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The Door - Magda Szabo

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Magda Szabo / Edition: New edition / Paperback / 272 Pages / Book is published 2006-10-05 by Vintage

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      09.05.2010 15:49
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      A Tale of Two Women and the guilt that seperates them

      Regrettably, this is the only work by Magda Szabo that has been translated from her native Hungarian into English. Having said that, this is a great book which has been impressively translated, so it's certainly better than no Magda Szabo at all having reached the English-speaking world. Incidentally, for those of you out there who speak French, you might like to know that many more of her works seem to have been translated into French than to English.

      Reading various reviews of The Door, some say it has autobiographical elements while others say the main character bears an astonishing resemblance to the author herself. On reading it myself, and even without knowing anything about Szabo, I had assumed it was entirely autobiographical, which may indeed be the case, judging by the number of evident parallels.

      So, let me set the scene by first telling you something about the author:

      Magda Szabo won the Baumgarten prize for literature in 1949 but it was immediately taken away from her by the new communist government in Hungary. She then had a 9 year period of enforced silence thrust upon her, in which she worked as a primary school teacher after having had her post as a civil servant taken away from her.

      In a bizarrely schizophrenic act on the part of the government, Szabo was then awarded one of Hungary's most prestigious awards for literature, the Jozsef Attila, in 1959, and her outwardly imposed censorship ended.

      Her husband's career was also suffocated by the new regime- Tibor Szobotka was a fellow novelist, as well as a translator and an academic (he translated works by Tolkien into Hungarian), who died in 1982, 25 years before Szabo herself.

      This background makes understanding the plot of the book much easier, since the protagonist is a relatively young female author who has just come back into favour with the government and finds herself too busy to write, meet her publicity responsibilities and take care of the housework all by herself. She's married to an unnamed author who is simply referred to as 'the master,' although it is clear that in their relationship, domestic responsibilities are purely her domain- could this be symbolic of the lingering 'machista' attitude of the Hungary of her day? Probably, yes.

      Whatever the case, she decides to employ a housekeeper who is recommended to her. Enter Emerence, the formidable, indestructible lady who lives opposite her on her suburban street in Budapest. Despite being elderly, she works non-stop as the street's caretaker, sweeping the pavements from dawn until dusk, and still finds time to deliver food and whatever else is needed to the sick and infirm.

      When the 'Lady Writer,' as yet unnamed, requests her help, Emerence says that she will need references for both her and her husband and that if they meet with her approval then she will start work. Only after she has been employed for a week or so will she know how much work is involved and will then inform them of what she is to be paid accordingly.

      This bizarre start to their relationship is indicative of the way things will continue. Emerence is a volatile personality who can be brutally honest with people when she thinks they need to hear something important, refuses anything she perceives as a gift and is hugely offended when anything she offers is rejected.

      Magda, the narrator, portrays her as something of a paradox- she describes Emerence's apathy towards politics whilst pointing out that if she were so inclined, she could easily have given Margaret Thatcher a run for her money. She allegedly hates religion and never attends church, yet she dedicates herself wholeheartedly to the needs of her community, even at the expense of herself.

      In fact, there are several parallels the narrator herself points out to us between the tale of Emerence and that of the Easter story.
      Unfortunately Magda views herself as Emerence's own personal Judas in the whole thing. Right from the start we are told that she killed Emerence- 'the fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.'

      She deals with her own responsibility and the guilt she feels for what transpires in her own brutally honest way, and in fact provides so much detail, both in the events and in her own feelings, that I am led to believe the narrator shares the author's voice. Her style of heartbreakingly analytical truthfulness is faintly reminiscent of Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day,' yet is somehow even more admirable for its autobiographical elements.

      In all honesty, I found Emerence, in contrast, to be an irritating, quite pompous and self-absorbed character who seemed to show no sensitivity towards other people's feelings and constantly stated her own opinions as if they were fact. That she endured several hardships throughout her life, which are detailed here as her relationship with the 'lady writer' develops, provided me with some sympathy for her, although I found it difficult to understand the love elements of the love-hate relationship which existed between the two.

      As you can see, the relationship between the two women is complex, and exquisitely detailed here, both by Magda Szabo and the translator, Len Rix. I'm not surprised he won the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2005.

      While this is a very well-written, brilliantly characterised novel, however, it is quite hard-going to read, due to the occasional complexity of the language and subject matter. As The Guardian points out, much of the historical and cultural significance of the novel is lost on the English-speaking reader, because of the references to uniquely Hungarian events.

      Still, it is an enjoyable read nonetheless, and if anyone else has a go at it, I'd be interested to hear your opinions on the character of Emerence!

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