Ghosts, Literal and Figurative, Haunt Magda Szabo’s Novel

Ghosts, Literal and Figurative, Haunt Magda Szabo’s Novel

Katalin Street, where the initial bonds between the Elekes, Held and Temes families were forged, has been transformed into an analog for the past as a place of no return. The Elekeses can glimpse their old home through the window of the present, and yet it might as well be light-years away. Nor is solace to be found in the barbed warren of memory:

“Everything that had happened was still there, right up to the present, but now suddenly different. Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop to individual scenes, so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered.”


The greatest moments of mattering are tied to the wartime death of Henriette Held, and the subsequent spiritual rot of the central players: Iren Elekes; her fiancé, Balint; and her sister, Blanka. On the day of Balint and Iren’s engagement party, word travels that Mr. and Mrs. Held “have been taken away.” Henriette is immediately ushered into hiding, in a plan that goes swiftly and fatally awry.

Until that point, the presence of the German occupation has been somewhat muted, with the characters making vague references to the Helds’ having difficulties, and even the news of the Helds’ deportation is not enough to shake Iren from her fog of privilege and ruinous denial. She wonders fleetingly, for example, if Henriette seemed distressed because she’ll be missing the festivities. The botched attempt to hide Henriette annihilates that fog, but of course the wake-up call arrives far too late, a moral failing that remains bitterly relevant.

On Katalin Street, Iren’s marriage to Balint is jettisoned. When they finally wed, years later, she does so without sentiment: “I sometimes wonder if it has ever crossed Balint’s mind that he is not my second husband but my third, and that I am in fact his second wife and not his first. The pair who married at the start of the 1960s were not a bachelor and a divorcée but a widow and a widower, the first of whom had been married briefly once before, the other twice: two people who no longer had any illusions about life or any expectations of it, but were simply unwilling to set off down the road to death, that difficult journey to make, alone.” Here Iren, who had been halfheartedly wed to another man before her eventual marriage to Balint, is expressing her belief that the versions of themselves who first fell in love back on Katalin Street died alongside young Henriette. Their initial betrothal has finally been consummated, but they are no longer recognizable to each other. They are in a ghost marriage, a ghost life. There is no recovery. There is only endless aftermath.

Meanwhile, Henriette, in literal ghost form, haunts the streets of Budapest. Earthly time passes around her; spectral time stands still. Henriette is able to make herself visible to the living, and at one point she summons the nerve to reveal herself to Balint; nearly two decades have passed since her death, and she is desperate for contact with the life she knew. When Balint invites her up to his flat, she is hopeful for reconnection, not realizing that he has mistaken her for a prostitute. After he attempts to pay her for sex, a horrified Henriette runs sobbing into the street.

This scene — Henriette’s severing from the familiar world, the unending solitude of the liminal state — is nothing less than shattering. Whether living or dead, these characters are cemented inside private labyrinths built of trauma, silence and shame, doomed to restlessly circle the life they once knew: “They ached with longing for the dead. … They hoped that if they clung to one another and held one another’s hands, and could hit upon the right words, then perhaps they might find their way out of the labyrinth and somehow make their way home.”

In “Katalin Street,” the past is never dormant, never settled. The past is an open wound, a life force busily shaping an increasingly bewildering present. In describing Henriette’s plight, Szabo writes: “From the moment she arrived she had been left to work out the rules and the customs of the place entirely by herself.” In this extraordinary novel, the same could be said for the living.

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