Katalin Street by Magda Szabo | Book Review

Katalin Street by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabo was originally published in 1969. This story explores the issues of historic trauma, living with guilt, heavy sorrow, grief wrapped up in solitude and existing in a constant survival mode. This novel also tackles the irreversibility of our actions, emotions and feelings. Life in the novel is presented as one with no illusions for better future. Katalin Street is a tale of human existence conditioned by the history, its aftermath and how one’s moral judgments, systems of values and memories change with the passage of time. Reflections on the meaning of home and on the impact that the given place can have on one’s life also constitute an important part of this novel’s narrative.

Speaking of the narrative, it is divergent, and not linear which resembles different snapshots of life recorded in one’s memory, not always detailed or perfectly accurate.

“(…) No one has told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. (…) Only the awareness of universal disintegration. (…) Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop to individual scenes. (…) The difference between the living and the dead is merely qualitative (…). They had learned that in everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.”

The novel follows the interlinking fates of three families in Budapest living in Katalin Street during pre-WWII and during the WWII: the Temeses, the Elekeses, and the Helds who were Jewish.

Magda Szabo takes us on a journey through different times between 1934 and 1968 related to the major events in the history of Hungary throughout the 20th century: pre-war Hungary, the Nazi German occupation and the communist authoritarian dictatorship imposed after the war. Those who survived the war live their days with various degrees and sources of grief, deeply traumatised by the past as well as the present-day. They are exhausted by growing old, trauma of the past and being“haunted by the sense of being somewhere else”.

The central to the story of these three families is the murder of a Jewish young woman, Henriette Held during Nazi German occupation following the deoportation of her parents. Throughout the book we become acquainted with Henriette’s childhood companions: Irene, her sister Blanka and Balint who exist in a constant mode of guilt, grief, disillusionment. Moral failings of Irene, Balint and Blanka who seem to be somehow oblivious and indifferent to the fate of the Jewish population under the German occupation even though they have close relationships with the Held family. They prefer to be oblivious to the current reality. There are also family secrets, unsaid feelings and emotions that slowly unravel as the novel progresses.

Balint, a central male figure in the novel, is an integral part of the emotional landscape through which three main female protagonists: Henriette, Irene and Blanka navigate their lives.

In the aftermath of the war we meet people being barely conscious of the place they exist in. Those who survived like Irene, Balint and Blanka “ache with longing for the dead”. They exist in the labyrinth of the past memories from which they are desperately trying to flee to find their way back home to Katalin street, their place of hope and promise. The survivors are held together only by the memories of Katalin street, the place existing only in the past tense, the place of no return.

We observe complex human relationships and tortured connections including romantic relationships based on sharing common experience and deeply affected by the impact of war and a series of political and social events that followed. Szabo showed how past events have a huge impact on the fate of ordinary people, their decisions and opportunities in life.

The portrayal of the ordinary existence within the Hungarian society marked by the system of mistrust and denunciation, varied attitudes toward the Jewish population, with various perception of the obedience to authority is nuanced and poses more questions than answers. When it comes to the obedience, some Hungarians saw it as a duty to comply with the laws no matter how unethical. We learn about the impact of the cruel social rehousing scheme under the communist dictatorship. Throughout the novel the constant juxtaposition of the new life on the Rakoczi street of those who survived the war with the life on the Katalin street during the pre-war times is omnipresent.

Those who survived the war are permanently exhausted living in fear of being persecuted because of their class origin and unable to conjure the faces of those who are gone. Life they lead is composed of silences, secrets and continuous nostalgia for the past.

One of those who survived the war is Blanka. She left Hungary for Greece, married and leads a new life far away from the past but it does not prevent her from being stuck in the labyrinth of memories. The change of place does not stop her memories from haunting her. Even with the new passport and living in the West Blanka is more of a prisoner to the past than any other character in the novel. She is a stranger, a suffering outsider and becomes submissive in order to be accepted in her new homeland.

After the war Henriette roams streets of Budapest as a ghost and, similarly to Blanka, Irene and Balint, she is also trapped in the labyrinth of her own trauma, shame and silence.

All the characters lead a ghost life in a real and metaphorical sense. The past is an open unhealed wound – the symbol of historic trauma which transcends the times and places. Henriette, Irene, Blanka and Balint symbolise the anguish, heavy sorrow and life with constant grief of people in Eastern Europe during the 20th century.

I highly recommend this book.

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