Extraordinary Renditions, Coffee House Press, 2010.
Extraordinary Renditions is a novel composed of three novellas. “Composition” seems like an appropriate word to use given the thread that runs through all three pieces–music and the historic concert to take place in Budapest, Hungary, on the occasion of one of its Independence Days. The three points of view, the three angles of perspective, offer a glimpse of a larger complexity–Hungary’s current struggles with its economy and national identity. How did you decide on the three main characters–Harkályi the Hungarian composer, Brutus the disenchanted American soldier, and Melanie the expat American violinist? Cacophony not harmony, which is its own type of rhythm?
It was important to me to write from three perspectives and three voices that are—at least outwardly—far removed from my own. Part of that stems from my interest in avoiding the traditional, thinly veiled autobiography found in so many first novels. And I’ll admit that as a white, male writer of some privilege I felt a responsibility to speak for some voices that aren’t always being heard; my protagonists are an elderly, Jewish Holocaust survivor, a black US soldier in the War on Terror, and a lesbian violinist. What I found in channeling their voices is that they were autobiographical after all, that I have far more in common with these three than I’d thought going in. They’re all extensions of myself, or can be counted among my personal, Whitmanesque multitudes. Maybe that shouldn’t have been such a profound revelation. But most importantly, I found in these characters fascinating stories that needed telling. And, yes, cacophony can be more beautiful than harmony. Béla Bártok’s composition “Kontrasztok” (“Contrasts”) for piano, violin, and clarinet serves as a model for what Extraordinary Renditions tries to do. The three parts don’t play all that well together, and they even clash at times, but they’re also inseparable and made all the more beautiful in relation to the others. Different voices played simultaneously and heard equally—isn’t that what our society is supposed to be like?
It’s difficult not to read this book as a critique of survival in the era of globalization. The presence of the foreign military and the corruption that thrives under the guise of international security, the farce of nationhood while racism and anti-semitism (deep-seeded poisons from earlier eras) continue to target and endanger specific communities, the illusion of harmony (that word again) for the cameras while internal and external conflicts threaten a country’s civility–wow, it sounds like the U.S.–but it’s not the U.S. it’s Hungary. Why Hungary and is one of the reasons to shed light on the strained fabric on American politics as well?
Though it’s set in Hungary, the book is really about the U.S. and its effects that our international policies have on individual lives throughout the world. I moved to Budapest in November of 1994, when the transition from communism to capitalism was in full swing. The kind of hyper-consumerism that took us hundreds of years to reach occurred within the span of a decade in Central Europe, and during that time Hungary looked like a version of the U.S. set on fast forward. I saw it firsthand. Traditions changed overnight. A small segment of the population grew obscenely wealthy and the poverty spiraled out of control. Old women would line up in the subway stations to sell their medication so they could eat. Meanwhile, all the old Trabants and Yugos disappeared from the streets of Budapest and got replaced with BMWs and Volkswagens. (Before last week’s environmental disaster, the Hungarian town of Ajka was best known for producing lead crystal for companies like Waterford. The homes many of the people who worked there are now so contaminated they’ll never be livable again. My father-in-law lives somewhat nearby but, as far as I know, out of the hot zone.)
My first apartment was in a prefabricated, communist-era ghetto on the remote, northern border of Budapest. On the commuter train downtown I would pass the site of a stone-age settlement, Roman ruins, a Turkish bathhouse, you name it. Every civilization has left its footprint in Hungary. Now, in the heart of Budapest you can find a McDonald’s in a building designed by the Eiffel Company—and it’s always crowded. That’s not necessarily a complaint. I’m fascinated by these contrasts (that word again). Budapest a city both despoiled and enriched by these foreign occupations. The American influence in Hungary will eventually wane, if it hasn’t already.
Each novella reaches a particular pitch when each of the three protagonists attains a sense of “liberation” at the conclusion of each story. Without giving too much away, I was pleasantly surprised that the book ended on a hopeful, albeit hard-won, note. And though it’s unclear what awaits a few of these characters, it’s still a satisfactory journey. What choices did you have to make in order to avoid a too-neat of an ending? Did you struggle with the structure–three endings converging into one moment of spectacle, passion and, somehow, reconciliation?
Oh, Rigoberto, I struggled with every element of the book. It was a joy to write, but also very difficult. I didn’t set out at first to write three novellas, but as the characters took shape and their stories become clearer this felt like the only possible shape for the book. The literary theory behind it is ultimately tedious, but I believe that breaking up the linearity of the traditional novel plays into the thematic concerns of the book; there is no central authority at work, but instead an interplay of equally-weighted voices. Yes, the stories are bound between the covers in a certain progression, but the three sections could be read in any order. The real challenge of combining three novellas was that each had to have its own inner logic and move toward some moment of climax or epiphany (however great or small) but they also needed to work together to generate momentum on a larger scale. If I avoided a neat, bow-tied ending in Extraordinary Renditions, I did so by scraping a lot of terrible pages I’d written. I’ve noticed with the novel I’m working on now (set in Chicago and on Scotland’s isle of Jura, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four) that I overwrite a lot in the early drafts. I throw in everything I can, then slowly chip away at it word by word.
One of the side stories that continues to haunt me is Harkályi’s memory of the Terezín concentration camp, and the musicians who were sent to their deaths after a final staged performance. The narrative then reaches forward to connect with Abu Grhaib and the now infamous photographs, which also bleeds into the photograph used to blackmail Brutus and with the camera eye of the photographer Nanette, Melanie’s lover. Extraordinary Renditions is full of such echoes that illustrate the kinds of cycles and circles that toss people and events about. Are photography and music the emotional and sometimes irrational or unreliable narrators in the novel?
Yes, definitely. I wanted to write about the Holocaust for various personal and familial reasons, but also because I’m amazed by the music composed at Terezín. It is unimaginable. I see Extraordinary Renditions as an attempt to find moments of transcendence and beauty even in the most awful, degraded conditions and as a celebration of those individuals who have managed to do just that.
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There’s no such thing as a reliable narrator. Even an omniscient, godlike narrator excludes some information (otherwise every book would be infinitely long and need to be shelved in Borges’s Library of Babylon) and selectively orders what information does get shared with the reader. Similarly, even our greatest photographs and recordings can only provide the slightest peak at history. Lange’s “Migrant Mother” stays with us because it so beautifully captured a particular moment in American history (one worth thinking about today, I might add). More than that, its longevity as an iconic photograph actually defines our contemporary understanding about that era. These time capsules are vitally important to the world of Extraordinary Renditions.
The book doesn’t have a political agenda that I’m aware of or some kind of dogmatic meta-narrative to get across. Getting back to old Walt, it might even contradict itself. But one thing I did want to make clear is that history is not just a thing of the past, not in the U.S. and certainly not in Hungary. The events of the past—as captured in photography and music—are very much active and present today. It’s easy to forget the extent to which history informs our everyday lives, and maybe that’s why we are indeed repeating the sins of the past. Our actions as nations and even, I believe, as individuals can reverberate for centuries. Certain responsibilities come with that.