This scene from Arthur Phillips' funny yet sad novel Prague carries both an intended irony and an unintended irony. The intended irony is that Prague is set not in the Czech capital but in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. That's because the central characters believe that, although they have left America to be part of something historically and artistically significant, they've just barely missed the boat; Prague is really where it's at. The book is named for a fantasy twice-removed.
The unintended irony is that Phillips' novel, though fictional, is grounded in his own experience living in Budapest in the early '90s. Although he takes jabs at the young bohemians who went to Eastern Europe with dreams of witnessing history and then writing a book, like latter-day Hemingways in Paris, the testimonial displayed most prominently on his Web site reads: "Prague is one of those rare books that help define and identify an entire generation, in the same way that Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises introduced his own lost generation." A Eurail-load of Americans wanted to write the novel that would earn them a comparison to Hemingway; it was writing about writers wanting to be like Hemingway that earned this one the sincere comparison. "It's a fine line to walk," Phillips admits with a laugh.
Prague inspires a strong reaction among Americans who drifted through Eastern European cities a decade ago. "Some people have been very moved," he says, "and some people have been very angry." Prague is clearly satire, but Phillips still has trouble understanding why some people are offended by it. He wrote it from a place of affection for his characters, who struggle to experience something real.
"I was finally like, 'I'm boring people with how cool Budapest was. Maybe if I write about this thing that I'm so nostalgic about, I'll get it out of my system, or maybe I'll find out what's at the bottom of it.'"
That's what makes Prague interesting. It's not so much about the characters themselves as it is about a feeling that the here and now is inadequate, that there are places and times more magical than the time and place we're in. You can see it in the popularity of vintage clothes and antique cars, and in the way that fashionably romantic locales have shifted further east in the past ten years, from Budapest to Tokyo.
And what's become of Phillips' characters in that time? Phillips conjures up, exclusively for Pitch readers, a free sequel: Smarmy columnist John Price is now a PR hack. Scott, his escapist brother, keeps moving east. The entrepreneurial Charles Gabor lost a lot of money on the Internet and now writes self-help books. Moody romantic Mark Payton teaches at a Canadian University. Emily Oliver, the khakis-wearing Nebraskan who works in the embassy and lives with two Julies, is now "out of the closet, doing social work somewhere."