Excerpt from Prague by Arthur Phillips, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Arthur Phillips

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 400 pages
    Jun 2003, 400 pages

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Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two, this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a café patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone's receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.

To Charles Gábor's right sits Mark Payton, who will eventually think of this very moment as one of the glowing, unequaled triumphs of his life. Retrospection will polish from this ambiguous, complicated afternoon all its rough edges, until Mark will be able to see nearly to its crystalline center, to its discernible seedpod of future events, to the (extremely unlikely) refraction of himself as a young and happy man, sniffing love and welcome in the spring air.

He sits at peace, a state he is lately finding harder and harder to achieve. When these five met at the Gerbeaud this afternoon, before Charles pulled out Emily Oliver's chair for her, Mark was already discreetly securing the seat he wanted, as he always does at the half-dozen places he's come to love in his two months in Budapest. He knows that his view, and with it his afternoon, perhaps even several days, would have been damaged if his secret wishes had been thwarted by a mis-seating of even forty-five degrees.

Safely placed, he can turn his head to the left and see the Café Gerbeaud itself, into its antique interior, into the very past: pastry cases, walls of mirrors and dark wood panels, red velvet seat cushions on gold-painted chairs. In daylight, the cushions are threadbare and the paint flakes, but Mark Payton doesn't mind. A re-upholsterer would steal a certain something in exchange for his handiwork. Atmospheric decay and faded glory reassure Mark, prove something. Much of Budapest--unpainted, uncleaned, unrepaired during forty-five years of Communist rule immediately following a brutal war--provides similar pleasures. For now.

Straight ahead and past his friends, Mark's New World eye is treated to the grand, intentionally overwhelming European architecture of the nineteenth century (though it has long since lost the ability to overwhelm its native audience). For years Mark has longed to stare at such architecture, to inhale it, ingest it somehow. Unfortunately, he cannot forget that down Harmincad utca to the left, a Kempinski Hotel is slated to inflict its glass-and-steel corporate modernity on the odd, neglected asymmetry of neighboring Deák Square. But at least he can't see the site's unspeakable stretch marks and scars from where he sits.

Just to the right of tiny (hardly mappable) Harmincad utca stands an office building in his beloved typical-nineteenth-century Haussmann style, the sort of giant mansard-roofed beauty sprinkled all over Pest and Paris, Madrid and Milan. That its ground-floor, window-front space is occupied by the dusty and only sporadically open sales office of a second-string airline does not offend Mark's aesthetics, because the decor of the office, plainly visible from his seat, is so absurdly 1960s East Bloc, so unintentionally and yet bittersweetly hilarious, that it evokes a golden age all its own: a sun-faded epoch of boxy-suited apparatchiks and black-and-white Ivy League diplomats in round metal glasses, of stewardesses in pillbox hats, of Bulgarian assassins and Oxbridge traitors, of this amusingly foreign and irrelevant airline acquiring such prime real estate due to ideological compatibility rather than free-market wherewithal.

That office building defines most of the east side, and the Gerbeaud the entirety of the north side, of Vörösmarty Square, the touristic (if not geographic) center of Budapest: artists and easels scattered around the towering bronze perch of Vörösmarty, a poet Mark intends to research eventually, if he can find translations. And the plaza's southern side: nineteenth-century buildings parting to reveal Váci utca, a pedestrian shopping street, curving away and out of sight. From its mouth echoes the anachoristic sound of an Andean band, piping and thumping love songs of the Bolivian highlands. The musicians serve a welcome purpose for Mark: The throbbing serape-clad romantics screen the unsightly view of a blocks-long line of Hungarians, some in finery for the occasion, eager to sample Hungary's first McDonald's.

Excerpted from Prague by Arthur Phillips Copyright 2002 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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