Mór Jókai’s 1879 Told by the Death’s Head: A Romantic Tale was inspired by an encounter the author was kind enough to describe in his preface:
In Part II, Vol. 2, of the Rhenish Antiquarius, I once came across a skull that is said—see page 612—to swing, enclosed in a metal casket, from an iron bar in the foundry of Ehrenbreitstein fortress. Distinction of this order does not fall to an ordinary mortal. Yon empty shell of human wisdom once bore the burden of no less than twenty-one mortal sins—the seven originalia trebled. Each crime is noted. The criminal confessed to the entire three-times-seven, and yet the death sentence was not passed upon him because of the twenty-one crimes. His fate was decided by the transgression of a military regulation.
What if this skull could speak? What if it could defend itself?—relate, with all the grim humor of one on the rack, the many pranks played—the mad follies committed, from the banks of the Weichsel to the delta of the Ganges!
If my highly esteemed readers will promise to give me their credulous attention, I will relate what was told to me by the death’s head.
And so he does, in a tale that takes us across Europe and beyond, a tale of love, adventure, and casual anti-Semitism.
The narrative begins in 1688, during the French siege of Coblentz, with the discovery that a gunner named Hugo, noted for his peculiar skill with incendiaries, has another unexpected skill. He is using the shells he so happily lobs in the direction of the enemy to deliver written messages to the French. The city fathers of Coblentz are not impressed with his cunning plan and are inclined to reward Hugo with a quick trial and execution.
Much to their surprise, Hugo admits not only to espionage, but to a bewildering list of crimes:
He declares himself guilty of;
- seducing a benefactor’s wife
- pretending to be a nobleman
- quack doctoring
- cheating his business partners
- robbing a church
- killing his friend in a duel
- killing his first wife
- joining a robber gang
- betraying state secrets
- betraying a fortress to the enemy
Each of the crimes to which Hugo confesses is an egregious one. Each of them would rightly be punished by a terrible death. However, each crime is, by law, to be punished with a different and specific kind of brutal execution. Hugo can only be killed once. The least bad solution is to look at each crime in detail, and rank them in heinousness. Hugo can then be executed for the worst of his transgressions.
Not only does the tribunal lack the time to solve this puzzle—the city might fall to the French at any time and presumably the French would rescue their spy—but when the city fathers hear Hugo’s account, they are further perplexed. Hugo’s long, rambling narrative reveals that each of Hugo’s crimes has been committed from a surfeit of love and idealism. Rather than being one of Europe’s greatest villains, Hugo may be one of its noblest heroes.
About the anti-Semitism: Jókai and his protagonist don’t express the virulent loathing for Jews that can be found in other works of this era, but the author does expect the reader to find
“Not I. I outwitted the devil by giving the ritter an ignorant Jew lad in my stead.”
funny. That’s very early in the book and very nearly kicked me out of the book.
That aside, the author does a nice job with his charming scoundrel, a fiend in human flesh, who always has an explanation, sometimes even a plausible one, as to why his sins were always the least bad option open to him at the time. With each crime comes a story that compels his judges to concede Hugo cannot justly be punished for it; their eventual solution to the paradox of a man who committed twenty-one unforgivable sins for laudable reasons is an amusing and ingenious one.
Jókai’s version of the year 1688 is in no way his own time (1879) in fancy dress. He revels in the intellectual peculiarities of the European savages of that most bloody era. Elements in Hugo’s tales that would appear implausible to a modern reader—magic, miracles, the intervention of supernatural beings—are eagerly embraced by Hugo’s judges. Those elements confirm dearly held beliefs that had, only two generations previously, inspired the people of Europe to reduce the population of various locations in Central Europe by two-thirds or more.
Hugo is cousin to figures like Baron Munchausen and Harry Purvis, or perhaps Roger “Verbal” Klint, raconteurs able to cast an air of verisimilitude over the most ludicrous account, weaving various elements into an enthralling story that might even—who knows—occasionally come within sight of the truth. Although not, I suspect, often and not willingly.
All I know of Jókai is what is to be found in his
Wikipedia entry . He wasn’t murdered by fascists, like his fellow Hungarians Antal Szerb and Jenő Rejtő, but his life as a Liberal in Hungary following the failure of the 1848 revolution, wasn’t exactly a smooth one, Nor can I say that his public was supportive of the December-May romance between seventy-four-year-old Jókai and the twenty-year-old actress Bella Nagy . Pity. Once again I am saddened that so few people understand how irresistible young women find elderly men whose mustaches are robust enough to filter krill.
Researching this review, I found out that Jókai’s jövő század regénye  is said to be science fiction; I will put that on my to-read list, to be read after I learn Hungarian. The work under review is translated and in the public domain; it can be acquired from Project Gutenberg.
1: One surprising revelation is that describing him as having “an almost Oriental imagination” is
A-OK with Wikipedia something that, when pointed out, will inspire an editor to immediately remove the phrase. I am not entirely certain what an Oriental imagination might be. Perhaps one of the Wikipedia editors who follows my blog would be kind enough to explain.
2: Or possibly nineteen.
3: I had to explain to my editor and now I am explaining to you: Hungarian book titles are not capped. I think. If I am wrong, it is because I have not yet learned Hungarian.