Book #2: “Prague”—Arthur Phillips (2002)
[Since it is LONG gone from their website, I just going to reprint my review of Prague that appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2003.]
The Persistence of Irony: Memory, longing and nostalgia collide in Arthur Phillips’ first novel “Prague”
After the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Eastern Europe and its previously off-limits (and therefore exotic) capitals became the hot destination for young Westerners. Armed with attitude and the victorious dollar, American expatriates rolled into cities such as Prague and Budapest seeking fame and fortune, convinced they were taking part in the creation of a gilded age to rival that of 1920s Paris—with everyone angling to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
That Arthur Phillips’ novel “Prague” takes place entirely in Budapest is the first clue this is no mere attempt to cash in on the recollections of a brief, intense time. The book, now out in paperback, was both a best seller and a darling of literary critics when it was released last year. While ostensibly about five droll and oh-so-ironic expats living in Hungary in the early 1990s, “Prague” is really Phillips’ exploration of nostalgia, longing and the nature of memory. It is also a paean to Budapest, for which he readily admits a long and “obsessive love.” (Phillips was one of these cultural invaders of the East, where he lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992.)
As a writer, Phillips is both sharp and playful, sprinkling his text with clever metaphors as liberally as Hungarians sprinkle paprika on everything they eat. With his deft use of description and language, he paints a rich, textured portrait of a city, and a history, in flux. His characters are meticulously drawn, and Phillips slowly pulls the reader along as he probes the peculiarities of desire, unrequited love and perception, before flinging everyone involved headlong into a collision with each other and history.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember this is Phillips’ first novel, it’s that good.
Those few times (rare, to be sure) when this rookie effort strains the reader, when the writing seems too clever by half, or the descriptions thicken until the prose almost stops, don’t come close to derailing what is a truly impressive debut. Never mind. Push on, and you’ll quickly find bright and insightful observations, as in this early paragraph:
“Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a cafe patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone’s receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.”
Even the overall structure of the novel echoes and supports Phillips’ Big Themes of cycles, circles, of the chase for something always just out of reach. Each of the book’s four parts begins slowly, leisurely, before picking up speed and spiraling around like water going down a drain, ever faster and more chaotic, until even the paragraphs themselves are pulled apart.
On occasion, you want to slap his self-absorbed characters, so full are they of an annoyingly hip and cocky irony, but mostly you want to shake them and wake them and save them from this longing for something they can never have. For all of their self-awareness and insight into those around them, Phillips’ characters, like we do, often fail to see what is right in front of them. It is this use of literary irony that forms the bittersweet heart of “Prague.”