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Review: Fever at Dawn, by Péter Gárdos
Translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász
Houghton Mifflin, 2016. 232 pp. $24

Imagine a Hungarian Holocaust survivor in 1945, receiving medical care in Sweden under Red Cross auspices. He weighs practically nothing, and he has metal false teeth, the real ones having been knocked out by thugs. Miklós’s doctor tells him he has tuberculosis, which will kill him in six months. But Miklós did not endure deportation, imprisonment, and torture only to succumb to an ancient plague, and he refuses to believe the diagnosis. So when he comes across a list of 117 Hungarian Jewish women also recuperating in Sweden, he proceeds to write each one, hoping to find a mate.

"Selection" of Hungarian Jews for either work or the gas chambers, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), May or June 1944 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“Selection” of Hungarian Jews for either work or the gas chambers, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), May or June 1944 (Courtesy Yad Vashem, via Wikimedia Commons)

The results, by turns poignant and comical, carry this remarkable premise to a satisfying conclusion. But in saying so, I’m giving nothing away, for Gárdos has written this slim novel about his parents, drawing heavily on the bundles of letters his mother unearthed more than a half-century later and gave to him.

However, if Fever at Dawn ends predictably–the jacket flap leaves little doubt–how the narrative gets there is anything but ordained. Miklós, either a warm-hearted con artist or a vivid dreamer (take your pick), promises Lili Reich that everything will work out just fine, both between them and in life. This is a pretty astounding message for someone you’ve met only in brief letters, especially someone who was nearly left for dead at Bergen-Belsen. But Miklós actually believes it; and Lili, at first with reservations, gradually comes to believe it too. How he works that alchemy is marvelous to behold, and at times a little bewildering, because he can’t resist a soapbox. An ardent Socialist, whereas Lili is bourgeoise, Miklós lectures her on the proper way to view the world. It’s not always clear whether he takes himself seriously, but it’s his confidence that touches her, gives her hope.

But we all know the path to true love never did run smooth, and this courtship faces large barriers. For one thing, the two live in distant places, and the rules strictly forbid them to visit. They scheme, wheedle, plot, and attempt to manipulate their caregivers, pretending that they’re cousins–the oldest dodge in the book, which has no chance of persuading anyone.

Meanwhile, another of the 117 women shows up at Miklós’s rehabilitation center. How she manages is never explained, but she calls him her soul mate and expects him to work out every difficulty her presence causes so that they can be together forever. How Miklós gets around that uncomfortable situation, I won’t say. But I have to quote you the author’s description of what Lili and a girlfriend see when the two lovers meet for the first time, at a train station:

Miklós spotted the reception committee in the distance and smiled. His metal teeth glimmered in the weak light of the platform lamps.

The girls glanced at each other in alarm, then looked guiltily back toward the platform where Miklós was advancing through the thick veil of snow. He had to rest for a moment while he coughed. The left lens frame of his glasses was stuffed with scrunched-up newspaper–that day’s Aftonbladet–an operation he had performed in desperation half an hour earlier, leaving a crack free so that he could at least see a little. . . . . his borrowed winter coat, two sizes too big for him, floated around his ankles.

There are very few flashbacks, because neither Lili nor Miklós care to tell the other how they survived the war, or what they went through. But the author wants you to know, so there are a couple harrowing pages that put their romantic struggles into perspective. After sufferings like theirs, and what they’ve gone through to be able even to contemplate love, problems of time, distance, or unsympathetic, priggish administrators mean absolutely nothing. When you’re determined to love, you will.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.