The Budapest Job: a book review by Jeffrey Cohen

November 19, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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This is an interesting book for it raises as many issues as it answers. First, it is well written and flows well and is captivating.

It is set primarily in Budapest in the (northern) summer of 1989 – just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism and the Eastern Bloc. While it is set in 1989 it has much of its story in the oppressive world under Russian domination beginning after World War II and continuing until the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (which was suppressed by Moscow).

The story begins in Sydney when a young architect is about to be sent to Budapest to head up a building development. One of the problems he encounters is obtaining a visa to visit Hungary. This is because he cannot produce his birth certificate.  Discovers that the man he thought was his father was indeed his step-father and this leads him to discover the story about his father.

For some of my generation who escaped Hungary in 1956, for many years it was a challenge to obtain accurate real documents. Any of them reading this story would have felt resonance with our ‘hero’. For him, it will revolve around 1953 when his biological father dies and the book is about how he searches for answers (did he really ever get the whole truth?) about his father.

Like every good novel – in a sense it is a detective story as he searches for the truth – it has some good twists and turns although the truth becomes revealed long before the end, not so much how his father died but who signed his execution warrant.

There are a number of players in this story. His mother, Greta who really tells him little and is more distant than close as a mother. There is his employer, Ernst, who has established a successful building company in Sydney and wishes to build in Budapest. There are a number of players in Budapest beginning with the couple from whom he rents a room. There is a leading reporter for Hungarian television. There is an idealistic young woman who obtains documents surreptitiously for Tom (our Hero). In each of these cases, the reader is often left to ask ‘whose side are they on?’

Alice Spigelman

Given that the author was born in Hungary and fled in 1956, one wonders what she built her story on. While this is not her first book it is her first published novel. As I read it, and knowing that a number of refugees went successfully into the building business there was the niggling question about who is story modelled on?

I am not sure the timeline is totally accurate in that there is much soul-searching in the novel in 1989, and before the fall of the wall, about what happened during that period 1946-1956. Much has been revealed about people who cooperated with the Secret Police and in some post-Communist states many became pariahs and ostracized by their society. This does not seem to happen in this novel.

It would be easy to reveal the ending but rather the reader should enjoy this novel. Personally, I could have done without the final chapter. I m not sure it really adds anything to the story although I am sure that Alice would argue that it ties up many of the loose ends. I think they were better left dangling.

The Budapest Job

Author: Alice Spigelman

Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger 291 pages

 

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) University of Notre Dame Australia. He spent 4 years as Literary Editor of the Australian Jewish News. He was CEO for 5 years of the Sydney Jewish Museum

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