1990s Hungary Inspires Debut Novel ‘Ilona Gets a Phone’


First-time author Alison Langley.

Irish-American Alison Langley’s debut novel tells how Hungarians struggled with the social and economic upheavals triggered by the collapse of communism and the transition to a more market-based economy in the early 1990s.

It’s 1991 and Ilona, long thwarted by the former regime from owning a phone, is about to live her dream. Modern telephonic communication is the first step, at least that’s what she convinces herself, to restoring her former aristocratic home and life.

Alison Langley and her husband, Mike Shields, moved to Budapest in 1990. While he headed the Budapest bureau of the Reuters news agency, she freelanced for the Wall Street Journal Europe and International Herald Tribune and assisted the World Health Organization in updating the training for child healthcare nurses.

Langley returns to Hungary later this month to launch her first book, “Budapest Noir: Ilona Gets a Phone,” a novel set in 1991 in the Hungarian capital.

BBJ: What struck you most about Budapest and Hungary in your early days here?

Alison Langley: Everything was so different but also the same. The best was our neighbors in Buda. None of us spoke a common language; Mike and I spoke English and German, and our neighbors had Hungarian and bad Russian. Still, we all managed to communicate. Without Gyöngyi helping me in those early days, I don’t know how I would have managed.

Gyöngyi’s son, Bálint was 14. To him, we were very exotic. He and his friend Gergő hung around our house a lot. They were a riot. They thought our old Opel Corsa was the greatest thing they’d ever seen. They were totally into heavy metal, which, somehow, they thought we, too, liked.

Eventually, we became very close to Gergő’s family. His mother, Anna Gedeon, was our doctor. His sister, Zsófi, was our babysitter and helped me with the book. His dad, Péter Antoni, always filled us in on his view of politics. We have stayed in touch with them all these years since. We recently re-connected with Bálint too. Hungarians are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve met.

For me, Budapest 1990 was a lot like rural Minnesota in the 1970s. We arrived in August and were so surprised (pleasantly) to visit the vibrant market at Moszkva tér. I had expected poverty and scarcity, but the fruit and vegetables were varied and absolutely gorgeous.

Trade with Comecon countries had collapsed, and food from Western nations was expensive. It was a hard winter, as I remember. I started a mother’s group, so my daughter and I could meet friends. I had expected that we would alternate venues, one week my house, next time someone’s flat.

Instead, I realized quickly the expectation was that it would always be at my place. It took a while before I understood why: some families weren’t heating their homes properly. They couldn’t afford the price hikes. Living in Hungary during that very tumultuous time was the first time I had been confronted with privilege. It was very humbling.

BBJ: Did you feel much had changed from when you arrived to when you left?

AL: Immensely. It felt like the entire nation had learned to speak English in four years. Their eyes were fixed westward. I get the impression that their eyes are fixed eastward now. As a parent, I was warned away from old Soviet vaccinations, so I drove to Vienna to get Western ones for Sarah, our daughter. By the time I left, the quality of the jabs had improved. I was saddened to hear that Orbán used lesser-quality COVID vaccinations. It felt like a step backward.

Goods, too, changed. My son was fixated on classifying cars when he was two. He could point out the Ladas, Wartburgs and Dacias. But then came the VWs, BMWs [...] and he got confused. [Alison laughs.]

We loved [Hungarian folk music group] Kalyi Jag and the táncház [dance house] scene. It felt like the nation was beginning to feel more confident, finding its Hungarian identity in a positive and not nationalistic way.

BBJ: From what I’ve read of your book so far, Ilona is, well, she’s nuts, what with her attachment to a phone and her dream of recovering her family’s kastély, living the aristocratic life again. How much did you base her on someone you got to know?

AL: My main character is loosely based on a woman I met here. She was so passive-aggressive we could only laugh at her antics. She nagged, nudged, needled, cajoled and occasionally pestered people. Relentlessly. So much so that we ultimately couldn’t take her seriously, although she was important in our lives.

I was struck by her, especially when I realized she was the Hungarian version of all those older women I had been meeting across Europe in my travels, those with sharp elbows at the bakery who didn’t know how to queue.

I had been raised to wait my turn. Why were they so impolite? I never got any further with the story because I really didn’t know who Ilona was. Until I figured that out, I couldn’t go on.

COVID struck. I had time to go back to that opening chapter. More time to think about Ilona standing at her bedroom window, waiting for that telephone van. I was now the same age Ilona would have been back in the ’90s, and I had a better perspective on the old girl.

People, especially women, I believe, learn to be passive-aggressive when they are powerless. It’s a way to be angry without being confrontational. It’s a way to challenge someone without seeming to do so. Often, I learned in my research, it is a coping tactic honed in response to childhood trauma.

I also met Smallholder Party members and others who really did want to bring back the Habsburg monarchy. Sissi [Elisabeth, the former Austrian Empress and Queen of Hungary] played an outsized role in their imaginations. At the time, dumb American and all that, I had never heard of Sissi. It took my breath away when I learned she died in 1898.

BBJ: Next book? Will it also be about Hungary?

AL: My next book [first idea] was a knee-jerk reaction to those agents and publishers who focus entirely on marketable fiction. However, I still have a mind to go back to my experience helping with the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. I don’t have a hook yet. Who knows, maybe in another 20 years?

BBJ: How can one order the book?

AL: Try Massolit Books & Café. Please, please support local bookshops! They are so very important to the life of a city. Without Massolit, I wouldn’t be having a reading in Budapest. Judit has been hugely supportive of me, and I want to return the favor.

Alison Langley will present her book at 7 p.m. on May 23 at Massolit, 1072 Budapest, Nagy Diófa utca 30. Budapest Noir: Ilona Gets a Phone, ISBN / Ean1915568420 / 9781915568427, 320 pp

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of May 17, 2024.

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