Tuesday, January 6, 2009

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Suffix It: A Book Review

“It should be against the law to mock somebody who tries his luck in a foreign language.” So begins Chico Buarque’s novel Budapest. It’s a winning opening line, both disarming and knowing, especially when read by somebody who has tried to learn Hungarian, “the only tongue the devil respects.”

To learn a foreign language, especially one so different from English as Hungarian, takes a certain leap of faith, a willingness to participate in a mode of expression that appears to have been rearranged and, in many cases, dissected and reassembled. It takes a similar leap of faith to enjoy Buarque’s novel, in which stories unpack themselves like Chinese boxes, and realities and narratives are constantly shape-shifting, challenging and undermining whatever presumptions the reader has already anchored themselves to.

The story begins when the Brazilian narrator’s plane is waylaid in Budapest after a bomb scare. As a ghost-writer and linguist, he becomes immediately enchanted with the Hungarian language and Budapest itself. On the most simplified level, the story follows the path of the narrator, Jose Kosta, (Josef K?) on his path to fluency in Hungarian, after breaking with his wife and falling in love with his language teacher. But nothing is so easy in Budapest, as Kosta observes of the language, “he had no way of knowing where each one (word) began or finished. It was impossible to detach one form the next; it would be like trying to cut a river with a knife.”

Like Budapest’s körút(s), the language is circular: base words are stacked with suffixes and prefixes that hang off them like weights on an unwieldy barbell. The characters’ destinies run the same circular route: histories, texts, and relationships bleed into each other until the reader is not sure if Kosta can be trusted as a narrator, or if he is the narrator at all.

In one phantasmagoric sequence reminiscent of Victor Pelevin (who I have brought up before in this blog: he is the ‘thinking man’s’ Murakami), a night of drinking turns into a potential ménage-à-trois, then morphs into a game of Russian roulette, then a robbery, then back into a night of drinking. Buarque stays with the scene only long enough for us to think we have a grip on its reality before he pulls the rug out from under our feet. Buarque, a composer and writer, wisely keeps his actual observations and use of Hungarian to a minimum (which led me to suspect he doesn’t actually speak Hungarian, though perhaps he simply doesn’t want to confound the reader further with its utter strangeness). But then he floors you with an occasion description like the following, “Seeing Hungarian in words for the first time, I felt as though I was looking at their skeletons: ö az álom elötti, talajon táncol.” Or “I couldn’t distinguish the words, so I knew it was Hungarian.”

In the same way every New Yorker inhabits a different city, with its own individual, constantly changing landmarks and signifiers, Kosta’s Budapest is not to be taken too literally: he employs made-up names, cigarette brands, street names, literary societies, and hungaricum (perhaps accidentally-on-purpose referring to Tokaj wine as Tajok wine). We know to take it all with a grain of salt when Kosta is both ghost-writing poetry for a has-been Hungarian poet and correcting locals on their grammar. Kosta’s Budapest is not my Budapest, just as his story, in the end, is not even his story.

Because of Kosta’s occupation as a ghost-writer, ownership of the text is a theme that is constantly returned to throughout the book. Indeed, a writer for whom he has ghost-written a book uses that very book to seduce Kosta’s own wife away from him. Like Jim Crace’s Genesis, and to a lesser degree, Arthur Philips' Prague, or even better, like having a friend from out of town come visit, it is a thrill to experience Budapest through somebody else’s eyes, to see it reinvented, even if that invention does not conform to your own. Budapest is a pleasing, occasionally perplexing read: like the Hungarian language, it is potent and fluid, but then again, so is nitro-glycerin.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

1 comment:

Vándorló said...

Just noticed, reading this again over at xpatloop, that Victor's (Виктор) name is normally written as Pelevin (Пелевин) in English.
Apart from that, good to read the review again.