Longing for the unreachable past

Katalin_StreetMagda Szabó’s novel Katalin Street was originally published in 1969. It is now available in a new translation from the New York Review Books Classics, the awesome series that publishes “an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times,” as described on their website. Last year, The New York Times named Szabó’s previous novel published by NYRB Classics, The Door, among the 10 best books of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they select Katalin Street for their 2017 list.

This impassioned narrative follows three families who live side by side on the eponymous Katalin Street in 1934 Budapest. One family is the Major and his son Bálint; another is the Jewish dentist Mr. Held, his wife and their daughter, Henriette; and the third family is the headmaster Mr. Elekes, his wife and their daughters, Irén and Blanka. The children are inseparable, knitted together by the childhood theater they perform for their parents and the games they play together. The three girls each fall in young love with Bálint, but Irén is the one who eventually wins him. Their engagement party is arranged, except now it is 1944, and the country is at war. Hours before the party begins, Mr. and Mrs. Held, Henriette’s parents, are deported.

Their disappearance into unfathomable darkness begins the slow tearing apart of the entwined families’ lives, as the Major and the Elekes try to keep Henriette hidden. A series of coincidences results in a German soldier killing Henriette, thus further destroying life on Katalin Street, locking away forever their idyllic time together into an unreachable past. The ones who survive the war —  Mr. and Mrs. Elekes, their daughters Irén and Blanka, and the Major’s son, Bálint — are incapacitated by their losses and an unshakable nostalgia. The communist government transforms the family homes on Katalin Street into social housing and forces the Elekes family to move into a cramped apartment across the river.

Author Magda Szabó evokes her characters’ deep yearning for the past with mesmerizing effect and in turn creates an urgency to understand them. Their emotional longing is gut-wrenching. Bálint and Irén marry as adults in an effort to put to sleep their burdening sadness, but they fail to recapture their young love. Too much has happened — Bálint is forever changed by his years as a prisoner of war, and Irén, a successful school teacher, exists by dutiful, safe precision. Meanwhile, Blanka lives faraway in Greece with her husband’s family. She is well taken care of and loved, but she, too, is incapacitated by the yearning for Katalin Street before the war and exhibits concerning instability.

Of the four children who played together on Katalin Street, the most intriguing is Henriette. Even though she’s killed during the war, she boldly continues to appear in the story after the war as an otherworldly spirit. She symbolizes the state of limbo between past and present — on the one hand, existing in an imagined, preserved Katalin Street as it was when she was a child with her friends; and on the other hand, visiting Blanka and Bálint in the present in an attempt to touch them once again. At the end of the book, Henriette’s spirit visits new residents moving into houses on Katalin Street in 1968. The modern families are strangely similar to those from 1934, and the similarity is a divine kind of blessing that returns happiness to Katalin Street.

Of note: Magda Szabó is listed in the PBS Newshour article “7 overlooked women writers you should be reading now.” She lived October 5, 1917 to November 15, 2007. According to several sources, including an obit in The Guardian, she died in her favorite armchair with an open book on her lap.

A version of this review ran on WOSU 89.7 FM NPR News.