A Reading Guide to Stone Tablets
This guide is a work-in-progress. Please note: it contains spoilers!
Read a biographical sketch of Wojciech Zukrowski by Stephanie Kraft
April 14, 1916: Wojciech Żukrowski is born in Krakow. At the time, Poland is partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
1918: World War I ends, and Poland gains independence for the first time since it was first partitioned in 1795.
September 1939: World War II begins with Germany’s attack on Poland. Żukrowski serves in the Polish horse artillery and is wounded in his right leg.
1940: With political and economic ties to Germany, Hungary joins the Axis and fights as an ally of Germany. Hungarian troops participate in the invasion of Russia; some fight in Ukraine, like the fictional Istvan Terey in Stone Tablets. Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy seeks to negotiate a peace with the Allies, but Germany coerces Hungary to remain in the war by kidnapping Horthy’s son and imprisoning Horthy himself.
February 1945: As World War II draws to a close, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin meet at Yalta in Crimea to plan for postwar Europe. Again Poland loses its independence as the Yalta Agreement places it, together with Hungary and other East European countries, in the Soviet Union’s “sphere of influence.” On May 8, Germany surrenders, ending the war in Europe. On August 14, Japan surrenders, ending World War II.
August 1947: India, under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru, gains independence from British rule. Nehru becomes India’s first prime minister. Independence leads to the creation of Pakistan as an independent state and to revisions to business and currency regulations which will affect characters in Stone Tablets.
March 1953: Stalin dies. Throughout the Eastern bloc, political prisoners are released, and citizens in Russia’s client states hope for new political freedoms.
May 1955: Moscow formally establishes the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense agreement between Russia’s client states, including Poland and Hungary.
1956: As a result of the end of Stalinist rule, Hungarians are emboldened to demand internal reforms and more autonomy from Moscow. On October 22, university students announce demands for free elections, freedom of expression, and the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary. A statue of Lenin is toppled in Budapest as clashes occur between Russian troops and Hungarian dissidents. The Hungarian government tries to negotiate a withdrawal of the Soviets from the country. On November 1, Hungarian leader Imre Nagy announces that Hungary has withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact and calls on the West for support, but on November 4, Russian launches full-scale attacks that inflict severe damage on Budapest.
In late October a crisis develops in the Mideast as Israel, Great Britain, and France move to seize the Suez Canal, which President Gamal Abdel Nasser had earlier nationalized. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchev, supports Nasser, taking the role of defender of Arabs. The Suez Crisis threatens to bring about a military confrontation between Russia and the West, muting the response of the United States and other Western powers to the situation in Hungary, where Russia succeeds in crushing the uprising.
Żukrowski begins a three-year assignment with the Polish diplomatic corps in India. By this time Communists, including those in nearby China, are eyeing India, with its impoverished masses, as a potential field for the extension of their influence.
1965: Żukrowski, already a well-known author and screenwriter, completes Stone Tablets. The Polish censors refuse to allow the book to be published until a confidant of First Party Secretary Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s head of state, persuades Gomułka to override their decision.
1966: Stone Tablets is published. The book is extremely popular in Poland, but its criticisms of Stalinist abuses and its sympathy with the Hungarian Revolution cause such a furor in the Warsaw Pact that a new print run is held up. Andrzej Wajda, even then well known in Poland, is refused permission to make a film of the book. Polish authorities try to placate angry Hungarian officials by promising not to allow it to be translated into foreign languages.
1970: Stone Tablets is translated into Czech by Helena Teigova, but its distribution is forbidden by the government. Printed copies are stored in a warehouse, but workers smuggle so many out to readers that when the ban is lifted, few or no copies remain.
1984: A film of Stone Tablets, with the characters changed from Hungarians to Poles, premieres in Poland.
April 1989: Under pressure from the Solidarity movement, which includes some 10 million of 38 million Poles, the communist government of Poland agrees to allow multiparty elections. Two months later, Solidarity wins 99 percent of the available seats, and its leader, Lech Walesa, is elected president, effectively ending communist rule in Poland. In October, Hungary introduces a multiparty system. Hungary opens its border with Austria, which leads to the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9. The demolition of that wall by ecstatic East and West Germans signals the end of communist domination in East Europe.
1996: Żukrowski wins the Władysław Reymont prize for lifetime literary achievement.
1997: Stone Tablets is published in a Russian translation.
August 26, 2000: Żukrowski dies in Warsaw.
2005: Żukrowski’s daughter Katarzyna, an economist and professor at Warsaw School of Economics, authorizes an English translation of Stone Tablets.
Character List (in order of appearance):
- Istvan Terey: cultural attaché with the Hungarian embassy in New Delhi, poet, World War II veteran. Has a wife, Ilona and two sons, Geza and Sandor, in Budapest.
- Grace Vijayaveda: head-strong daughter of an Englishwoman and an Indian mill-owner of the highest caste.
- Ramesh Khaterpalia: a rajah, an officer of the president’s guard, marries Grace.
- Lajos Ferenc: Secretary of the Hungarian embassy.
- Bela Fekete: Hungarian journalist, writes letters to Terey from Budapest.
- Krishan: Chauffeur for the Hungarian embassy. Leaves the embassy and becomes a stunt motorcyclist. His second wife is named Durga.
- Ram Kanval: Destitute and unrecognized but talented painter who seeks support from the Hungarian embassy.
- Kapur: Works as a doctor with the diplomatic corps in New Delhi. Tells fortunes and reads palms.
- Margit Ward: ophthalmologist from a wealthy Australian family, newly arrived in India. Friend of Grace Vijayaveda; becomes Terey’s lover.
- Judit Kele: Hungarian ambassador’s secretary. Friends with Terey. Her family died in Auschwitz, she spent WWII in Russia.
- Jay Motal: Wants the Hungarian embassy to sponsor him to travel to Hungary and write a book about the country for Indians.
- Kalman Bajcsy: Hungarian ambassador
- Kereny: cryptographer at the embassy, Mihaly’s father
- Mihaly: Son of the cryptographer. Speaks Hindi.
- Pereira: Terey’s cook
- M. Chandra: Lawyer, con-man, “philanthropist” who meets Terey through the Vijayavedas
- Stanley: Margit’s cousin who was burned alive by the Japanese in 1943.
- Maurice Nagar: French journalist, originally Polish, been in India nine years, gay, Jewish, believes there should be an Indian revolution. Befriends Terey.
- Professor Salminen, Dr. Connoly: Doctors at the hospital in Agra. Connoly is American, interested in Margit.
- Tibor M.: Hungarian communist staff officer accused of treason and tortured even though he was innocent.
- Major Stowne: older British officer who once had a Hindu lover who vanished.
- Trojanowski: Polish correspondent who decides to sponsor Ram Kanval when the Hungarian embassy refuses him.
- Kondratiuk: Russian correspondent.
- Bradley: American correspondent. Shoots a sacred peacock on Nagar’s duck hunt.
- Daniel: a boy who serves Terey and Margit at a hotel.
Chapter summaries (spoiler alert!)
CHAPTER 1 (pages 1-45)
- In the lead-up to the wedding of Grace Vijayaveda and Rajah Ramesh Khaterpalia, Istvan Terey reminiscences about his relationship with Grace.
- Istvan recalls leaving his friend Bela behind in Budapest.
- At the wedding Istvan is introduced to Grace’s friend Margit, and Grace is clearly unhappy.
- Grace and Istvan sleep together; the wedding takes place immediately afterwards.
CHAPTER 2 (pages 46-80)
- Jay Motal wants the embassy to send him to Hungary to write a book. Ambassador Bajcsy is irritated with Istvan for encouraging him.
- Istvan runs into Margit in Central Delhi, and they explore together.
- He takes Margit to the Yamuna where the dead are burned.
CHAPTER 3 (pages 81-128)
- A long embassy meeting ensues after Krishan hits a sacred cow with his car.
- At a party to welcome Grace home, Istvan meets Chandra and runs into Margit.
- He takes Margit to the ruins of the palace of the Grand Mogul. They climb the tower, and exchange confidences as a storm rolls in.
- Istvan brings Margit to his home and cooks for her. Pereira allows all his relatives to watch them eat.
CHAPTER 4 (pages 129-185)
- Istvan must travel to Agra for a conference. He meets Nagar there, and they become friendly. Nagar tells Istvan that he has a premonition that something bad is in the air. Nagar warns him about Chandra.
- Margit is working in Agra, and Istvan takes her to Fatehpur Sikri.
- Margit buys presents for Istvan’s sons.
- Later when Istvan tries to kiss her she resists. Instead she tells him about her fiancé who was killed in WWII. Istvan returns to Delhi.
CHAPTER 5 (pages 186-237)
- An update arrives from Hungary, and Judit and Istvan talk politics.
- Istvan gets a love letter from Margit and thinks about how he loves his wife.
- Istvan must dismiss Krishan and pays him not to tell anyone about running over the cow.
- A letter arrives from an optimistic Bela who believes change is coming to Hungary.
- Istvan visits Margit; they sleep together for the first time.
CHAPTER 6 (pages 238-281)
- Margit visit Istvan who bribes and threatens his servants not to tell anyone that she is staying with him.
- Krishan asks to borrow embassy money to buy a motorcycle.
- Istvan, falling in love with Margit, begins to think about their future together.
- The monsoons come.
CHAPTER 7 (pages 282-332)
- Margit has been avoiding Istvan, and he’s hurt and confused.
- Istvan visits Grace who is pregnant and wonders if it is his.
- The older brother of Rajah Khaterpalia appears to have risen from the dead with Chandra as his advocate.
- Nagar tells Istvan that Rakosi has fallen, marking the beginning of huge changes in Europe.
- Istvan talks politics with Judit and Ferenc. Ferenc accuses Istvan of sounding like a capitalist; Judit recalls her time in Russia during WWII.
- Istvan takes Mihaly for ice cream and learns that Krishan is now a stunt-bike rider.
CHAPTER 8 (pages 333-396)
- Istvan goes with a Swedish doctor to rural villages to look for Margit.
- They spend the night with a family, and police officers seek their help caring for men who have been wounded hunting a bandit.
- They hear on the radio that amnesty has been granted to political prisoners in Hungary.
- When they finally make it to the village where Margit is working, Margit tells Istvan that she is pregnant.
CHAPTER 9 (pages 397-436)
- Istvan and Mihaly go to see Krishan stunt-ride. Krishan reveals what really happened when the cow was killed in the car accident.
- Ferenc confides in Istvan, and Istvan is suspicious of his motives.
- Istvan thinks about getting a divorce and marrying Margit.
- Bajcsy wants to transfer money under the table, and Istvan puts him in touch with Chandra.
- Margit pays Istvan a surprise visit, and they have a fraught discussion about their future together.
CHAPTER 10 (pages 437-502)
- Istvan goes to get a written deposition from Krishan and learns he has died.
- Istvan and Margit run into Grace who is not pleased to see them together. They think she could be a threat to them.
- Nagar calls because he has learned about an uprising in Budapest, and Istvan insists Margit stay at home while he goes to Nagar’s house. There, he reads the dispatches and speculates with other European correspondents.
- Istvan quarrels with Ferenc; Judit reminds him that he is not the only one who has suffered.
- Krishan’s wife, Durga, is arrested. Krishan’s accident was caused by sugar in his gas tank, and Istvan remembers that a boy stuck a lollipop into the gas tank.
- Fighting breaks out in Sinai turning Hungary into a bargaining chip. Bajcsy speaks to the embassy about how to proceed.
- Margit arrives in Delhi for a month-long teaching position.
CHAPTER 11 (pages 503-572)
- Bajcsy holds a small party to preserve appearances, and it is a flop. The Hungarian embassy is on uneasy footing with the Russian and Chinese embassies.
- At Nagar’s house Istvan learns that there is a new Hungarian government and that hundreds of thousands have fled Hungary. He worries about his family.
- Chandra tells Istvan that Grace has been talking to Bajcsy. Istvan infers that Grace, Chandra, and Bajcsy all know about Margit now.
- Istvan gets a telegram saying his family is safe.
- Durga is released from police custody.
- Bajcsy is angry with Istvan and tells him to take a short leave.
- Istvan and Margit watch a news reel on Budapest, and Istvan reveals that he doesn’t know which side of the uprising he is on.
- Margit wants Istvan to move to Australia with her, but he is upset by how little she understands his patriotism and values.
- Istvan stumbles upon a newspaper headline that says his friend Bela has died.
CHAPTER 12 (pages 573-733)
- Istvan gets a post-mortem letter from Bela about the horrors in Budapest. Bela was killed leaving Hungary.
- Grace’s baby is stillborn, and Istvan worries that it is a bad omen.
- A letter arrives from Ilona, and Istvan considers how she will react when he leaves her.
- Istvan and Margit go to the beach at Cochin for a vacation together. They argue about their values and relationship, make up, and swim.
- After a Christmas Eve mass Istvan is struck by Catholic guilt. He leaves for awhile, distressing Margit.
- A blind man washes up outside their room claiming he has escaped a pirate ship.
- Margit gets very sick with fever. She shares memories from Australia and says she wants to have the baby there. They talk about whether Istvan will go with her, but nothing is decided.
- An urgent telegram comes for Istvan summoning him back to the embassy. When he arrives he finds that he has been replaced.
- Istvan goes to see Bajcsy at his house. Bajcsy promises to destroy him and tells him to leave the country.
- Istvan learns that Bajcsy has been recalled.
- Mihaly gives Istvan a cicada.
- Istvan tells Margit that he will be returning to Hungary alone, and she leaves.
- Istvan wonders when he first chose to disregard the Commandments. He knows he would have been happy with Margit but at the price of triple betrayal. He believes he has left her because he loves her.
- Istvan is afraid that Margit will kill herself and stakes out her hotel. Margit assures him that she won’t. She says that he has sacrificed both of them for God but that she cannot hate him. She says she does not regret their affair.
- They spend the night driving through Old Delhi, where they first walked.
- In the morning Istvan puts Margit on a plane to Australia, and they are both heartbroken.
- Istvan releases Mihaly’s cicada.