Those of you following Three Percent’s enormously silly and rather uninformative (there’s a reason book reviews aren’t written like sports announcements) “World Cup of Literature” will have noticed the high praise this novel received in the opening match, where Brazil beat Cameroon 4-0 (it then lost the next round because it was facing South America’s literary titan Roberto Bolaño). Budapest had been on my radar ever since learning that Luisa Valenzuela’s ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ took its title from a Chico Buarque lyric (in Brazil the man is known primarily as a songwriter). Having won praise on so distinguished a site, I thought I’d better bump this novel up my reading list.
On the surface, Budapest is a small book about nothing, a fluid account of one man’s love affair with the Hungarian language. It was first published in 2003 and translated in 2004 by Alison Entrekin (who does a marvelous job making total immersion in José Costa’s head somewhat easy to digest). Costa is a ghostwriter who, on a whim, abandons his wife Vanda, their son and his job in Rio de Janeiro, taking off for Budapest to learn the only tongue in the world the devil respects. Soon upon arrival he hooks up with the aloof and disciplined Kriska, who volunteers to teach him the language.
Costa’s narrative glides along in chapters alternating Brazil with Budapest, playing parallels for all they are worth. At home he is employed and even has a certain invisible prestige. In Hungary he finds himself nobody, starting from scratch to recreate his late departed career. Kriska has a son the same age as his boy, offering a replacement family. However, it’s not the story of a conflict, a “troubled man caught between two worlds” and all that. Costa is a remarkably unreflective narrator, an individual so abominably self-centered it doesn’t even occur to him to moralize about his actions. The effect is almost comical. He swears up and down vouching for his purity as a ghostwriter while it becomes more and more obvious that he burns with vanity and when a book of his becomes a hit he transforms into a ludicrous peacock, strutting about with his autographed copy, watching people read it on the beach, standing in bookshops watching it fly off the shelves and thinking words of contempt, because if it weren’t for my book, that dump would already have closed down.
Just as often, paralleling only takes place in Costa’s imagination, as when he discovers his wife’s adultery during his absence and pictures her lover doing all the things he did in their first meeting, melding linguistic fetishism, erotic obsession and identity crisis in a curious mix. It would make no sense to wish him ill for having done what I would have done if I were him… Costa never considers his wife’s feelings or confronts his own hypocrisy in the matter – never, in fact, does Costa account for the feelings of Vanda or Kriska, only stopping to envision their erotic reaction to language (written or spoken and preferably his). The solipsism beggars belief. …she would forget the German, who would also forget her, as she had been forgetting her husband who was forgetting her in Budapest, and there you go. The only thing left to say to the German now would be: How are you?
Were Budapest of any length, I might have reservations about recommending it due to the difficulty many readers have with unsympathetic protagonists. But what is most odd about Buarque’s book is how it avoids being disagreeable. Buarque has a light touch and I feel that he invites laughter toward Costa (at least I hope that was the case). Combining that with the shortness of the book, Budapest never outlasts its welcome. I should think anyone who can tolerate streams-of-conciousness could get some enjoyment out of it.
The other praiseworthy element here is how in tone and style it looks meandering and self-indulgent but as you progress through the text it becomes more imaginative. There are doppelgängers in his office, an encounter involving Russian Roulette and a ghostwriters’ society full of intrigue and backbiting to liven things up. The ghostwriting drama heats up the narrative and becomes a highlight as the business relationships between employers, craftsmen and customers quickly become fraught: He went out late every night to buy the following day’s papers, which he scrutinised right there at the news-stand, scanning the cultural sections for an article of mine, a letter of mine in the readers’ section, a paid public notice claiming authorship of The Gynographer. On autograph nights, during radio interviews or television talk shows, even during an informal chat with Vanda on the evening news, he was tense, glanced from side to side, twisted around, imagined that I might burst in at any moment to unmask him.
The ending is also commendable, delicious irony being served up for a finish. You never do get a particular sense of Hungary or its people but that’s hardly surprising given who’s telling this story. I did have to backtrack on occasion to reclaim the thread of the plot, but as I adjusted to the style confusion cleared and it ceased to be necessary. It’s really a fun little read, quick and quirky and just a touch comedic. Recommended.
And here is one of Buarque’s music performances: