Jessica Keener’s Strangers in Budapest may not *technically* be historical fiction, which is defined as taking place in a period before the author’s birth. Nonetheless, it is of considerable historical interest. It is set in the mid-1990s Hungary at the time of the transition from communism to capitalism, a process that is largely complete in most of Eastern Europe today.
The novel follows an American couple Will and Annie who relocate from Boston to Budapest in pursuit of a lucrative business opportunity. As Will focuses on networking with the expat community and the local politicians, Annie befriends another American, an older man named Ed Weiss, who is in Hungary with a mission of his own.
Ed, a U.S. Army vet who served in Hungary during WWII, is convinced that his son-in-law was responsible for his daughter’s recent overdose death. Ed follows the man all the way to Budapest, and when Annie, somewhat skeptical of Ed’s suspicions, realizes that Ed’s son-in-law is one of Will’s would-be business partners, the stakes are raised significantly higher. Annie is pulled into a game of grief, obsession, and revenge for a crime that may or may not have been committed, leaving the reader wondering about the reliability of more than one of the main characters.
The story is suspenseful enough, but to me the greatest merit of Strangers in Budapest lies in the way it recreates the fever and angst of a society in the grip of a rapid and dizzying transformation. In a span of just five years, capitalism has created a small newly rich class, while leaving many others behind, and no group is suffering more than Hungary’s beleaguered Roma minority.
Poverty-stricken and defenseless, the Gypsies are disproportionately blamed by the police for the high crime rate. They are also targeted for bullying and intimidation by aggressive bands of skinheads who prowl the streets dressed in black leather and metal accessories, chanting slogans of “Hungary for the Hungarians.” Sound familiar?
Keener also does a good job tracing the cultural differences between Americans and post-communist Eastern Europeans. It is visible especially in the energetic “can do attitude” of Will who is forever frustrated with his Hungarian counterparts’ caution in business dealings. As he spins fevered plans of developing a cellular phone network in the technologically-backward country, his local partners stall, prevaricate and lack trust. To them, everything is “impossible,” a word that does not exist in the American’s vocabulary.
Post-communist transition is rapidly receding in history’s rear-view mirror, and it is fair to say that the generation just coming of age on both sides of the Atlantic has little or no memory of it. Strangers in Budapest is a novel that sheds light on both the opportunities that it brought as well as the many ills it engendered. It is a must read for students of contemporary Western history.