Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten

The Hungary Games

Books Reviews Marc Fitten
Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten

Now here’s a wonder.

A writer of Panamanian descent, born in Brooklyn and now a son of the South, sits down every day to write The Great Hungarian Novel.

Okay, novels. Marc Fitten published his debut, Valeria’s Last Stand, in 2009, the first of a planned trilogy of books examining Hungary in the years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The playful, fable-like tale explored the lives of small-town Magyars in their giddy 1980s wonder-years, at time when the sun came out on shiny new freedoms and forms of expression. Valeria became an international bestseller, published in 10 countries.

Fitten learned about Hungary the old-fashioned way—he dodged college for a few years by moving to the Eastern European nation. After lots of vegetarian paprika dishes and after bearing witness to fascinating change wrought by new Western ideas and capitalism, Fitten came back to the United States, settling finally in Atlanta.

Fitten originally went to Europe to satisfy a lifelong ambition to be a writer. He envisioned life as a café denizen, pen in hand. It didn’t work out at that point, but after he returned to the U.S., the subject matter at hand—those years abroad—gave him enough inspiration and material to fill up a book.

Okay, books.

Elza’s Kitchen, his second novel, arrives as the newest Hungarian dish in Fitten’s progressive dinner. It’s a kind of still-life study of an unfulfilled chef in a provincial city, both at a point a little further along the path of change than folk and community in the first novel, Valeria. Hungary feels a bit tired of the party by now, a little hung over from high hope, the bloom fading off the rose. Capitalism brought freedom, but freedom isn’t exactly free.

Elza, our restaurateur, runs a successful kitchen in the fictional city of Delibab. (The name means mirage in Hungarian.) It’s small-town, small potatoes, but the restaurant draws customers and makes decent money. Elza? Miserable, despite her superficial success. She numbly soldiers on through career crisis, aging unhappily, divorced but carrying on with her sous-chef. She’s tired of her dishes, tired of her customers, tired of spinning wheels and whisks.

In a brief flash of inspiration, Elza hits on the notion of attracting a critic for a famous culinary magazine to her restaurant. She hopes that a good review will bring … what? A personal Renaissance? A Michelin star? International renown? Better customers?

Elza succeeds at luring her critic, but she finds him to be a handful, a self-centered mess who grieves the recent loss of his dog. Worse, let the gamesmanship begin! The sous-chef runs off with Elza’s pastry chef—the two plan to start their own rival restaurant. Can the critic and his review be far behind?

At times, we sense a literary version of one of those Audrey Hepburn screwball comedies waiting in the wings of this novel, but Fitten never goes off recipe. A sunny stylist (though the writer speaks publicly of not remembering the composition of large parts of this novel due to a low mental state), Fitten maneuvers gypsy kids and local toughs and good-natured customers on and off stage adroitly. As a fine chef will do, he brings the plot lines in the end to a series of stiff peaks.

Here’s an amusee bouche from Elza’s Kitchen:

Her Chicken Paprika was tangy with the slightest hint of sweetness to it. Elza served it over a bed of egg noodles, and it was simple country food, a kitchen classic. At one thousand forints a plate it was also her strongest-selling entrée, exactly the same as and wholly unlike any Chicken Paprika any of her customers had ever tasted.

“Reminds me of my grandmother,” a customer might exclaim after the first hot bite.

Others would nod, savor what was in their mouths, and point at their plates. They watched the steam curl up in tendrils and carry the aroma to their noses. They thought of country kitchens on the plains, of short paints, and of being chased by geese.

“This is better than my grandmother’s,’” another customer would venture.

“Better?” the Motorcycle Officer mused. He loved his grandmother. Admitting something like this felt like a betrayal. He wiped his brow with a napkin. He spun his revolver around on the table.

“Sweeter,” he offered. “No, tangier.”

“Sweeter? Tangier? Yes. Yes. All of that,” said another man.

They ate silently. They focused and began the pleasant task of shoveling heaping forkfuls of chicken and noodles into their mouths. They sighed. Their eyes welled with tears as they remember their doting grandmothers.

Fitten takes inspiration from a trilogy of European films by Polish director Krzysztof Kie?lowski, movies known in this country as Red, White and Blue. Fitten’s own trilogy means to similarly capture Eastern European change on a geo-scale, but more to the purpose explore what happens to artistry and the creative spirit in places agog and aglow with change.

In Valeria, Fitten wrote about a kind of Hungarian version of Mayberry, a simple place where all-too-human beings careened in and out of love, in and out of pipe dreams, in and out of what sometimes resembles lunacy, but sooner or later simply resolves into our human condition.

Elza follows this pattern, but the book suggests that maybe the great dream of free markets and free minds, even for those released from decades of oppression, ain’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. Who knows? Fitten’s third book may be dark as Macbeth, dark as the ink on its pages.

It’s worth waiting to see.

Charles McNair is Books Editor at Paste.

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