Monday, May 30, 2011

Train to Budapest

Train to Budapest
Author: Dacia Maraini
Arcadia Books, 2010
342 pages

In the years prior to the second world war, a boy and girl growing up near Florence, Italy met and became close friends. The girl, Amara, was the daughter of a local shoemaker. The boy, Emanuele, was the son of a wealthy Austrian industrialist and former actress, who happened to be Jewish. In the first of several unfortunate decisions, Emanuele's parents decide to move back to Vienna. Thus begins a series of letters written by Emanuele to Amara describing his family's removal from their home in Vienna to the Jewish ghetto in Łódź, Poland. There, he wrote to Amara in a notebook that was found after the war and sent to her in Italy.

Thirteen years after the war is over, Amara is now a journalist, traveling to the East to write stories about life behind the "Iron Curtain" . . . but she also has a personal mission: to find out what happened to Emanuele. En route to Poland to visit Auschwitz, she meets the very interesting Hans, a "half-Austrian, half-Hungarian, half-Jew" whom Amara calls The Man With Gazelles because of an unusual sweater he wears. They team up to search for Emanuele, meeting all sorts of people with incredible personal stories.

While they wait for visas to return to Poland for another Auschwitz visit, their travels take them to Budapest, where they get caught up in the Hungarian Revolution. This is a period in history I know very little about, and I was surprised at the unexpected twists. But this was just one of several.

This amazing novel does an extraordinary job of describing some of the dramatic changes that took place in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. It's been a bestseller on Amazon UK for a while and when I last checked, it had a perfect five-star rating. There's a reason for that. It's really, really good. If you're into fiction about World War II or European History, go get it. And read it. Now.