to take her brother’s life. Till at the end, with her last breath, continuing to love him and forgiving all his sins, she won me over.
With a reminder to myself to thank my friend who leant me the book, I wrap up this post. It was fun to read a historical fiction, that was not bogged down by digressing details. Manasseh A Romance Of Transylvania is rich in cultural references, patriotism, musings on religion and simple, steadfast love.