Tag Archives: Hungarian fiction in translation

Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

Cover imageI’ve yet to read Magda Szabó’s The Door despite having enjoyed both Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is very different from either of those, not least in its length, but it comes billed as the most popular of her novels in her native Hungary. Set in a girls’ boarding school, it’s about Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation.

Fifteen-year-old Gina has a head full of glamour and romance, spending much of her time with her frivolous aunt, cultivating her crush on a lieutenant. Inexplicably, her beloved father has decided to send her to a strict Protestant boarding school, squatting on the edges of a town that resents it. At first, Gina enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules. When she carelessly lets slip one of their more arcane rituals, Gina feels the full force of her schoolmates’ fury. Desperate to escape, she devises a plan which ends in failure. Perhaps she should leave a note in Abigail’s pitcher, another ritual she’s sneeringly dismissed, but which has resulted in surprising results for other girls. When her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality. He brings news which chimes more with the dissident placards left around the town proclaiming the war a disaster than the school’s resolute patriotism, telling her that the secrecy of her whereabouts is paramount to her safety. Gina realises she must make the best of things, finding her way back into the affections of her schoolmates and devising entertainments that frequently land her in trouble. Life outside the walls of school becomes more dangerous as the Germans set their sights on occupying Hungary. Things come to a head when Gina’s cover is blown but Abigail comes to the rescue.

According to its press release, Abigail is the most celebrated of Szabó’s novels in her homeland – it’s even been adapted into a rock opera, still performed in Budapest, apparently, which is slightly mind-boggling. It’s told from Gina’s perspective, many years after the tumultuous six months in which she learnt that appearances can be deceptive. Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly – the spitefulness of adolescent young girls, bored and forced into piety, or the semblance of it, is painfully believable. Their tiny, tightly controlled world is in stark contrast to the bloody drama unfolding in their country, most evocatively demonstrated as the girls watch a train full of soldiers, bound for the front. Szabó tells her story well, pulling its thread of tension taut as Gina’s danger becomes apparent and neatly tying up loose ends in its final chapter. Not my favourite of her novels, but certainly well worth reading.

Maclehose Press: London 2020 9780857058485 448 pages Paperback

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.