I’m a sucker for a great bookstore. At home bookstores are struggling for survival. Here in Hungary, the English bookstores are plentiful – thank goodness. You will find the ubiquitous commercial powerhouses: James Patterson, Jodi Piccoult, Sue Grafton – the list goes on. The bookstore near Nyugati contains a basement stuffed to the rafters with used fiction. I unapologetically grab a bag of 3 dollar, dog-eared, by-gone best sellers and laze away a Sunday afternoon. It is my guilty pleasure.
But what makes a local bookstore intriguing are the gaps – those books lurking between the über authors and vying for my attention. In Hungary, the gaps are filled by the sons (I rarely see daughters) of Budapest. Sprinkled amongst these are some regional writers famous enough to warrant English translation, and the remainder is a hodge-podge of greater Europe.
I recently finished Milan Kundera’s first book, The Joke. I had never heard of Kundera – an opinionated and vocal Czechoslovak exiled in France since 1975. Friends tell me he is “the most famous of living Czech authors” – which underscores, at least in my mind, my naivety. The Joke is a fictionalized tale of the unraveling of a young man’s life after sending his girlfriend a postcard which closes with a spontaneously scribbled “joke” mocking communism. The girlfriend turned it over to the authorities. The young man was expelled from the communist party and his university before being banished to a labor camp for subversives. The fictionalized story is an insightful glimpse behind the cloak of fear which engulfed Czechoslovakia. Great fiction dabbles on the margins of truth revealing the climate of the day. The Joke is great fiction.
On our bookshelf at home, we are collecting a cornucopia of local masterpieces: Sandor Marai’s The Embers; Peter Nadas’ A Book of Memories; and Fateless by Imre Kertesz. They were written by an Auschwitz survivor and the son of a communist leader who committed suicide in 1956. Some lived in exile across Europe or eventually in the United States. One received the Nobel Prize for Literature. They are locally, and appropriately, renowned.
So the next time you find yourself in a foreign city on a rainy day, consider seeking out the local English bookstore. Peer into the gaps. Ask for a recommendation from a lesser known writer. Find a coffee shop, nurse a drink, and escape into the local psyche. Imagine the history and perspective behind the story. There’s a lot to be learned from fiction.