The Burning of the World
A Memoir of 1914
Béla Zombory-Moldován
Peter Zombory-Moldován, Translator
(New York Review Classics)
Béla Zombory-Moldován was an artist living in Budapest in 1914. When the mobilization for war began, he was called up and sent to the front at Rava Ruska near the Russian border. In two weeks, the war was underway and by the end of that September, almost 200,000 soldiers had perished.

BZM (as he will be known here) served but ten days before he was wounded and sent back to Budapest, but in that brief period he sat (or rather tried to hide) through a twenty-four saturation bombing siege by the Russians, had seen his friends and no few strangers turned from humans (moving around, running, hiding too) into meat and gristle and blood and bone (no body and soul no more) in front of him. and he had been severely wounded in the head.

In a very short time, he had gone through the Five Stages of the New-in-Battle Soldier: Bravery, Terror, Fatalism, Retreat (or Advance), --- and the knowledge that war stinks and that one may or may not survive.

Years after this adventure, Peter Zombory-Moldován --- his grandson --- found some notes about those days, which he has here edited and translated. And they are a dandy.

In the genre, there are war stories, war journals and war novels. War and Peace is the war novel taken to the extreme of detail, with its Twentieth Century equivalents, The Naked and the Dead and The Thin Red Line. On the other hand we have the impressionists: A Midnight Clear by William Wharton, The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, King Rat by James Clavell and A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin are close equivalents of The Burning of the World, but the best example would be the contemporary novel The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen and Crane. The two of them are attempts to strip the narrative down, give brief access to the terror and confusion and glory-lessness of it all. If you will, we have in these the boiling down of the experience, where war comes on as the juggernaut it is, and we watch --- as they watched --- the young and the old and the good and the bad being chewed up and tossed aside.

With novels like this, and photography, and the documentaries and the bare recounting, we learn soon enough that war is a grisly business, and that the glamour and heroism get disposed of soon enough. By reality:

    The artillery fire starts behind us, at the edge of the woods, and works its way towards our positions. So that no one can escape to the rear . . . After two hours they fall silent. Now their infantry join in with rifle fire. Our troops return fire nervously. There is nothing to aim at. They're hitting nothing but thin air. I try to give the order to fire only when there's a target. What if we run out of ammunition? But my voice is lost in the hurricane. I can't even hear myself. After great effort, I seem to make out some movement at about a thousand, perhaps fifteen hundred meters. I, too, use my rifle. I can feel the heat of the barrel even through the wood of the stock. The bolt turns more and more stiffly, until I can barely yank it back. It won't go forward again. Sand has got into it.

And there you have it. You're trying to fight a war and you've got sand in your gun so it won't even load or shoot. Then:

    We'll be safe once we get to the other side. A few steps to go. Over cartridge cases, scattered kit, dead bodies. One more step. The Russians open fire. They've spotted us. I only notice the two bullet holes through the bottom of my cape the next day. It borders on the miraculous that I'm not hit. On the far side, I throw myself to the ground. My heart is in my throat, trying to jump out of my ears. Slowly I set off under the cover of a little gully. Further on, the gully widens out. I find a group of men, a corporal trying to pull them together. One of them, his face yellow as wax, has both hands pressed to his belly and is crying out. The corporal orders them about sternly, with little effect.

And then when they, the soldiers, discover why they are there: to kill or be killed:

    At that moment, six shrapnel shells howl overhead. The line of NCOs takes a direct hit. A row of three topple over lifelessly, like logs. A fourth has had his whole head torn off. He stays upright for a few moments, like an enormous jar of tomato paste, then keels over. I look around and see that I am practically alone; everyone has run into the thick of the forest . . . How they can target us with such accuracy is a mystery.

BZM only stays in the war zone for a few days. With his wound he is to be sent back to Budapest. His time at war was short; his time spent trying to get to the front --- and, quickly enough, trying to get away from it --- takes up most of The Burning of the World. It is, at most, ten days. BZM's dealings with his family and the rehashing of his brief experience and the startling truth that this experience of the glory is no glory at all, but --- and he see this soon enough --- will settle into a disenchanting, long-drawn-out saga of kill or be killed quickly gives him the experience that will change him for the rest of his life, because of "nerves," what we now call PTSD. In his short time at the front, his hours and hours (and hours) under fire, and his wound which --- since it is to his head --- is difficult to diagnose. Total time: about ten days. And the aftermath, when all realize that this is such a strange new game (this being Hungary's first war in seventy-five years):

    Wounded men and amputees hung about everywhere in the streets; and those on leave, who also carried sticks. The wounded received the most attention, especially if they had a little blood on them showing some interest in what had happened to them could elicit much useful information. The amputees didn't count for much any more. Even speaking to them was risky: in their bitterness, they would blame and curse everyone and everything . . .

And then,

    I was startled awake by unfamiliar sounds. I jumped up. My father was sitting, petrified, in front of me; beside him, two men in civilian clothes shrank back in fright, their eyes staring.

    "What are you doing out here?" I shouted. "There's a battle going on! You'll get shot!"

    "Calm yourself, son! You're at home. This gentleman is your friend Lajos Markó's brother. They're asking after you and their brother."

    Gently, he sat me back down and stroked my head. Little by little, I came to my senses, and tried to smile in my embarrassment, but the visitors withdrew, apologizing and keen to get away. There was a brief quiet exchange in the hall, then I heard the door click shut.

    Well done. Now they'll be telling tales of how crazy I am.

What we have here is a visit to a war of a hundred years ago and an elegantly clear picture of what war did and does to people: the permanent presence, and the permanent presents of that war. BZM lived until 1967; he even had a chance to see a rerun of it all over again (new toys to play with, but essentially the same old same old: death, destruction, of people, of people's homes . . . and their lives); and this message: Once you've done it, you never get away from it. It either kills your body, or it kills all or most of your soul. You, and your world, and The World, never recover.

And the most lovely irony of them all: BZM ends up as A Hero. All he needed was a case of the shakes, and a blood-drenched cape with two bullet holes, and a bandage around his head --- not changed for a week --- and the smell of the trenches firmly about him. In a very short time he has been transformed from a fairly dreamy painter into a genuine war-charged, war-changed hero.

§   §   §

Sometimes we are mystified that men (and now women; o lucky women!) still, well into the 21st Century, continue to war on and murder each other. Is it only the artists, the "sensitive" ones that realize what a Hobson's choice it is. BZM is of the upper class. When in the first two days, they get to the town of Veszprém "where I had to report for duty," he recalls it because Szily Pongrácz's family used to talk about it because her uncle, Bishop Ranolder, who "used to have his palace there."

During his ten days at war, although BZM is of the upper class, he finds himself surrounded by the poor, and the country folk, and the gypsies. (War has the same virtue as fire-bombing or carpet shelling of cities: all are allowed to participate, get wounded, get the shakes, get dead.)

It is not his friends that help him to make it through the ten days. No, it is complete strangers, always the poor, the peasant, the bottom of the heap. These folk save BZM's life. It is Jóska and his fellows who find him wounded. It is Jóska and his buddies who drag BZM to safety, who angle to get him onto the sole cart for the wounded --- a dog-cart --- that pull him forcibly out of the war zone; that coerce others out of the way, cram him into a corner of the three trains that will bring him back to Budapest, back home to peace --- albeit a shaky peace --- once again.

Béla Zombory-Moldován, one time painter, now newly-minted hero back from the front, to inspire a whole new generation of eager kids into the great grinding war-machine once again.

--- Betsy Ball
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