03. 20. 2013. 18:37

Hard-boiled thrillers from Hungary: Vilmos Kondor

The novels of Vilmos Kondor, the first Hungarian author of hard-boiled thrillers, became instant bestsellers in Hungary, and made the previously despised genre of thriller a subject of interest for mainstream literary critics.

Vilmos Kondor’s identity is a subject of intense speculation. The blurb of the American edition of Budapest Noir says that he “graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris with a degree in chemical engineering before returning home to Hungary. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in a quiet village near the Austrian border and teaches high school mathematics and physics.” This is pretty much all we know about Vilmos Kondor, who shuns public appearances and gives interviews by email, in which he sometimes gives fairly brusque (or no) answers. Some claim that Vilmos Kondor is a pseudonym, and that the mystery surrounding his person has contributed to his success, even though Kondor has said time and again that he preferred to remain in the shadow because he liked a quiet life and because he thought it silly to be overly concerned with the person of an author rather than his book. His novels have been translated into many languages, and have received favourable reviews. The film rights to Budapest Noir have already been sold.

Whenever Hungarian writers try their hands at an Anglo-Saxon genre, the results tend to be quite pale, and give the impression of a parody. This is true even in cases when the authors (actors, directors) are excellent. The reason for this is simple: they do not always realize that generic fiction and films work with a very specific, well-elaborated formal language and dramaturgy, a variable set of clichés and a psychologically tested mechanism of action. Those who fail to learn and respect these will never write a good thriller or a science fiction or horror story. Vilmos Kondor, however, has definitely learnt them all.

The author admits that he follows in the track of Dashiell Hammett, the father of hard-boiled thrillers. He has even copied and pasted several excerpts from Hammett’s Red Harvest into Budapest Noir (which created a minor scandal). Hammett’s influence is clearly felt in Kondor’s novels, especially in his portrayal of character and in his dialogue. The protagonist of the ‘Budapest’ books, crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon would surely enjoy a whisky or two with Sam Spade. Gordon resembles Spade in his arrogance, hot temper, quick fist, as well as in his clear-sightedness and uncompromising attitude, but Gordon seems more intellectual and sophisticated, as well as a better character, which makes him easier to identify with.

And there is another significant difference: Kondor’s books are also historical thrillers. He catalogues in detail the public transportation and road system of Budapest, the city’s catering units and gastronomy, its characteristic figures and entertainment – in other words, the framework and routine of everyday life as well as the attitudes behind it, thus evoking and resuscitating this era which had so far been relegated to the black and white sections of historical archives. Dashiel Hammett did not need to construct a whole world, explain the age and depict the city, since his works were intended for contemporary readers, and the milieu in which his novels take place was common knowledge. Kondor’s books, on the other hand, contain very detailed descriptions, which creates a strong atmosphere but at times makes the texts less compact.

Yet we, the readers, do not mind this, since we are less interested in the whodunit part, and much more in the description of Budapest in the 30s, 40s and 50s. With Kondor’s thrillers we are soon on intimate terms with Budapest – insignificant alleyways, uninteresting junctions, plain buildings and barely frequented neighbourhoods are endowed with a story and a meaning in our individual image of Budapest. Kondor said in an interview, “Budapest was a vibrating, colourful and incredibly exciting place which had a great impression on me. I cannot really write about anything else. Gordon visits Vienna, Berlin, Venice and London, and behaves as a citizen of the world everywhere, but for him, Budapest is the place, whether he admits it or not.”

Reading these books with history in mind also makes sense because the author betrays a thorough knowledge of the complex political relations of the first half of the century. History is no mere background décor for Kondor; rather than reciting history textbooks, he tries to interpret and help us understand the relations and the dynamics of this troubled era. Communist historiography had completely rewritten the history of the era between the two wars (the so called ‘Horthy era’), Kondor said in another interview, and had nothing to say about it except how capitalists and priests exploited the working class. This could hardly account for the fact that culture, art and science flourished in that miserable era.

The novels become progressively more and more sombre, which, the author says, is the result of conscious planning. "Two thirds of the previous century were oppressive, smothering and dark times. What I was interested in is how a journalist called Zsigmond Gordon survives these hard times, living and breathing together with the era, in love with Budapest, and knowing that he must survive these tempestuous times somehow, and if possible, not die of it." And indeed, the main charm of the novels is the character of Zsigmond Gordon. The well-elaborated, plausible and likeable figure of this crime reporter is a typically Hungarian version of the tough detective of hard-boiled thrillers.

Kondor has an excellent command of the genre, but his relationship to clichés is much more sophisticated than that. He uses them, he feels and understands them, yet he also subverts these stereotypical elements, as if he substituted the beef in a hamburger for some Hungarian sausage. Besides, he sometimes uses clichés ironically, as if winking at the reader who is well-versed in the genre, thus saving the stories from the pompousness that is always lurking in the background.

Since 2008, Kondor has produced one volume a year – Budapest Noir (2008), Wicked Budapest (2009), The Spy from Budapest (2010), Budapest in Ruins (2011) and Budapest in November (2012). He has worked at an incredible pace, which sometimes results in uneven standards. The last piece of the ‘Budapest’ series is the most mature one in terms of technique and fluency, which makes us regret that the series has just ended. The only consolation we have is that Kondor will continue to write short stories on Zsigmond Gordon. As he said in an interview: "I am full of stories, and I don’t want to say goodbye to Gordon, because the truth is that I like him much more than I thought in the beginning."

(A slightly modified version of an article originally published in Hungarian at konyves.blog.hu)

Vilmos Kondor: Budapest Noir

Translated by Paul Olchváry

HarperCollins, 2012

Mátyás Falvai

Tags: Vilmos Kondor