Falling for a language other than one's own
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
GROVE PRESS; 183 Pages; $19.95
Jose Costa , a rather self-absorbed professional ghostwriter who lives in Brazil, makes a living writing prose for obscure strangers and attends an annual International Ghostwriters Conference in a new foreign city each year. On one of his travels home, Costa is dropped down into Budapest on an unplanned stopover, and spends the night in a strange hotel, where, while watching television, he develops a strong, sudden fascination for the sounds of Hungarian. fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide
The next day, he returns home to his wife, Vanda, a local news anchorwoman; to his native Brazil; and to his ghostwriting job. But Costa's attention wavers. Even as he develops his new specialty -- writing other people's autobiographies -- some part of his mind latches onto Hungarian. The foreignness of the language compels him: He begins to dream of it at night, and eventually returns to Budapest.
The rest of Chico Buarque's charmingly inventive new novel, "Budapest," traces Costa's travels between his old life with his wife and son in Brazil, and a new life in Hungary, where he slowly seeks to master a new tongue, learning Hungarian from a divorcee and her son in Budapest. But as with so many really good books, saying what happens almost misses the point.
The story here is partly about how stories take place. With the deft fable-like qualities of a Calvino or Borges tale, the prose drops into odd scenes, spins odd stringy sentences and traverses weird slips between bodies and tongues. The strangeness is always to a sly point: Its quasi-allegorical episodes and twists of fate cunningly probe the ways that people and language use each other. At the center of the book is the play of language itself.
It's somehow fitting that Buarque, a world-renowned bossa-nova musician, would create a character so obsessed with sheer sound and with the way the rhythms of language entice the body. During Costa's first encounter with Hungarian, he has no way of knowing "the structure, the actual body of the words ... where each one began or finished." Hungarian is purely sensory: It enters his body like the sweet pumpkin bread and apricot liquor he discovers in his hotel. Costa longs to own the names that might unlock his sensations, and he's continually seduced by his own frustration, for even as he chases Hungarian, it evades him. His Brazilian tongue causes him to blunder. "There I am arriving almost," he says to his new Hungarian teacher. He means to say that he is going to be there any minute, but she mocks him, making fun of the way that what he says also means that he's going to arrive in parts, nose and chin, elbow and wrist.
Later, as Costa looks at his new lover's body, he feels moved, "knowing that soon I would know her intimate parts and, with equal or greater pleasure, their names." Language, the book seems to argue, locates and dislocates us. It arrives only partially, and part of its pleasure comes in our being acutely aware of how separate what one can name is from the terrain of what one feels. If language seduces, it is because it is partly a force beyond our control. This parallels the book's not-so-hidden meditation on the nature of authorship. The (ghost)writer is a figure in the grip of a foreign force, and he's different, almost estranged from, the rather dull figures of the authors who always lurk, dumbly ready to attach their names to his products. It's fitting that Costa would leave his Brazilian wife, a woman who passively recites the news "like a parrot," in favor of someone who reminds him how much words withhold.
"Budapest" would seem like an extended parable, except that there's a bubbly quality to it. Each tale that Costa-the-ghostwriter crafts seems to thread its way back, to tug on the current of the narrative itself. Stories aren't passive; they are manipulative, unexpected and strangely controlling.
In Brazil, Buarque is a famous and beloved romantic musician, whose honeyed lyrics have been revered for decades. Not surprisingly, the book has been a smash hit, almost the cultural equivalent of soul singer Al Green unveiling major literary talent. One wonders what it must sound like, then, to hear it in Buarque's own voice and tongue. For its part, the book about translation fares pretty well in English. Still, it's hard not to want to read it in Portuguese, to hear that musical and flirtatious foreign tongue, if only to hear the unexpected tones that might sing beneath it.