Posts Tagged ‘count luna’

Count Luna

November 16, 2020

Readers will likely know Alexander Lernet-Holenia from Pushkin Press’ publication of I Was Jack Mortimer and Mona Lisa. In fact, these are only two of a number his novels to have been previously translated into English, and now New Directions have resurrected another, Count Luna, originally published in 1955, and translated a year later by Jane B Greene. The novel opens with Alexander Jessiersky entering the catacombs in Rome and, so it appears, failing to resurface, despite having booked a passage to Buenos Aires in the days that follow. A search can find no trace of him:

“So there was no alternative but to give him up for lost, to assume that yet another dead man had been added to the ranks of the ancient deed, and to call a halt to the investigations.”

The chapters that follow tell the story of what leads Jessiersky to undertake this dangerous journey into the underworld. We begin with a lengthy summary of Jessiersky’s family which takes us back to 1806 and seems an unnecessary detour in a writer who is usually so adept at pace. (The same will happen with the family of Count Luna which Jessiersky researches at length, and there are what would now be called ‘info-dumps’ on the catacombs both in the opening and closing chapters). The story proper begins during the Second World War when the transport business which Jessiersky has inherited – but largely leaves for others to run – needs Count Luna’s land, which he refuses to sell. The company arrange for Luna to be “accused of belonging to certain monarchistic and, therefore, anti-German circles and put under arrest” thus forfeiting the land. By the time Jessiersky discovers what has happened, Luna is in a concentration camp:

“Jessiersky found the whole episode extremely painful. He told himself that, though he himself had not done anything, he had, out of his very inactivity, failed to do what should have been done.”

Unable to get Luna released, he sends him food parcels, and instead vents his anger on the company directors whom he blames for Luna’s imprisonment, doing everything in his power to get them sent to the front:

“It was not until one of them was killed in France that Jessiersky experienced a measure of satisfaction; the more he thought about it, in fact, the more it pleased him.”

That Jessiersky so easily rejoices in another’s death is a warning, however, of what is to come.

When the war is over, Jessiersky attempts to discover Luna’s fate, but is unable to unearth any information: “He was definitely not among the living, but neither was he among the dead.” A few years later, however, he becomes convinced that Luna is not only alive, but is seeking revenge. Leafing through a volume of engravings he comes across the picture of a man who looks very like Luna only for one of his children to exclaim, “That’s he!” It soon transpires that his children have met a similar looking man when out walking with their governess. Jessiersky immediately assumes the man must be Luna, forgetting that his discovery relies on the portrait of an entirely different man. The next day he follows them to the park, but the man never reappears. When one of his children falls ill, however, he blames sweets the man has given her:

“Perhaps the man had conceived the diabolical plan of killing the children not all at once, but one by one. It would be like Luna to do something like that.”

The final sentence gives us a sense of Jessiersky’s loss of perspective – after all, he knows very little of Luna, and nothing that would make him assume that he would kill children. If anything, it sounds more like a plan Jessiersky would come up with. Initially his reaction is to communicate with Luna and convince him that others are to blame for his imprisonment:

“As far as I am concerned, he can pay back those scoundrels of directors and he can mete out punishment to them. But he’s not going to persecute me and my family.”

Such is his fear of this persecution, however, that he believes it has already begun, and he is prepared to do anything to stop it. His guilt, we assume, is the real driving force behind this belief, and his actions to ‘defend’ himself and his family seem more likely to inflict the punishment he so fears.

Bar the genealogical discursions (which again seem to reflect Jessiersky’s fears that he is not really noble onto Luna), Count Luna is a fast-paced ride which takes place internally as much as externally. Like Mona Lisa, it concerns a character who is convinced the dead live. Lernet-Holenia once again demonstrates his ability to look into the dark hearts of his characters for motivation, and that is what makes his novels superior to the average thriller.