I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Life, Death, Clean Water

Life, Death, Clean Water

Alena Dvořáková
Katalin Street, by Magda Szabó, Maclehose Press, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0857058454 Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel originally published in Hungarian in 1969, is set in Budapest in the period from 1934 to 1968. It tells the story of three families – the Elekeses, the Helds and the Bírós – whose children had become close friends while living on the same street situated on the right bank of the Danube, close to the river, just below the Buda Castle. On the face of it, the narrative proceeds chronologically, starting in 1934 and subsequently jumping forward to 1944, 1952, 1956, 1961 and 1968. Each of the years marks a significant event in the history of the three neighbouring families whose lives are tightly intertwined. The nature of the foregrounded events can only be grasped by reference to large-scale history taking place in the background, such as the 1944 occupation of Hungary by Germany and the subsequent genocide of Hungarian Jews; the 1949 to 1956 period of oppressive communist rule by Mátyás Rákosi, also known as “Stalin’s best pupil”; and the 1956 Hungarian uprising violently suppressed by the Soviets. The novel’s linear chronology is, however, complicated by multilayered shifts in perspective. Every chapter offers different versions of the same event, moving from a third person omniscient narration, interspersed with some free indirect discourse tracking individual characters, to a wholly parallel first-person narrative in the voice of the novel’s central character, Irén Elekes. We first encounter Irén as a ten-year-old girl, but throughout the novel she also retells her story in retrospect as a married schoolteacher and a mother in her mid-forties. Indeed, the novel can be read as a kind of modernist female Bildungsroman, with Irén as the heroine progressing from dangerous innocence to painful experience while repeatedly “schooled” by twentieth century Central European history – with its harsh lessons in homegrown fascism, war, occupation by two foreign armies, the Holocaust, Stalinist oppression, imprisonment, internal exile and emigration. If Katalin Street is a Bildungsroman, it is one with a largely pessimistic moral: by the time Irén has learned to understand her own and her family’s predicament, her hard-earned insight strikes her as “meaningless, pointless and far too late” – it does not help her either to lighten the lives of others, or to be fully and freely herself. There is more to the novel than Irén, however. The overall perspective is doubled again by the introduction…

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