Sunday, November 14, 2010

Extraordinary Renditions in Ervin’s Budapest

Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions is a troika of long stories linked by location and theme: all three pieces take place in or around Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. The stories’ main American characters – a Hungarian-born composer, a soldier, and an expat violinist – are unevenly drawn but give the book three perspectives on political and artistic freedoms.

I think the first installment, “14 Bagatelles,” featuring composer Lajos Harkályi, is the most interesting, with its depiction of removal from one’s birthplace: Harkályi spent time at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp as a child, survived by luck, and rarely returns to Hungary. Harkályi, who is visiting Budapest for the premiere of an opera he wrote, is a little grumpy, perceiving TV as a sewer (as a TV-less person, I loved this!) and disliking hearing someone hum the theme of one of his symphonies.

In “14 Bagatelles” Ervin offers diverse bits of Budapest atmosphere: a street vendor selling flowers, local drink in a bar, diesel fumes, the subway, and a skinhead attack. The attack’s victim is Brutus, a black U.S. soldier who becomes the primary character in “Brooking the Devil,” the middle piece in Extraordinary Renditions. Brutus’s story is related to the most literal extraordinary renditions in the book since his base is involved in the War on Terror. Brutus is bitter about the military, and I wonder if Ervin included Brutus’s interest in Julius Caesar to reference Hungarian history, which included a period of Roman occupation. I thought Brutus’s chunk of the book was the least convincing, with too many details about routine and gratuitous references to Philadelphia… even if the Declaration of Independence was signed there.

Brutus winds up in Budapest on a terrible errand that brings him to the same bar where the reader meets Melanie, the expat violinist, and her controlling roommate in “The Empty Chairs.” Though I thought Ervin invested too many words in their drinking and relationship, the self-doubting Melanie steals two shows: her fantastically spontaneous actions during the performance of Harkályi’s opera premiere have a tremendous effect on Harkályi and the audience, injecting unexpected emotion into the book itself and transforming the reading experience. Ervin’s performance is as spectacular and unexpected as Melanie’s, as he describes artistic inspiration that results in a truly extraordinary rendition of a musical score.

What links the three stories is freedom – it’s Independence Day, after all – and the urges the characters feel to escape from regimented environments, be they Nazi occupation, the military, or sheet music. Though I thought the book was uneven and sometimes slightly marred by unnecessary exposition (details), it’s well worth reading thanks to Ervin’s ability to use his energy and independence to create disparate stories that fit together as something like a novel.

Disclosure: Thank you to Amy of The Black Sheep Dances for another hand-me-down review copy! She received Extraordinary Renditions from Coffee House Press.

Up Next: Odds and ends after a strange stretch of reading…

Image Credit: Budapest Jewish WWII Memorial Shoes on River Bank, from Csörföly, via Wikipedia.

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