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Radio Underground

Radio Underground

by Alison Littman


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With swift, bold and powerful writing, debut author Alison Littman tells the story of a family ripped apart by revolution, illuminating a time when news, rock ‘n’ roll and underground journalism forever changed the lives of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

After years of suffering under the communist regime in Cold War Hungary, Eszter Turján—fanatical underground journalist—would sacrifice anything, and anyone, to see the government fall. When she manipulates news broadcasts on Radio Free Europe, she ignites a vicious revolution, commits a calamitous murder and is dragged away screaming to a secret underground prison.

Her daughter Dora, then a teenager, cowers in her bedroom as the secret police arrest her mother. Haunted and hurt, Dora vows to work against everything Eszter believes in. But, it’s not that simple.

After nine years, Dora meets a strapping young fan of Radio Free Europe and is unwittingly drawn back into Eszter’s circle. She finds her mother, driven mad by years of torture, is headed for death.

On the brink of losing Eszter again, Dora must decide if she should risk her life to save the mother who discarded her—or leave it to fate.

Radio Underground is a beautiful, relevant novel that explores the lengths and limits of love, family and the power of expression.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780996430623
Publisher: Last Syllable Books
Publication date: 11/28/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alison Littman is a writer by day and a stand-up comedian by night. She lives in San Francisco, California.

Read an Excerpt


ESZTER TURJÁN Budapest, Hungary — October 23, 1956 — Midnight

The cuts in my hand opened wide. The blood dispersed in thin, chaotic lines across my palm. I held my breath as the pain peaked and relented in nauseating pulses. Plucking all the tiny flecks of glass from my hand would take hours, and I didn't have hours. Burying the broken wine glass in the trash, I tried to hide the evidence of my recklessness. I ran my hand beneath the faucet, hoping that would dislodge the stubborn shards.

I leaned closer to the radio as Radio Free Europe began its midnight broadcast. It always came on at the right time, when I could barely endure living without myself anymore. I had been who the government, who my family, wanted me to be all day. Now, I could finally reconvene with my real self.

According to reports, thousands of students had compiled a list of demands, mandating Soviet troops leave the country and that we elect a new leader in free elections. The reporter, a Hungarian émigré, commended the students for their courage. But I knew better. These kids, too young to know failure, didn't understand their passion was no match for a government trained in killing hope. And those harboring it. The part of me that knew what I had to do to protect these students felt numb and ready to click into autopilot. The other part of me — the part that clung to the same hope they did — was just as terrified as they probably were in the brief moments they caught their mothers looking at them with concern. They too would break, like the wine glass hidden in my kitchen garbage.

This Radio Free Europe broadcast missed too many key points. The information I spent my day secretly gathering would not appear on its airwaves for hours, at best. Would it be too late? Regardless, I would do my job. And it was time.

I could hear my husband and teenage daughter snoring in their rooms, reassuring me of the isolation I sought, and needed. I wrapped my hand in gauze and tiptoed toward the door. Yielding in tiny whines, the floorboards lamented their years of abuse, of children's toys crashing, of parents stomping off livid. With every step, I verified my family continued on in their perfect oblivion. Step. Snore. Step. Snore. Until, with shaky hands, I found the doorknob. A turn, and I slid into the night.

My hand throbbed, reminding me to be careful, even though I needed to hurry. I only had twenty minutes to reach Antal. I was bringing him information that would change this restless city entirely. We had been quiet for far too long. We taught ourselves how to make plans in whispers. We knew how to hide in routine. We turned down Radio Free Europe or the BBC so our neighbors couldn't hear us listening to the banned Western broadcasts and report us to the secret police. The information I carried with me would break the silence — if I could just reach Antal in time.

Passing the music academy and a row of darkened offices, I crept onto Lenin Avenue and began making my way north. A bitter breeze blew past me, as if exhaled by the dank, rat-filled alleys in my wake. Flickering lamps hung on wires suspended over the streets. I stuck close to the buildings, where the light could hardly reach, and prayed no one could see me.

A black Zis-110 idled ahead of me, the car's curtains drawn on its passenger windows. I shivered at the sight of the secret police's hallmark car, thinking of all the friends who had disappeared for no reason, taken away by henchmen in the middle of the night, never to return. It was no coincidence the Zis looked just like a hearse. I scurried onto a side street, dodging the car and the poor captives I assumed sat, trembling, inside of it.

I tiptoed past the Ministry of Interior, where red geraniums lined the building's windows. In the secret prisons below, police tortured people with whips, limb crushers, nail presses, and scalding and freezing baths. Or else they just executed them. But the geraniums were always fresh.

I slid my fingers across the building's dusty exteriors, imagining I could somehow transfer my nerves onto the cold, unfeeling brick. I had snuck through the streets after curfew for years, but tonight was different. I could feel the regime sensing our newfound courage, like a dog pushing its nose high into the air, catching the subtle perfume of a rabbit nearby.

After walking several blocks, I spied smoke unfurling in the path before me, like a languid snake expanding as it digests a fresh kill. Following it, I found Antal, his eyes closed, relishing in a cigarette.

"Antal, it's me," I said, coughing on the smoke now choking me.

Antal smiled and opened his eyes, his cataracts reflecting the glow of the street lamps. "Eszter, it's good to see you."

"It's good to see you too." I kissed Antal on both cheeks, feeling his dry skin against mine and wondering how long he'd been outside waiting for me in the cold.

"Tell me, what information do you have for me today?"

"It will happen tomorrow," I said. "Today, technically."

It was already past midnight.

"So it's here, isn't it?" Antal said.

"Yes," I said. "I went to their meeting. The students decided they're going to march. I heard them talking about gathering arms."

"How many people are participating in this ... this march?" Antal asked as he stamped his cigarette into the ground and lit another one.

"Hundreds, thousands, maybe. I can't be certain."

"It doesn't take a genius to predict how Gero will react."

"Gero will slaughter them," I said, feeling dizzy as I said aloud what we both knew. Hungary's leader, Erno Gero, was a Soviet puppet with an arsenal at the ready. "Without enough people hearing about it and organizing, it will just be a bloodbath."

Antal fell back against the brick wall, suddenly losing his breath. He was always so levelheaded, so much so it often drove me to even greater heights of anxiety as I tried to compensate for his indifference. His fingers, still clutching the cigarette, quivered as his eyes searched the space behind me.

"The state radio will probably ignore this and just keep spewing out its propaganda," he said.

"Exactly. We're going to print with this too. But Realitás won't reach enough people in time. An announcement on Radio Free Europe is the students' only hope." I held on to Antal's shoulders to steady him. "It has to happen first thing in the morning, so people will have time to plan."

The closest Radio Free Europe outpost was in Vienna. If Antal left now, he would get there by four in the morning.

"I already have meetings scheduled in Vienna for today," he said. "I'll visit our Radio Free Europe contacts as soon as I get there and cancel my other meetings to get back in time for the march. Gero will think I cut short a routine visit to be by his side."

Our lives by day were lies — Antal's more than most. He served as the regime's Deputy Interior Minister. After being forced to coordinate the executions of his friends — communists who threatened the power structure when they became too popular — he resolved to undermine the regime in any way possible. He began relaying intelligence to the American-run Radio Free Europe. With the freedom to travel at will and deep knowledge of the government's inner workings, he also became an asset to Realitás, the underground newspaper I ran.

"It's already one in the morning," I said. "What will you do when they ask you why you're crossing the border so late?"

"This is normal for me. I go to Vienna at all times of the day and night, just to keep them guessing. Just in case I run into a situation like this."

"Smart. Well, you better leave now before Gero tries to get in touch."

We both knew Antal's phone could have been ringing right then. I wondered what it would cost him — or his children and grandchildren — if he wasn't there to answer it.

"I'll be back," Antal said, coughing into his hands, still shaking from what I knew was the fear we all shared.

"Wait." I pulled out a tattered piece of paper, wincing as the cuts in my hand protested the sudden movement. "Take this with you. A student gave it to me yesterday. It's a coded list of meeting points and times for the march. You have to get this on air too."

Antal nodded as I slid the paper into his coat pocket, making sure to secure the meticulously crafted plans of the brave, hopeful students. They probably didn't even realize that at this moment, Soviet troops were almost certainly readying their tanks at a base nearby.


DORA TURJÁN Budapest, Hungary — January 16, 1965


Her mom's name stared at Dora in dizzying multitudes, splayed across the walls of the alley hundreds of times. It dripped over knots of curse words and lewd sketches. It zigzagged across faded propaganda that told Freedom Fighters they'd better tremble in their sleep. It bore down on Dora with a crushing might as she tried to walk faster, frustrated she took this shortcut in the first place. She reminded herself there was no way these names referred to her mom. Some kid named Eszter — or maybe the girl's boyfriend — had defaced the alley.

Ever since her mom was taken away nine years ago, Dora had trained her mind to think about anything but Eszter. Anytime someone called out her mom's name, Dora plodded on, refusing to look up. At work, when she spotted Eszter on a letter, she read all the words around it before filing the paper away. At home, her dad, Ivan, wouldn't dare mention his wife's name.

As she walked through the alley though, the sheer number of Eszters laid siege to Dora's defenses. Lifting her head just a little, she saw a version of her mom's name that looked familiar. It had the same style as how she'd drawn as a kid, the "E" capped with big dots, the "z" larger than its neighboring letters. Dora was always so proud of those drawings. When she brought one home from school, she'd clutch it high over her waist and study the ground, intent on avoiding any puddles. When she presented it to her mom, Eszter would act surprised and say thank you in the voice she typically reserved for babies. Later, Dora would find the drawing in her mom's bathroom, spotted with eyeshadow and powder, its edges curling up from the water Eszter had just used to wash her face.

Dora stepped closer to the graffiti. She slipped off her gloves one finger at a time, reluctant to expose her skin to the biting cold but unable to stop the predetermined trajectory of her hand. She traced the gritty edges of her mom's name, her fingers lingering on the "z" as she savored its dramatic angles.

Dora knew she shouldn't indulge in memories of Eszter. She shouldn't think about that one time Ivan was held up at work, and Eszter found a bar of chocolate as big as Dora's head in one of their kitchen cabinets, too awkwardly shaped to hold anything but things meant to be forgotten. After Dora and Eszter ate the whole chocolate bar, they got into their pajamas and jumped on Eszter's bed. Dora remembered feeling so delighted that she asked her mom if they could do it again next weekend. Eszter just got that far-off look in her eyes, the one where she seemed to slip into some alternate reality where she wasn't Dora's mom.

For a long time, Dora remembered her childhood as marked by a persistent melancholy. She realized as an adult, though, it wasn't sadness that characterized her past, but a constant sense of waiting. Dora thought the day would come when Eszter would want to spend time with her. Dora just had to grow up more. She would be patient. Except, sometimes she would go out looking for Eszter, who would leave unannounced for hours on end. Dora pretended she was just playing hide-and-seek, searching in neighborhood parks, abandoned factories, and train stations for Eszter. Dora never once found Eszter, who would usually come back long after Dora had given up and fallen asleep. If Dora convinced herself she had only lost another round of the game, she could get up and live another day to try again.

Dora heard children playing on the far side of the alley, rousing her from her stupor. Her fingers began to ache, a sign they would soon go numb in winter's grip. There was no need to stay there, or ever come back. An alley full of graffiti would never give her the mom she had always wanted. Dora burrowed her chin into her coat and walked to the restaurant.

* * *

"You made it," Ivan said, wiping his clammy forehead with his napkin. Her dad sweated constantly, a relic of his formerly plump self. He had lost more than eighty pounds since the revolution.

"Sorry, I got caught up in something." Dora smoothed out her hair, its thin brown strands succumbing to the static of her winter cap.

The restaurant, its tablecloths as white as her dad's pale forehead, boasted a clientele of middle-aged bureaucrats who, hunched over their plates in near-silence, seemed resigned to the bland sauces and overcooked chicken before them.

"Are you okay?" Ivan scanned Dora's face.

"What do you mean?"

"I can tell you look ... shook up."

"Oh, it's just the cold. The walk was longer than I expected." Dora tried not to give herself away. Sometimes her expressions lagged far behind, loitering in the past. She was frustrated she paid any attention to Eszter this afternoon, a small relapse that would linger for days, maybe weeks.

"Look, I know it's easy to get ... well, distracted, by things." Ivan alluded to what they would never discuss. "Just remember that you're doing great."

"Thank you." Dora shifted the conversation to something they could easily talk about. "Work is going well."

"How many letters did you get through today?"

"One hundred already."

At twenty-six, Dora had a secure job with the government, monitoring and censoring people's mail.

"That's enormous." Ivan smiled, a rare occurrence.

"What about you? Any new policies I need to know about?"

Ivan leaned across the table toward his daughter. "Actually, that's why I asked you here today. I have some exciting news for you."

Dora raised her eyebrows, inviting him to continue, as the waiter delivered two plates of paprikás csirke — apparently Ivan had ordered for her, like she was a little girl. She wished he would stop that.

"Your department is about to get a very important assignment," Ivan began, but paused to watch Dora.

She examined her chicken, now settled under shiny pockets of fat. Ever since the revolution, eating felt like a chore. Dora found herself fighting nausea before she took her first bite of food, though she managed to finish most of her meals. Ivan had developed the habit of staring at her in the moments when she was mustering the strength to eat.

Ivan waited until Dora lifted the first piece of chicken to her mouth. "This assignment requires us to make some changes. And they have to do with you."

Dora's stomach lurched. She hated change and how it toyed with her, like a cat pawing at a perfectly wound ball of yarn. It always seemed like a fun game at first, until, string by string, she became unraveled.

But before Ivan could continue, a barrage of radio static interrupted him. It pierced through the restaurant, surrounding them in a strident din. The shrill static churned Dora's thoughts, thwarting their usual, linear pattern.

She turned around to the window behind her. Outside, on top of the windowsill, sat three radios. A group of boys, probably university students, huddled over them. They prodded at the knobs, oblivious to the people sitting behind the glass.

"Someone has to tell them to move. This is awful." Dora began massaging her temples.

Ivan leaned back in his chair and bent his arms behind his back.

"I actually like it."

"What? You do?"

"Yes. It's sending a good message."

"Oh, that's right. Of course."

Dora remembered herself, and who sat across from her. Obviously, Ivan preferred the static. This was better than the alternative.

"Kids should know that they can't just listen to rock 'n' roll whenever they want," Ivan said. "It's just capitalist propaganda."

"Well, at least you stopped them this time," Dora said.

As part of Ivan's work at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, he orchestrated a massive operation that blocked Radio Free Europe's broadcasts and replaced them with a jarring racket.

"This isn't my doing," Ivan said.

"What do you mean? You didn't jam the radio today?" Dora asked.

"Nope. We've shifted our priorities elsewhere, at least temporarily. I'll tell you about it when this ends." Ivan nodded toward the window. "Anyway, it doesn't even look like we need to jam. Look at them; they can't find the station."

Dora smiled meekly at him. She could feel a migraine coming on. She pressed her fingers into her ears. Closing her eyes, she thought about something that would make her happy.

The image of Boldiszar inched into her mind, as it often did. She thought about his black hair and how his curls overtook his dark eyes. She remembered the smile that pulled his entire face into it, like the eye of a hurricane. She remembered how, every birthday, she wished she could be old enough to date Boldiszar instead of being his first and longest babysitting job. When Dora's thoughts inevitably collided with the terrible thing that happened to Boldiszar, she opened her eyes and ears, preferring the static over her wandering memories. But, it soon gave way to something much smoother. For a split second the noise tickled Dora, producing a lightness at the bottom of her stomach.


Excerpted from "Radio Underground"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Alison Littman.
Excerpted by permission of Last Syllable Books.
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

Eszter Turján: Budapest, Hungary — October 23, 1956 — Midnight,
Dora Turján: Budapest, Hungary — January 16, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: Budapest, Hungary — January 14, 1965,
Eszter Turján: October 23, 1956 — Morning,
Dora Turján: January 17, 1965,
Mike a : January 22, 1965,
Eszter Turján: October 23, 1956 — Afternoon,
Dora Turján: January 22, 1965,
Eszter Turján: October 23, 1956 — Late Afternoon,
Eszter Turján: October 23, 1956 — Evening,
Mike a Korvinközbol: January 24, 1965,
Dora Turján: January 24, 1965,
Eszter Turján: January 25, 1965,
Dora Turján: January 25, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: February 9, 1965,
Dora Turján: February 11, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: February 15, 1965,
Dora Turján: February 18, 1965,
Eszter Turján: February 18, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: February 20, 1965,
Dora Turján: February 24, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: February 25, 1965,
Eszter Turján: February 26, 1965,
Mike a Korvinközbol: February 27, 1965,
Dora Turján: February 27, 1965,
Eszter Turján: February 28, 1965 — Midnight,
Dora Turján: February 28, 1965 — Midnight,
Epilogue: Three Months Later,
Dora Turján,
Author's Note,
About the Author,

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