Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Door - Magda Szabó

I heard this name in one of the discussion about Hungarian Literature. Only four of her books have been translated to English and only this book is currently available in print. What impressed me about her writing is the the intelligence and the command over the style and language . It is not easy to write about a domestic affair into a full length novel and be successful about it. The other I can think of is the Spare Room by Helen Garner.

A young writer, struggling with her priorities as a writer and her home responsibilities, hires a domestic help on recommendation from a friend. ,Emerence to her physical appearances of tall lady with broad shoulders and erect posture ("powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and radiating strength like a Valkyrie”), turn out to be a hard talking stubborn, at time no respect for the means and ways of her employers and even sound a bit crazy. As it is the case in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe I guess, she has the authority to appear at her convenience and finish the work. It took less than a week for the employers to realise the real character of her.The initial apprehension slowly turned into admiration for the lady for her hard working ways and no nonsense approach. "She made demands, more than I had expected, but she also gave a lot," The interdependency grew as the time progresses, with both making adjustment to each other. However, any attempts to get closer to her is reciprocated with a strong rejection. She stays alone and the only connection she seems to be having with the external world is her nephew who visits her once in a while. Even he was only received outside her house and the door to house ( and life) was shut to every one.

The strange love-hate relationship between the writer and Emerence continued for over 20 years with many incidents in their life. The writer, now learnt to appreciate the differences, tries to understand and alanyse the person whom she has observed from close quarter. Behind the idiosyncrasies and the solitary living , has a body and soul that endured sufferings of a life time. It is through the bits and pieces of information that she gathers, the previous life of Emerence , emerge ( albeit in patches) to the writer and us. The tragic death of her siblings, the resulting suicide of her mother,mostly obvious death of her father during war, her job as domestic help at an early ages of fourteen are unveiled in front of us as a fairly tale. Her previous employers a Jewish family leave every thing behind to the care of Emerence including their daughter Eva during the years of War. To the promise to them , she keeps every thing that were entrusted to her with utmost care waiting for their return. She even had to suffer her reputation to protect the girl. Except fot the dog Viola and the 9 cats she grow inside her closed house, none seems to understand her, and any attempts were blocked by her unfriendly behaviour.

The story takes a definite turn with her illness and her stubbornness against getting medical admission. As the pressure mounted, she shut herself inside her house, only after regulating her will and the works that needed to be complted by individuals in the event of her death. The attempt to break into her house and "rescue" her to the medical help seems to be a violation of the understanding. When the only person who could convince her , the writer herself, failed in that duty, and the smell of decay and human excrete become unbearable, the authorities broke into her house, with the help of the writer. Emerence responded strongly to the breach of trust by refusing to even look at her let alone talk to her. Feeling guilty and tormented for the cause of her death, Magda Szabo, brings out one outstanding work of fiction to the readers. In an interview published in Hungarian Daily, Magda Szabo confirms that every thing that is described in the book had happened in real life. "Yes, literally. The model for Emerenc was my housekeeper, Juliska. Everything is true, including the dog Viola, who died here in my flat at the age of fourteen."

Brilliantly written, very articulate and measured in her writing, always poised and diligent in her narration Magda Szabo appears to be a very sensible and intelligent writer. The portrait of Emerence is balanced not to get carried away by the melodrama of the affairs. Towards the end one is left stunned by the quality and sustenance of her prose in style and substance. Insightful novel about the intimate relationship ( or the lack of it , thus the book) between a young writer and her domestic help by one outstanding writer.
The Door ( 1987 )
Magda Szabó ( Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)

Vintage Books

262 Pages
More read : Guadian, A Common Reader, Independent , Blogcritics, Wiki Entry

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