Epic Sweep Without Epic Length

Review of It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time), A Historical Novel from 1938 to 1968 by Pavol Rankov

The 20th century has no shortage of places and times known for name changes and shifts of identity. There was Golden Age Hollywood, where Brooklyn-born Margarita Carmen Cansino went on to become glamour personified as Rita Hayworth. Or there was modernist Paris, where Wilhelm Kostrowicki came from Rome and transformed himself into French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Of all these locations Central Europe was a perhaps even more fertile ground for such fluid identities, yet with a vital difference.

Pavol Rankov shows in his novel It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time) that the name changes that take place among the characters and even locations in his native Slovakia are not a testament to creativity nor to personal reinvention, though there are occasional elements of that, but come from a much darker source. The engine of reinvention in this novel of mid-20th century Central European history are the shared evils of ideology, nationalism and ethnic prejudice, revealing the characters' rush back and forth between nationalities, beliefs and names as if they are playing a deadly, unwinnable game of musical chairs.

It begins on September 1, 1938 in the Slovak city of Levice. It's a blissful sunny day at the local swimming pool where three best friends, Czech Jan Bizek, Jewish Gabriel Rosenberg and Hungarian Peter Rónai are knowingly enjoying the last day before school starts and unknowingly enjoying the last days of the multiethnic, democratic Czechoslovakia in which Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Jews, Gypsies and other Slavic minorities can all co-exist. Yet these teenage boys are far less concerned with world history than with the local Slovak beauty Maria and their competition to win her affection, a competition which Rankov masterfully intertwines with the next three decades of world events that come crashing down on this provincial city and the three friends' lives.

Each of the book's chapters covers a year from 1938 to 1968, and though the action doesn't all or always take place on September 1st, the date remains a center of gravity, both historically and in the  friends' recurring mention of that day at the pool when they attempt to decide who will end up with Maria through the result of a swimming race.

The way Rankov balances and weaves together the seemingly lighter side of the September 1st story with its darker and more momentous occasions, such as the September 1st, 1939 outbreak of World War II, makes for a highly compelling narrative. By slipping back and forth from fascism to youthful frivolity, the darkness is made darker and the known tragedies of history less easily familiar. 

Then there are the lesser-known tragedies, at least for non-Slovak readers, such as the 1939 Hungarian takeover of swathes of Slovak territory, when Levice became Leva and a wave of anti-Slovak and anti-Semitic extremism takes place. This brings about the first of Gabriel's name changes, when he opts for the Hungarian Gabor while Maria's Slovak family takes on a Hungarian last name. Maria's leftist father even surprisingly joins the far-right Hungarian Arrow Cross party, a move which will have far-reaching consequences both during and well after the war. His real reasons aren't revealed until later but even his apparent ones ring true as an explanation of the changeable identities in this dangerous, unstable world:

"In those days, everyone was just trying to survive. As long as he wasn't hurting anyone, he could be whatever he wanted to be."

Throughout the book the three friends navigate who they are against the backdrop of world events that reveal themselves to be increasingly beyond their control: invasion, bombings, concentration camps, the communist coup, the secret police, interrogations, escapes, emigration, exile, as well as love affairs, drunken escapades, and emotional reconnecting with family and friends. 

Identity shifts continue to show the unnatural pressures of the political moment throughout the novel, with the action moving from Prague, Berlin and Bratislava to Tel-Aviv, Budapest, New York and San Francisco among other locations. But the small city of Levice remains the focal point just as all the politics, danger, success and failure can't ever fully take away the central role of Maria in the lives of the three friends. 

Rankov is able to bring in a range of peripheral characters from history ranging from Israeli military leaders to a San Francisco poetry-reading with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He does this by both convincingly moving the three main characters around the world as well as crafting surreal, savage parodies of fascist and communist leaders such as Jozef Tiso, Klement Gottwald and others.

The main characters are also made more human by their fallibility. Just before he's supposed to marry Maria, a harsh light is cast on Jan's sleazy womanizing, though that is immediately followed by scenes of his fighting against the Soviets in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 with the most resolute, selfless heroism (where he's referred to as János). Each of the three friends is shown at his best and worst, as if Rankov is asking us to share Maria's point of view in choosing between them, or to reject them one and all.

And sharing her point of view is exactly what takes place in the novel's powerful final chapter in 1968, when third person narration gives way to Maria's voice, leading up to what the will be the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that began on August 21. The last look at the four characters' lives comes through the prism of Maria's clearsighted perspective of what politics and ideology have done to their generation, followed by the novel's riveting conclusion.

Magdalena Mullek's translation does an outstanding job of bringing into English all the multilingual depth and expression that were so significant in the Slovak original as well as keeping the novel a truly exhilarating read. It Happened.. is a novel with epic sweep yet without epic length as both the years it covers and its action fly by. Though much of the book deals with history's bleaker chapters the novel is a page turner filled with humor, vibrant writing and hope.