Novel connects Budapest and Toronto

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May 15, 2013

Under Budapest
By Alisa Kay
Goose Lane, 256 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Like ghosts surfacing from Budapest’s fabled subterranean regions, lives from the 1956 Hungarian uprising breathe anew in post-soviet times. Alisa Kay’s debut novel raises many questions about history. Is there really a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city, once used as both prisons and storehouses for Soviet loot? No one knows for sure, Kay seems to suggest.

In Under Budapest’s densely woven plot, as serpentine as these tunnels, a myriad of characters confront their past. The present is 2010 in a right-winged Hungary, a time of fomenting nationalism spurred on by hatred for Jews and Romas. Within the large cast of characters, the fast-talking hoods, an historical intellectual revolutionary and his passionate youthful lover are a little too stock for my liking, though they make for a page-turning read.

Instead, bland historian, Tibor Roland, his mother Agnes and her memory of her mother, give this novel its psychological complexity, taking it beyond the genre of a decent crime thriller. Tibor, reeling from an affair ended largely because of a deception on his part–deception is a recurring motif throughout the book–signs up for a conference in Budapest. His mother, born and raised there, fled to Canada after the uprising. Recently she has learned that her missing sister may have escaped through the mythical tunnels. During their visits, mother and son separately encounter acts of violence and deceit that ultimately intersect in a tangle of past and present. Agnes’s mother, in 1956 Budapest thinks, “But no change has ever held. It always turns back, turns bad.”

In clean, often insightful prose, Kay’s narrative moves seamlessly between past and present. While her sister embraces the fervour of the uprising, Agnes runs away, repulsed by the violence. After witnessing a horrific murder in Budapest, Tibor, fearful he will be framed by the corrupt police force, also flees.

Watching TV back in Toronto, Agnes and Tibor are decidedly unheroic, which is possibly what lends this novel its greatest interest. They are safe, reflecting a choice many immigrants to this country made. In spite of his reluctance to revisit the horrific event he witnessed, Tibor agrees to meet with the dead boy’s Canadian father. It’s as if his experience in Budapest has enabled him to see beyond violence as merely academic, as simply a subject of study, and to accept it as near at hand: in his mother’s history, in his own life.

In contemporary Canadian literature, there is a preponderance of stories unearthed from the past by a generation of writers distanced from the heat of revolution and yet wrestling with its residual effects. In the end, Agnes shares her personal history with Tibor, and he thinks, “He was a child of these circumscribed facts, of all she’d left behind. And he felt, well, he felt it added something to him.”

Judy LeBlanc has her MFA from UVIC and writes fiction from her home in Fanny Bay.

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