“ When two people with different backgrounds marry, which culture predominates and how does that decision affect the marriage? Such are the questions tackled by Montreal writer Linda Leith in her absorbing memoir, an unblinking glimpse at her marriage to a Hungarian refugee and its influence on the trajectory of her life.
An academic and former editor, Leith is the author of six books, some of which focus on displacement. Her 1993 debut novel, Birds of Passage, tells about a man writing his first novel amid the political upheaval in Hungary. Published in 2007, The Desert Lake is the tale of a female journalist who travels to China without her lover. Marrying Hungary, published by a Winnipeg small press, begins in Belfast, where she was born in 1949 to parents who were Northern Irish communists.
Even as a young child, Leith sensed that her family was different. Her beautiful mother, Nan, was nurturing for the most part, but her father, Desmond, a medical doctor, ruled the family with “a reign of terror.” When communism fell into disfavour in the 1950s, her parents reinvented themselves. Desmond’s solution was to keep relocating the family, first to London, Basel, then London again and finally to Montreal. During this period, he succumbed to alcoholism, manic depression and several nervous breakdowns. No great surprise that Leith’s upbringing was hellish. Some aspects are eerily reminiscent of George Fetherling’s boyhood in his memoir Travels by Night.
At 18, she met Andy Gollner, a Hungarian refugee. Their families couldn’t have been more different; while her parents were embracing communism, his parents were running away from it. Attracted by his exotic background, Leith married Andy in 1974. However, it soon became apparent that he was from a different world, one that she later experienced first-hand during the two years they spent in Budapest in the early ’90s. Leith struggled valiantly to fit in, but experienced much frustration in her efforts. Andy’s desire to remain in Hungary ultimately ended their marriage.
Written in candid, eloquent prose, the narrative is divided into five separate parts: childhood, the first years of their relationship, married life, divorce and new beginnings. One of the most interesting sections describes Leith’s experiences as a foreigner in Budapest; for example, her attempts to find a relative’s apartment and her ambivalent feelings about the culture.”I wanted to belong, and I was sure that if I just tried hard enough and worked at it, I would manage to cross the divide between me and Hungary,” she writes. “And still I found the country mystifying, the people disconcerting, and the language an insuperable barrier.”
As well, she documents the immigration story of Andy’s parents. In 1956, they were among more than 37,000 that Canada accepted as refugees after the Hungarian Revolution. Her depiction of the Gollners’ early struggles in Canada is often touching and occasionally humorous.
In writing this memoir, Leith has not only chronicled her emotional journey, but she has also articulated an outsider’s point of view on the culture into which she married. Marrying Hungary is a very Canadian story. It is an important contribution that promotes cross-cultural understanding.”
—The Winnipeg Free Press