Friday, 27 April 2018

Book Review: Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini the fall of communism, cities like Krakow, Prague and Budapest have regained their status as popular tourist destinations. During the Cold War, on the other hand, not many Westerners will have dreamt of visiting them one day, probably above all those who yearned for meeting family still there or who were homesick for the places of a memorable youth before World War II. Even fewer will actually have ventured at getting a visa. Set in 1956, Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini evokes a Europe divided into East and West by the Iron Curtain. Hoping to find out the fate of her childhood friend Emanuele, whose last letters scribbled into an exercise-book in the ghetto of Lodz date from 1943, a young Florentine journalist visits Auschwitz, Vienna and eventually Budapest. In the Hungarian capital she becomes eye-witness of one of the most dramatic periods in the country’s recent history.

Dacia Maraini was born in Fiesole, Tuscany, Italy, in November 1936. In 1938, the family fled from fascist Italy to Japan where they were interned in a concentration camp from 1943 until their return to Italy in 1946. After a failed marriage she lived with fellow writer Alberto Moravia. In 1962, she made her successful debut as a novelist with The Holiday (La vacanza) followed by a big number of other novels, short stories, (screen)plays, poetry and essays. She also worked for theatre and film as director and even actress as late. Among her most notable novels translated into English are The Age of Discontent (L'età del malessere: 1963; also published as The Age of Malaise), Memoirs of a Female Thief (Memorie di una ladra: 1973), Isolina (Isolina. La donna tagliata a pezzi: 1980), The Silent Duchess (La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa: 1990), Voices (Voci: 1994), The Violin (Dolce per sé: 1997) and Train to Budapest (Il treno dell’ultima notte: 2008). In 2012, the prolific author was reportedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her latest published work is autobiographical La mia vita, le mie battaglie (2015; tr. My Life, My Battles). Dacia Maraini lives in Rome, Italy.

Before the Train to Budapest carries young Florentine journalist Amara right into the middle of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, her work takes her to Poland. Her job as a correspondent gives her the welcome opportunity to find out what happened to her childhood friend Emanuele Orenstein whom she last saw in 1939, when she was scarcely nine and he eleven years old. All the years that passed since, not even World War II and her marriage to a much older man let her forget the boy whose letters accompany her wherever she goes. He wrote them after his parents left Florence, where the father owned a small toy factory, to return to Vienna in Nazi Germany. The whole family were ardent Austrian patriots and convinced that their loyalty and family history would protect them from persecution for being Jewish, but they were wrong. From February 1942 on, Emanuele’s letters arrived from the Jewish ghetto in Lodz in Poland and got scarcer and scarcer until they stopped at all. After the war someone sent her his last letters scribbled into an exercise-book. Otherwise, she has no news of him, and yet, she feels that he might still be alive. In the archives of the Auschwitz concentration camp she searches for traces of Emanuele because most people from Lodz were taken there in the end and finds nothing. Hans Wilkowsky, an acquaintance from the train to Poland, offers his help with the investigation and they decide to start in Vienna. There they track down some Orensteins, but none of them seems to have known Emanuele. Together with the librarian Horvath, Hans and Amara head for Poland once more, this time via Budapest, though, where the father of Hans lives and they end up in the turmoil of the uprising against Communist supremacy…

Conceived as a third-person narrative from the perspective of the female protagonist, Train to Budapest offers a rough outline of Italian and European history from the mid-1930s through 1956. The red thread of the novel clearly is Amara’s longing to know the fate of her childhood friend Emanuele and to close this chapter of her life at last. For reasons that escape me, the author found it necessary, though, to mix the engaging quest for a boy caught in the cruel machinery of the holocaust not just with the visible aftermaths of the war personified in Hans and Horvath (who both found refuge in Vienna although their relatives either were killed or live scattered across Central Europe), but also with the democratic uprising in Hungary towards the end of 1956 that has nothing whatsoever to do with Emanuele’s fate. To me it felt as if Dacia Maraini had tried to combine two independent stories and failed to find a natural link. The characters appeared fairly realistic to me, while some descriptions of post-war Vienna left me with the awkward impression that they weren’t quite right. I read the Italian original version and as always found much beauty in the language.

Despite the mentioned imperfections, I took considerable pleasure in reading Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini. Altogether it turned out to be a charming, occasionally sentimental story with unmistakable suggestions of holocaust and even detective novels. It’s also unusual because the 1956 democratic uprising in Hungary, which the reforms of Nikita Khrushchev following Stalin’s death encouraged, and its unexpectedly violent suppression by Soviet troops seldom appear in Western literature – even if I think that they are out of place in this particular novel. It’s certainly not an in-depth historical study and I doubt that the book bears comparison with the average eye-witness report, but it still gives an idea of the atmosphere in the Hungarian capital that changed from hopeful and euphoric to desperate and terrified within only a few weeks. It may not be the best of Dacia Maraini’s novels, and yet, I’m more than ready to recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Again you have introduced to me an author I have not heard of before. About the Hungarian uprising, I have not read much except for a book by James Michener called The Bridge at Andau.


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