Among this novel’s unexpected features is its setting: not Prague but Budapest, Hungary, in 1990. There, a collection of North American expatriates soaks up a bit of the newly reformed nation’s culture, but sends more time reveling in its cheap wine, opportunities for sexual adventures, and absurd adoration of the U.S. capitalist machine.
The novel focuses on the inability of these brash, young Americans to actually understand the grace and dignity of the culture they have aimlessly invaded. Hungary, the reader is told over and over again, has a long and painful history that cannot simply be overlooked. Its population is haunted by it. And yet these Americans bounce from cafés to nightclubs to strange sex clubs while remaining blissfully ignorant of this past—a luxury, the book suggests, that is peculiarly Western.
The primary character, John Price, has followed his disdainful elder brother Scott to this supposed European Eden. While John entertains visions of resurrecting the familial bond between himself and Scott, the elder Price scorns his brother for being a tool of his horrid parents, another piece of the life he would rather bury in a past totally unrelated to his present self. These struggling brothers spend much of their time with Charles Gábor, an American-born businessman with Hungarian parents (whom he also despises); Mark Payton, a pudgy, gay, Canadian academic obsessed with nostalgia and feverish contemplation of the past; and Emily Oliver, a naïve mid-western girl, recently graduated from college and working for the American embassy in Budapest. The plot ambles along at first, entertaining its readers with clever observations and insightful, irreverent prose. Eventually, however, it evolves into an investigation of John’s confused love life and Charles Gábor’s scheme to make a great name and fortune for himself in this post-Communist economic wasteland.
Firmly set in its postmodern sensibilities, the story employs an array of unusual narrative techniques. Often, lists or collections of rules or (in one case) a mock MBA exam interrupt the book’s more traditional third-person narration. These efforts at categorization reveal a careful review of the past, a major theme of this tale. The notion that history can be difficult to interpret pervades most of the prose, often providing rich and multifaceted accounts of various items and events.
The narrator often forsakes sober reflection in favor of the sarcasm and irony that thrive in the minds and mouths of the book’s characters. A wise Hungarian voices his opinion on this topic in his English class:
America’s culture lies fallow now. There is nothing living, only things waiting. And the earth gives off only a smell. This smell, not pleasant, is irony…It is the role now of your writers and thinkers…to absorb what have come before, filter the last good harvest, and to throw off…the chaff, put good grain in the tall sheelo, put the bad-smell irony everywhere, and wait for new seasons.
These lines express an acceptance of the flippancy with which many Americans treat Hungarians, and the world at large. Yet Prague hardly restrains the joy that it derives from such ironic and sarcastic habits of thought. A particularly biting example of this phenomenon occurs as Charles describes his conversation with a Hungarian businessman. The businessman, Horváth, wants to maintain an old printing press, his family’s heritage, now that Communism and its economic irresponsibility have been driven from his precious land. Horváth, having devoted most of his life to surviving governmental oppression and to mastering his family’s trade, has not found time or opportunity to have legitimate heirs. When relating this to his friends, Charles receives a predictably (and sadly) callous and humorous response:
Mr. Horvath was old (running the company for forty-three years) and was evidently heirless, as his trusted aide had dutifully not answered Charles’s question [about Horváth’s successor].
“Heirless,” he confirmed to his two friends that Monday evening at the Gerbeaud.
“Can’t he use an inhaler?” Mark asked. “I did when I was a kid.”
“There’s a spray you can rub on your scalp now, I think. It makes it grow back,” John offered.
By far the strongest portion of the book is its sixty page second section, “The Horváth Kiadó,” which details the history of a reputable Hungarian press over six generations of proprietors. In this brilliant section, Phillips dives right into the heart and history of the press, elegantly depicting the way an institution such as this, the “memory of the people,” can endure through ages of change, all the while adopting radically different policies and maintaining an air of mystery, or at least misinterpretation, around its founding principles. The section wonderfully portrays both the importance of historical understanding and the impossibility of an objective review of the past. The truth, Phillips reveals, is that the truth is buried in its own time, forever irrecoverable.
While feigning indifference to the past, these smart-ass American expats are continually afflicted by their own childhoods, and are not as invulnerable as they imagine. Bumbling about Budapest, they observe all the ways in which their lives fall dreadfully short of satisfying their ideals and desires. Word reaches these malcontents of the wonderful things happening in Prague, not far away, and that city takes on a supernatural life in their minds. As happiness begins to wear thin for John late in the book, he thinks:
He needed a change…He needed to go where he would be encircled by friends of the right sort. He belonged in Prague; he had known this for almost a year. Life waited for him there, waited with some goal achievable yet elegant and thrilling.
Thus the American gives the future and its possibilities the respect and idealization he earlier denied to the past.
Ultimately, none of the characters—afflicted as they are by the histories they carry within themselves, and bombarded as they are by the horrible effects of the past upon the people of Budapest—actually learn from their mistakes. They look hopefully to the future, almost certain to experience disappointments anew. And yet there is something uplifting in this idea. People, as Phillips shows, have been pursuing unattainable goals for generations, all across the world, and will continue to do so for many years more. In the end, hope for a good future and a series of conveniently misremembered past events are all the characters of this novel can have; but both serve as vital human qualities.