BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
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.
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,
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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."
Questions and related information provided by Mary Cuffe-Perez.
This 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.