When fired, mortar shells make two sounds—release and impact.
Imagine a soldier under barrage, how interminable these gaps must feel. For some, the silence is infinite. Others survive, haunted knowing how easily it could have been them.
Béla Zombory-Moldován was one such haunted man. His memoir, The Burning of the World, comes to us at a special time, a century after the year it covers. (At a time when, eerily enough, Russians have their artillery trained on yet another European neighbor.) Though incomplete, The Burning of the World offers a unique lens for war—a painter dragged into battle in the prime of his life.
The action itself is scant. Readers seeking more exhaustive battle accounts may be disappointed—Elton Mackin’s Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die or John Lucy’s There’s A Devil in the Drum are viable alternatives. Still the surviving passages contain a music worth preserving: the painter picking out colors during a march (“The heads of the soldiers . . . bathed in cadmium orange” (43)); twenty-nine-year old Béla asking his mother to remember to pack him fresh underwear before he goes off to battle; a touching scene where the author, crouched in a dugout, carves out a little sill for his wristwatch, waiting for dawn and the mortars it will surely bring. The warmth of Montaigne meets the wryness of Dillard, Zombory-Moldován reads like an old friend, even in the midst of chaos.
The discovery of the painter’s journal is a story in itself. Locked in a strongbox for years after his death, pages yellowing, The Burning of the World risked the fate of so many historical documents, lost to flame, mildew, time. Luckily the author’s grandson saw the value of such a distinctive account—a natural creator faced with overwhelming amounts of destruction, trying to keep his soul intact. When he learns he’ll be given a short leave, Béla rejoices: “Let me live for three months. Let me paint.” (89)
Artwork as a way to navigate pain isn’t a new idea, nor is there any shortage of World War I memoirs already out there. Even so, the book serves as a vital reminder of the suddenness of war. Canvases can take years, decades to piece together, while only taking seconds to burn. One minute Zombory-Moldován is on vacation, enjoying a beach holiday with friends, the next he’s plunged into a war he has no direct ties to.
One pities how ill-prepared the Hungarians are for war. An officer, Zombory-Moldován carries a sword into combat (the unwieldy thing only gets in the way). The infantry, bearing rifles, are a sneeze compared to the artillery that hammers down on them in the Galician forest. Compounding their problems, a superior officer forbids the digging of fox-holes (said to undermine combatants’ courage); the soldiers are forced on a pointless 50 km march that drains them of vital energy. Though we can’t help but chuckle at the men, bumbling, clumsy, hopelessly outmatched, we stop laughing when they start dying in droves.
The real tragedy, though, is that the book ends when it does. Just as we get comfortable with Zombory-Moldován, the account stops, the rest of it ostensibly destroyed by his wife. Our questions are made to linger painfully. Still, we treasure the words that have lasted this long, the man’s dogged spirit as worthy of admiration as his best landscapes.