Hermann Ungar is one of those writers you never hear about. I only learned of his existence through an author friend of mine who sent me his book. Since then, I've read it a couple of times, and I was never disappointed.
Boys & Murderers is not a novel, but rather a short story collection with a few varying themes, only two of which are boys (think immature decisions) and murderers (think the desire to inflict bodily harm).
The book itself is split into two sections; Boys & Murderers, and Colbert's Journey. The first section is comprised of two long short stories, A Man and a Maid, and Story of a Murder.
A man and a Maid is a beautifully written cautionary tale of reaping one's seeds. The story follows a young boy, an orphan, growing up in a hospice set up for the poor by a benefactor. He is the only child there, growing up in the company of three old, dying men, a maid, and the hospice director and his family. From early on, he feels hatred, a passionate hatred towards the men, the small town, and even the benefactor. As he grows into a young man, he discovers sexuality, and aims his desires to the one woman he grew up with - the maid. Rejected, he wows revenge. After a small crime, which yields him some money, he abandons the town, set off to Prague, and later boards a ship to America. Once in the states, he sees an opportunity and steals a cattle dealer's wallet and a list of clients. This brings him fortune; fortune brings about respect and power. But he still obsesses over the maid, albeit not sexually any longer. He wants revenge. He travels back to the Czech Republic where he grew up, back to the hospice, and convinces the maid to come with him, promising her everything she desires. Once they arrive at the states, he sells her to the first brothel. One would think the revenge would satisfy him, but it does not. The maid later comes back to his life, unexpectedly, and this brings about another round of events fueled with hatred. In the end, however, his hatred did not bring about what he desired. It brings him gratitude instead. Gratitude he cannot deal with.
In the second story, Story of a Murder, the drama of being a growing boy is again explored. This story actually has a murder in it, as well as some rather disturbing human behavior not only on the part of the protagonist, but also various other characters. Again, a well written piece.
The second half of the book opens with Colbert's Journey, a tale about a small-town man with big dreams, sensitivity, pretension, good-heartedness, and betrayal. Although not as engaging as the first two stories, this one is also well executed.
The following two stories stand above the rest (for me).
The Wine Traveler is a story with two separate tales. One of a father who enjoys pretending being a small-time wine salesman, and one of a child who wants it all. Ungar manages to weave the two together, and ends up at the beginning. It is a well-crafted story with multi-layered plot full of emotion.
Reason for Everything is a beautiful piece of surreal writing. Surprisingly dark in theme and composition. Enough said.
There are twelve more stories in this book, but I will not bore you with the details of each. Some are better than others, although it must be said that none are mediocre. All of the stories concentrate on the human aspect albeit not necessarily the darker side. A few touch upon death, (in a very personal way) but are never disturbing.
Where Ungar shines is his use of language. It is language stripped of flowery adjectives, a bare naked language. Nevertheless, he achieves a remarkable beauty in both scenery and emotion. Combine this with his ability to delve into the human psyche, and we have an author who deserves praise.
Ungar is not as well known as other Czech German Jewish writers. He died at the age of 36, leaving behind a legacy that probably did not sit well with either Czechs or Germans of the time. Fortunately, great writing stands the test of time.