It’s 1990 in Budapest, Hungary. In the opening scene, four young American ex-patriots and one Canadian sit in a local cafe playing a mind game called “Sincerity”. They each have different reasons for being in Hungary (jobs and scholastic studies), but generally their entire lives are a game; a search for adventure, an opportunity to explore, get rich, an escape from the mundane routines at home, a random curiosity….. as opposed to the deliberate choice of traveling to a renowned “hot-spot” destination like Prague.
Arthur Phillips cleverly juxtaposes these spoiled young adults with the local Hungarians … and it provides a stark contrast indeed.
The local Magyars, after centuries of suffering and repression under communist rule, are learning to adapt to their newly earned freedom; capitalism, entrepreneurial opportunities, and a chance to reclaim their heritage. I don’t know if it was Nadja (the exotic elderly piano player at the local jazz bar) or the tormented Imre Horvath (who has recently returned to Hungary after thirty years of exile with the hopes of reclaiming the family’s legendary publishing company) but one of them – in a moment of frustration, refers to America as a “country of children”.
By the way, both Nadja and Imre are wonderful characters.
Sadly, none of American ex-patriots, nor the Canadian, are very likable. They are self absorbed, shallow, pretentious, ignorant, rude, and insensitive. Featured in their own country’s environment as post-college players, they may have seemed relatively normal, but set against the Hungarian background they were truly the “Ugly Americans”. And the one and only Polish character is a baldheaded, “ugly”, bi-sexual, mentally disturbed, wanna-be artist. Most of the female characters were just ludicrous… phony opportunists and sex maniacs with violent tempers, a lack of scruples, and no morals. Arthur Phillips doesn’t speak well of females in general, but perhaps these particular male characters were incapable of attracting normal women. They frequently repeated the smug proverb, “they say the best place to learn a language is in bed.” (Pg. 56…and many other pages thereafter).
Prague offers colorful descriptions of the tired ancient city of Budapest, authentic atmosphere, and lovely Hungarian characters. Phillips is a talented writer and It could have been a 5-Star book but for the excessive emphasis on the slovenly Polish artist and her articulately described perverted artwork. She and her “loosely termed” artwork were repulsive and nauseating. She added nothing to this particular story but to make the other characters look like idiots. She seemed to belong to a different book…. of a different plot… perhaps a tawdry pulp fiction novella at a different location. I don’t blame her for hiding out in a backwater like Budapest, but she would have better served the reader had she been far away…. perhaps in Prague.
Rated 2 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.