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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: Prague
Author: Arthur Phillips

Summary: This first novel by Phillips, who lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992, depicts young expats (one Canadian and the rest American) in Eastern Europe just after the fall of Communism as they seek their fortunes. The protagonists set out for Prague where foreign capital is invested and tourists would rather be. This is the story of lives intersecting to find adventure, inspiration, a gold rush, or history in the making. Phillips offers a poetic look at Budapest’s style and ethos with subtle details of time and place.

Questions:
1. What is the significance of the game, Sincerity, to the overall themes of the novel?

2. Which of the characters do you believe? Who is most sincere?

3. Who is the principal character?

4. How does the depiction of the city's architecture - its grand, old, bullet-scarred
buildings juxtaposed with the sleek, glass and steel structures erected courtesy of foreign investment - relate to the themes of the book?

5. How did it strike you when the shopkeeper tells Mark the story of his family's long and distinguished military history ("then soldiers fought, but with my generation, the enemy is here") ... was it a sales pitch?

6. Mark Peyton, seemingly the most troubled of the characters, is most aware and appreciative of the historic Budapest but repelled by the new features of the city. He claims to be "unhappy in the era and place he was given." How does this attitude meld with the other characters?

7. Scott Price is happiest when arriving or departing both places and people. Why is he so hostile toward his brother? Why does he say one thing and mean another, especially when relating to his brother?

8. Does John Price believe Nadja's stories? Why is she so important to him?

9. When Nadja tells John and Emily the story about the spy she knew long ago who used children as his information source, what did she mean by "I, too, am a spy of children."

10. How does the artist, Nicky, fit into the story? What is the symbolism of her
paintings which depict the likeness of John in lewd poses and include repetitive, descending images? What does her character add to the novel?

11. How would you characterize the attitude of the Hungarian people, in general, toward the foreigners?

12. Do you believe Imer Horvath is a great man? Did the author mean to portray him as an authentic character or is he a caricature of greatness, just another con man like Gabor?

13. What did you think about the novel's diversion into the political and social history of Hungary, and the history of the Horvath family and the press? Did the author intend to explain what the characters in the novel could not appreciate?

Related Information:
The fact that the novel is placed in Budapest but is titled Prague bespeaks the irony and the cliche of irony that defines this book. The main characters are four American and one Canadian expatriates who, as the book states, "in normal life back home would have been satisfied never to have known one another." It is clear, as the reader follows these characters through the winding dark streets, across the Chain Bridge and through the grand old buildings, slums and bars of this venerable city, that these are not just people in exile from a country, but from life itself. They are mired in the angst that the right place and time are somewhere else; such as in Prague, where they are not.

The novel opens in 1990 in Budapest, Hungary, a country that has suffered centuries of fascism, communism, occupation, ethnic and national wars, and finds itself at the point in history covered by this novel, recently unburdened of Communist rule. It, like its sister city across the Danube, Prague, is seen as a land of opportunity for foreign investors, entrepreneurs, and artists seeking the bohemian life reminiscent of Paris in the 1920s.

In the atmosphere of "decay and faded glory that is Budapest," the story begins with the five young protagonists playing the game Sincerity which is central to the theme of the book. Through this game, each person makes a series of statements, only one of which is true. The person who scores the best is the person who identifies the one sincere statement made by the others and whose own sincere statement is never detected by the others.

Throughout this book, we are left to guess whom to believe.

The principal character in the novel is John Price, a young journalist who comes to Budapest to reunite with his pathologically apathetic brother, Scott, an English language teacher, who seems to have spent his life evading personal relationships. Mark Peyton, Canadian, is a scholar researching the history of nostalgia and believes "there isn't anything new of any value." Emily, who is a special assistant to the American Ambassador to Hungary, strikes the love sick John as being incapable of telling a lie, and yet is revealed eventually as the biggest liar of them all; and finally Charles Gabor, inventor of the game Sincerity, a young, slick venture capitalist who arrogantly berates the history and culture of the Hungarian people. Ironically, and everything is in this novel, Charles himself is the son of Hungarian refugees.

A ground fog of ennui pervades the novel and its loosely constructed plot line which follows these characters along the winding streets and through what is termed "the grand and intentionally overwhelming architecture" of Budapest. Through their minor adventures, oblique romances and interactions with the people and palpable history of this glorious, tragic old city, we see how lost these characters really are and the irrelevance of their own life experiences.

In finding themselves dwarfed by the preponderance of history, they choose not to believe it. Nothing to them is "real" least of all their own lives.

This cynicism is manifest in the characters' relationship with several Hungarians; most pronouncedly in their relation to two characters: Nadja, an elderly Hungarian piano player whose extravagant stories about her life have irresistible appeal to John; and lmer Horvath, a larger than life figure who personifies or is a caricature of a "great man."

John, more than any of the other characters, seems to be capable of connecting with the people and place in which he finds himself, however gradually we see him corrupted by the cynicism of his peers. When he takes a job as a columnist for Budapest Today, his editor, who refers to Budapest as "this God forsaken paprika stained Austrian test market," tells him to "write expatriate and local color." His columns are not about the "real" Budapest but, laced with irony and satire, they are aimed at those who see the new emerging economy of Hungary as a source of exploitation.

The plot develops when lmer Horvath, the fifth generation owner of Horvath Press, seeks investment to rebuild his press in Budapest from Charles's firm. lmer's reputation for courage in resisting the Communist regime and the reputation of the press itself for publishing two centuries of Hungary's greatest poets and writers gives lmer's life a monumental significance, casting in its shadow the shallow, angst filled lives of Gabor and his companions. What Horvath sees as a mission to "preserve the memory and conscience of the people," Charles sees as a mine of capitalist opportunity. The bid for the press and the involvement of the characters in its acquisition, drive the plot to the end of the book.

Throughout Prague we are confronted with statements that are insincere, misleading, loaded with irony to the point of obfuscation. The young people in this novel may not be part of the Lost Generation, but they are indeed lost in the intricate lies they tell that make nothing believable, or "real" to them and why they are unable to connect with one another, or with the authenticity of the place in which they find themselves.

The book closes symbolically with John, who has lost his job at Budapest Today, traveling to Prague. "The train circles and circles slows and spirals in imperceptibly smaller circles around his destination and he imagines being condemned to wander forever the interminable outskirts in a gray limbo of almost thereness."

Interview with Arthur Phillips

Questions and related information provided by Mary Cuffe-Perez.

T
his discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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