Katalin Street

Magda Szabó

Fragmented and a bit confusing while meeting all the characters, Katalin Street spans key moments before, during, and after the German occupation of Budapest for three intertwined families in Budapest. Before the war, they have an idyllic life as neighbors in three row houses on Katalin Street, and the novel portrays the effects of the war on them and their relationships to each other through “moments and episodes.”

Many of these are witnessed by the youngest child, Henriette, who is killed during the war, yet stays nearby in a ghostly half-life, in which she can sometimes be visible to the living — yet her old friends never recognize her. She’s the only one somewhat able to go back to the time before their worlds were splintered, which the survivors yearn to do, even as they get older and that life theoretically gets further distant.

There came too the realization that advancing age had taken the past, which in childhood and early maturity had seemed to them so firmly rounded off and neatly parceled up, and ripped it open. 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. Everything else was just so much wadding around their fragile existences, wood shavings stuffed into a trunk to protect the contents on the long journey to come.

I like the way Szabó portrays the after life as a place the dead wander and the ways they interact with each other, especially the way Henriette’s parents revert to their own youthful behavior and return to their childhood homes rather than with Henriette to the house on Katalin Street. In death she seems very alone, trailed by the person who killed her. Yet the book promises that “in everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.