#1940Club: The Secret of Dr Honigberger

Mircea Eliade: Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr Honigberger)

Original cover of the novella.

Before Mircea Eliade became a philosopher and historian of religions, he was primarily known as a fiction writer (and playwright) in his birth country, Romania. 1940 was a bit of an odd year for him Рhe had recently been released from prison for his support of the right-wing Iron Guard, but was then rehabilitated and even sent to London and then Lisbon as cultural attach̩ when Romania lurched to the right and later became military dictatorship during the Second World War.

This slim novella was written during this troubled period and perhaps that’s why it contains hardly any references to the politics of its time: it is pure escapism, with the future professor of religions very much in evidence. It is a story within a story and features mysterious disappearances, dusty and potentially dangerous manuscripts, time shifts and surreal/ghostly elements that are now common-place in fantasy literature, but which were perhaps rarer at the time.

The narrator is a young scholar of Oriental Studies (like Eliade himself), who has recently returned from a lengthy trip to India. He is invited to the house of Mrs Zerlendi, a widow, who would like him to examine her husband’s extensive library of Oriental treasures and determine if it might be possible to complete the monography he was writing about Dr Honigberger, who had travelled throughout India and the Arabic countries in the first half of the 19th century and was believed to have attained a transcendental state and special psychic powers.

The narrator is somewhat sceptical at first, and considers the deceased Mr Zerlendi a rank amateur. However, as he grows familiar with the valuable collection and even stumbles across a secret journal, he realises that things are not quite what they seem. Zerlendi did not die, but mysteriously disappeared all of a sudden in 1910, without a word to his family or friends, without taking any of his papers or clothes or money with him. From his journal, it emerges that he was following many of the ascetic and yogic practices described by Dr Honigberger in an attempt to reach the hidden world of Shambala, which some scholars thought was an actual location somewhere in the north of India, but which the narrator is starting to think is something like Enlightenment.

Just as the narrator thinks he might be uncovering the secret, he is suddenly kicked out of the house and library (under the pretext of spring-cleaning and that Mrs Zerlendi has fallen ill). He keeps trying to get past the gatekeeper, the fierce, limping housekeeper, but no luck. And then, when he passes by the house again after a few months, he discovers something very strange indeed: the Zerlendi family (still without the father of the household) in something resembling the future or perhaps an alternative universe.

There is no resolution to the mystery of what actually happened to the narrator or to Zerlendi, and readers often asked Eliade for an explanation, which he refused to give. Clearly the author’s professional interests in esoteric practices got the better of him, for there are far too many lengthy descriptions of those. There are times when the narrator seems to be critical of the fascination with all things Oriental that Zerlendi displays, but I wonder if Eliade the author is aware that he and his narrator are displaying all the same symptoms.

If anyone could manage to make an exciting premise boring (even in a short novella), then it is Eliade here. After he became a lecturer in religious studies, his literary output decreased dramatically. On the other hand, his academic works often read like novels, so…

For an updated and even more intriguing take on this story, with a science-fiction twist, I would recommend Paul Doru Mugur’s short story ‘zerlendi@shambhala.com’, the first in his short story collection Psychonautica, recently published in the US by New Meridian. (And I say that not only because I translated that book).

A translation of Eliade’s novella by Ana Cartianu was published in 1992 under the title ‘Doctor Honigberger’s Secret’, as part of an omnibus edition of Eliade’s Mystic Stories. Probably only worth seeking out if you are deeply interested in the subject or in the author. However, you can see an entirely different (and funnier) side to Eliade by reading his barely disguised youthful memoirs translated and published by Istros Books.

I know that officially the #1940Club is over, but I just wanted to add this fairly obscure book to the list. It didn’t take me long to read but it has taken me far too long to review. More about the reasons for that perhaps in another post.