Study Guide

Prague

by Arthur Phillips

Prague Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Prague is the story of five young expatriates living in Budapest in a period of radical change in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. For the Americans, Budapest resembles the Paris of the 1920’s, when another generation of young Americans partied in European cafés and nightclubs and life was filled with romantic promise. The local Hungarians, however, are still reeling from the impact of the tragedies of the twentieth century on their personal lives and on their society. The success of this novel is precisely in this exquisite and ironic juxtaposition of callow and untested young Americans with world-weary native Hungarians who have been through too much history.

The first scene in the novel depicts the young Americans in a local café playing the Sincerity Game, which requires that players both lie to each other and see through the lies others are telling. Although this is a game, it is also a metaphor for how these young Americans relate to each other in general, since it is soon clear that they have difficulty telling the true from the false or the serious from the unserious. It becomes clear that the Sincerity Game is being played throughout the novel—each character must interact with others who are not revealing who they really are or what really matters to them.

One of the young Americans playing this game is John Price, whose year in Budapest shapes this novel from his hopeful arrival in May, 1990, to his disillusioned departure in May, 1991. John lands a job on a local newspaper, where he writes a trendy column about himself and his generation of American expatriates. John also harbors suspicions that his generation is a lightweight one, having never had their mettle tested against a significant crisis. When the previous elderly tenant of his apartment bequeaths him a picture of his Hungarian wife and child, John’s devotion to these photos is not wholly ironic, but reflects his emotional engagement with the European past, whose history of authentic struggles he finds enviable in comparison to his own unimportant and provisional life.

Although John has come to Budapest seeking a closer relationship with his elusive brother Scott, Scott is the least significant American expatriate in the novel. An English teacher in a Hungarian world, Scott prefers deracination to his old American identity as an overweight loner in a country he felt never understood him. He avoids John, who himself becomes preoccupied with an increasingly complicated love life. Arriving in Budapest as a virgin, John soon takes up with a series of women, including Scott’s girlfriend and future wife. This latter fling becomes part of a field of amoral behavior in which he feels himself more and more implicated.

John’s love life further extends the duplicitous premise of the Sincerity Game. When John falls in love with Emily, the ostensibly old-fashioned Nebraskan who works for the U.S. ambassador, it is revealed that Emily is not only a lesbian but is also interning as a potential American espionage agent. Further, the seemingly sweet Emily ruthlessly arranges to have the lovesick John dismissed from his job on the paper when he learns the real nature of her work. Additionally, John’s love affair with a woman known as Nicky M. also ends in revelations of deceit. A sharp-tongued avant-garde artist who has come to Budapest to be a part of the contemporary art scene, Nicky uses John, without his knowledge, as a figure in her erotic photographic collages and is secretly engaged in an intense love affair with Emily.

The third important woman in John’s life is Nadjá, an elderly jazz pianist who impresses John with fascinating memories of her life under both the Nazis and the Communists. There is some question, however, as to the truth of these stories, and also some indication that Nadjá has survived the tragedies of European history by means of a charm that comes dangerously close to amoral collaboration. Even the gallant Nadjá is not exempt from the atmosphere of corruption which complicates the young John Price’s ability to find himself.

The most disturbing person in John’s life is Charles Gabor, a Hungarian-born venture capitalist who comes back from the United States to develop new financial markets. In order to acquire the venerable Horváth publishing house, Gabor unscrupulously enlists John to write a series of flattering articles that will help him secure the necessary investors for the acquisition of the press, arranging for kickbacks to John from the businessmen he profiles in his newspaper column. Furthermore, while the head of the Horváth Press is in a coma, Charles Gabor sells the publishing house to an international conglomerate which...

(The entire section is 1917 words.)