Under Budapest – a book review


Under Budapest by Ailsa Kay. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2013.

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

The Ontario-based author Ailsa Kay fell in love with Budapest on a visit nine years ago. She stayed on searching beyond the Hungarian city’s post-Communist surface for the essence of the ‘Magyar’ people. The result is her first novel spiced with suspense and history and with characters who linger on in the reader’s imagination when the story ends.

Three storylines collapse in to the finale. We are grabbed at the outset with the “innocent” night-time prowlings of Janos, a young man of Hungarian birth, who has lived a sheltered life growing up in Toronto. He is with an old childhood friend, Csaba and foolishly wanders in to the dark side of Budapest. An accidental witness to Janos’ grisly fate is Tibor Roland. A central character, Tibor, like the reader, must put together the puzzling plotline as each piece comes to light. He is an academic born in Toronto and appears to lack a meaningful personal life, depicted in a love affair. His widowed mother, Agnes (nee Tiglas), a Hungarian émigré, has the potential to help Tibor know himself. He has already been exploring her repressed memories in the guise of academic research. An opportunity arrives for the pair to visit Budapest. It is the eve of the 2010 election in a country now independent but still recovering from the long repressive Soviet-based Communist regime after the Second World War. And it is on his early morning jog from his hotel to Gellert Hill, that Tibor sees a crime.

The third plot is set in Budapest, 1956. Agnes’ father is among the many arbitrarily imprisoned by the government. Her mother is convinced he is somewhere below the city in a tunneled prison. Meantime, the time for rebellion arrives. Agnes is caught up in a march in the first hopeful days: “In this whispering city, people yell, “Now or never.” And the urban landscape of Budapest is always a beloved constant : “They keep walking, and the swell carries her, and the bridge miraculously holds as the evening sun lights the Duna on fire.” There are mass protests, fighting in the streets and the Communist rulers appear to be willing to negotiate.

Agnes escapes to Austria before the government closes the border and the violent reprisals begin. Her boyfriend and revolutionary leader, Gyula Farkas is captured and imprisoned. What happens to her sister, Zsofi who remains to fight with Gyula, insisting he loves her, not Agnes, is a central question of the novel.

Few tender moments occur between the people of Budapest—past or present. The author holds no punches as she depicts callous brutality from top to bottom. The potential for cruelty beneath a civilized veneer is a guiding point Agnes tries to instill in her Canadian-born son. The youthful Agnes also tries to warn her idealistic sister and boyfriend to escape Hungary before the crackdown, to no avail. What does bond both dreamers and pragmatists in Budapest is the belief tunnels exist beneath the city; that people are both imprisoned and freed within them. The author succeeds in her compelling novel, Under Budapest, to reveal much of what lies beneath. As her deftly woven story illustrates, for the current generation, it is a past generation rich in stories, secrets and lessons.

Re-printed from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, an on-line magazine, issue #15.


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