His work has been praised for its deft use of fable, comedy and romance. With the release of Elza’s Kitchen, the second book in his “Paprika Trilogy,” Fitten is working toward one ending in his international career. The next beginning — novel, translation, or literary work — may move even farther away from his home. Fitten will read from and sign copies of Elza’s Kitchen on Wed., July 11 at 7 p.m. at the Carter Library.
In a lot of ways you’re so much an Atlanta author, but your two books are nowhere near Georgia. So why Hungary — and why a Hungary in transition from socialism to capitalism?
Well I guess I’m an Atlanta author. But I lived abroad for a number of years during high school, and during that time that’s kind of where the idea of examining that transition came from 'cause when I was there, there was no way to avoid the changes and no way to not realize the changes that were going on. So it just seemed like really heavy subject matter that would lend itself to novels so that’s kind of why I decided to look at it. And the project is to look at every decade from the transition to today and just kind of examine it along the lines of — I don’t know if you remember these movies, you might be kind of young, Blue, White and Red?
Right, the trilogy.
Right, it was kind of along those lines, and that was where the idea came from.
Valeria’s Last Stand and Elza’s Kitchen have similarities — they both have female protagonists and they both sort of have this distinctive point-of-view that overlaps — but Elza’s a lot more worldly than Valeria is. In what ways were you conscious of having those stories be similar but also be different?
Well that’s part of it: You have Valeria who’s an older generation and much more provincial in perspective because they live in a village. And then you have Elza, who is a city person who’s more cultured and more aware and it’s also that now communism has passed and it’s 2000, essentially, and so you have a person who’s kind of grown up in a more global world and who is more aware of the world. And so that [perspective] I wanted to actually kind of explore, going from the person who is suddenly — the gates are open and you’re suddenly allowed to look out but you’re maybe too old to enjoy what that means, and then someone who is young enough to embrace the change and kind of just roll with history.
You’ve traveled in Europe and that’s the basis for the setting, but reflecting on what it must have been like to be in that period and paint that picture of those two different generations, where did your mindset come from?
I lived there actually for about five years, so I got to see it all around and I got to see people react to the changes and interact with those changes all around me so it was not too much fantasy, really, on my part, because I could watch the world open and how people interacted with it and how older people interacted with it and younger people interacted with it and so it was really just being observant and noticing the problems that came with ... and I visit regularly still, so it’s easy to kind of see the progress that’s being made — or not.
Have you mapped out the third entry in the “Paprika Trilogy?"
I’m working on the third now, actually. I’ve been working on the third for about a month — and that’s the best way, I find, to deal with publication is to completely ignore the publication and start working on the next one, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy. So the third one is my youngest protagonist, and this will be a person whose only experience with socialism and communism is through the point-of-view of history. This is a person now who has pretty much grown up in the new system and doesn’t know anything about the old system. And it’s the end of the trilogy so it’s the end of the fairy tale, and that’s very much part of the book as well, that’s I’m working on, that the fairy tale is over: now what do you do in the real world?
How much are you focusing on wrapping up the social and political message of the trilogy and how much are you just drawing together a story’s close?
Well, I’m gonna wrap it up. Once I’m done, this will, I think, be the end of this world, and so I will wrap it up and history is kind of helping me out. Because at the end of the day, what we’ll look at it is yeah, capitalism and democracy won. But if it were a football game, it would be by — not necessarily a touchdown, but by a field goal, like a 17-to-14 score. Like, “Yeah we won, but are we really that much better off than when we started this whole mess of transition?” So I think that’ll be the message of just, power structures change and people have to get along and figure it out. We’ll have a young person who is having to come to grips with a new world that is her world. It is not the old world that her parents speak of.
So tell me a bit more about the fairy-tale aspect. Reading through Valeria and Elza, the style is very sharp and humorous but it’s not necessarily overt — there’s not a lot of punchlines — and there’s some romance there and some whimsy and a focus on food. What’s the balance you’re striking?
That is on purpose, that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to write a tale, I wanted to write a type of romance. Not like a romance novel but a type of like, almost looking back on old-fashioned romance books. I looked at books like Madame Bovary and I just looked at a way of narrative that was more whimsical and was more along the lines of a fairy tale because I just thought it was interesting artistically, from that point-of-view, and to see whether or not I could sustain that voice and sustain that tone for a couple of books. And really for the third book there are things I want to do with language, like maybe you start hearing the machine clanking behind the narrative, kind of like I want to pull the curtain back so the wizard gets seen from a narrative perspective. So it’ll still be a fairy tale, but you’ll start to see the real world making odd noises as the transition to reality is reached. So it was really just an experiment in form and language.
It’s interesting you go ahead and bring up wanting to evoke the machinery behind the scenes because in a lot of ways, the idea of doing a trilogy about Hungary as it transitions into the present would seem to be more suited to nonfiction or something more straightforward. How do you feel like this form has helped doing something political in a less political style or maybe clashed with that?
It’s a very interesting thing. I find that a lot of readers just don’t catch the politics. They get stuck on the surface story and get stuck on the plot. Which for me is always kind of incidental, because it’s always the commentary that I find more interesting as a writer and I thought that the fairy tale way of telling the story, the allegorical style, would lend itself to people. I thought it would make it more accessible. I’m not entirely sure that was the result, but that was the plan, to do something that was accessible.
What has audience reaction been like, abroad and even here, when you bring this book? Is it the context they’re first struck by or is it the style?
That’s a good question. I have a bigger readership in Europe, and it’s interesting you said that, because they don’t actually comment necessarily on the allegorical style. They treat it more as realism. Whereas here, of course, that’s not the case. They talk more about the fact that it’s allegorical and a fairy tale. So that’s been interesting, actually, to see the different reaction to it.
What’s the next experiment for you beyond a fourth book — what’s something else you see as the next experiment in art?
The elimination of plot entirely. The elimination of plot but in a way that is still readable. I’m interested in playing with structures. And I know the fourth book would be playing with structures. So it would take place in the Americas and it would have rich characters and it would have sensual characters and sensual things happening, but the structure might not be the three-act structure that we know of in storytelling. It might be something a little different: the point-of-views might change. But I think the problem in that is how do you write something with tension that is readable and draws people from page-to-page? How do you do that without giving them something to be on the edge of their seat about? How can I make it dramatic?
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