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Semi-admirable historical fiction by a writer of admirable historical nonfiction (When the Cheering Stopped and others). Defeated by the Russians in World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire jettisoned Hungary out to fend for itself; butchered in size by the terms of the Armistice, the once-proud country reeled. In Smith's retelling, an aristocrat, Michael Karolyi, tries to keep the social fabric together with liberal reforms, but finally, with noble despair he throws it all into the lap of the budding, Lenin-backed Bolsheviks. Their leader, a Jewish journalist named Bela Kun (once Bela Cohen), finds the popular Leninist methods of political terror repugnant but unstoppable. Meanwhile, in exile, an aristocratic element plots to come back and drive out the Reds. That's the historical basis; Smith's main fictional contribution to it is a covert American aid mission headed by American Army captain Daniel Lansing--a mission that becomes an ultimately hopeless pawn in the struggle to maintain or knock off the 133-day Kun regime. Whether romancing one of the few countesses left in Budapest or being duped by a hard-eyed commissar, Lansing is American innocence incarnate. And somewhat as innocent is Smith's flavorless, unsubtle narrative style: ""The Allies would never stomach a Hapsburg. The Pragmatic Sanction of Maria Theresa's day was null and void. He must give up St. Stephan's Crown. Abdicate. Abdicate. After eight hundred years."" Still, the book becomes more textured whenever there are passages of straight historical exposition--and, though the potentially interesting character of Bela Kun is never sufficiently developed, the relatively little-chronicled time and place here may provide enough appeal for history-minded readers.

Pub Date: June 26th, 1980
Publisher: Morrow