Andrew Ervin's Extraordinary Renditions is a book in the form of three novellas. These novellas - each one narrated in the third person and focused on three distinctly different characters - are all interlinked. These links appear loosely in shared characters, but mainly in the location, specifically the Hungarian city of Budapest.
The first of the three novellas, ‘14 Bagatelles’, tells the story of the elderly classical composer LajosHarkályi, who has returned to Hungary to debut his final opera composition, The Golden Lotus.
What makes this visit to Budapest interesting for Harkályi is that it is his first return to Hungary since his escape from the concentration camps he endured as a child. It was in the infamous Czech concentration camp Terezín that he had his first musical experiences, where he learned to play music on a too-small violin that had been smuggled in. But Harkályi, after having fled Europe to make a life in Philadelphia, decides to return to Hungary to premiere his composition, and it is there that his emotions catch up with him.
He remained seated on the bed, holding back the memories he resisted all these years and had some reason to fear. He surrendered and accepted the standing invitation of the Hungarian government. It was time to address the dybbuks he had avoided for so long; so he returned to the Hungarian soil to seek forgiveness, as he had once sought Kodály’s. He came seeking silence. The wrinkled, spotty hands covering his face became damp.
The second novella, ‘Brooking The Devil’ is of a markedly faster pace than ‘14 Bagatelles’. In this story we follow the young African American Private First Class Jonathan Gibson - known better by his peers as Brutus. Brutus grew up in Philadelphia, and only enlisted in the Army because of the enticement of funding for school and the promise that, unlike nearly any other occupation, race was immaterial. This, he learned only after enlisting, was not true.
Brutus had joined the Army in the first place because he had heard that it was easier for a black man to excel in the military than in any other profession. Without a college degree, he couldn't find decent work back in Philly, so he had enlisted. He did his research. The military was the first American institution to get completely desegregated, and it was just about the only occupation where someone could advance on the basis of ability, regardless of race. But that was before he had read Fanon and Captain Blackman. Of course things didn't pan out the way the government had promised. Racism ran uncontested in the military just like everywhere else. Brutus had been passed over for a promotion a bunch of times while white and even Latino soldiers of lesser talent moved past him. He came to realize that the army was just the Man's personal bodyguard, obligated to take a bullet so privileged college kids could continue to make money working at their daddies' offices and car dealerships.
The third novella, ‘The Empty Chairs’, centers on Melanie Scholes and her girlfriend Nanette. Melanie is a concert violinist that aspires to rise through the ranks of her profession as a performer, and Nanette is a photojournalist who dreams of capturing a world-changing image on camera. As Natalie prepares for her performance in Harkályi's Golden Lotus, she struggles with her failing relationship with Nanette. Tensions between them build in a chicken/egg way, growing apart because they have grown apart. The dramas of their relationship are exacerbated by each their own preoccupying professions. Melanie, much like Brutus, is struggling with the politics of her occupation. As an American in a foreign orchestra, she has been repeatedly passed over, despite her exceptional talent, while Hungarian musicians of similar or less ability are promoted to better orchestras.
Harkályi's opera presented few real challenges, but the score did require half of the violinists, including Melanie, to tune their instruments a quarter tone lower. The resulting dissonance could be startling both for an uninitiated audience and for those in the orchestra. Keeping up required a lot more concentration than did their usual repertoire. She suspected that this stylistic device derived subconsciously from his time at Terezín. During the formative stages of his development as a composer, he must have grown accustomed to the tones of the rickety instruments and so he based much of his subsequent work on some uniquely personal timbral system emanating from his inner ear.
Extraordinary Renditions is a trio of stories that speak as one. It is the story of finding reality in the face of disenchantment. It is the story of displacement in the everyday sense, in the way that people can live their lives contentedly, but then somehow find themselves doubting. They come to a point where they question what it is that they really want and whether the risk of changing would even be worth the subtle or uncertain results, knowing all too well that, since they have to ask, they already know. The awareness of the question is an answer unto itself.