By Christina Shea (Hungary 1990–92)
Grove/Atlantic, Inc., Black Cat
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
CHRISTINA SHEA’S SMUGGLED IS a tale of the emotionally corrosive power of dictatorial societies. It is also the story of human resiliency in the face of repressive governmental policies. Christina Shea has done an estimable job of illustrating this dichotomy in her second novel, an austere political saga covering fifty years of political upheaval in Eastern Europe, more specifically, Hungary and Romania between 1943 and 1991, spanning World War Two, the Stalinist takeover, and the eventual collapse of Communism.
In limpid, unadorned prose, Shea, follows Jewish Éva Farkas from the age of five when she is smuggled out of Hungary in a flour sack, over the border into Romania where she is renamed Anca Balaj, and begins her transformation under the protective identity of “Romanian internal refugee” in the home of her fraternal ethnic Hungarian Auntie Kati and the Aunt’s husband, the Romanian Ilie.
The novel opens metaphorically with the description of Eszter, her mother, preparing Eva’s coat for the escape:
They would slip her between the seams of two countries. Eszter made the chain stitches binding the thread into a knot, then she cut the thread close . . .. She had done the stitching by hand, not trusting the machine. The money lay flat beneath the coat’s lining. The sewn-in pocket was barely detectable.
In a stroke of imaginative genius, Shea has created a protagonist who goes on to live between the seams of these two countries in terms of culture, language, religion and politics, never fully embodying the national character of either nation; in this, Éva/Anca personifies the sad dilemma of every refugee, political or otherwise. She belongs everywhere and nowhere. What drives this narrative is Anca’s will to survive, search for, and find her own singular identity.
Through powerful story telling, Shea claims us as captive witnesses to Anca’s journey. Anca lives her secret into her adult years, not letting on that she is Jewish and ethnically Hungarian. It takes its toll on her, dulling her emotions and making her wary of establishing relationships with both men and women. The close reader sees her psychological hardening manifesting itself in anti-Semitism, in particular toward a self-hating Jewish collaborator, Áron Messer, who ironically becomes her lover and with whom she conceives a child who fails to thrive and dies shortly after birth. With this and other episodes, Shea masterfully brings us inside the dark convolutions of the psyche under pressure, explicating the human cost of totalitarian life.
The blows come from every source in this beleaguered region, permeating every aspect of society. Eternally striving, at thirty-seven years old, Anca takes up ping pong, which she, who has always been athletic, finds she has a gift for. “Ping-pong was her Zionism . . .. Over time, she developed an arsenal of strokes and spins that had advanced her in top-flight competition.” She qualifies for the national team and begins to train in earnest. Table tennis is a burgeoning sport in Eastern Europe. She is ranked fourth in Romania. But in a perverse twist of totalitarian fate and logic, the coach wants her to throw the next game. She gives her body to him, but fails to change his mind. It seems the order comes from higher up, a political issue, “out of his hands.” But at the match, true to her intrepid character, she doesn’t throw the game, instead wins gloriously, and afterward while waiting alone for the hotel lift she is attacked and maimed in punishment.
. . . she was ambushed from behind. Her assailant grabbed her, immobilizing her in a headlock, and hit her repeatedly in the face . . .. The weapon was a ping pong paddle, she realized before losing consciousness.
In 1990 Anca returns to live in free Hungary. She is fifty.
She crosses the border with hundreds of American dollars taped to her skin under her clothing and a carefully wrapped gold nugget inserted between her legs. She carries her Hungarian identification papers, which bear the name her mother gave her.
With perfect symmetry, Anca, now Éva, gradually slides into her own skin, even finding a place to live near her mother’s old synagogue. To Shea’s credit, Éva doesn’t make the transition suddenly or easily nor does Shea bend to sentimentality. Éva remains cautious, suspicious, tough, and self deprecating, but with a last turn of the plot key, Shea allows Éva some pleasure and even a bit of joy in a newly cobbled together life; though unconventional in its makeup, it includes a family of her own, and a deeply held sense that she has finally come home.
In Smuggled we have a novel by an RPCV who puts to use the knowledge she acquired from her in-country experience in other than a self-referential form. There’s nothing wrong with telling one’s own story, but there are many ways to “write what you know,” and Christina Shea’s book is a marvelous, authentic example of just that.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense 76 selection and is currently under option for a feature film. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.
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