Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook

by Susan Rubin Suleiman
University of Nebraska Press, $25

In Hungarian, the word “motherbook,” anyakonyv, is anything but poetic in its meaning. It is the official book of records—birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates. But when Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French at Harvard University known for both her literary and feminist writings, returns in search of the “motherbook”—to the homeland she left at age ten, it is more than just paper she seeks.

More than papers—which she does find—the author is seeking comfort in the land from which she had been estranged. Displaced from the city to the Hungarian countryside by Hitler’s threat, Suleiman’s family remained faithful to their dreams of a life in Hungary until after the war, when Communism reared its anti-Semitic head. Late one night in 1949, they fled to America.

Returning more than four decades later, the very American Suleiman confronts the people she meets about the topics that have become her mainstays— feminism and Judaism among them. And she finds that in a country that has suffered under Nazism and Communism, such subjects are often met with skepticism. They have become luxuries.

Around a heavy dose of dry and impersonal observations, the book, in the form of a daily diary, opens and closes with beautiful descriptions of a refugee’s journey: “This is the story: survival, adaptation, luck. And never— almost never—looking back. What this has cost me, I am only now beginning to tally: abandoned friendships, lost loves, walls built around a solitude so deep that even motherhood cannot fully breach it.” This story must speak to those all who have fled and who have ever dreamed of a return.