In his book of essays, Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera fervently advanced the thesis that there are certain things "only the novel can do." By that he meant mostly that the novel can validate several different and even contradictory truths by the simple virtue of creating characters compelling enough to embody them in a story. Arthur Phillips's first novel, Prague, aspires to this status without, however, quite getting there. His story is set solidly in the Budapest of the early nineties, a city of terminal ironists finding their number lightly swollen by the arrival of young North American idealists, career professionals, adventurers of different stripes, and the merely lost. The book is not about Prague, but about the idea of Prague, the more desirable destination in the Mitteleuropean goulash of possibilities, the next place. And while the trademark of a novel is that it can call itself Prague no matter where its story takes place, here the publisher actually subverts Phillips's intent by having the book wrapped in a beautiful pointillist photograph of the far too identifiable Charles Bridge.
When John Price, a young American journalist and a somewhat later arrival on the Hungarian scene, joins a small group of expatriates "who, in normal life back home, would have been satisfied never to have known one another," they are sitting in a cafT, testing their cholesterol levels on a Dobos torte or a Rig= Jancsi while immersed in a convoluted party game implausibly named "Sincerity." It is a natural opening for Phillips, whose authorial blurb identifies him as a five-time Jeopardy! champion, but perhaps less so for the novel itself since one can only seize with difficulty why the game is there, except perhaps as a gimmick for introducing the players: an aspiring investment banker, Charles G▀bor, a young American of Hungarian parentage; Mark Payton, a token Canadian with a freshly microfilmed Ph. D. dissertation on the history of nostalgia; a pretty Nebraskan embassy assistant, Emily Oliver; and finally Scott Price, John's brother, who is trying to escape his family back home and whose E.S.L. credentials are suddenly a precious commodity in the Prague to Tirana corridor.
In a story full of unexpected detours, and written in almost painterly language, Phillips follows this quintet of his contemporaries out of expat gathering places like the CafT Gerbaud and sets them pondering their own identities against the heavy shadows of their chain-smoking, acerbic, skeptical and perennially melancholy host city. The place is populated by characters with too much past, a circuitous past rife with warning signals they never recognized in time. People like N▀dja, the glamorous, raspy-voiced jazz pianist who epitomizes the essence of the old, unknowable, pre-war Central Europe for the preternaturally curious John Price and who makes him feel the unbearable lightness of his own being. Dysfunctional families and sexual experimentation, after all, hardly match lives riven by war, revolution, repression and the rot of reason.
"Of course, of course," murmured John, happy to have returned to N▀dja's world, where things happened. Nothing (at least nothing serious) happened in his world. He listened to N▀dja's past and wished he could reach Emily's hand from where he sat. The lightest touch of her fingers in this air, at this altitude, would burn him and leave a mark forever.
It is curious that, for all the foreknowledge of his American characters (like that of the Harvard-educated Phillips himself whose Hungarian itinerary in the early nineties included stints as "an executive assistant, a real estate developer, a jazz musician, a distributor of Minnesota-distilled vodka, a condom liquidator, and a repo man,") by far the most powerful protagonist of Phillips' novel is Imre Horv▀th, a descendant of the publishing dynasty of the Horv▀th Kiad=, whose life story is inextricably linked to two hundred years of destruction and survival against the greatest odds. Phillips tells the story brilliantly, drawing biographical details of Imre's ancestors on the half-torn canvas of the tumultuous history of the region and bringing it in sharp relief with a publisher's ultimate weapon¨the power of the book as memory. Memory, as the novel shows, is as treacherous as the rest.
"What has become of the memory of our people?" they would ask if Imre [one of the many eponymous ancestors of the actual publisher] did not appear at the Gerbeaud. "I submit to the memory of our people," they would answer, smiling, when Imre continued to argue a position everyone else at the table silently judged as philistine. "To the memory of our people!" They would raise their glasses when the bill arrived. "It seems the memory of our people is short," quipped the composer J▀nos B▀lint, passing along the rumour of a child born to Imre by a woman not his wife. "Poor memory," they quietly murmured at the funeral of Kl▀ra, the twin daughter, dead from pneumonia. "Memory fades," they said nervously whenever Imre's business stumbled, and again when he began to grow thinner and alarmingly thinner from the long sickness that eventually killed him.
The Horv▀ths are no dissidents¨they help long-forgotten poets survive by reissuing their work, support a few national revival newspapers, do an odd poster here and there. At its most basic their program is illustrated by BTbTken [In Peacetime], a hugely profitable publishing venture that the Horv▀th Press managed to squeeze past the governmental takeover by the Communists early in 1948. BTbTken is a simple album of photographs collected "from friends and friends of friends and outright strangers all over Budapest," and captioned in the first person with the likes of: "This is my father in front of his shop; he died at AuschwitzÓThis is a party for my name day at the Gerbaud; I am the one looking at the krTmes with big eyesÓ" The book's voice speaks for the city.
The Horv▀ths' relentless will to keep the press going is considered sufficiently subversive in itself. What can you expect from a regime that feels so threatened by a cookbook featuring recipes suitable for post-war shortages and titled Enough for Everyone that it relegates its publisher to a work camp on the suspicion that he "used Enough for Everyone to code secret messages to the Americans"? The generations of Horv▀ths come and go; but their MK colophon remains, eventually moves with the last in the line of Imre Horv▀ths to Vienna, and finally, triumphantly returns with him to Budapest, in time for another reality check of the post-Velvet-Revolution variety.
In the meantime, the young Americans who have tested their mettle against the marshy bureaucracy in the splendid imperial buildings pock-marked with Russian bullet holes, and their tongues against the consonant-ridden language that defies any known pronunciation have finished playing Sincerity. They have matured or failed, got rich and fallen in love, or just given up. It is time to go home, or, as the case might be, to move on. In the novel's closing paragraphs, John Price takes a train to where "real life awaits," and later sees its dreamed-of destination, "a land of spires and toy palaces and golden painted gates and bridges with sad-eyed statues peering out over misty black water, a village of cobblestones and stained glass unlicked by cannon, and that fairy-tale castle floating above it, hovering unanchored by anything at all, a city where surely anything will be possible" emerge from the mist to welcome him. For all its strengths, Phillips' novel begins as a game and ends as a myth.
A fast-forward to 1998 when I was spending a well-deserved sabbatical year in the city of my birth, now the home of "the first Laundromat in Eastern Europe." The John Prices gather daily at Bohemia Bagel, an expatriate hangout complete with home-made soup, Prague Post and old issues of the Herald Trib. A large banner on the freshly made-up facade around the corner displays the American flag with an unbeatable message, in Czech: "We are with you, Bill," it reads."When you want more than you can, drink Erectus." Erectus, the local answer to Viagra, comes in a six-pack of cans and its effects are unproven. But this is the Fall of 1998, and Czech advertisers can kill two birds with one stone¨push a product while showing support for the beleaguered American president. The young Americans huddle awkwardly over their soup, talking. Prague is finished, they say, it is time to move on. "Where to," I want to know, intruding. Five looks of utter bewilderment meet my modest inquiry. Finally, a lanky young man with a mid-Western accent takes pity on my middle-aged ignorance of the basic facts of life and with an obvious effort not to sound condescending tells me gently: "The next place, of course. Lhasa."
Irena Murray is Curator-in-Chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, McGill University.