Dacia Maraini - Train to Budapest
It's 1956 and for some, the troubles of the Second World War have begun fading into memory. Europe has changed but life goes on, and so it is for Amara, the protagonist of Italian writer Dacia Maraini's novel, Train to Budapest (trans. Silvester Mazzarella). She is married, though estranged, and her career as a journalist has begun promisingly enough, even if she isn't quite being paid what she would like. She's settled in to her life, but there's a piece missing – Emanuele, a young Jewish boy she knew before the War, who disappeared into the camps and, probably, died there. She has his letters, written over a lengthy period of time in which he was moved first to a ghetto in Łódź, and then on to Dachau, but she doesn't know for certain if he still lives. Probably not, given the Nazi's treatment of Jews, but the question worries at her, itching in a way she can't seem to scratch while cloistered and safe in Italy.
Maraini's novel opens on a train waiting at the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia. Amara has left Italy, nominally on a reporting trip to write about the lives and conditions of people living in Central Europe. She has with her Emanuele's letters, talismans she keeps with her at all times, and it is now, fifteen years after they last saw one another, that she hopes to find him. These letters form the initial background of the story, serving to introduce Amara, Emanuele, and their shared affection. As children and teenagers they seemed destined to be together, but history separated them and, though Amara believes she still has feelings for Emanuele even now, her fondness has mostly been reduced to the ache of needing to see him, just once, even if all she can find is his grave.
Maraini takes us through Austria to Auschwitz, and into Hungary. Along the way Amara speaks with people who knew or might have known Emanuele, her journey paralleled with letters of Emanuele's own journey, taken years earlier, as his family was shuttled about while the Nazis cleansed the cities and towns of Jews. She meets Hans, a bored Hungarian who becomes interested in her quest but, we suspect, more interested in her; and Horvath, an old soldier who has travelled Europe collecting letters.
Hans comes early in the piece, but Horvath doesn't arrive until approximately two thirds of the way through the novel. Until the three are together the novel at times feels like it is spinning its wheels, adding stories which go nowhere and elaborating upon things that aren't really necessary. If the novel is about Amara's quest and the sense of lost history in Central Europe, why then does she detour back to Italy to visit her estranged, sick husband? Why does she visit her sick father? Why does her father die? Why does her husband die? Granted, in a person's life, one would of course visit sick relatives, and of course their deaths would heavily effect whatever business they were attending to, but this is a novel and not a person. A novel is constructed, and must conform to the structure it's author has set. Train to Budapest has a strong theme and a significant initial thrust (finding Emanuele), but it loses a lot of its impact thanks to this incessant travelling about to no good purpose, and listening to stories that go nowhere and add very little.
Maraini's best writing comes from her descriptions of actions and events. She has a talent for capturing the gathering energy of a large event, which is shown to its best effect during a nightmarish recreation of a group of Jews being gassed in Auschwitz, or the sudden outbreak of revolution in Hungary as the populace rises up against the brutal oppression of the Soviets.
Hans and Amara let the crowd, noisy and compact, carry them on. Who could have imagined this the morning they first arrived in the muffled and stifling silence of a city that seemed asleep! Who could have known that these people were just waiting for a sign to come into the streets! At Kálvin Square where the crowd divides before joining together again in Üllő utca. A bustling group of young men are carrying hammers, saws, chisels and picks. Some ten of them have a long ladder which they lean up against a wall. Then, very quickly, a child in a red hat runs up it with a hammer and defaces the Soviet emblem, a plaster hammer and sickle over the main entrance to a building. People collect the pieces of plaster that fly off and throw them happily into the air as if playing a game. Further on some men in ties and long coats are smashing the window of a shop that sells Soviet records and books. A young man with fine gipsy features squeezes into the shop through the broken glass and brings out armfuls of records and books. He throws them to his friends outside who pile them on the ground where someone has already started a bonfire.
And on and on it goes, Maraini's narrative eye roving far beyond Amara and Hans to examine the entire city as it goes up in flames and people start fighting. There are whispers of Soviet tanks, which at first encourages the Hungarians – perhaps we can win! – but as time goes on it seems that an even more oppressive regime is on its way, and supplies become scarce.
It is odd for a novel concerned with Jews and concentration camps that the Hungarian uprising would form the most interesting part of the novel. It is in this section alone that the three primary characters (it is telling that here Emanuele is largely forgotten) interact on an emotional and active level, participating in something larger than themselves and able to use the uprising as a springboard to discuss and act upon international politics, economics and philosophy. They become an engaged and engaging part of the social climate of the time, fully inserted into this traumatic event. Maraini's writing during this section is muscular, strong, sure of itself, confident. The minor characters which play a part during this section become more than the “story telling” characters of the previous parts, and when they die or live or succeed or fail the event has an impact on the novel as a whole, and the effect on the primary characters is believable.
The most significant and troubling flaw in Train to Budapest is that the quest for Emanuele never becomes compelling. While initially interesting, Maraini never focuses enough attention upon the situation, and when she does it's through letters and hazy memories – in short, nothing tangible, nothing upon which to hang the novel. Amara's impetus in searching for Emanuele never quite becomes believable, and as the world (Hungary) explodes around her it's hard to imagine she still cares about this lost little boy. The novel is at its strongest when both it and Amara forget about Emanuele and focus instead upon the matters at hand, and weakest when it (yet again) resorts to another letter to fill in some of the blanks in Emanuele's life.
Train to Budapest has some very satisfying parts, but these do not justify the existence of the whole. One wishes Maraini had jettisoned the parts of the novel concerning Jews and concentration camps (done much better elsewhere) and instead concentrated on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which is remarkable well captured here and overwhelmingly underrepresented in contemporary literature. A missed opportunity.
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Il Club degli Autori
Ellin Selae Associazione Letteraria
The Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities
Il Primo Amore