“It’s so sad. You never could grasp the simplest facts,” he said. “Life. Death. Clean water. Life isn’t a schoolroom, Irén. There aren’t any rules.”
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, is a poignant story of life in Budapest during wartime that explores how people, often unintentionally or for no clear reason, inflict suffering on those that they love.
This book was my introduction to the work of Hungarian author Magda Szabó, who is probably best known for her novel The Door, that was also translated into English by Len Rix. Now that I’ve read Katalin Street, I’m convinced that I must pick that one up as well.
The book centers on the lives of three neighbouring families that live on Katalin Street in pre-war Budapest, and, by shifting between points of view and jumping back and forth in time, the book traces the relationship dynamics between these families on the backdrop of significant periods in 20th century Hungarian history – the interwar period, the German occupation and the Communist rule.
It’s a beautiful, melancholy story that explores the different ways that different people can remember the same event or experience, given that they have constructed a different meaning or interpretation from the particular event or experience. All the central characters of Katalin Street are complex and believable people who display the inherent, and often involuntary, self-centeredness of people in interpreting past events or experiences. Behind the strong bond that exists between these characters, and the compassion that they feel for each other’s plight, there seems to always be an underlying layer of selfishness and jealousy, that poisons or, in some cases, destroys the lives of these characters. It also shows how people put up a facade that they present to the world, and choose to love the version of the specific person that they have constructed in their minds and how that idealized version often doesn’t correspond to reality.
While I had Blanka at my side I had felt complete, whole, perfect. I believed, as she did, that I had been born to be that way. Then one day I realized that I had never been either what people thought me or what I had imagined myself to be: I had believed in it only because there was someone who loved me so much that she took all my sins upon herself, even before I – had I not been a slave to convention and essentially a coward – might have been able to understand what they would be.
At its core, the novel focuses on the youngest generation of the three families – Irén and Blanka Elekes, Bálint Biró, and Henriette Held – who meet as children in the garden of the Elekes family, and shows how their relationships transform over the course of their lives and as a result of the hardships that are brought upon them by the turmoil and major political changes in the country.
I was once again standing at the window looking out into the garden. Now of course I understand the significance of that instant, though I had no sense of it at the time. We always realize too late the importance of drawing out the moment while you can, while it is still possible. I didn’t. I didn’t savor it or hold on to it. I was in too much of a hurry.
This was such an emotional roller coaster, as I found myself sympathizing with one of the characters and then, not long after, starting to passionately dislike him or her. Katalin Street is one of those books that the more I think back on it, the more I’m impressed by how many themes Magda Szabó managed to pack into this relatively short and deceptively simple novel. It’s a very moving, in-depth character study and a haunting examination of the long-lasting effects of trauma that I would encourage everyone to read.