Extraordinary Renditions

By Andrew Ervin

Coffee House Press. 192 pp. $14.95 nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen


Andrew Ervin's fictional debut,

Extraordinary Renditions

, is a darkly evocative trilogy of stories set in contemporary Budapest - a city burdened by past and present acts of cruelty and ugliness, but buoyed by the beauty of its architecture and music. The stories are loosely linked, involving three characters who tread the same ground but intersect only fleetingly.

The first story is that of an elderly composer, Lajos Harkályi, a native of Budapest who lost his parents during the Holocaust and was himself interned in the "model" concentration camp of Terezin. Created to provide the illusion that the Jews were being well cared for, Terezin featured artists and musicians who mounted exhibitions and concerts for foreign visitors. The young Harkályi, a budding violinist, was one of this group, and, despite the oppression of the camp, owed his musical career to the experience there.

In a wonderfully imagined riff, Ervin describes the genesis of Harkályi's aesthetic and its ironic result:

His inner ear grew accustomed to awkward variations in pitch, which he learned to incorporate into the music he composed based upon the Volkslieder the weeping officers sang drunkenly to him. The rapid turnover of musicians made it difficult to orchestrate precise melodies, so Harkályi taught himself a unique compositional style, a style that eventually gained him a vast, international following and brought him back here to Budapest after all these years.

After the war, Harkályi emigrates to Philadelphia, where he studies at the Curtis Institute and builds a career as one of the world's foremost composers. As the story begins, he has returned to Hungary to debut his new opera and to see his American niece, who works as a translator for a consulting firm outside Budapest.

The second story involves a black GI, Jonathan "Brutus" Gibson, stationed in Hungary, where the American military is operating one of its "black sites" in the global war on terror. Brutus, who is having an affair with Harkályi's niece (the connection to the earlier story is tantalizing but undeveloped), has been framed by his sadistic commanding officer and blackmailed into making an illegal arms delivery in Budapest. Brutus is also from Philadelphia, and his observations about the Eastern European city continually involve allusions to his native home. The references to SEPTA, Channel 6 Action News, and traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway provide whimsical but also vaguely disturbing echoes and correspondences.

The third story involves Melanie Scholes, a young expatriate and aspiring violinist from Boston, engaged in a halfhearted relationship with a female photographer. Both women are artists treading water in their personal and professional lives, using their position as outsiders in a foreign city to remain in an uncommitted, limbo state. Melanie has a job playing with the Budapest Opera Orchestra and will, in an unforeseen moment, assume a central role in the performance of Harkályi's new opera. This event will wrest her out of her stalled life and prepare her to return home and launch her musical career in earnest.

If there are two sorts of fiction writers - those who write about versions of themselves and those who seek to imagine lives very different from their own - Ervin is of the latter variety. His principal characters - a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, a disaffected African American soldier, a lesbian expatriate musician - are strikingly different, both from one another and from their creator. The first and the third of the stories are primarily character studies. They follow the ruminations of Harkályi and Melanie as the city evokes, for one, the horrors of the past, and for the other, the possibilities of the future. Both stories use music to lighten what might otherwise be a crushingly depressing mood.

The second story, the most ambitious and problematic of the three, is at core a political commentary on American involvement in international affairs. Brutus is more an idea than a character in this respect. He is simply too many things at odds with one another to emerge as a fully realized individual: poor, underprivileged, scapegoated, yet with the sophisticated insights of a Marxist cultural critic (he carries around a copy of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth). Moreover, the representatives of the American military - Brutus' commander, bunk-mate, and others with whom he has dealings - are too uninflectedly racist and corrupt to represent more than a narrowly ideological vision of America.

Yet Brutus' story is also the most literally exciting of the three, and it is possible to forgive Ervin's political overreaching as one gets caught up in wondering how the character will handle the mess in which he finds himself. One of the frustrating aspects of this narrative is that we never learn the repercussions of Brutus' actions - we can only hope for a sequel.

The book has a prismlike quality; each story makes us see the city from a different but overlapping perspective. Indeed, Ervin's greatest accomplishment consists in evoking Budapest itself as a multifaceted character. Soiled and grim, it is place beset by ghosts and monsters - including a group of skinheads who have taken the fascist mentality associated with Harkályi's past and appropriated it to the present. But the city is also lyrical in unexpected and unconventional ways, making the musical motifs tremendously apt. Extraordinary Renditions will not incite tourism, but it will arouse the imagination. One looks forward to more from this talented author.

Paula Marantz Cohen (cohenpm@drexel.edu) is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. Her latest novel, "What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper," is due out this month.