How to laugh off your

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alice Spigel­man Paprika Par­adise By James Jef­frey Ha­chette Aus­tralia, 270pp, $ 35

HOW do you come to terms with hav­ing a Hun­gar­ian mother? James Jef­frey tries to come to grips with his ma­ter­nal Zsa Zsa Ga­bor by turn­ing her au­da­cious in­dis­cre­tions into jokes and writ­ing a hu­mor­ous book about them.

The blun­der that most oc­cu­pies the au­thor is his mother’s mar­riage ( the sec­ond of three) to his fa­ther, a min­ing en­gi­neer from Der­byshire who landed in a min­ing town in the south­west of Hun­gary in 1968, still sin­gle at the age of 35.

The staid, calm, pre­cise English­man against the im­petu­ous, ac­quis­i­tive tor­nado in a miniskirt pro­duced a volatile union which gave the new bride a ticket out of Hun­gary but to Der­byshire, where she ‘‘ cried for four years’’ ( it seems com­mu­nist rule is prefer­able to the English weather and bon­homie), so his par­ents mi­grated to Aus­tralia with the au­thor as a young child.

It was the idea of solv­ing the mys­tery of this un­fath­omable mat­ri­mony that in­spired Jef­frey to spend six months in Hun­gary with his wife and young fam­ily, though you get the feel­ing the sab­bat­i­cal is an ex­cuse to dis­cover the land of his ‘‘ al­most’’ birth and his own bud­ding Hun­gar­ian- ness.

He falls in love with the coun­try­side, the Mec­sek hills that vi­brate with the song of thrushes, chaffinches, black­birds and wood­peck­ers, mead­ows filled with the wild­flow­ers of sum­mer, the ma­jes­tic oaks and firs of the for­est. Even rid­ing the roads rid­dled with pot­holes be­comes a quaint ad­ven­ture.

It seems that in his rap­ture the au­thor’s eyes re­main shut to Hun­gary’s fail­ings; some­one such as the Hun­gar­ian satirist Ge­orge Mikes would have aimed his poi­soned ar­row at vi­tal na­tional traits such as forc­ing im­mense help­ings of chicken paprika and strudel on vis­i­tors, sar­casm, cyn­i­cism, an in­sane na­tional pride and com­plain­ing about ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one.

The vit­riol- dipped pen of Mikes, who lived in Eng­land in the 1950s and ’ 60s, sent up that coun­try and oth­ers mer­ci­lessly. This book is more gen­tle, pass­ing by con­tentious is­sues and cur­rent af­fairs, though it does ex­pose some faults, such as bribery ( on the rail­ways: ‘‘ Would you pre­fer to pay the fine or some­thing a lit­tle more sen­si­ble so that I can mark things in my book?’’).

Jef­frey’s hu­mour is prob­a­bly not ar­ro­gant or ag­gres­sive enough to be clas­si­fied as ‘‘ Hun­gar­ian’’ when you com­pare it with gems such as the Hun­gar­ian waiter he quotes re­ply­ing to a tourist’s re­quest for a veg­e­tar­ian meal: ‘‘ If you don’t want meat, go to Ro­ma­nia’’, or, in my case, in­quir­ing what was good on the menu: ‘‘ Good? If you want good, go home.’’ Gal­lows hu­mour is an­other word for it.

The laughs come eas­ily when­ever the au­thor tries to come to grips with his mother’s res­o­lute char­ac­ter crash­ing through ob­sta­cles such as by­standers, hus­bands, chil­dren and rel­a­tives. She tries to off­load her car on her son: ‘‘ So safe, so Euro­pean. And it goes like a rocket! Don’t you want the Volvo then? Why? I sell it to you for a good price. Oh well, if you don’t want it, it’s up to you, I am not forc­ing you to buy it. The sec­ond ques­tion is, do you want to buy my house?’’

The au­thor does his best to get his par­ents to re­call the heady days of their courtship: his fa­ther ob­fus­cates; his mother goes straight for the jugu­lar. When she re­calls her fi­ance re­turn­ing from Eng­land with­out an en­gage­ment ring, hav­ing been warned in dras­tic lan­guage not to bother com­ing back to Hun­gary empty- handed, she tells her son: ‘‘ Bull­shit! It was his mother, she didn’t want him to marry a Hun­gar­ian di­vorcee.’’

Jef­frey’s dis­cov­ery that his inim­itable mother had rewrit­ten fam­ily his­tory to suit her­self, of his fa­ther’s con­fes­sion that he had ‘‘ done an­other man wrong’’ by tak­ing his wife’s chil­dren from her first mar­riage out of Hun­gary, stop short of go­ing deep. And al­though the book is meant to be a light- hearted romp through Hun­gary and fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, the barbs need to sting more.

What we get is a pi­caresque ram­ble through the coun­try­side, re­count­ing events as they roll by with­out prob­ing into ones that might serve to de­fine the land of the Mag­yars.

It ex­plores what it is like grow­ing up with two cul­tures: the real one in Aus­tralia and the ro­man­ti­cised one in Hun­gary.

Chil­dren of mi­grants of­ten re­turn to the land of their par­ents, as Jef­frey has done, to sift real mem­o­ries from fan­tasy, to bet­ter un­der­stand their par­ents and there­fore them­selves, and maybe to end that un­com­fort­able feel­ing of strad­dling two con­ti­nents, which they some­times man­age to over­come by stand­ing half­way be­tween the two in no man’s land. Jef­frey’s de­scrip­tion of the ex­pe­ri­ence is poignant and of­ten very funny. Alice Spigel­man has writ­ten plays and a bi­og­ra­phy, and is work­ing on a novel about the end of com­mu­nism, set in 1989 in Bu­dapest, where she was born. Read an ex­tract from Paprika Par­adise in to­day’s Week­end Travel and In­dul­gence .

Heady days: The au­thor’s par­ents at their wed­ding

A long way from Bu­dapest: Slow trans­port in a Hun­gar­ian vil­lage

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