Friday, 17 August 2018

Book Review: The Door by Szabó Magda’s one of the greatest possible achievements of a writer – at least in my opinion – to be able to write fiction that leaves the reader wondering from beginning to end whether the story told is true or just invented and whether the protagonist is reasonably faithful portrait of a live model or most succeeded fruit of a vivid imagination. This was the effect that the novel The Door by Szabó Magda had on me. In it a narrator, who obviously bears striking resemblance with the Hungarian author herself, patches together bits and pieces of information that her much adored, but always-furtive domestic help granted her in over twenty years about the life before she worked for her. The result is a rough biography of an amiable stranger who went through all the crucial periods of twentieth-century Hungarian history and learnt to literally keep locked the door to her private life.

Szabó Magda was born in Debrecén, Hungary, in October 1917. After graduation in Latin and Hungarian from the University of Debrecén, she worked as a teacher and after World War II in the Ministry of Religion and Education for a few years. In the late 1940s, she made her literary debut with two much praised poetry collections titled Bárány (1947; tr. Lamb) and Vissza az emberig (1949; tr. Return to Man), but then fell into disgrace with the Communist regime. Between 1949 and 1956, she was prohibited to publish and had to earn her living as a primary teacher. Only after this difficult period, in 1958, her first novel Freskó (Fresco) could go in print and it was an immedate success with readers. Along with short stories, plays, non-fiction, and some juvenile literature followed important novels like Ókút (1970; tr. The Ancient Well), Abigél (1970; tr. Abigail), and Régimódi történet (1971; tr. An Old-Fashioned Tale). Most notable among her novels available in English translation are The Fawn (Az oz: 1958), Night of the Pig-Killing (Disznótor: 1960), Iza’s Ballad (Pilátus: 1963), Katalin Street (Katalin utca: 1969), and The Door (Az ajtó: 1987). Szabó Magda died in Debrecén, Hungary, in November 2007.

Central piece of the narrating writer’s recurring nightmares is The Door that she can’t open when the ambulance is already waiting outside. She is aware that it stands for her relations with her late domestic help Emerence, an old and wilful woman who worked for her for over twenty years and until the end brusquely rejected every attempt to get to know her better and make friends in the usual sense. Just after she and her husband had moved to a bigger apartment, a former classmate recommended to her Emerence who was caretaker of an old villa in the neighbourhood.
“[…] She was washing a mountain of laundry with the most antiquated equipment, boiling bedlinen in a cauldron over a naked flame, in the already agonising heat, and lifting the sheets out with an immense wooden spoon. Fire glowed all around her. She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. […]”
The writer asks Emerence to work for her and after thinking the offer over for a few days, she accepts. The old woman turns out to be an as accomplished as hard-working domestic help, but she is also a capricious one who can get pretty rough and forbidding when upset. Moreover, she treats people like children needing to be taught a lesson or rewarded sometimes and thus baffles, even intimidates her employer at first. Emerence also doesn’t really open up to anybody and strictly refuses entry to her flat even to nephew and friends entertaining them on the porch instead.
“[…] She gave none of us the full picture of herself. Once among the dead, she must have enjoyed a quiet smile at our expense as we struggled to work out the full story, as each of us tried to match his own allotted pieces of information with those granted to others. At least three vital facts went with her to the grave, and it must have been a source of satisfaction to her to look back and see that we still didn’t have a full account of her actions, and never would.”
Relations between the writer and Emerence deepen, when she and her husband find an abandoned puppy one Christmas Eve and take it home. It’s Emerence who gives the dog a name and soon she becomes all but his formal owner. As the years pass, mutual respect and finally love grow, but the old woman often has a strange way of showing her affection. Once, during a general clearance, she picks household junk from the street and turns some of it into presents for her – all but delighted – employers. One day, however, she unexpectedly allows the writer into her Forbidden City

The unnamed, first-person narrator of The Door is a writer so clearly modelled after the author herself that it gives the novel a strong autobiographical touch. Its style, too, reminds of a memoir although its actual protagonist is the narrator’s domestic help Emerence. If the latter owes her outlines to a real person or if she has been freely moulded as the narrator’s complete opposite is uncertain. At any rate, Emerence’s eccentric nature and the mystery surrounding her drive a plot that otherwise offers little more than plain everyday life. Through her not strictly chronological memories the narrator reveals random pieces of a biographical puzzle that only towards the end and against the backdrop of Hungarian history in the twentieth century begin to give an incomplete picture. Besides, there can be no doubt that the always-locked door to Emerence’s flat is symbolic for how circumstances – notably life in a totalitarian regime – force people to separate their public and private personae developing a secretive behaviour and to protect a vulnerable, maybe already much wounded soul growing a rough shell. Not speaking Hungarian, I read the novel’s award-winning English translation by Len Rix that made it a pleasant and truly engaging experience.

All things considered, I really enjoyed reading The Door by Szabó Magda although much of the novel’s meaning beyond its obvious factual and psychological dimensions certainly escaped me. My knowledge of Hungarian history is too rudimentary to allow me to work out the symbolism without further research. Nonetheless, I liked it a lot, also for the nice change of finding portrayed a woman who earns her livelihood doing other people’s household chores... and that with pride rather than out of necessity. In a way Emerence reminded me of the concierge in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (»»» read my review) because, however different the two women, they both take great care to keep secret their private spheres, be it the mind of an intellectual, be it a flat almost crammed with cats. I happily recommend this little-known literary gem from behind the Iron Curtain before it was lifted.

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