Friday, October 17, 2008

Books: Budapest, by Chico Barque

These Bush years have made it both easy and fashionable to be a kind of self-loathing American, but a book like Budapest reminds me that I'm still proud to be patriotic, so far as literature goes. This is not to say that the US doesn't churn out an unfathomable amount of crap, only to say that the stuff that parades around the rest of the world as literature is, in fact, crap.

So. That last statement is completely unfair and uncalled for, and demeans anything of worth I might actually say in this venue. Allow me to qualify it. There is a kind of pervasive romanticism in non-American novels; Barque (who is Brazilian) writes with the same ebullient affection (as in tenderness, although it does make him, to an American reader at least, seem rather affected as well, or, to a British reader (we'll include the always-sound British with the Americans in this us-vs-them game), soft-headed) as Mann, Proust, Marquez, Kundera. That's company I'm certain he would be proud to keep—each of them famous and loved around the world, even by Americans. But time and again, I hate reading them. There's just a total dearth of. . . moxie, that ultra-American je ne sais quoi.

Otherwise, Barque's novel includes all the things I usually go for; it's a textbook post-modern novel (the pieces are out of order and have that déjà vu, mobius-strip quality thanks to the repetition of certain phrases) about a writer (actually, a ghostwriter: even more po-mo!). On a seemingly random stop in Budapest, he falls in love with the Hungarian language, and, belying a disaffection his romanticism papers over, he picks up and moves to that freezing, foreign city, leaving behind his wife, his son, and his post (an agency which has already begun to self-populate with doppelgangers who manifest his redundancy). With years that pass like days in this short, swift book, he masters Hungarian to the point that he is ready to do his old work in his new language. He writes a poem for the most famous of aging Hungarian poets, frozen with writer's block. And then, he gets kicked out of Budapest, for never having acquired proper papers. The twist of fate that ends his story is recognition, though, for a book he didn't write. After having written hundreds of books, articles, speeches, and even a poem under the names of other famous authors, politicians, travelers, etc., someone has published, under his name, a book he did not write, for which he is granted a hero's welcome back to Budapest, and even into the arms of his Hungarian lover (who was at first his language teacher), who had spurned him in all the years between.

This is an efficient and interesting plot, but one that I'd rather read in the neurotic prose of Roth or McEwen, or even the catty, clever prose of Evelyn Waugh, with whose gotcha! endings the finish of Budapest quite fits. But each of these men write with a kind of chill, completely without the blind romanticism (the kind that comes of sucking on nostalgia tea bags) of Barque and his globe-trotting compatriots.

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