Extraordinary Renditions

Extraordinary Renditions

by Andrew Ervin
Extraordinary Renditions

Extraordinary Renditions

by Andrew Ervin


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Set in Budapest—a city marked by its rich cultural heritage, the scars of empire, the fresher wounds of industry, and the collateral damage of globalism—Extraordinary Renditions is the sweeping story of three equally tarnished expatriates. World-renowned composer and Holocaust survivor Lajos Harkályi has returned to Hungary to debut his final opera and share his mother's parting gift, the melody from a lullaby she sang as he was forced to leave his Hungarian home for the infamous Czech concentration camp Terezín. Private First Class Jonathan "Brutus" Gibson is being blackmailed by his commanding officer at the US Army base in Hungary, one of the infamous black-sites of the global War on Terror, and he must decide between going AWOL or risking his life to make an illegal firearms deal in Budapest. Aspiring musician Melanie Scholes is preparing for the most important performance of her career as a violinist in Harkályi's opera, but before she takes the stage she must extricate herself from a failing relationship and the inertia that threatens to consume her future. As their lives converge on Independence Day, they too will seek liberation—from the anguish of the Holocaust, the chains of blackmail, and the bonds of conformity.

A formidable new voice in American fiction, Ervin tackles the big themes of war, prejudice, and art, lyrically examining the reverberations of unrest in today's central Europe, the United States' legacy abroad, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566892469
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 08/24/2010
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.32(w) x 11.04(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Andrew Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Fiction International, and the Southern Review, and his criticism has appeared in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, USA Today, and The Believer. Extraordinary Renditions is his first book.

Read an Excerpt




The cab ride from the airport was more exhausting than the transoceanic flight. Budapest had grown unrecognizable, and filthy. Everything had changed. Only the weather was familiar now — the dry cold and the wind that rushed down along the river, sustained by clogged and muddy streets. Harkályi felt grateful for the generic familiarity of the hotel room, the bland tones of the wallpaper. With the curtains drawn, he remained placeless a while longer, a measure closer to anonymity, yet something was different this time. They called him Hungarian, but that was a designation he never felt. Perhaps he should not have come.

The last time Harkályi had been in Hungary was when, four decades earlier, he received word of the failing health of Zoltán Kodály, his old friend and mentor. They had spoken in pidgin Hungarian of history and progress, of the varieties of immortality. "This wax," Kodály admonished him, holding aloft the sleeve containing a newly pressed edition of his Székely fonó, "is nothing less than a gravestone for my music."

There is eternal life, Kodály had said, not afforded by so many of these sonically miraculous recordings, but bestowed upon a teacher by his most loyal student.

Harkályi had since grown old. His face in the washroom mirror had become significantly looser since his last visit. His hair was once brown, his eyesight as perfect as his precisely tuned inner ear. He had come here again, ostensibly, to witness the premiere of his opera The Golden Lotus. There were other reasons, reasons he did not yet dwell upon.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he unlaced his shoes and waited for his luggage to be brought up. He removed five thousand forints for a gratuity from his billfold and put it on the bedside table. The telephone receiver was heavy, leaden. The light on the base flashed at him until he pressed a series of buttons. The first message, in broken English, came from an orchestra representative: they will send a car to the hotel tomorrow in the early afternoon, and then ferry him to the concert over in Buda, where he will meet the prime minister. "Szank you," the voice concluded, "and velcome home."

After the performance, the prime minister will personally bestow upon Harkályi a medal in recognition of his contribution to the artistic legacy of the nation and service to the Hungarian people. Tomorrow's event will represent the final public engagement of his career, his crowning achievement. Afterwards, he will return to his university residency in Philadelphia and remove himself, once again, from public view, taking on only a precious few students of significant artistic promise. He was ready to stop moving, finally, to stop becoming.

Since the death of Kodály, even newer and seemingly more miraculous recording technologies had emerged, hissing and popping from the primordial carbon ooze, only to find themselves soon surpassed in aural verisimilitude and returned to oblivion, extinct. Digital reproduction promised nothing less than an end to entropic degradation. Millions of people had by now bought compact discs containing a rendition of Harkályi's Symphony No. 4 as arranged for a unique and all-but-infinite string of 1s and 0s. His was the first small-C classical recording to alchemize from plastic to gold, and then from gold to platinum, and to depose a savvily angry hip-hop performer, however briefly, from atop the pop-music charts: millions of plastic mirrors, simulacra of simulacra extending so far that the original, an outdoor performance in Jerusalem a decade ago, could no longer be heard.

Even those compact discs were nearly obsolete now — just as Kodály had predicted. Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft's inventive Moving Picture Expert Group Audio Layer III technology offered Harkályi's music the portable convenience of unimaginable compression, of innumerable notes and rests packed together, traveling shoulder to shoulder through the ether and into the headphones of young people who consumed it the way they consumed meat, incognizant of the slaughter it entailed. Easy, infinite reproduction made him a millionaire, a real millionaire, but at the risk of thoughtless and carefree disposability.

The second message was from his niece, Magda, who will accompany him to the concert. He hadn't seen her in nearly two years, since she finished her graduate studies at Yale and accepted a position as an interpreter with a consulting firm based in Washington, DC. Presently working at a military base in southern Hungary, among other places, much of what she did was classified even from him. He will meet her in the hotel's famous pastry shop at eleven in the morning. As his only remaining blood relative, Magda was the sole heir to the inexplicably enormous fortune his recordings had earned him, though a number of charitable institutions also stood to benefit from what he imagined to be a pending and not entirely unwelcome demise. It will be lovely to see her, a warm relief from the strain and headache of travel and public appearance, the weight of long-deferred nostalgia. He replaced the phone on its cradle and the red light died out at once.

He remained seated on the bed, holding back the memories he resisted all of these years and had some reason to fear. He surrendered and accepted the standing invitation of the Hungarian government. It was time to address the dybbuks he had avoided for so long; so he returned to the Hungarian soil to seek forgiveness, as he had once sought Kodály's. He came seeking silence. The wrinkled, spotty hands covering his face became damp.

Despite his exhaustion, he knew that he would not sleep; usually, he would be fortunate to gain three hours of rest. It was at night that he saw the emaciated faces reflected back at him as if from the hundreds of thousands of compact discs he had set loose upon the world. What took you so long to return? That would be the first question they asked. They will speak to him in Czech and Polish and Hebrew and Romany and Hungarian, languages he understood fluently in the twilight of semiconsciousness, but in which he could never answer. His first language was that of notation, of music, but none of his compositions to date appeased the faces as they did the many satisfied customers and concertgoers worldwide.

He stood with an inaudible groan and wandered through the suite turning down all of the heaters. The sitting room offered a view of the monolithic building opposite the hotel and of the traffic below on the Szent István körút. It was only midafternoon, yet it already grew dark. There was much to do. A yellow tram glided past, down the center of the road, toward the river. Overall-clad workmen on ladders struggled to hang flags from the lampposts in anticipation of the holiday. They were difficult to attach in the harsh wind, which Harkályi could not feel from the comfort of his room. The men argued and laughed. They passed around a plastic cola bottle half-full of pale wine. A knock came at the door and he took the forints from the table, folded the bill in his palm. A young porter stood next to an elaborate, brass handcart. "Harkályi Lajos?"

"Igen." Yes.

"Beszél magyarul?"

"Well, no. I am afraid that I do not."

He stepped aside and the porter wheeled the squeaking trolley into the room. It contained just one suitcase and one hanging suit bag. The porter looked at him. He was twenty or twenty-five years old and attired in the formal finery of the hotel trade, the tailed coat smelling of car exhaust and cigarette smoke. The porter stared for a moment. "You are the composer," he said.


"My girlfriend, she has your CD."

"Oh. Well, please give her my regards." He considered withholding the money.

"She doesn't listen to it very much because it makes her cry."

How was he to respond? The hotel clothes didn't fit the boy especially well, and he had neglected to shave for several days; his teeth were not very well cared for. "Thank you," Harkályi said, and handed him the forints, which the porter, without acknowledgment, slipped into a pocket of his untailored red pants. He then deposited the suitcase onto the room's luggage rack and hung the suit bag inside the armoire. Harkályi remained standing at the door, holding it open. The hallway was empty, free of people and hideously carpeted. He opened the door wider, but the porter did not retreat right away.

"I am Miklós," the boy said. "Press the concierge button on your telephone if you need anything. Ask for Miklós." He lifted his round hat a centimeter above his head for an instant and pulled the cart behind himself, back into the hallway.

"I will do just that very thing, Miklós — thank you."

"Anything at all," he said. "I —" But Harkályi closed the door.

He started to unpack. It would be a short stay, less than forty-eight hours, so he had not brought much. In his suitcase, on top, he found a foreign, white document from the United States authorities alerting him to the fact that they had randomly searched his bag for purposes of national security. His clothes and belongings appeared unmolested, however, and he placed them in neat piles into drawers. He had carried with him a second, nicer pair of shoes and, for Magda, some chocolates and an advance copy of his newest recording, his Concerto for Violin as performed by a technically flawless and altogether unmusical young star and the Cleveland Orchestra.

He had left his briefcase in the bedroom. From it he drew his leather shaving kit and a small, mostly round stone. It was the size of a baby's fist and tears and years of wear had buffed it smooth; it had traveled with him for longer than he wanted to remember. He planned to leave it in Hungary, where it was given to him. He put it on the bedside table, taking care that it did not scratch the glass surface.

He needed a nap, but sleep would not take him. Too weary to yet venture outside, he stared for hours, utterly motionless, at the carnage transmitted to the suite's television set. It was like an open sewer line spilling onto the carpet. He had seen it all already, yet the circularity of history did not bring him comfort. When he felt the grumbling of his stomach, Harkályi slipped back into his more comfortable shoes, his overcoat, and his hat and gloves. He carried the stone in an outer pocket of his jacket. Opening his billfold, he confirmed the presence of his key card and stepped out into the hallway, pulling the door tight behind him.

There were others waiting for the elevator, a woman and two children. They spoke low German, a familiar dialect of his first language. They were going downstairs, to the pastry shop, for cakes. "Cukrászda"— that was one of those words, one of the few he remembered from childhood, for which there was no exact or effective English equivalent. "Ideges" was another. When the elevator arrived, the older of the girls demanded the privilege of pressing the L button while the other got to press CLOSE. They squealed and wiggled like two already-overfed Teutonic hogs. In the metallic reflection of the doors, the four of them looked like a family, a grandfather taking the children out for pizza and ice cream, but the elevator stopped and the image was split in half, down the middle, as a suited businessman entered. He inspected the lighted buttons and, satisfied, hummed a melody that Harkályi to his horror recognized as his own, the main theme of his Symphony No. 4. The piece that made him famous, and wealthy. He made a mental note to take the stairs in the future.


The temperature and fetid air — diesel exhaust, grease, burned meat — attacked him, an all-powerful and immovable force that he knew would shadow him for the next two days. It was already late, and even colder than he had anticipated, colder than his memory allowed, and he worried that his overcoat alone would not keep him warm. A heavier sweater hung in the closet upstairs, but he did not dare risk returning to the room and becoming further waylaid by the same indecision that had kept him away for so many years. He had been cold before; it would not kill him.

Harkályi enjoyed walking, exploring by foot every city he visited, though doing so had become more difficult of late. In the previous decade he visited every medium and large city in Europe, Asia, and North America, forsaking only Budapest, the city from which he had disappeared as a child. Tonight, however, he must first find a restaurant. He had purchased an expensive guidebook, but knew better than to trust the culinary advice contained therein. He had in his travels learned that the book's audience was considerably younger than himself, and he preferred not to subject his ears to the auditory torture of what passed for music in those establishments. As in every city, the trick to finding a suitable place for a meal would involve a willingness to traverse the side streets, to ignore the glossy maps.

The workmen were long gone, presumably to a warm pub. Hungarian flags now flew from all of the lampposts along the ring road, though the wind threatened to shred them into swatches of red, white, and green. People rushed beneath them unaware of all that they possessed by virtue of their belonging here; they pushed past him, smoking cigarettes and speaking over each other, quite noisily, in a language he did not know to his satisfaction. The traffic was marvelous in its density, consistent with that of Berlin or London or Rome, yet seemingly even more aggressive than in those places, competitive. He passed a hair salon that was affixed to the hotel, a bookshop, a butcher with ugly brown sausages hanging in long rows, a steamy pizzeria, a shoe store, another shoe store, a few places the purposes of which he could not determine, closed and darkened. The window of a music shop contained a small display of operatic compact discs. Recordings of Kodály and Erkel and Verdi and Puccini were arranged in a small ziggurat of plastic. Some of his own releases were interspersed throughout. Then it caught his attention: a glossy publicity photograph of himself hung in the window attached to two clear strings that resembled fishing line. It was an advertisement for the concert tomorrow, which, he had been led to believe, had sold out months earlier. They had pasted his photo, crookedly, onto a large sheet of cardboard. In it he was dressed almost exactly as he was now: black overcoat, charcoal-gray turtleneck. His hair in the photo was longer, however, Einsteinian. The image embarrassed him, and he moved along before he could be seen gazing upon his own reflection.

At the end of the block, a wide ramp steered him beneath the körút to an underpass, a colorful expanse with escalators leading down to the subway and steps up to the same trams he had seen from his hotel room. Folk musicians competed with bums for attention and spare change. Men sold telephone cards in front of a bank of blue, unused payphones. Burger King, TourInform, a flower shop, the locked entrance to a massive supermarket. A hallway beyond the escalators led, he remembered, to the rear of the train station. He found it difficult to differentiate the words being spoken around him, the signage. Viràg. An old woman, even older than himself, held a baking dish full of tiny, white, bulbous flowers in little leafy bundles, each maybe three inches tall. An elaborate, decorative scarf covered her head. Hóvirág — snow flowers. That was the name. Their appearance heralded the onset of spring, the end of another long winter. Harkályi approached her. "Csókolom," he said. He had at his command the vocabulary of a child.

Her eyes brightened angelically. She appeared genuinely cheerful and merry, despite her degraded condition. Her cheeks revealed the frigidity of the atmosphere, only slightly warmer down here. "Jó estét kivánok."

As a boy, he would with some anxiety await the first hóvirág of the spring, which, in a private ritual, he would wrap in similar bundles and present to his mother. They stayed on the windowsill of the kitchen, in cups of chipped and brightly glazed ceramic, some until the August heat descended from the Mátras, from Slovakia and farther.



He spoke slower, "Menny?"


"Yes — igen. Mennyi?"

"Száz forint."

He didn't have any coins, or even a hundred-forint bill. The automated teller machine at the airport dispensed only five- and ten-thousand forint notes. He offered her five thousand and she shook her head, dismayed. She pointed to the Tour Inform office, where he could get change, were they open. "No," he said. "All of them. Minden." He waved his gloved hand over the flowers like a benediction and she finally understood. From the bag at her feet she took out a sheet of newspaper from yesterday's Magyar Hírlap, and laid it on the filthy concrete floor of the underpass. Harkályi expected to see his own picture looking up at himself again, but it did not appear. The old woman spread out the bundles of flowers on the paper, which soaked up water from the bottom of her baking pan. Lifting it from the corners, she placed the entire bundle in a flimsy plastic bag with vertical yellow stripes, loosely tied the handles together, and held it out for him. "Tessék," she said, and quickly, with a furtive look around, slipped the five thousand forints into a pocket of her peasant skirt. "Nagyon szépen köszönöm," she told him, collected herbelongings, and walked quickly to the metro. He was left standing there with a bagful of soggy newspaper — yesterday's news no less — and a garden's worth of quickly dehydrating flowers. He could not help but laugh, and as he did a man of dark complexion, Gypsy maybe, or Turkish, slouched past and whispered, "Change money?" without looking at him.


Excerpted from "Extraordinary Renditions"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Andrew Ervin.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

14 Bagatelles,
Brooking the Devil,
The Empty Chairs,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“The variety of viewpoints and the author’s evident intimacy with an ancient foreign capital [Budapest] are promising, and Ervin makes it plain that he is taking on weighty themes.”—The New York Times Book Review

"Set in a madly grasping modern Budapest, literary critic Ervin's debut mines very different ways of achieving personal and artistic freedom in three neatly polished, interlocking tales. . . . With dexterous sensibility and fluid prose, Ervin's protagonists find liberation from the onerous strictures of Budapest's Nazi and Communist past."—Publishers Weekly

"A thought-provoking exploration of tyranny, freedom, and the power of music."—Booklist

“Ervin keeps his emotionally and politically fraught setting animated, thanks largely to his skill at inhabiting each of his characters . . . .[Extraordinary Rendition’s] ending makes a poignant case for the power of art in an age of war.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Darkly evocative . . . the book has a prismlike quality; each story makes us see the city from a different but overlapping perspective."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"Andrew Ervin writes with an empathetic passion, near poetic words, daring politics, and a sensitive and mature grasp of his characters. This is a strong debut."—Chris Abani

"I can't decide what amazes me most about this book: the confident, muscular beauty of Andrew Ervin's writing; the breadth of his imagination; or the depth and diversity of his profoundly engaging characters. Again and again, though the force of the narrative drove me relentlessly onward, I would stop simply to marvel. Extraordinary Renditions is an extraordinary debut."—Julia Glass

"This tautly plotted, richly detailed trio of linked stories documents, with devastating and blackly comic ardor, the impossibility of simple morality in the rapidly aging era of terror. With Philadelphia and Budapest as his unlikely anchors, Andrew Ervin gives us crooked military men, postmodern artists, marauding skinheads and concert musicians, all rendered in nimble prose that never fails to shock and delight. An awesome debut."—J. Robert Lennon

"Through the eyes of three outsiders, Extraordinary Renditions takes the reader deep into the heart of Budapest, both its past and present. The whole city is here, the banks of the Danube brimming with history, intrigue, art, food, drink, and most important of all, music. His characters may be lost—even the one native is a foreigner—but Andrew Ervin is a sharp-eyed, sure-handed guide."— Stewart O’Nan

"There is a striking moral clarity—a certainty even to the questions the work poses—evidenced as these narratives ponder the long-form's grand themes. Being. Music. War. Love. Extraordinary Renditions' clear tenor hearkens the ancient masters of the novel in the most sublime way, even as it points toward that which is post-mastery."—Bayo Ojikutu

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