This is a book exploring the author's search for a childhood identity forged in Hungary in the shadow of the Holocaust and her family's subsequent emigration to the USA. For many complex reasons, childhood issues had not been addressed for much of the author's adult life. The book is a wonderfully evocative memoir of childhood, a search for a national identity and an accurate and sensitive portrayal of the sense of alienation felt by those with the immigrant experience. It is set in the background of the diary written by the author while she lived and worked in Budapest in an academic capacity. As she explores the issues around Hungary's newly found freedoms in the 1990s, she examines them in the context of the uglier aspects of Hungarian and European nationalism which had decimated Hungarian Jewry. Although told from the Jewish viewpoint, it has broad appeal and addresses many important aspects of the human condition. The author's considerable literary ability (she is professor of Romance Languages at Harvard) is evident in the exquisitely sensitive descriptions of events and emotions from both a child's and adult's viewpoint. She seems to have learnt well from the authors on whom she has based her distinguished career. Emotions leap at the reader from every page, often rapidly traversing the spectrum of joy, sadness, longing, confusion and humor. At all times there is a strong prevailing sense of the author's awareness of how her uniquely Hungarian Jewish background profoundly influenced every important outcome of her life and her world outlook. The dilemma of being an outsider, yet identifying culturally and nationally with a sovereign state is well known to many Jews and constitutes the fundamental European Jewish experience. Many of those (myself included) who underwent this in repressive political systems fled to the western world and became very successful and yet experienced a sense of national and cultural alienation in their adopted societies. Despite addressing emotionally charged, controversial and sometimes uncomfortable subjects, there is always a sense of lightness and what is almost playfulness. Not all issues are serious and there is one hilarious description of Hungarian toilets, which every Westerner must have felt (if not voiced) upon their initial experience with these dreadfully designed pieces of porcelainware. Although an emotionally charged book, it never descends into unrealistic sentimentalism - the message seems to be that no matter what we do with our lives, where we come from has a profound effect on who we are and how we see the events around us. Acknowledging this can be liberating.
Further up "A reader from Cambridge" proved that he did not understand nothing at all. It's just for this guy that I do have to explain, that this book has nothing got to do with scholarships or so. It's hard to belive that he did not find out while reading the book to its end. He or she however seemed to have noticed in the end that he or she might blame himself or herself and therefore missed to leave the full name. For the rest of the world I would like to say that this is not big literature, but an important book. Once individuals stop to be interested to investigate in their history and to try to understand what was happening when and why, we will loose a chance to prevent dark parts of human history from coming back. This is why this book has a right to exist and this is what we can learn from it. It gives us an example for ourselves. And Suleiman does not celebrate herself, as her critic says, but gives us an unproctected view into her feelings. This makes her vulnerable and the "reader from Cambridge" takes his freedom to eagerly touch her wounds. I say it very clearly: Books like Suleiman's help to make sure that "readers from Cambridge MA" buy a book about the Iraque war the other day and complain that it is not really on the oil business.
I am one who like Susan was also born in Budapest. I was excited as I found this title while browsing the Amazon catalogue pages. Susan Suleiman awoke memories I did not think I had and her journey back to her birth place called forth emotions about my childhood there. Like Susan I left Hungary at an early age and built a new life in Australia.
It's in no way clear what any of this has to do with scholarship, either on the level of literature, history, or autobiography. Suleiman is clearly her own biggest fan, and the book does nothing but detail her personal celebration of herself. It is, for example, in no way clear what her name-dropping accounts of dinner parties and non-attended talks is supposed to signify within the context of serious, reflective scholarship. If you're sitting a qualfiying exam anytime soon for a degree in Susan Suleimanism, by all means read this book, but it is a waste of time for anyone else. Let's hope this volume sounds a death knell for academic self-aggrandizement: come back to earth Ms. Suleiman.