Julian Duplain: Peter Lengyel: Cobblestone

Cobblestone is subtitled ”a philosophical mystery for the millennium”, but, by Peter Lengyel's Hungarian dating, that event is already almost a century behind us: the 1896 thousand-year anniversary of the founding of the Magyar nation was celebrated in Budapest under the watchful eyes of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. But Lengyel's ambitions extend either side of the Hapsburg era, back to man's first stabs at narrative structure and forward to the last years of the People's Republic, in an elaborate historical sweep dedicated to the proposition that, throughout it all, ”Hungary was still there” (a phrase that one of the narrator's fellow-writers has particular trouble getting past the censors). The national history lesson is clearly told, but the low-life iettings and cops-and-robbers shenanigans are more universal pieces of genre writing.

Lengyel employs several detectives, starting with a double narrator: a modern-day alter ego, lmre, who provides a commentary on family life in 1970s Budapest, and, in turn, Imre's alter ego, a nineteenth-century criminal mastermind, who plans the theft of the ”Blue Blood”, the magnificent diamond being cut in honour of the millennium. Then there is Special Investigator Dr Dajka of the Budapest Police and Inspector Marton, Watson to Dajka's Holmes. As well as the fulltime professionals, there are the brothel-keepers, doormen, safebreakers, fences and business travellers, all of whom have their reasons for keeping a sharp lookout. The narration slides, chapter by chapter, from Imre to the unnamed criminal, while retaining the same watchful indifference to reversals and uncertainties, be they the successes of Dajka's men or the grim cultural attrition practised against ethnic Hungarians in Ceauescu's Romania. In both cases, there is the stoic bearing of burdens which the Western reader has been taught to regard as very East European. And there is also a geographical expansiveness which leaps national borders while remaining obsessively Hungarian.
Part ot Lengyel's European reach is nationalist in origin. As the gang plan the diamond heist, they travel to Kolozsvar (Cluj), Zara (Zadar), Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade); names which are redolent of a greater Hungary. When Imre's daughter flies to Prague, she calls it ”real abroad”, her trips to Transylvania to visit a Hungarian uncle count as domestic travel. But even the relentless train journeys of men on the run indicate the possibilities of a Europe united by the railway, in which borders can be crossed and alliances formed, despite the nationalisms which, since Cobblestone was completed in 1988, have been emphasizing those borders with bloody determination.
Speaking as the nineleenth-century criminal, Imre insists on his Magyar identity, despite uncertain gypsy origins, as if his nationality gathers the continent together in itself. And his associates – Jewish, Armenian, Hungarian – also exercise an international inclusivity, cutting into safes from the Adriatic to Odessa in preparation for the Budapest job. Parallel to this ethnic versatility, the criminal possesses a kind of charmed fluidity, fraternizing with sleuths like Dr Dajka within hours of the theft that marks a ”bloodless revolution in safe-breaking”, sliding his hands on to the keys of the piano in the back room of Baroness Vad's brothel to disguise any involvement in the murder of an unknown man. By the time the lights go on, the body has vanished. The police are faced with the ”rash notion” of a crime without evidence, Although a showgirl, Bora Clarendon, confesses to the crime and demands just punishment, Dr Dajka, who saved her from the gutter and is a text-book example of the golden-hearted cop, refuses to press charges without a corpse. The girl goes quietly mad, singing the same song every night but never speaking another word. Meanwhile, the body comes back to life and leads the police a chase east towards the Russian border.
Lengyel brings off these fantastical escapades in isolation. The safebreaker who steps on to the train as the police step off; the chase and arrest of the wrong man; the coffee cake smuggled into prison that contains no hidden message but is a sign in itself; they are all clever in themselves, but they don't fit together tightly enough to propel the hunt forward. As Dr Dajka picks off his prey, one by one, his triumphs seem disappointingly neat, and the tension of a well-balanced mystery is missing. Lengyel is more at ease when narrating the shifting, wandering curiosity of criminal and detective alike, trailing across a vast Europe in which Hungarians (and, by extension, all nationalities) can delight in feeling at home.

***

Peter Lengyel: Cobblestone - Translated by John Batki

526 pp, Readers International. Paperback, Ł8.99. 0 930523 86 5