Bloomsbury 2004, 183 pages
How can one resist a book that begins with this sentence?
It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language.
José is forced to spend a night in Budapest due to a bomb scare on his flight back to Rio and he becomes fascinated with the Hungarian language.
I turned up the volume, but it was in Hungarian, rumoured to be the only tongue in the world that the devil respects.
While watching the news on TV he tries to decipher what he hears.
…and by now my shoulders had tensed, not because of what I saw, but from the strain of trying to catch at least one word. Word? Without the slightest notion of the appearance, the structure, the actual body of the words, I had no way of knowing where each one began or finished. It was impossible to detach one from the next; it would be like trying to cut a river with a knife.
Later on when he returns to Hungary and his language teacher/lover laughs at a grammar mistake, he thinks:
But before leaving I would make a proclamation in Portuguese, in very obscene Brazilian Portuguese, with oxytone words ending in āo, names of indigenous trees and African dishes that would terrify her, a vernacular that would reduce her Hungarian to zero.
The story (and José) goes back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, between his somewhat nebulous relationship to his wife and son in Brazil and Kriska in Hungary, a ghostwriter who attends Anonymous Writers’ Congresses and always these wonderful references to languages - learning them, explaining them, living in them.