At the center of Jessica Keener’s “Strangers in Budapest: A Novel” is a young American couple—Annie and Will Gordon—who move from suburban Massachusetts to Budapest with their toddler son, Leo. It’s the early 1990s, and post-communist Hungary appears to be bursting with economic opportunities. Will, intent on finding his place in this new Eastern Europe economy, aims to bring the internet to rural Hungary. Annie wanders the city with Leo, fascinated by everything from the bullet-pocked buildings to the Roma population.
At the request of their neighbors back in Massachusetts, Annie and Will visit Edward Weiss, a 76-year-old American Jew and World War II veteran who lives in Budapest. Edward, who is devastated by the recent loss of his daughter, is in the city to exact revenge for her death. Annie is drawn into Edward’s claustrophobic, dark world and finds herself at the center of a dangerous mystery.
Keener recently spoke to JewishBoston about her experience living in Budapest and how it inspired her to reconnect with her Judaism.
You lived in Budapest in the ‘90s. Was your experience similar to Annie and Will’s?
Like Annie and Will, my husband and I went to Budapest with our infant son to explore business opportunities. A lot of people were excited and fascinated that the communists were leaving and entrepreneurial Americans were going over to Eastern Europe. It was also inexpensive to settle there. We had visited Budapest twice and then went the third time to live there.
Other than those basic facts, the book is completely different—Edward is fictitious; the whole predicament that Annie faces is made up. I was interested in exploring to what lengths a person is willing to go to find justice. I wanted to understand how that tied in with the idea that our past shapes who we are and nudges us on an unconscious level to make choices. I was also fascinated by the extreme emotion of outrage and how my characters would handle that.
You’ve written that Budapest got under your skin. How so?
This is where being Jewish comes in for me. Like Edward, my dad was a World War II veteran who walked through the gates of Dachau and helped to liberate the camp. Going to a place that once had a vibrant Jewish community that was now gone was something I wanted to address. No one talked about the Jews; that felt very strange and was one of the ways Budapest got under my skin.
Did you base Edward Weiss on your father?
My dad was feisty like Edward; he was impulsive like Edward and could be quick to anger. But he was also charming and sweet and like my character, he liked to paint. There were also certain times of the year when a chill on the back of his neck would bring back the memory of that record-breaking cold winter he spent in Europe. He always said, “In war, you see everything,” but nothing prepared him or his fellow soldiers for what they saw at Dachau. My father saw stacks of stick-like corpses and those memories got worse as he got older. If I asked him to talk about it, he would cry.
Why was Budapest the perfect setting for your novel?
Budapest in the 1990s was very beautiful, but very rundown. What I found so interesting about it were all these oppositions—people were nice, but secretive; they were dreamy and smart, but limited in what they could do because they did not have money. I felt there was a lot of depression there because of so many years of oppression. In many ways the people were bonded to each other because no one can speak their language, but it also left them isolated. That condition worked really well with my characters: Edward is out there pursuing justice, but isolated. Annie yearns for community but is feeling so isolated. Will is not accomplishing what he set out to do in business and there is a sense of frustration and restriction. I felt that way in Budapest too. It was a great backdrop for me to address what it meant to be an American.
You have said there were two encounters that helped you process your Budapest experience. What were they?
[Something] that haunted me when I lived in Budapest was the sense of violence that had taken place there. There were bullet holes in the buildings. When I returned to America and my life here in Massachusetts, I was still haunted. I wrote a magazine cover story on a teenager named Louis Brown who was killed by a gang’s random bullet on the way to a meeting for teens against gang violence. After his death, Louis’s mother started a peace institute in his name to help people who had been victims of violence. Louis died four miles from where I live, yet his life felt as if it had been across the ocean from me.
The other encounter was a conversation I had with a neighbor about her daughter who had died. She wondered if her daughter’s boyfriend had something to do with it. The police never found evidence of that and she didn’t pursue it. I started to think what would I do in that situation, and that’s what inspired me to write the novel. If it were me and someone wrongly killed my child, how far would I go to find out the truth?
How did Budapest affect you as a Jew?
For a long time, I had a lot of ambivalence about my identity as a Jew. Being in Budapest and seeing the vestiges of what happened to my people hit me in a more visceral way. Although I grew up with my dad and read books about the Holocaust, to see an entire city and be in a country where Nazi atrocities took place was on a different plane. I want to go back—I feel like I have a search that is still unfinished.
Jessica Keener will be reading from “Strangers in Budapest” on Nov. 14 at Brookline Booksmith. She will be in conversation with JewishBoston’s culture reporter, Judy Bolton-Fasman, at Newtonville Books on Nov. 30.