Katalin Street’s effect on me was so extraordinary that at first I couldn’t decide what was most extraordinary about it: its gentle unpeeling of the tragic lives of the characters, or its gentle unpeeling of tragic life in general. Both, perhaps. The way it winds back to childhood to signal where all the important matters of life are first decided is not new, but it is clearly vital, and personal, to the author (there is, by the way, no Katalin Street in Budapest, though there is one in Debrecen).
The structure is deliberately non-linear, much as memory is. Szabó is exploring the effects of severe trauma and necessary erasure, in prose, which manages to convey precision and haziness almost in the same breath. Katalin Street is inhabited by ghosts, both real and emblematic: as the novel opens, Henriette, years dead, is making one of her many visits to the house where she had lived and died, entering every room in sequence, itemising the furniture, nodding to her mother making jam in the kitchen. “In the garden, nothing ever changed. The bronze fish still glinted in the sun, the water glistened, the fir trees stood darkly to attention, more black than green.”...Though Katalin Street is set during various times of historic upheaval, Szabó sketches that background lightly. What matters here, in this unusual, piercing, and – given Hungary’s current political climate – oddly percipient work, is the catastrophic effect on individuals, who have “discovered that the difference between the living and the dead is merely qualitative: it doesn’t count for much”.
Like many American readers, I was first introduced to Magda Szabo’s work when New York Review Books reissued the Hungarian master’s profound and haunting novel “The Door.” Luckily for us, they have not stopped there. A translation of “Iza’s Ballad” followed, and now we have “Katalin Street,” originally published in Hungarian in 1969 and elegantly translated into English by Len Rix... 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.