First the reader must decide what sort of book The Budapest House is. Superficially it’s a biography and, despite the author’s protest, a bit of a hagiography, but it is also a history and a memoir. It engaged me as a student of history, twice a visitor to Budapest, and one the same age as the same age as Frances Pinter.
It’s written as a history, and a rather clunky one at that. It delves into the back story of a Hungarian Jewess who feels neither Hungarian nor Jewish, but guilty for the lack. Its 146 footnotes document interviews and references which often have little to do with the story, other than perhaps to brag about the research done.
As a history, it is somewhat revisionist. Ferrar admits to sharing Pinter’s’ left-liberal viewpoint, but rewrites history as he tells it. For example, “voters elected governments which spent on social benefits rather than imposing the austerity blamed for the 1930s Depression.” At first reading that sentence looks like balanced reporting, then you realize no one who knows better blames austerity for the Great Depression. But that depends on one’s point of view and often politics. Similarly, Ferrar portrays money manipulator George Soros as a white knight to eastern Europe, bragging he conducted his own foreign policy to the tune of a billion dollars a year. So the reader is left with a biased and potentially unreliable narrator, raising questions about the integrity of the balance of the text.
Politics aside, Pinter’s personal history includes the harrowing Holocaust experiences of her family, her daring self-determination, and her individual campaign (with Soros’ financing) to bring books and a free press to much of eastern Europe while most people sat waiting for someone else to act.
(One point confirmed by my personal experience is the passivity of post-Communist eastern Europeans. I dealt with Serb, Croat and Bosnian refugees in a camp in Slovenia in the early 90s. Even when they had the means, they did not to improve their lot. At the time I ascribed it to the shock of their harrowing experience, but I also came to believe that fifty years of Communism had “bred out” their natural initiative. They were waiting for someone else to do for them, or at least tell them what to do. That parallels an observation by Pinter. Time will tell whether it reasserts itself.)
A good book. Hard to read, but worth the effort.