“An impressive feat of translation” – Katalin Street by Magda Szabo

“the dead are not dead but continue living in this world, in one form or another”

In March 1944 German forces invaded Hungary to enforce the extermination of Jews. A year later the Soviets ‘liberated’ the country, imposing full Stalinist control from 1949. An uprising in October 1956 was quashed by Soviet intervention.

Set in Budapest between 1934 and 1968, these portentous events form the backdrop to a story of three families whose close connections are cemented during the time they live as neighbours in upmarket Katalin Street. Although impacting the course their lives take, the significance of historic events will only be recognised with hindsight. What matters at the time are the minutiae of personal interactions.

Henriette Held is six years old when she moves with her parents from the countryside to their new home in Katalin Street, nestled between the houses belonging to the Bírós and the Elekeses. Mr Held is friends with Major Bíró – they served together in the First World War. Henriette is taken under the wing of the Major’s son, Bálint, joining his group of close childhood friends which is completed by sisters Irén and Blanka Elekes.

The tale is told from the points of view of these four children across the decades. The timeframe is non linear and the reader learns early that Henriette dies. The aftershock of this event is key to the directions the others’ lives subsequently take. Each views what is happening through the prism of their personal fears and desires – their interpretations of how they imagine their friends must think and feel.

Lives can be messy and be further messed up due to: wider circumstances, misunderstandings, selfishness, and love. The horrors of the various national conflicts are downplayed in the narrative with greater emphasis given to the damage inflicted by those the cast most care for. There is sibling rivalry, jealousy, and guilt over what happens to the Helds. The girls all adore Bálint whose behaviour impacts their outcomes. Small actions, some well intentioned, continue to resonate.

Later in the story a marriage proposal takes place amidst statues – grotesques that could represent loved ones now lost. Death is depicted as no more of a loss than aging – the change in character caused by choices and experience. Such change is aptly portrayed in Henriette’s afterlife where she is reunited with her parents. They have regressed to childhood and prefer the company of their parents who shower them with attention. Henriette is angered to discover that her parent’s choices no longer revolve around her needs.

Their shared time in Katalin Street ties the three families together yet cannot bring a closer understanding to essentially disparate individuals. Those trying to build loving relationships encounter entanglements that prove how elusive and fragmented happiness can be. The depth and urgency of both the pleasure and pain of emotions is effortlessly conveyed.

Any Cop?: The story is beautifully written – an impressive feat of translation. It explores timeless themes with empathy and passion. Engaging and affecting it offers a window into the human condition. This was a pleasure to read.


Jackie Law




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