Fever at Dawn

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2016

 

If there can be a light-hearted book about the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Fever at Dawn is it. In the summer of 1945, concentration camp survivor Miklós weighs 47 kilos and coughs up blood when the doctor in Sweden, where the Red Cross has sent him to recover, reads an x-ray of his lungs and tells him he has six months to live. Miklós stubbornly ignores this diagnosis. He is 25 years old, and girls are on his mind. Longing for a whiff of home, he obtains the names of 117 Hungarian women, also survivors convalescing in Sweden, and writes the same letter to each one.

With his letters Miklós creates a future out of nothing. From the many responses he receives, Lili’s, written on a whim from her hospital bed many miles away, hits the mark. Soon Miklós is convinced she is the one, and woos her with his eloquence, poems, and socialist missives. Within a few months the pair is battling their doctors to let Miklós travel to visit “his cousin.”

This tale of quixotic romance could have been saccharine; instead it becomes a lyrical memoir in Miklós and Lili’s son Peter’s prose. Irritatingly, Fever at Dawn is labeled “a novel,” even though the protagonist is often referred to as “my father” and the author demonstrates great skill in weaving his parents’ letters into the narrative. The author could have handled the memoir conundrum of having to fill in parts that weren’t known to him by simply disclosing that he had to imagine them. But no matter, memoir or novel, Fever at Dawn is a charming book, beautifully written.

Gárdos deftly renders seminal moments in bird’s eye view, such as when Miklós and Lili meet for the first time, and he and the welcome party walk through the freshly fallen snow: “The four of them resembled figures out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale: dark crumbs on an oval white china plate.” Similarly, when a rabbi arranges to meet Miklós on a country bridge, the scene is cinematic: “At the far end a man in a black ankle-length coat was resting on a big stone. Miklós was amazed that anyone could sit still in this frozen world.”

Wintry Sweden provides the stark setting against which this romance has to warm, and the aftershock of the Holocaust casts its shadows. Miklós discovers a friend has hanged himself upon learning of his wife’s death, and though Lili and Miklós never speak to each other about what happened to them in the camps, their memories are sketched in for the reader. But even then, this story celebrates love and life, and some of the wounds of their horrific past are healed, such as when Miklós is fitted with new porcelain teeth after having lost his own in a beating by Hungarian Nazi thugs and having successfully courted Lili with his ugly metal smile.

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