Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

Cover imageI’ve yet to read The Door, Madga Szabó’s best known novel, and I made the mistake of reading Iza’s Ballad on holiday, failing to give it the quiet attention it needed. Nothing to distract me from Katalin Street, enjoyable or otherwise. First published in 1969, it explores the aftermath of the Second World War through three families, neighbours on the eponymous street with its lovely views of the Danube.

Henriette Held arrives on Katalin Street in 1934 when she’s six years old. There are two strange girls in what’s to be her bedroom and a slovenly woman standing in the hall with her mother. Later she joins the girls and a boy in the garden. This is Henriette’s introduction to Irén, Blanka and Bálint, her new neighbours. The beautifully behaved Irén couldn’t be more different from her sister Blanka, always in trouble yet much-loved, while Bálint is the quiet centre of their small group. Henriette’s father is Jewish, the holder of a gold medal for bravery won in the Great War which protects him until the German occupation in 1944 when he and her mother disappear on what should have been a day of joy, the day of Irén and Bálint’s engagement. Bálint’s father does all he can to protect Henriette but a horrible coincidence of circumstances results in her murder. When the war is over, the city finds itself under a different occupation. Irén becomes a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps; Bálint becomes a doctor working in the same hospital where Blanka finds work as an administrator but he’s returned from the war a changed man and is later imprisoned. By 1968, Katalin Street has long since been converted into social housing but still maintains its lure.

Szabó’s novel begins with a section anchoring it in Katalin Street before briefly visiting an unnamed island where Blanka lives with her husband and his family. From there, she arranges her narrative around a succession of significant dates, telling her characters’ stories from different perspectives. I found it a little difficult to get into at first but once the more linear narrative took off the story flows easily. Henriette continues to appear after her death, regularly visiting Katalin Street and its scattered denizens, dismayed at the changes time and events have wrought in them. It’s a technique that could easily have backfired but Szabó handles it beautifully, even injecting a little humour as Henriette’s parents regress horribly when they encounter their own parents in the afterlife. A quiet aching melancholy runs through this beautiful expressed novel, a yearning for a lost world, and its ending is heart-wrenching. Given that it was published in 1969 when Hungary was still a communist country, I wondered how that had effected Szabó’s writing of it: how much of what she wanted to say was explicit, how much was left to the reader to infer.

18 thoughts on “Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Juliana. I’m looking forward to read The Door. This is a lovely novel and all the more interesting for me having been to Budapest eighteen months ago. She’s a fine writer.

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    I read this last year, having already read The Door and Iza’s Ballad. I thought it was excellent, such a strong sense of place, and I enjoyed the way the narrative moved back and forth in time. Szabó manages the technique of having a character speak from beyond the grave extremely well. As you say it could have backfired.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’ve read books in the past where it’s done just that but it’s handled so skilfully here and with such confidence. Apparently there’s a translation of another novel in the works for next year.

      Reply
  2. JacquiWine

    Lovely review, Susan. I recall Ali’s admiration for this novel last year, so it’s reassuring to hear that you rate it very highly too. The sense of yearning for a vanished world definitely appeals – I love that feeling of poignancy in a novel. One for the wishlist, I think.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thank you, Jacqui. I think you’d enjoy this one. It’s a little fragmentary to begin with but once the narrative gets into its stride it draws you in beautifully.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I thought she handled it beautifully and I usually avoid that kind of thing. I think the light touch of humour, in what is understandably a melancholy book, helped it work. I hope you enjoy it.

      Reply

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