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"Café Lukacs" or the Return of the genre noir to Greece with "Hungarian ticket"

11 February 2010 / 12:02:03  GRReporter
9491 reads

Zdravka Michailova 

Exclusively for GRReporter 

The short novel Café Lukacs (Agra Publishers, 2008) by Kostas Kalfopoulos grabs some readers with the charm of the city where the events unfold: Budapest, with its unique atmosphere of an outdoor museum. For others, its magnetic effect lies in its roman noir plot (moreover, the subheading of the book is Budapest noir). The book is only 120 small-format pages; one reads it with delight at one sitting. The Hungarian capital – birthplace of football legend Ferenc Puskas and the philosopher and literary critic György Lukacs – are the ideal setting for the story, and the city is omnipresent throughout the  narrative. The plot develops at a turning point for the Eastern bloc, Europe, and the destiny of the world in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. From an old aristocratic and slightly decadent Budapest, whose atmosphere the author skillfully depicts, the action is briefly transferred to neighboring Vienna as well. 

Born in 1956 in Piraeus, Kostas Kalfopoulos studied sociology, political science and history of the Middle Ages at the University of Hamburg. Since 1996, he has worked as a sports correspondent for the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, contributes to Kathimerini newspaper and is a member of the Association of Foreign Correspondents in Greece. After a series of essay volumes - Season of the Tramp, Roaming through Modernity and others, his first novel, Café Lukacs revives, according to the author's own words, "a neglected by writers and publishers in Greece literary genre - the roman noir, which, however, is slowly but surely coming back." 

In an interview for Kalfopoulos explains why he chose Budapest as the setting for his novel: "The reasons are many but the main one, also mentioned in the book, is the tendency to escape from the "Greek misery" with the help of literature. In addition, Budapest is suitable as a "place for escapism”; it combines splendor and decadence, Hungarians and Greeks (traders and political emigrants); it is a city of philosophy, music and football, but as all European metropolises – it has exclusive history in urbanism, with an atmosphere for those who have known the city beyond the standard tours "Vienna-Budapest-Prague." 

In his review in the literary supplement of the newspaper Ta Nea, entitled "The Beautiful Black Danube", critic Dimosthenis Kourtovik quotes the author’s list of reasons why the plot could not have been set in Athens. “I was also interested in the historical depth: socialism in transition with forms of capitalism in it, Germanophone education, the issue of the Hungarian Holocaust - completely unknown in Greece, which gained popularity after the case of the (alleged) death of Aribert Heim* in Egypt. Naturally, I could not write about this city if I had only visited it as a regular tourist.” 

The protagonist of the novel, narrating the story in the first singular, can be qualified as a literal alter-ego of the author. Journalist by profession, he arrives in Budapest in August 1989, in order to participate in a congress, after which he has several days of vacation awaiting him. From the description of his walks around the streets of Budapest, it is obvious that he knows the city on the Danube very well, as in the past he has conducted there an investigation collecting material for Greek Civil War political emigrants. 

In the old cafe in Pest, symptomatically bearing the name of the great philosopher - Café Lukacs, known to the character from his previous visit to the city, he meets an aristocratic lady of a mature age, still retaining traces of a femme fatale, who dazzles him with her strange charm, and after long hours of conversation about literature and music, he ends up at her home, where they spend an unforgettable sensual night, taken by her to the "secretive landscape” of innocence. When he leaves the next morning, he takes with him a scarf and one of her children's songs books. This will be the first and last night he sees this mysterious woman, because the next day he learns that she has died. A mysterious letter with a poem, delivered to him by hand at his hotel, and two other unexplained murders, will further tighten the knot of criminal intrigue, putting the question of who is behind these events, which remain a mystery at the end of the novel as well. 

What is the relationship between the offender and the mysterious lady? What is her relationship to the hero? He presents himself voluntarily at the police station, because he was the last one to see the victim alive; the interrogation is led by a police inspector sharing the same name as the famous Hungarian thinker - Lukacs. The information given to him about her connect her to the past – to the Nazis, European Jewry and their persecution, and the protection afforded their former tormenters – but this does not result in more clarity. Fate, past, the town and the mysterious woman weave a net that will capture even the narrator of the story. Fate as a force which cannot be escaped, the past as a historic testament, the city as vast threatening forest, the femme fatale as an excuse are some of the traps. The structural and narrative elements of the police novel, (sometimes as a hint and other times referring directly to this genre) are combined with a description of roving in the city’s labyrinth, history and feelings. 

Tags: Noir novel Greek literature
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