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October 03, 2004|Susan Salter Reynolds

Budapest

A Novel

Chico Buarque, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

Grove: 192 pp., $19.95

This is a novel about what we own and what can be taken away: words, for example, making writing a volatile profession. Jose Costa is a ghostwriter whose flight to an "anonymous authors" conference is interrupted by a bomb threat. He is forced to stay overnight in Budapest, where they speak "the only tongue in the world that the devil respects." Unable to distinguish the words in this "seamless language," he becomes obsessed with it. He attends the conference, but by the end it reminds him of "an alcoholics anonymous meeting whose participants suffered not from alcoholism, but anonymity." Back in Rio, his boss has hired a set of young imitators: "I found myself surrounded by seven writers, all wearing striped shirts like mine, with reading glasses just like mine, all with my haircut, my cigarettes and my cough." Costa leaves his job and family and returns to Budapest, where he studies Hungarian and falls in love with his moody tutor. He's a character in search of an exit from what W.G. Sebald called "the merry-go-round of life," traveling back and forth between Rio (where a book he ghostwrote is now a bestseller and his wife is sleeping with its putative author) and the parallel life he set up in Budapest. Buarque writes like a man with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Shoulders slumped, a wrinkled linen suit; you join him at the bar to hear his wild story.

*

Fleeting Rome

In Search of La Dolce Vita

Carlo Levi, translated from the Italian by Tony Shugaar

John Wiley & Sons: 280 pp., $24.95

"Nothing ever happens in the present," Carlo Levi writes of his hometown, "everything seems to arrive as an echo reverberating through an age-old civic filter of history." Levi died in 1975, leaving novels, essays, journalism and poetry, some unpublished. In this volume, many of his best pieces on Rome are collected. And what an eye he has -- a true flaneur with the city's history in his bones. "Who can truly understand the heart of a Roman civil servant?" he asks, of a clerk who goes to work for a few minutes a day and spends the rest of it foraging for wild asparagus, which he trades for dinner or a bottle of wine. Levi captures the grand indifference of Romans: They won't look up for rainbows or comets but will sit over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down. He admires their elegance: Except for the clothes, you cannot tell the difference between a prince and a coachman. And he loves their athleticism: "If you see the amazing feats of balance performed by Roman common folk, riding a Vespa three at a time, or four at a time, or five, you will surely admit that the renowned cowboys of the American plains have met their match."

*

Tree

A Life Story

David Suzuki & Wayne Grady, art by Robert Bateman

Greystone Books: 190 pp., $20

"It was a single tree near my island cottage," writes David Suzuki, scientist and environmentalist, "that finally moved me to realize what a marvel a tree is." The tree is a 400-year-old Douglas fir. Suzuki and writer Wayne Grady imagine its life and development, beginning with the role of fire (conifers need high temperatures to open their cones and release the seeds). They describe the seed's early life, the formation of roots, trunk and leaves; relationships with other flora and fauna; the tree's response to trauma; its contributions to the air and soil. Their digressions make this one of those nonfiction gems that teach you things you never fully understood about your environment. The authors cover in 10 pages the 4 billion years of evolution that preceded their tree. The birth of botany, the theories of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, the clash of religion and science are folded into its life. Communications among trees, the forest as a community, the role of auxins in cell growth all become part of a story that sparks curiosity, reverence, a new level of engagement with all of creation.

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