Extraordinary Renditions

By Andrew Ervin

Coffee House Press
August 2010, Paperback
192 pages


Reviewed by Charles Holdefer


Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a slyly structured first novel set in Budapest, shows a febrile intelligence and considerable ambition. In telling the intertwined tales of Lajos Harkályi, a Hungarian composer and Holocaust survivor, Jonathan Gibson, an American soldier stationed in Hungary, and Melanie Scholes, an expatriate American violinist, Ervin offers a sustained meditation on art and politics in the early twenty-first  century.

Divided into three sections, each devoted to a highly internalized point of view, the novel is at pains to show how individuals can inhabit the same time and place while sharing almost nothing in terms of experience. This is not only a matter of psychology but, overwhelmingly, of history.

The opening section, "14 Bagatelles," is devoted to the composer Harkályi, and I admit that my heart sank a little at first encounter. Was this another fiction writer trotting out a Holocaust survivor in order to achieve a dubious gravitas? Such uses of history, however well-intentioned, risk trivializing the subject. As the novel unfolds, though (particularly in the final section, "The Empty Chairs"), it becomes clear that Ervin is well aware of this risk and attempts to defuse it. The choice is justified in regard to the story’s Hungarian context and as a formative factor in Harkályi’s music; consider, for instance, this description of his compositions:

Nothing in Harkályi’s oeuvre better lived up to the famous dictum about accounting for the "space between the notes," or in this case, after the notes. Instead of resolving with the big dominant-totonic chords loved so well by the Beethovens and Brahmses of this world, the entire orchestra and the four voices performed around the themes woven in during the first few acts. Those melodies existed, but only as negative space in the music. They were what was absent. Harkályi required his musicians to play in long, glassy circles of harmony, with the occasional quarter-tone flourish appearing underneath the veneer like cracks in a frozen pond.

One of the more pleasing aspects of Extraordinary Renditions is when it manages, in a manner similar to Harkályi’s compositions, to work around themes and use silences and omissions as part of the story. For example, what Harkályi doesn’t know about his niece Magda’s work as a private contractor resonates more deeply because it is not explicitly dramatized; his lack of awareness contributes to the reader’s awareness of how insidiously human failings crop up from one generation to the next.

The hinge of the narrative is the second section, "Brooking the Devil," about PFC Jonathan Gibson, a.k.a. "Brutus." Brutus is an African-American from Philadelphia, disillusioned with the Army, who seeks solace in sex with Harkályi’s niece Magda. She is a translator and "consultant" at a black site located on his military base where suspects in the "War on Terror" are secretly interrogated. Although Brutus has no direct contact with these practices, he becomes entangled in other illicit activities conducted by his superiors. In a passage representative of Brutus’s mix of street smarts and self-conscious intellectualism, he muses:

There were too many cowboys running around, anxious to lay down their own personal versions of the law. The higher-ups readily encouraged a system of justice that wasn’t based upon any consistent moral authority Brutus could identify. What, in his reading, Paul Ricoeur referred to as "the practical field" Brutus thought of as "the Man." And at Taszár, each man had become the Man to the other men. Himself included. 

Reading Fanon, however, doesn’t spare him the terrible whims of local skinheads or the larger machinations of his employers. Ponderous connections to Ricoeur will not adequately illuminate his situation.

Elsewhere, Ervin is refreshingly direct about certain realities that many American novelists and journalists still dodge. He rejects euphemism and calls torture, torture; he also correctly refers to American concentration camps. This welcome frankness risks being compromised, however, by an absence of measure, which can lead to a facile kind of levelling, for instance in the observation that "only the longitudes have changed, and now it was the Americans who put men in concentration camps. Harkályi, to his regret, will not live long enough to hear the music composed in Guantánamo."

This feels like the heavy hand of didacticism, the author’s use of a camp survivor as a sock puppet to make a tendentious point about contemporary history. "Only the longitudes have changed." Really? How interchangeable are Guantánamo and Terezín, a launching point toward extermination camps and where tens of thousands who were not deported still died of malnutrition, disease and exposure? A reader doesn’t have to be an apologist for American crimes to entertain certain distinctions, such as body counts. Sometimes a little empiricism goes a long way.

The deportations do figure later in the story, and it would be a mistake, in any event, to reduce the novel to its politics. Ervin is good on atmosphere, evoking a smoky Budapest of "commie high-rises on top of art-deco apartments on top of ornate Gothic churches." It is difficult to write about music, but Ervin is consistently inventive and impressive in his handling of its back-and-forth dimension, the interplay of inside and out, of physicality and feeling. The well-chosen title refers not only to sordid American foreign policy but also to unusual musical performances, such as Melanie’s rendering of Harkályi’s score for his new opera, "The Golden Lotus." At her violin, Melanie "watched her bow repeatedly stretch itself out from her body and recline again, hitting against the neck as if it were a talking drum... Melanie’s body remained anchored to her chair—she never completely lost touch with her physical presence, yet a different part of herself became unmoored." This unmooring, however, is rather different from the sinister implications of a contemporary remake of "Strange Fruit" that haunts the novel elsewhere.

Music not only structures Extraordinary Renditions, it is also the source of its resolution. Just as in music, it is the cumulative effect of the notes and "the space between the notes" that gives this novel its power.