Speaking in Tongues

While I’m on the subject of weird and winning metafiction from Brazil: did you know that the internationally acclaimed musician Chico Buarque is also a talented novelist? I didn’t – until I read Budapeste (Companhia das Letras, 2003 / Budapest trans. Alison Entrekin for Grove Press, 2005).

The novel’s protagonist, José Costa, is a shadowy figure: not because he is up to anything particularly illicit, but because he is by trade and disposition a ghost writer and prefers to keep under the radar. Returning to Brazil from an Anonymous Author’s convention, José is stranded overnight in Budapest and falls in love with the Hungarian language, “rumored to be the only tongue in the world that the devil respects,” despite the fact that he does not understand it in the least. When José finally makes it home, he is confronted by a stale marriage, a vaguely monstrous child, and an unsettling turn in his professional life: he finds that his agency is gradually replacing him with ghost writers trained to ghost write his ghost writing.

This is the part where most novels would become insufferably trite and irreparably PoMo. In Buarque’s hands, however, the dark humor and quick tempo of the passage do much to balance the conceit. Returning to the office after another of his absences, José finds “a young writer installed at a desk facing mine and half a dozen of his articles framed on the walls.” He approaches one of these:

I had to admit, I could not have introduced that article with any words but those. I closed my eyes, thought I could guess the following sentence, and there it was, word for word. I covered the text with my hands and went along removing my fingers inch by inch, opening words letter by letter like a poker player squeezing his cards, and they were precisely the words I was expecting. […] Soon another lad was hired, and another […] When I found myself surrounded by seven writers, all wearing striped shirts like mine, with reading glasses just like mine, all with my haircut, my cigarrettes and my cough, I moved into a small room behind the reception area that was being used as a storeroom.

Unsurprisingly, it is not long before José is aboard another airplane, making his way back to his beloved Budapest. There he learns Hungarian from an appealingly sadistic divorcée named Kriska, who becomes his lover and, later, his muse. José’s affinity for the language turns out to be so great, in fact, that he manages to revive his former trade, ghost writing exchanges between prominent cultural figures for the archives of one of the city’s foremost institutions. Without divulging too much, at this point the story (d)evolves into a series of occasionally contrived plot twists that bring José back and forth across the Atlantic and lead to something like a fight-to-the-notoriety cage match (read the book – it will make sense) and a close shave with existential meltdown.

Although the novel’s self-referentiality leaves a bit to be desired at times, the pacing and wry sensibility of the piece make it easy to overlook its shortcomings. For her part, Alison Entrekin does a good job of getting the humor of the book across without falling into schtick, evoking the balance struck by Buarque in the original Portuguese. This is the first of Buarque’s novels that I have read, and I will definitely be going back for more. As a commentary on language, identity, displacement and the creative process, Budapest(e) takes the gallons of ink that have already been spilled on the subject and coaxes them into a poignant and refreshing tableau.

For more, there is an interesting article/review over at The Guardian. And now, ladies and gentlemen (I can’t resist), the Talented Mr. Buarque:

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