Arthur Phillips
New York: Random House, 2003
ISBN # 0-375-75977-8
375 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2005

Five young American ex-pats, all in their mid to late 20s are living in Budapest in 1990, just after the fall of the communist system. It would be hard for me to decide which of the five I most disliked, and even harder to discern many admirable qualities of any of them.

Despite this fact, I immensely enjoyed the novel and believe it contains many universal themes of ex-pats I’ve met in many places in my travels, including Costa Rica where I read the book and from where I’m writing these remarks.

I’m no authority on ex-pats. However, I can speak from considerable experience. I have met many especially in Vienna, the Bahama Islands, and Haiti, all places where I’ve spent considerable time. More casually I’ve met them in many European cities, and now in Costa Rica.

Like the characters in this novel, I’ve found a significant portion of them to be smug and condescending of their temporary (or even permanent) new homes, with some strong sense of their own superiority over citizens of their host nation. I’ve heard from many their disdain of the mere American tourists, us amateurs whom they love to mock, and I’ve been almost uniformly taken with the pride in the advantages they reap with their status abroad.

However, with Arthur Phillips’s careful and detailed characterizations of these five young ex-pats, I am given more detail than I was ever able to discern, and am much more disgusted with these five characters than most actual ex-pats I’ve met.

A brilliant stroke of Phillips’s work is the title itself – PRAGUE. The entire novel is set in Budapest – a Budapest in 1990, boom times of charges after the decline of a stifling 45 years of Soviet control which came on the heels of a half century of war and centuries of oppression. Despite the fact that Budapest, especially, and Hungary as a whole, is “coming out” of its long depression, it is far from the most exciting and explosive action in Eastern Europe of this time. That prize goes to Prague.

Phillips is presenting characters who want desperately to be where the action is, yet who are constitutionally such that no matter where or when they live, someplace else will always gleam in their eyes as the place they ought to be.

There is a long section of the novel where Phillips details the nearly 200 year history of the fictional Harvath Press. It allows him to detail the fascinating, if sad, history of Hungary by showing how the rise, fall and problems of Harvath Press are mirrored in Hungary’s history. The difficulty with this extremely well-written and interesting section is that the novel and Phillips play loose with Hungarian history. If readers were not cognizant of this fact and careful about what they carry away they could end up with some serious inaccuracies of Hungarian history.

Centrally, however, it is the story of the five unpleasant Americans, sycophants to the core. Lost souls, valuing very little including themselves, who end up searching and generally not finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Charles Gabor might well be claimed to not fit my description and while he certainly may be said to succeed financially, there’s little else to suggest calling him a success.

One of the messages which seems to guide Phillips’s theme is presented by the character Mark Payton who is a scholar of nostalgia. He talks about famous cities and their times – Paris of the 1920s, Berlin of the 1930s, and so on, surprisingly not including Vienna of the turn of the 19th century. Mark’s position is that none of those cities were what their image claimed, just as Prague of the 1990s would not be the Prague that the novel’s characters mistakenly believed they were missing by being in Budapest. Such utopian ideals and idealized histories are, on Mark’s view, and apparently author Phillips’s view, purely romanticized fiction.

The characters may be abhorrent, but Phillips captures much of the excitement of Budapest in 1990, and details an especially unflattering portrait of ex-pats which struck a resonant cord of recognition for me.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett