Book review: The Acts of My Mother

Keeping espionage within the family


The Acts of My Mother by András Forgách (Scribner, £9.99)

In 2013, András Forgách received a phone call from a researcher at the secret-police archive in Budapest. He had known Forgách when they were children and when he saw the writer’s name in a file he got in touch.

The Acts of My Mother is derived from this phone call. The book combines memoir, poetry and official records, but it reads more like a beautifully written novel.

It is based on the astonishing, true-life story of András Forgách’s parents in post-war Hungary. They had come from Palestine in 1947, passionate, young idealists, and settled in Budapest where they became Stalinists and passionate, life-long anti-Zionists. More than that, they became spies.

Forgách’s father, “a funny, menacing, anxious figure”, was one of the few members of his family to survive the Holocaust. He had escaped from Hungary to Palestine. There, he met the beautiful Bruria. She had grown up in Tel Aviv, the daughter of writer Mordechai Avi-Shaul.

She and Forgách’s father married and moved to Hungary. He worked for the state, including a period in London. A series of nervous breakdowns over 20 years, brilliantly described, ends with him being institutionalised for the rest of his life.

At this point, Bruria starts to inform for the secret service. At first, it all seems rather small fry. She informs on Hungarian émigr­és who have settled in Israel. Then she starts to inform on her own family.

Despairing at her children’s wayward political beliefs, she names their more free-thinking friends and provides access to her son’s apartment, allowing her handlers to spy on one of Hungary’s best-known political dissidents, the poet György Petri.

The story is brilliantly told through a series of flashbacks, moving back and forward from the 1940s to the 1980s, and jumping from post-war Palestine to north London to Cold War Budapest, all superbly evoked.

Forgách cleverly uses footnotes to give an insight into the inhumanity of the communist secret service. The style is playful, clever, “games within games”. Later, there is a section of poems and the book concludes with over a hundred pages analysing secret-service files about his parents.

The Acts of My Mother could not be more different in style from the classic spy novels of Graham Greene or John Le Carré. Despite all the twists and turns, it is not really a thriller. It is deeply human, carefully showing how his parents got trapped and ended up living lives of quiet desperation and grim poverty, very different from the passionate idealism of their youth. “Poor Comrade Forgács,” says the concierge, “this really isn’t the fate he deserved.”

Perhaps above all, András Forgách’s book gives a fascinating insight into the cruelty and terrible human costs of post-war Communism: suicide attempts, people betraying their friends and loved ones, colleagues stabbing each other in the back; all set against a grey urban background of tenement blocks and secret-service buildings.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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