Fever at Dawn, written by award-winning Hugarian film director Péter Gárdos, is an incredibly moving love story that captures the desperation of human existence; to love, to be loved, and to find happiness in a purposeful life. The story follows Miklós, a twenty-five-year-old Hungarian refugee, sailing in the Baltic Sea from Lübeck, Germany to Stockholm, Sweden. Miklós is a determined Holocaust survivor who finds strength in both his convictions and his socialist ideals; he is a poet, a dreamer, but most of all, a man with the will to survive. When he arrives at a Swedish hospital in Lärbro, he is handed a death sentence: he learns that he has Tuberculosis and will only live for six more months, if he’s lucky. With the determination of a madman, Miklós writes letters to women at nearby hospitals looking for a wife.
Gárdos’s lyrical and emotionally fraught language bolsters this expressive story based on his parents’ own lives during the months after their rescue from Holocaust concentration camps in 1945. Derived from real letters and and true experiences of his own family, the reader can feel the deep connection between Miklós and Lili, his favorite among the women who respond to his letters; both characters evoke a sense of tragedy and hope. Pulled in by their dreams of the future, readers will be continually amazed and disgusted by the stories of their pasts.
This epistolary novel is marked with realistic flashbacks of the tragedies Miklós and Lili experienced in the camps. Disturbing, cruel, and dehumanizing experiences, Gárdos contrasts the hate begotten in WWII and provides friends and acquaintances whose love is so profound for Miklós and Lili, demonstrating how wide the spectrum of humanity runs. At times this consistently charming novel can feel almost cheesy and cheating the readers out of the accuracy of heartbreak, but the narrative’s own powerful desire to portray love produces an almost thematic love story that cannot be denied.
While his characters devise a plan to marry and to live happily ever after, Gárdos writes a tale that is both devastating in its emotional power and realistic in its content. Readers will feel both excited to reach the climax of the novel and devastated at its conclusion. Fever at Dawn is a short, quick tale that readers will find transports them to a world of hopeful love, a bright spot during the darkness of World War II. Elizabeth Szász translates the narrative beautifully, though I imagine Gárdos’s original prose is even more heartbreaking.
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