Olen Steinhauer grew up in Virginia, and has since lived in Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Massachusetts, and New York. Outside the US, he's lived in Croatia (when it was called Yugoslavia), the Czech Republic, Italy, and now Hungary. He also spent a year in Romania on a Fulbright grant, an experience that helped inspire his first five books.
At the Edgar Award ceremony in Manhattan, in April, I was surprised and a little frightened to find that some of the judges actually wanted to talk to me. Not just to say hello, but actually engage in conversation. One woman squinted at me: “You live in Budapest, right?”
I admitted I do.
“But…” she said, nearly stuttering. “But why?”
Her features had twisted painfully, so I pointed out that she looked horrified. “Are you horrified?”
“I’m just trying to understand,” she insisted, and I imagine to this day she’s still trying.
Despite my puzzled reaction, it was a fair question. I’m not published in Hungary, and the only people who’ve read my novels here happen to be my friends. I’m not invited to bookstores to perform for potential customers, and local newspapers have no interest in me. I’m no celeb in my town; in fact, to the real Budapest of Hungarians, I don’t even exist.
That, I should have told her, is one of the best reasons for living in Budapest.
But anonymity is not enough. I came to Budapest exile from exile in Italy because I’d just published the first in a series of novels dealing with Cold War Eastern Europe. A move to what might be reasonably called the capital of Eastern/Central Europe made sense to me. If I submerged myself in the culture, my books would inevitably be that much better.
Clearly, I was optimistic.
It’s a rare expat who actually becomes part of the culture of his adopted land. Most aren’t that energetic. It requires learning a difficult language (Hungarian being one of the most difficult) and seeking out native friends, while simultaneously eschewing the easy-to-know circles of expats that litter every city.
Beyond some market-Hungarian, I never did learn the language, and my attempts to mix solely with Hungarians soon fell flat when those same Hungarians directed me to the English ne’er-do-wells holding up the other end of the bar. Before I knew it, I was living in that third culture, the one that’s neither local nor a copy of life at home. The culture of the exile, with its porous walls protecting it from the actual life of the city, soon became mine.
It’s an important distinction, particularly for a writer, because you soon realize you’re not living in Hungary, but alongside it. Sometimes, through boyfriends, wives, or friends, you visit Hungary by way of families—a Sunday lunch, perhaps—but even then, you’re just a visitor. Because life in exile is analagous to living in a bubble, which suits the novelist perfectly.
You walk the streets to the strange music of a puzzling language, and see it as an alien might. As your social world shrinks to a few understandable friends, your internal world intensifies. The novelist writes from an internal mechanism, and when the social world is made irrelavent, it’s easier to get familiar with that mechanism.
That sounds pretty abstract, but I think it’s true. Fads and home-culture obsessions (celebrities, scandals, TV shows) drop away, and you’re left with only what’s necessary. You’re given the freedom to construct your world, as well as the imaginary world of your novels, precisely as you would have it. Some expats take this opportunity to reinvent themselves.
There’s more: A writer’s relationship to language shifts, because when you’re surrounded by another language, words themselves take on a different weight.
You learn, when speaking with people not entirely familiar with English, which words are more universal than others. You begin to adapt Hemingwayesque speech patterns (for better and worse). When the role is reversed—when you need to make yourself understood in a strange language—you learn to boil complicated statements down to their essence: a crucial skill for any kind of writer.
Exile can also temper the writer’s ego. Living so far from your primary market, the only signs of success are a few Internet-accessed reviews and emails, and occasionally a welcome bank deposit. Gone are the ego-building sessions with fans or marketing apparatchiks who think you need to be “pumped up.” Because a pumped-up ego is the quickest ways to sour a good writer.
Exile isn’t always the movable feast we dream of. It’s full of exotic disappointments, frustrations and simple daily irritations, and even I sometimes feel the urge to pack it all in for my old now-strane home. But like the urge for suicide, it’s quickly pushed away by the fine things—the beautiful Habsburg buildings, or my wonderful significant other—that really do make it all worth it.
It’s not for everyone. Over time it changes you, not always for the better, and eventually you realize your nonresidence. You don’t belong in Budapest, and your old home is strange. Each return is like discovering a frightening new country where you can inexplicably understand everyone, and at any moment they might start asking you questions that—worst of all—require an answer. It’s a good idea to have one ready.
Read SHOTS’ review of The Istanbul Variations
Publisher: Harper (pbk Jul 2007) ISBN-10: 0007232063 ISBN-13: 978-0007232062