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Alison Langley : Budapest Noir Ilona Gets a Phone

The eponymous Ilona is Ilona Kovács, a sixty-one year old widow living in a small flat in Budapest soon after the fall of communism. Her husband, Laci, was killed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. As a result she has ever since been denied a phone. Their son Emil later fled Hungary when still a minor and made his way to the United States where he lodged with a well-to-do US-Hungarian family. He has since married an American woman (of Irish extraction) and they have a very young daughter, Tünde (it means fairy. Contact between mother and son is fairly limited. Ilona works for a US news agency in Budapest.

As the title boldly tells us the book opens with her finally getting a phone and we see her eagerly awaiting the arrival of the phone installer. Once it is installed she eagerly reports it to her close friend and neighbour, Erzsi. She will write to Emil telling him about the phone, in the hope that he will phone her. He does not. She had been the only person in her block of flats not to have a phone: getting it was proof that she outlasted the communist bastards.

As part of her job she attends a press conference with her boss, John, who is Irish and does not speak Hungarian. Here she learns something of interest. The Hungarian government is prepared to let previous owners who had their property confiscated by the Communists get it back. There is one catch. They have to compensate the current owners/occupants and prove that they can maintain the property. Ilona is (was) an aristocrat. They owned a castle. Her parents are long since dead and her brother has disappeared, never to be heard of again. She and Emil are the sole surviving heirs. Getting the castle back becomes at first a dream and then an obsession. It is currently an old people’s home .

She gets a letter (not a phone call) from Emil, saying that he and his wife and daughter are coming to Budapest for a year and want to stay with her. This will be tricky as she has downsized since he left and not told him but she will sleep on the sofa. As he is American, she assumes he is rich and he can help buy the castle. She knows a lot of entrepreneurs are making money in post-communist Hungary, such as Istvan, Erzsi’s son, who has opened a restaurant and is planning on opening a chain of night clubs. She hopes Emil is coming for a similar reason.

When Emil and family arrive, she is somewhat disappointed. Not surprisingly, she is not overly impressed with her daughter-on-law and disappointed that Emil is only in Budapest on a Fulbright scholarship to take photos. He is not rich and has no desire to be an entrepreneur. Melissa, Emil’s wife is interested in dancing but she is thrilled to discover that her husband is technically a baron.

They all visit the castle which is in poor condition but Emil and Melissa are impressed with its size and, though it was plundered by the Soviets and Communists, there are still some fine decorations. All realise that a lot of costly work will be needed to restore it.

Ilona keeps trying to push Emil into reacquiring the castle, which he cannot even vaguely afford. Indeed, because he has a grant for only one person, he is not at all well-off and Melissa has to keep tight control of her spending. However, though they are not well-off, the Hungarians assume that, as they are Americans, they must be rich. This is brought home to Melissa when she goes to the local flea market where she finds people are not seeking just to sell unwanted junk but are having to sell their prized possessions just to survive.

Meanwhile Emil also finds the dark/noir side of contemporary Budapest when he meets some taxi drivers. Most of them had other jobs under communism but, in a capitalist economy, those jobs have disappeared but even taxi driving does not help as most Hungarians cannot afford taxis. He wonders if his project, entitled Hungary in Transition should be changed to Hungary, Defeated Again. He wants to do something on the 1956 Uprising but, perhaps not surprisingly, can find little source material. However when he meets someone who was there, his eyes are opened as to what really happened.

Meanwhile mother/son and mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations are worsening. The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of his parents, according to both Emil and Jung. Ilona wants him so to be like Istvan who since he was relatively young has been something of a hustler and go-getter. He had to survive. Emil, as we have learned, was a champion swimmer so he had it easy. Istvan is now expanding fur the, opening a chain of nightclubs.

But as the title tells us, this is about Budapest/Hungary’s dark side. I have reviewed forty-one Hungarian novels on this site and many of them show the dark side of Hungarian history. As Ilona’s boss, John says of the Hungarians the only people I know who can be on the losing side of every war and still have a country. The Hungarians supported Germany in both World Wars and lost a lot of territory as a result. In World War II they were invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union. Brutally invaded I should perhaps add. Ilona has witnessed the brutal side of both invasions and the communist rule and we are given the full dark details.

Many countries struggle to come to terms with their past and it is clear in this book that the Hungarians have not fully come to terms with the 1956 Rising. Thanks to Emil, we are given plenty of the dark details of that event. It is interesting that this page only mentions one novel covering the topic – by James Michener! There is no Hungarian version of the Wilkipedia page. This page mentions some short pieces but not novels. Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog does touch on the Uprising but I do not think there are many Hungarian novels, at least those that have made it into English, that cover it.

For me the most interesting part of this book was less the family issues that occur and far more the various issues that arise both as Hungary gains its freedom from communism, and very much struggles with that freedom – converting from communism to capitalism and all that that implies, bribery and corruption, Western influence, not always positive, and a range of economic issues – as well as the reckoning with the past, tricky for any country.

First published in 2024 by Dedalus