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Magda Szabó: Katalin utca (Katalin Street)

This book was first translated into English by Agnes Farkas Smith and published by a company called Kids4Kids (the book is definitely not a children’s book). I have not seen a copy of this translation, though it is still available second-hand from the usual sources. The one under review is a new translation by Len Rix (who previously translated Szabó’s Az ajtó (The Door)), published in 2017 by New York Review Books.

As the title tells us, the story is about Katalin Street and, specifically, about three families who lived there. They lived there before World War II, in three adjoining houses. The three families are the Helds: mother, father and daughter, Henriette and their maid, Margaret; the Birós: the Major, his son, Bálint and their housekeeper, Mrs. Temes (the Major’s wife had already died); and the Elekes, mother, father and two daughters, Irén and Blanka, and the maid, Rosa. While the parents get on well enough, it is the four children who particularly get on well, playing together and going to each others’ houses between the fences. The three girls are all in love with Bálint in their own ways.

The story actually starts in the period after the War. The families no longer live in Katalin Street, but in new flats. Indeed, all the survivors seem to be living together, with one exception. The Helds and the Major are dead. Bálint and Irén are married but, apparently, not very happily. Mr. Elekes is blind. Mrs Elekes still fusses about in the same way as she always did. None of them is content with their lives, missing Katalin Street, not just the houses (though they miss those as well) but the community that the three families had. The one exception is Blanka, who has defected and lives on a very hot Greek island with her Greek husband. She is not particularly happy either, as she hates the hot weather, so much so that at times she wanders around the house half-naked, to the horror of her husband and mother-in-law. She does, however, speak Greek. There is, perhaps, another exception and that is Henriette. Though long since dead, she appears as a ghost and not only is able to wander back and forth to the new flat and Katalin Street but even to Blanka’s Greek island. She is seen by several of the other characters and, indeed, they talk to her. She also sees the other dead characters. They had discovered too that the difference between the living and the dead is merely qualitative; that it doesn’t count for much is the comment for the whole family.

Those still alive and living in the flat really do not like the flat and really do not like their lives. They continually hark back to Katalin Street and the life they used to have. This tyranny of somewhere else was a cruel one. The only one who seems vaguely content is Kinga, Irén’s daughter with her first husband, Pali, who, of course, did not know Katalin Street. But even Kinga is surprised when she hears what a wonderful person her mother was in the old days, not at all like the somewhat grumpy woman she knows and has always known. Irén and her mother work. Bálint nominally has a job (as a doctor) but he has never fulfilled the promise he had as a young man and spends much of his time daydreaming about the past. His marriage is not happy. He had married her to no purpose.. Yet, despite this, they cannot life without another. When Pali was around, the rest of the family were party to a secret from which he was forever excluded. Pali was, by all accounts, a good, decent man but he had not lived in Katalin Street. They shared some private knowledge that he didn’t — he and little Kinga.

We follow the family when they were younger, the children in particular. Blanka was the flighty one, no good at school (her father was headmaster of the school and a very good one), often bursting into tears, often breaking things. Henriette was the precious one, unable to play their rough games (so they had to play less rough games). Irén was serious, hard-working, intelligent, organised. Mrs Elekes was slovenly, badly dressed and untidy. Despite the memories, there were unhappy periods. Mr. and Mrs. Elekes argued all the time. Blanka broke things. Mr. Elekes spent her time making cushions. But the three girl were in love with Bálint and all got on well.

But then the war came and everything changed. We follow the story more or less chronologically. The Helds were Jewish and the parents were arrested and never seen again. Their house was commandeered by the authorities to be used as a hospital. Henriette was hidden by the Birós. The Major went off to fight for the Fascist Hungarian army. Bálint worked as a doctor, with Blanka working in the same hospital, sweet but disorganised as ever. Bálint and Henriette had fallen in love but then it was Irén, who had always been determined to get her man, who became engaged to Bálint. However, Bálint was taken prisoner towards the end of the war and did not come back for a long time. By this time, his father was dead and the house taken by the authorities. He lived with the Elekes (still in Katalin Street) for three years but made no move to marry Irén and then moved out and was transferred from the hospital to a rural area for bad behaviour, part of which involved multiple sexual affairs. They did not see him again till much later, by which time Irén had married Pali.

For many of us, life changes and we more or less adapt to new circumstances, new relationships, new places. These three families did not. That the ghost of Henriette remained stuck in the past is perhaps not surprising. However, none of the others really adapted. Although she managed to flee Communist Hungary and seemed not too unhappy about, Blanka still thinks a lot about Katalin Street. Part of it is, of course, the transition from pre-war Hungary to the Communist system. However, much of it is that they cannot somehow let go of their seemingly happy life in Katalin Street. The death of the Helds, particularly the tragic death of Henriette, and of the Major clearly had a huge influence on them, as did Bálint’s failure to determine whom he loved and how he fit into the world, no doubt exacerbated by his time in prison at the end of and after war. The Elekes parents and Mrs. Temes age but not happily or well while Irén and Blanka never seem to adapt fully to life post-Katalin Street. Irén had always wanted Bálint but the Bálint she married and the Bálint she grew up with are two very different people and the new one is not a good husband.

This is certainly a highly imaginative book and Szabó tells an excellent story. The various characters are skilfully portrayed and all are different, with their own foibles and strengths. Not having seen the earlier translation, I cannot tell if this is an improvement but this one certainty reads very well.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Szépirodalmi kiadó
First English translation 2005 by Kids4Kids
Translated by Len Rix