Two boys flee the 1956 Russian occupation of Budapest.
Robert and Attila (named for the Hun) Beck are brothers, ages 9.8 and 13.7, respectively, according to the ever precise Robert, who narrates this circuitous but fervent novel. Kertes (Gratitude, 2009), winner of the National Jewish Book Award, begins his newest work in his own native Budapest. It's 1956, and Russian soldiers have invaded the city to quash the Hungarian Revolution. With their family, the Beck brothers flee across the border, eventually landing in Paris. But their journey isn’t merely a geographical one. As they travel, Robert and Attila begin to uncover secrets about their Jewish family’s past. Those secrets revolve around a pair of mysterious figures: Raoul Wallenberg and Paul Beck. Here, Kertes is revisiting characters from his previous book, Gratitude, and perhaps for that reason, the material occasionally feels predigested. But Robert and Attila are a winning pair of guides. They are exposed to childbirth as well as to violence and death, experiences that are particularly dismaying for Robert, the wide-eyed younger brother. Meanwhile, Attila tries to make sense of things. Robert looks on as Attila grapples with skeins of tangled questions, which range in subject from the design of the human body to the meaning of God’s omniscience. He muses, “Did the Lord think up everything at once because he is omniscient? I guess I’m saying, how does that work—being omniscient, I mean? Did he start out, as a baby God, being somewhat omniscient? Did he start out as God of the Milky Way, only later to become God of the whole universe?” But when Attila and Robert ask their grandmother about the family’s wartime experiences, the boys are told: “News like that can wait.” There is, it seems, a limit to knowledge. Oddly, it is Attila’s flights of questions, and the final unveiling of those wartime secrets, that form the most vivid parts of this novel. On the other hand, the present day—1956, when Russian soldiers have beset Budapest—carries the watery tint of unreality.
Kertes’ voice is a lyrical one, and his work is frequently moving, but long passages seem to wash by without fully convincing the reader they’ve actually happened.