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Acclaimed Hungarian novelist Esterhzy (The Book of Hrabal, 1994, etc.) unevenly combines anecdote and opinion to create a pastiche-portrait of a society in which ""lies"" pervert both the personal and the political. Esterhazy's latest to appear here was written in the early 1980s, in the ""so-called time of transition,"" when Hungarian writers, frustrated by the need to be discreet yet simultaneously lacking the edge the 1950s Stalinist terror paradoxically provided, were at a literary impasse. And while the book describes a particular country and time, it is also all those other places ""where everything is a lie . . . where the lack of democracy is called socialist democracy, revolution anti-revolution and so on."" These are places with honorable literary antecedents, and though Esterhzy, the consummate Euro-intellectual, never refers to Orwell or Swift, he is making points similar to theirs as his metafictional commentator and storyteller assembles his social portrait in four sections. First, he describes various sexual encounters--in one a Party official seduces a woman in a train's lavatory--that take place in a world where ""happiness must be squeezed out of life, and no excuse."" Next, he offers telling anecdotes about politicians and security officers who try, for example, to trap innocent recruits by offering them bribes to prove their power. The third and fourth sections are, respectively, a meditation on survival in a place where ""ways of talking about sex are transferred to the political and societal spheres""; and illustrations of the plight of the writer, Stalin's ""engineer of soul,"" who refuses an invitation for an ""unbridled chat"" on the radio because ""he can't chat unbridled in this country; bridled is the only way he could talk, and that's something he hates."" Fiction too often pushed into the awkward service of ideas, but still worth the read.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 1995
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Northwestern Univ.