It would be hard for an expatriate not to love a book whose first line is
It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language.
So begins Budapest, by Chico Barque, delightful in English translation from the Brazilian Portuguese about an invisible man of letters who falls in love with the Hungarian language.
This is a book of exuberant words, and its exuberance is catchy. It's a small book, a short read, a few clever twists, but mostly it is just an explosion of words describing less life than imagination.
Time spent as an expatriate can sap your inner voice. Even as one learns a new tongue, one cannot help but be hesitant to use it. After all, it is not against the law to mock stilted foreigners. Even among impeccably polite hosts, one is constantly aware that whatever beyond mere practicality one wishes to express will be hopelessly marred. Your sense of humor will be misinterpreted, your irony will not be caught, your puns will be unintentionally obscene. People will laugh, or be offended, or they will be confused. You may be cute, but you will not be yourself, who you mean to be. If you are not careful, with each phrase misspoken you become something small in your own eyes, a curiosity.
This book I am hawking (I suppose I am hawking it, since I just signed up for Amazon's affiliate program in a what-the-hell kind of a moment) doesn't dwell on all of this. It doesn't dwell on much of anything. It runs rough-shod over any actual topic with the self-indulgent imaginings and ego-fueled explosions of its protagonist, and the plot of the book ends up seeming like an interesting enough travelogue, or like a cute joke, but you don't much care. This is a book whose purpose is to sweep you away in a torrent of words, and for that I am grateful. It is a book for an expatriate to savor, not primarily because what it describes is topical, but because it is an antidote to the mute colorlessness that threatens to quietly overtake the mind of the shy, unwary alien.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Saturday March 4, 2006 at 1:49pm||permalink|