Train to Budapest, Dacia Maraini, Arcadia Books, 400pp, £11.99 (paperback)

‘To be a survivor it’s useful not to be too kind’, the Italian writer Primo Levi said of his experience in Auschwitz extermination camp, during an interview in 1985. Levi was to commit suicide two years later by throwing himself over the railings of the staircase outside his fourth-floor apartment. He had argued in his writing that the ‘demolition of a man’ into a slave destroys the sanctity of that man’s life.

The protagonist of Train to Budapest travels from Florence, across post- war central Europe, to discover the fate of a childhood friend she believes to have survived the Holocaust. A lone female traveller, along the way she accepts the company of two older men who show the visible signs of experience. Hans is part Austrian and half Jewish, ‘marked by time with a few small wrinkles’. Hovarth is a Hungarian who was forced to fight with the German army outside Stalingrad in 1942 and, with his hair prematurely white, is ‘like a tired, perplexed Old Testament prophet’.

By contrast, Amara Sironi is a young Italian journalist, a ‘beginner’ as her editor condescendingly calls her, who escaped the greater horrors and deprivations of the war. Sent to report on the growing political divisions in Europe, she is driven by an obsession to track down Emanuele Orenstein, transported with his parents by the Nazis from Vienna. She visits Auschwitz and Vienna, and is trapped in Budapest during the October 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. Amara is sustained on her mission by a packet of Emanuele’s letters and his diary which he wrote during the years 1939 to 1943, posted to her anonymously after the war. The letters detail the intensifying persecution of the Jewish family and their forcibletransfer to the Łódź ghetto in Poland, after which she heard no more of the child who, if he survived, would now be a twenty-eight year old man.

The author of the novel, who spent part of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp, is also a playwright, poet and political activist. The recipient of several literary prizes in her native Italy, in 2011 she became the second Italian, after Antonio Tabucchi, to be shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Maraini’s bold novel is convincing in historical detail, but richer in intimate narratives of loss and guilt. Train to Budapest is written in the third person, yet the reader is party to the thoughts and recollections of the young journalist. The character of Amara, whose name means ‘bitter’, presents an anomaly in this scarred landscape. Her youthfulness and naïveté are counter-balanced by a serious, unemotional manner. She is sensible where Emanuele was a reckless and oversensitive child – both of them the only children of beautiful mothers and industrious fathers. Amara interviews residents of Vienna in the hope they can remember Emanuele, but most deny any knowledge of the boy. There are those whose stories are full of self-pity rather than guilt for the Nazi genocide perpetrated by their society.

Amara learns of a diary, Auschwitz: I was There Too, written by the widow of a German SS officer who had lived at the edge of the camp. One day the young woman is assailed by ‘a nauseous smell’ and ‘a puff of dark grey smoke that had seemed to adhere to her skin’, and for the first time she notices the camp’s chimney: ‘she had perhaps understood what was happening but had not gone to see herself, had not tried to find out more…’ Somehow, ‘it had been possible for intelligent young women to live for several years shut up in little houses behind embroidered curtains without ever going to poke their noses into the nearby inferno.’ The indifference to the fate of the Jewish prisoners of these ‘work camps’ was a reaction to a ruthless campaign of fascist propaganda: ‘according to the newspapers they all read, the Jews had been responsible for every kind of wickedness’ and were ‘plotting to kill the Aryans and create a country in their own image’. In this way, the barbaric notion that the survival of the Aryans was dependent on the humiliation and eradication of the Jewish people took hold in a society that saw itself as, above all, civilised.

Exhilaration at the initial success of the popular uprising turns to despair as the Soviet army enters the city and brutally crushes the Hungarian people’s aspirations for independence. The three travellers are staying at the home of Hans’s elderly father in Budapest. At one point Amara sits in the kitchen and reflects on the uniqueness of her position: ‘The men laugh. Amara watches them tenderly. She asks herself how she can have ended up in this strange city, in the sole company of men, in a foreign country.’

The novel lacks other sympathetic female characters, in particular confidantes for Amara. Consequently it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the novelist – despite well-established feminist credentials – decided men were worthier of the dignified Amara’s company. Hans and Hovarth are warm, interesting and wise; the women are invariably portrayed as timid, vain, crazy or cowardly, with minor exceptions. In his letters, Emanuele betrays his frustration with his glamorous mother who refuses to face the reality of the racial laws against Jews: ‘She wraps herself in her fur coat, puts on a worried frown and says we’re more patriotic than [the Austrians] are.’

Maraini’s characters are individuals uprooted by war – a war which saw large-scale genocide. Amara is aware that the quest for her Jewish friend Emanuele is absurd, possibly even unwelcome, but the ghostly presence of the young boy has become more real than the people tying her to her homeland. Asked why she wants to return to Vienna, ‘that, ugly half- dead city’, she replies that ‘you could say Florence is half-dead too’. Their sentiments echo Dante’s words, which come to Amara’s mind as she climbs the stone steps to the entrance of Auschwitz: ‘Through me you come into the grieving city; through me you come among the lost people.’

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