Brief Review


An American Woman, by Kati Marton, New York: Norton, 272 pages, $15.95.

The road back home is a treacherous one for Anna Bator. Author Kati Marton makes this point in numerous ways, including telling us that Bator means "brave" in Hungarian. The story is told with skill and style.

A career journalist in the United States, Anna Bator returns to her birthplace, Hungary, to unearth her hidden and complex origins. A key figure is her father, Alex Bator. A convert from his Jewish origins, he eventually has to face his ethnic past when Hungary is subjected to Hitler's "final solution" as payment for the Hungarian government's political dependence on Germany. But Alex, a bourgeois at heart, is unwilling to embrace the Soviet-trained Communists—the only help Jews could find against the Nazis. Eventually the Communists gain power after World War II ends, and Eastern Europe is delivered into Stalin's arms. Ultimately, Alex's ambivalence leads to peril for his daughter, who becomes embroiled in international intrigue upon her return to Hungary to discover her family's past.

All this is told with rich enough plot to make for a good story. If you hail from Eastern Europe (as I do) the book will have even greater significance. Indeed, its reading can be a brave undertaking, because Marton does not spare the reader her intermittently subtle and blunt reflections on loyalty to one's native land.

An American Woman is significant on many fronts. It is a notable depiction of a Soviet-Marxist type of tyranny and what it can do to the souls of human beings, let alone to their attempts to lead reasonably prosperous lives. And it teaches historical awareness about both the Nazis and the Communists—something not usually found between the covers of the same book—conveying the inexcusable tyranny of both.

The work shows an unambiguous bias toward European cultural values, even while they are not spared some criticism. For example, Anna Bator prizes "a self-esteem based on squarely acknowledging [one's] inheritance." And throughout the story she castigates American "throwaway culture." She notes that in Hungary, "the conversation was real," in contrast to Philadelphia, for which this "American woman" feels "irreverence."

Marton fails to clearly understand and appreciate America's distinctive culture of individualism or the fundamental meaning of personal sovereignty and all the responsibilities that this entails. She shares the schizophrenia of so many American intellectuals who live—and really could only live—in a substantially free and peaceful American culture but yearn for the guaranteed stimulus of an artistic-historical setting produced by the blood and sweat of constant wars between cultural and ethnic collectivities, all of which vie for superiority and conquest.

No love of individual freedom blossoms in this novel, though Marton's background might be expected to yield it. Still, its value carries much of the story's punch. But America just hasn't enough depth for Marton's heroine, Anna. If Marton was taken from a tyranny (that is, if the book is autobiographical), perhaps this explains the more melancholy reflection on one's past than tends to be produced by people who chose to leave and to remain away. They understand that Europe, including even the substantially Western, bourgeois Budapest, is still steeped in the spirit of collectivist feudalism—self-esteem through inheritance.