Katalin Street by Magda Szabo
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Centered on the 1944 occupation of Hungary and spanning nearly thirty-five years over a handful of chapters, Katalin Street follows three neighboring families during World War II and the tragedies that disrupt their once-picturesque livelihood. Originally written in 1969, the extraordinary Katalin Street deftly balances a rapturous multi-generational family drama with the off-stage atrocities of the war.
At its heart, Katalin Street is about two sisters and the love, jealousy, and hatred that grows between them. Irén Elekes and her sister Blanka couldn’t be more different: Irén is an ambitious, intellectual young woman, following the footsteps of her academic father, while Blanka makes little effort to engage productively with the people around her. She’s weird, aloof, and always reluctantly pulled into games with the other children. Next door, a man known as “The Major” lives with his son Bálint, a precocious, controlling boy with whom the girls find themselves childishly enamored. Lastly is poor Henriette, the daughter of a Jewish dentist. Szabo reminds readers frequently of Henriette’s untimely death throughout the novel, repeatedly permeating places and moments with memories of her passing.
Beginning in 1934 and ending in 1968, Katalin Street tells a compelling story of these four friends and how the death of Henriette effectively haunts the remaining three children as they grow into adulthood. The events surrounding her death are a painful, meticulously orchestrated ordeal. Placed at the center of the novel, Szabo puts a series of actions into motion that ripple blame and consequence into the lives of each surviving character. Henriette actually appears in many scenes after she is killed, adrift in the ghostly miasma of post-war Budapest that she left behind.
Szabo compliments Henriette’s ghostly transience with the structure of her novel, which also jumps around in time. She confoundingly opens Katalin Street with the story’s latest scenes, chronologically: the war is over, Bálint and Irén are unhappily married, raising a child together from Irén’s previous union, and they’re living with her parents in a tiny government-subsidized apartment. Szabo introduces everyone in a deluge of characters and information before their stories can even begin to be untangled; even Henriette’s there, although “she did not assume a physical form that they could see.” “She listened in sorrow,” Szabo writes. “She knew that without the ones who had died their quest was in vain: they would never find their way back to Katalin Street.”
Katalin Street is a masterful drama and beautifully written, and one that under its surface holds some profound revelations about the power and futility of memory. Szabo divides memory into two distinct types: moments and places. Moments, or what could be described as situations of the heart, can be emotionally revisited — feelings of jealousy, betrayal, and beauty can be recalled and their past stories retold. Much of Katalin Street is built from these kinds of memories, buried moments of weakness between family and loved ones, all shaken under the ever-present pressures of war. But memories of place can never truly be revisited, and the destructive wartime years particularly eradicated their potential for recollection. In Katalin Street, characters try to reconcile with the loss of the physicality of their past. While not quite homeless, these characters are emotionally uprooted, futilely searching for something that might help them return to a time when things were simpler.