The Review Lab

The Review Lab published a review of Extraordinary Renditions on March 16, 2011.

Bleak Libretto

Extraordinary Renditions
by Andrew Ervin
[Coffee House Press, 2010. 192 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Reviewed by Justin Bostian

Hungary has a long history of political unrest. The long-lasting consequences of war and social upheaval in the dark streets of Budapest serve as a backdrop for Andrew Ervin’s debut novel,Extraordinary Renditions. Ervin tackles the heavy themes of race, terrorism and the healing power of art in three novellas that tie together through brief character interactions and an intimate knowledge of the city itself.

The first of the three novellas, “14 Bagatelles,” follows esteemed composer Lajos Harkályi on his first journey to Budapest since he was forced from his home city into the Terezin concentration camp. After finding great success worldwide as a composer whose music spoke of the hope to be found during the atrocity of the Holocaust, Lajos is finally ready to perform his masterpiece opera. In Budapest, he is reintroduced to the violence, filth and despair of the city after its’ countless occupations. Lajos is bitter, misanthropic and above all, tired. You feel lethargic when trudging through his thoughts and observations of the city and its inhabitants. After dropping a parcel of flowers in a subway station and witnessing them crushed beneath the heels of passers-by, he slowly stoops to pick them up and observes the crowd around him, marveling at the callous way “No one stopped to help him gather them from the ground…To throw them away would be unthinkable…They were a delightful burden.” This is a typical interaction between Lajos and the city, where everyone seems to march around him without concern for their fellow man.

“Brooking the Devil” tells the tale of Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson, a private first class in the U.S. Army stationed in Hungary. He’s blackmailed into a gun-running operation by his corrupt commanding officer and forced to risk his life in order to avoid the unwritten but brutally obvious consequences of being an outspoken, intelligent, politically radical young black man in the military-industrial complex. Brutus is rash and young, full of anger and potential violence. His story doesn’t feel as natural and well-written as the other two. The radical attitude that he holds is almost comical, and distracts from the believability of his story. “Brutus stood up and locked the door. The footsteps and fag jokes and hillbilly guitar licks annoyed the living fuck out of him.” His use of profanity and “fight The Man” lifestyle points toward the pent-up anger that Brutus feels towards the world, but it comes off as immature and, at times, over-the-top.

Melanie Scholes, a young American violinist living in Budapest, confronts her own feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt as she prepares for the most important performance of her life in “The Empty Chairs,” the final novella of Extraordinary Renditions. Ervin is at his best when writing Melanie, the young expatriate musician. Her discomfort and insecurity are so naturally human and well described that one can’t help but sympathize and identify with her. She’s completely and utterly believable, and placing her story at the end of the novel finishes the piece on a slightly higher note, redeeming the flat characterization of Brutus. “She couldn’t hear the entire symphony, not yet, but she felt what it would sound like. Amid the reflected lights, the river had a deep, lustrous blue color. The burst of music in her head was like an act of resistance, an antidote to the cold, most immediately, but also to Hungary.” Melanie is relatable in her ups and downs, and her musical awakening is a particularly beautiful event.

Extraordinary Renditions is not a feel good story. It won’t make you smile or put a spring in your step once you’ve finished it. The novel is full of pain and grief, sad memories and dangerous futures, but through all that there’s an overwhelming beauty to be found in the passions and personalities of Lajos, Brutus and Melanie. While it’s not an instant classic, Ervin is particularly adept at conveying the bleakness of his landscapes and his characters. Though they fail in their own ways, they find measures of hope, however small, through their failure. Ervin’s descriptions of Lajos’ heartbreaking work is mirrored in the beauty and pathos that the finished novel leaves behind. “The opera didn’t end as much as slowly, painfully die.”