The Last Window-Giraffe, by Péter Zilahy, trans. Tim Wilkinson

Memoirs ingeniously disguised as a children's book bring the Balkans to life

Philip Oltermann
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:11

Memoirs about growing up in Hungary attract eccentric titles. Last year, Adam Biro gave us the intriguing One Must Also Be Hungarian. Now comes this bafflingly named book by Péter Zilahy, a young writer and performer from Budapest. Perhaps being Hungarian requires a minimum level of eccentricity.

Like Biro, Zilahy is all too aware of the overwhelming tragi-comedy of Hungarian identity in the 21st century. They used to be great at making films, brilliant at football, and "invented the airship, the ballpoint pen and the safety match – they're just everywhere!" Or they used to be: nowadays the cultural powerhouse of Budapest rarely makes the news.

The Last Window-Giraffe isn't an attempt to revive the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In fact, it's less about Hungary and more about its neighbour Serbia. Subtitled "a picture dictionary for the over-fives", Zilahy's book is a memoir of the anti-Miloševic protests in Belgrade of 1996-1997, ingeniously disguised as a children's book. "Ablak", the Hungarian for "window", is the first word in the Hungarian dictionary; "zsiráf" ("giraffe") is the last. A dictionary, Zilahy has it, "juxtaposes words that you never find together in real life": a potent symbol for accidental, cacophonous Eastern Europe.

The alphabet is the only reliable system of order in The Last Window-Giraffe. The rest is a tour of Shandyian digressions, with Zilahy's narrator time-travelling from one decade of political turmoil to the next. Deceptively innocent children's-book illustrations and the author's snapshots illustrate the journey. That feature, and the rambling narrative, bring to mind the writing of WG Sebald; but unlike his Germanic counterpart, Zilahy finds it hard to keep a straight face while pondering history's absurdities. The favourite song of the protesters, he explains, is based on a pun on the Serbian words for "voice" and "vote". Of course, he says, "MTV have made a clip from it."

His experimental memoir is at its most impressive when it plunges us straight into the masses of students marching through Belgrade, chanting, whistling and drumming with wooden spoons. The protesters strike up unexpected friendships with the riot police; the narrator starts to fantasise about "vivacious police kittens, winking from underneath their helmets". Zilahy's account is often funny, but always raw and direct: a far cry from the nostalgic soup often poured over the spectre of 1968.

Anthem Press, £12.99. Order for £xx.99 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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