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Trapped in their traumas: On Katalin Street by Magda Szabó

By Nick Holdstock.

Review of Katalin Street by Magda Szabo

Magda Szabó, Katalin Street, translated by Len Rix (NYRB Classics, 2017)

Reading the short, melancholy Katalin Street made me remember the time when machine-gun wielding Yugoslav soldiers removed me from a train in the middle of the night. It also made me recall being robbed by two men in the shadows of Tahrir Square in Cairo, how close they held a knife to my face as I lay trembling on the ground. I wouldn’t say these were defining moments in my life, but they certainly cast a long shadow. I cannot walk down any street at night without being startled by the sound of footsteps approaching behind me, not even the quiet, familiar dead end street I live on. The persistence of trauma is the dominant theme of Katalin Street, Magda Szabó’s 1969 novel, now available in a new translation by Len Rix. It shows the way in which the lives of the inhabitants of three adjacent Budapest households in the 1930s and 1940s are badly warped by the death of one of the children during the Second World War, so much so that many of them seem to “die long before their real death”.

Though Szabó, who died in 2007, had a long, distinguished career in Hungary, her work only began to reach a wide readership in English after Rix’s translation of her novel, The Door, appeared in 2005. The Door is a confessional story about a painful, yet intensely close relationship between a writer and Emerence, the elderly woman who works as her cleaner. At times the novel verges on the supernatural: Emerence seems able to control the writer’s dog even when she is absent. Both The Door and Iza’s Ballad (another recently translated novel by Szabó) feature a merciless dissection of their main characters’ neuroses and motivations, but do allow them a measure of happiness. They’re also fairly straightforward in formal terms: The Door uses a single first person perspective, while Iza’s Ballad uses a free indirect voice.

It’s not difficult to see why Katalin Street has had to wait longer to appear in English from a major publisher. The book is far more formally challenging, employing a point of view that shifts between several unlabelled first person narrators and third person narration. In itself this wouldn’t necessarily be problematic – eventually you work out who’s talking – but the book’s opening short section, entitled ‘Places’, offers a somewhat rushed procession of characters whose identities and relations are unclear apart from cryptic references to events in their shared past as residents of Katalin Street. We are told that they sit together compulsively evoking this past, which “brings them no release, like desire aroused but not followed by a full embrace”. Though this is probably supposed to be mysterious, it is just confusing; to cap it all a ghost called Henriette turns up at the end of the chapter.

This is followed by two other sections set in the same present. The first introduces Blanka, a child-like former resident of Katalin Street, now living in Greece, who also futilely attempts to recreate the past, much to the baffled amusement of her adoptive family. She indiscriminately adopts stray dogs and cats and calls all of them ‘Henriette’, the name of her Jewish neighbour in Katalin Street. The last part of ‘Places’ is where the book both comes alive and starts to coalesce. It shows the afterlife of Henriette, who we are told “visited her old home regularly, and it made a lot of people envious. Not everyone was able to do this.” In this afterlife Henriette’s parents are present, but don’t act like her parents all the time. Most of the time they act childishly, and live separately with their own parents. This notion of role swapping between children and parents is a recurring feature of Szabó’s work, and as in Katalin Street, the implication is that the self is a fluid entity that has to be renegotiated throughout our lives. Henriette also has the advantage over the living that she can actually recreate their old homes on Katalin Street, with the result that when she returns to the “real” one, 28 years after her death (the present of the novel), it has changed so much from the one she remembers that it feels less real than the one she has created.

Another, perhaps more substantial reason why publishers may have hesitated is that unlike The Door and Iza’s Ballad, which take time to hatch their dark conclusions, Katalin Street presents its verdicts fully formed and does little to soften them. On the first page of the novel we are informed that what is “most frightening of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement, or tranquillity. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.” Arguably this Kundera-like pronouncement (I do not mean this as a compliment) does give the reader fair warning of what to expect: the novel’s job is thus to put flesh on these bones. It does so by presenting a series of episodes in the lives of the Katalin Street residents between 1934 and 1968, with the central incident being the death of Henriette in 1944. Covering so much time in just over 150 pages means that this is inevitably a fragmented history, which Szabó justifies by claiming that for her characters “only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered”. While this may be the case, it doesn’t leave much room for providing the social and political context that would explain some of the major incidents in the novel (such as why the residents had to leave Katalin Street after the war).

This glancing entry into the residents lives also means that some of the characters, especially the adults, are too thinly sketched, but overall the portrait of the three households is far from facile. Rather than showing us three happy households destroyed by war, what we’re offered are grim or ineffectual parents, and the jealousies, infatuations, and resentments of the children. There’s a telling moment when the headmaster rewards his daughter Irén with a gold card for good conduct. Instead of taking this as praise, she sees it as a sign of neglect; in her opinion she deserved to get such a reward every day. When Henriette is shot and killed by a soldier while trying to sneak into her house at night (which has been looted by the Nazis) it is clear that her death is the indirect result of the antipathies and feuds between the children.

The post-war years are no better for the former residents of Katalin Street. Their guilt and sorrow over the death of Henriette and her parents (who were sent to the concentration camps) are further compounded by the stresses of life under the Communist regime, and the rivalry between Irén and her sister Blanka for the affections of Bálint, who grew up next door to them. Though he and Irén were childhood sweethearts, in adulthood they are unable to connect with each other. They, like the rest of their families, are stuck in a “concentrated unreality” in which they are “all struggling and drowning”. Irén ends up marrying another man, Pali, though this is something we are casually told about rather than shown: their whole courtship, marriage and pregnancy is barely mentioned. While this is consistent with Irén’s talk of Pali as a perpetual outsider (presumably because he doesn’t share their traumatic history), it nonetheless strains credibility when she immediately leaves him simply because Bálint tells her to. It’s not that this is impossible – just that, in this novel, as in The Door, many of Szabó’s characters exhibit the slightly hysterical, baffling psychology of someone in a horror film. The end of the novel essentially closes the loop on its characters, who are just as trapped in their traumas as they were at the start of the novel. To emphasise this there is a rather heavy-handed scene involving Irén in a museum where she is surrounded by statues, to which the reader’s attention is repeatedly drawn.

Even the dead are denied the possibility of catharsis. When Henriette does visit the real world, people who knew her can see her, and remark on her resemblance to someone they knew, but otherwise ignore her. It’s hard to think of a much more hellish fate for the dead than Szabo’s notion that the “dead are not dead but continue living indestructibly in this world, in one form or another”.


Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock is the author of a novel, The Casualties, and the nonfiction books Chasing the Chinese Dream andChina’s Forgotten People. His work has appeared in n+1, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017.