02 March, 2009

Hungary in the suburbs; North Fitzroy Arms & 'Prague' - Arthur Phillips

296 Rae St, North Fitzroy; 03 9489 8519

Recently, I've been working through a novel called Prague, set thus far entirely in Budapest. I felt a similar, though far more rewarding, disconnection with expectations this week when I ate a fine goulash at a pub with the distinctly local name of the North Fitzroy Arms. Perhaps both the novel and the pub are living in another time: the former in the tumult of 1989, when capitalism flooded the Danube, and the latter when Fitzroy Lions + Brisbane Bears did not equal one team north of the border.

(A third, related disconnect cropped up coincidentally this afternoon, when I spotted a white Mercedes M-class with the number plate PRAGUE.)

Goulash is Hungary's version of the slow-cooked dish every nation worth its sea salt lays claim to as a national cuisine. The Hungarian offering - a stew of beef and onions in a rich gravy sometimes thick enough to submerge optional dumplings - has a vermillion vibrancy thanks to the addition of paprika. In this North Fitzroy interpretation, the meat, almost melted in its slow cooking, is cuddled around a wodge of creamy mash flecked with spring onion. It was simply divine. The pub's proprietors are named on its website as Volbi and Zorka and they've clearly brought home-learnt skills to spoil those in the inner north lucky enough to stumble upon them.

SG stuck with something a bit more nationalistic, the kangaroo fillets with mushroom risotto and beetroot. The pub is also known as Haskins Restaurant and the folk behind the stove certainly know how to treat their meat, serving up several slabs of pink, seared, juicy roo fillets. The food and wine prices are generous; customers are welcome to order from both bar and restaurant menu in either area of the pub; and they offer a varied, non-Fosters list of wines by the glass.

Arthur Phillips, Prague's author, is an American who lived in Budapest for two years immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The novel features five North American characters, each of whom has found themselves in Budapest for different reasons, although all are unified in feeling it's a place of opportunity thanks to the monumental economic and political changes underway. The perspective, however, is one of an outsider, although it does attempt to engage with locals and deliver, through character histories, an extensive history of Hungary through two World Wars and multiple revolutions. However, with all but one of the protagonists ignorant of Hungarian it is necessary for them to meet English-educated Hungarians in order to progress the story, which to me limits the efficacy of the native perspective (particularly as Russian was far more common as a second language than English in the eastern bloc).

To write such a story with an actual insider's perspective, however, would place it within the Hungarian canon and therefore immediately hinder its entry and acceptability to the readership of Western countries. Think of recent Nobel prize winners - such as Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (last year's winner) and most pertinently Hungarian Imre Kertész (2002), who are virtually unknown outside Europe, despite decades of reputable work. There is, therefore, an inherent dichotomy in a foreigner trying to tell the story, no matter how vital, of a land not his own.

As for the title, it is perhaps an ironic device (the blurb explains that the five American expats 'harbour the vague suspicion that their couterparts in Prague have it better'). Perhaps naming the novel outside its setting represents the cultures that have been imposed - forcefully through war or unwittingly through the embrace of capitalism - upon these small, confused eastern European countries. A simple name is not enough of an identity in the face of such change. However, as when one of the characters questions a Serb as to why he finds it so important to insist he's not Yugoslavian, since 'they're all the same', it is a device that belies its own effectiveness by what it denies: the importance and weight of these countries' centuries of history.


  1. Mmmm Hungarian comfort food! The name Zorka is the Hungarian word for Sophie, so you probably have the genuine article there.

  2. Thanks Sticky! I did a bit of googling before I wrote up the article, hoping to find some more info on the owners and not wanting to make assumptions based on accent. It turned up very little tho. The friend who recommended the pub said he thought it might have changed hands recently, so maybe this superb Hungarian kitchen is a new development!

  3. We were totally googling that after reading your blog, it's the next place I want to try!!

    xox Sarah

  4. Excellent! Let me know how it goes when you get there. I didn't find much about it on the net, so I think it still qualifies as something of an undiscovered treasure :)

  5. Very informative post. I liked it. Thanks for your posting.