Radio Underground

Written by Alison Littman
Review by Sarah Johnson

Based on actual Cold War letters, Littman’s fast-moving debut is infused with a simmering tension reflecting its setting: Budapest, Hungary, on the brink of revolution in 1956, and nine years later, when the secret police patrol the streets and any hints of dissidence are crushed. In the earlier timeline, Eszter Turján, wife of a loyal communist and mother of a teenage daughter, operates an underground newspaper, Realitás, and sneaks out at night to work with other freedom fighters. “These kids, too young to know failure, didn’t understand their passion was no match for a government trained in killing hope,” she states plainly, and truthfully, about the student demonstrators demanding freedom. Even so, she’s determined to fan the flames of revolution to give the students a fighting chance, undertaking a drastic act involving Radio Free Europe that will shift history’s path.

In alternating segments set in 1965, Dora Turján reads people’s mail as a censor for the communist government. Eszter had neglected her daughter in favor of her political activities, and even after Eszter was carted away and imprisoned, Dora remains resentful. Littman succeeds in depicting the uneasy nuances of their mother-daughter relationship even though they rarely appear in the same scene. By intercepting odd letters in broken English from “Mike,” who writes to a DJ for Radio Free Europe and describes events from his life, Dora reads about the young man’s quest to escape Hungary. Through him, Dora obtains knowledge that leads back to her mother’s fate and forces her into a profound decision. Some language feels too American (Eszter is often referred to as Dora’s “mom”), but the oppressive atmosphere is deftly handled through many affecting scenes, including one with a group of young people secretly gathered around a small radio and listening to Western music, dancing together, and feeling temporarily fearless.