‘The Inflatable Buddha’ by András Kepes (Review)

As regular readers will no doubt have gathered by now, I like to do my best to promote literature in translation, especially when it’s new or small publishers bringing books out.  Recently, I got an e-mail from Armadillo Central, a publisher not known for works in translation, but with a Hungarian book they thought I might be interested in.  The title is fascinating (as is the cover), but, as always, I was more interested in what happens inside…

*****
András Kepes’ The Inflatable Buddha (translated by Bernard Adams, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is an attempt to look back on twentieth-century Hungarian history by following three individuals and their families.  The three boys, Isti Veres, Dávid Goldstein and Pál Szentágostony, are born around the end of the First World War, appearing just as Hungary was losing much of its traditional territory in the Treaty of Trianon, and they come of age as the clouds of war are again beginning to gather over central Europe.

Isti is a good-looking peasant, a skillful footballer and violinist; Dávid is a Jew, the son of a local shopkeeper; Pál is the local Baron’s son.  Despite growing up together in the village of Tövispuszta (the name of the book in the original), their origins will determine the decisions they make and the way their lives unfold in the decades to come.  In twentieth-century Hungary, there were plenty of hard choices to make, and the three men will be confronted with several before the end of the novel.  German or Hungarian?  Fascist or Communist?  Revolutionary or Policeman?  And, of course, patriot or emigrant…

Naturally, Dávid’s path is the most difficult, initially at least.  Many westerners may not know the role Hungary played during the first part of the Second World War as one of Germany’s allies***, and the Jewish characters in The Inflatable Buddha all face trips to concentration camps if they are caught by the police.  However, matters are not much better after the war; Dávid’s poor uncle has his business seized twice – once by the Fascists, then by the Communists…  Having little interest in religion, Dávid attempts to change his name and hide his origins, but (as a friend points out) it’s a plan with little chance of success:

“Believe me, my boy, it’s no good trying to pretend you’re not Jewish, there’ll always be somebody that’ll remind you.  I thought that after Auschwitz it would no longer be possible for people to be fed all kinds of vileness because everybody would see what inspired hatred and where it led to.  But it seems it isn’t so.”
p.200 (Armadillo Central, 2013)

If that’s true though, what option remains?

Pál and Isti have their own concerns.  As a nobleman (and someone with close ties to the West), the young Baron Szentágostony is unlikely to fare well in post-WW2 Communist-occupied Hungary, while Isti’s decision to throw in his lot with the authorities is destined to cost him too.  However, it’s hard to blame any of the friends for their choices – in a situation like the one Hungarians found themselves in ninety years ago, there really was no right option…

The Inflatable Buddha is an interesting story, a book you can sail through quite comfortably, but it’s definitely not in the style of some of Kepes’ more illustrious countrymen.  Anyone hoping for some of the linguistic excellence of Krasznahorkai or the Proustian minutiae of Nádas will be disappointed – this is a fairly straight-forward piece of historical fiction, albeit one which continues the story up to fairly recent times.

Not knowing a lot about the country, I enjoyed the trip through the past century, but there were a few drawbacks.  While 315 pages doesn’t sound especially short, it is when you’re trying to cram in many decades of eventful history, and some of the chapters appeared a little over-filled with events (and endnotes).  The lengthy timespan covered also meant that the reader got to meet several generations of the same family, and with three main families to explore, that’s a lot of people to remember, most of whom only appear for a line or two before reappearing a few chapters (and thirty years) later on…

Still, it’s an intriguing trip down (a Hungarian) memory lane, and it’s easy to see why it was a best-seller in its native country.  However, it’d be fascinating to see exactly what people made of it, as it’s tempting to think that they are likely to take what they want from the book, according to their political views.  At one point, a character is described as:

“An identity-challenged boy searching for explanations in an identity-challenged country…” (p.231)

Sadly, that’s still true today.  If you’ve been keeping a close eye on political events in central Europe, you’ll know that many people appear to have forgotten what happens when a country ignores the past.  Perhaps they should all take another close look at Kepes’ book before things go too far…

*****
***This sentence initially began “Many westerners may not know the role Hungary played during the Second World War as one of Germany’s closest allies,…”.  I corrected this factual error after one of the comments below alerted me to it.

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2 thoughts on “‘The Inflatable Buddha’ by András Kepes (Review)

  1. Dear Tony,
    That's a very serious mistake when you say “Hungary played during the Second World War as one of Germany's closest allies”. If you interested in hungarian history pls read the following books: Thomas Sakmyster: Admiral on horseback, C. A. Macartney: October fifteenth, J. F. Montgomery: The unwilling satellite, etc. Sincerly yours: Dr. Géza Somos, (drsomos@t-online.hu)

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