After the death of his 95-year-old father, Imre, and the birth of his first grandchild, Ulysse, Hungarian-born French writer Adam Biro decided to write a book about his family. He called it "Les Ancetres d'Ulysse" ("Ulysses's Ancestors"); fearing, however, that the American reader knows little of the glories of the Hungarian past -- and worried, perhaps, that an unknowing bookstore clerk might shelve the title alongside Homer's "Odyssey" -- Biro added a new introduction to the English edition and changed the title.
The new title comes from Hollywood's Golden Age, a time when Tinseltown was lousy with Hungarian emigres. So profound was the Hungarian presence that -- according to one, perhaps apocryphal, story -- a sign above the door to one movie studio read: "It's not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent." Italian-born director Frank Capra supposedly turned the phrase on its head.
"It's not enough to have talent," he allegedly sniffed. "One must also be Hungarian."
Biro's attitude toward his ancestral land is complex. He is enchanted by its mysteries, disgusted by its villains and, ultimately, bereft in the face of what he sees as its disappearance.
The part of Europe "from where I am so proud of hailing," he writes, "is no longer the source of dark geniuses like Kafka, of Hungarian suicides and musicians, of Dr. Sigmund and other Austro-Hungarian kindred spirits.... It has now joined the chase for the buck, and this is so sad, so lonely."
The book, elegiac yet witty, gains in complexity as Biro grapples with the fact that his ancestors were not only Hungarian but also Jewish, or, as the author puts it, "Jewish but Hungarian." And nowhere is the complexity of this dual existence more fully on display than in the stories that Biro tells of his maternal grandfather, a man who was born Jewish, became a Catholic and died a Jew once more, albeit a nonbelieving one.
Biro, who in 2001 published a well-received collection of reworked Old World anecdotes under the title "Two Jews on a Train" (University of Chicago Press), opens here with an early 19th-century great-great-grandfather, but he quickly shifts his focus toward the maternal grandfather, who was born Jeno (Hungarian for Eugene) Finkelstein to a poor seltzer deliveryman in 1883. The family doesn't have the means to support the boy, so he is adopted by a Catholic widow who has him baptized. The boy, now named György (George) Luy, becomes a lawyer. At trial one day, he meets a charming Jewish witness whom he ultimately marries and for whom he converts back to Judaism.
Strong, cultured and fun loving, Luy emerges a larger-than-life figure -- a virtually indestructible one, to boot. He's hit by a bullet during World War I and by a car during the '50s, and though an eye and an ear were lower on one side of his head than on the other, and his right arm stayed numb from the bullet wound, he remained vital till the end.
The contrast with Biro's paternal grandfather could not be starker. A school principal who changed his name from Markus Braun to Mark Biro (Hungarian for judge), he was murdered just a few weeks before Budapest's liberation in 1945. Following their torture by members of the Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, Mark and his son, Jozsi (the author's uncle), were tied together on the shores of the Danube and shot.
After offering portraits of some more-distant relatives -- a cigar-chomping great uncle who moved to San Francisco in 1905, a tragic aunt who never found a place for herself in the world -- Biro turns to his parents. Unlike his more-distant relatives, who are drawn in epic style, Biro's father and mother emerge muted and small -- as if viewed through a telescope's wide end. The two are certainly survivors: They remain in the same Budapest apartment from 1937 until the century's end, but, emotionally speaking, they are victims of the century's vicissitudes -- and the emigration, in 1956, of their only son.
Throughout his mournful and evocative book, this émigré son, who left Hungary when he was 15, tries to come to grips with why his unhappy heritage continues to have such a hold on him. Amid his discussion of his father's father -- a great patriot betrayed by the country he loved -- Biro offers a possible explanation.
"One day," he writes, "my father told me, 'Jews are very intelligent, Hungarians very creative, so, a Hungarian Jew is the apex of the human species.' I believed him for a long time. And, all shame set aside, I must confess that I might still believe it."
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.