Katalin Street

Written by Magda Szabó
Review by Douglas Kemp

Set in Budapest, Hungary between 1934 and 1960, this is by no means conventional historical fiction. The plot consists of a series of disparate but related thoughts and memories from the small cast of characters. The essence of the story is a general nostalgic longing for the pre-War times in the eponymous Katalin Street and the dispersed trio of families in Budapest.

Focusing on the two sisters Irén and Blanka, the story of their middle-class upbringing, the Second World War and their post-war move to a claustrophobic apartment overlooking the River Buda is narrated through a series of reminiscences and reflections, in the first and third person. One of the families is Jewish, and there are terrible implications for them as the Second World War approaches and the reach of the German war effort extends throughout much of Europe. After the War, the rise to power of the Communist Party changes matters for the former residents of Katalin Street.

There are elements of the fantastic in the story, which does take some time to absorb, but it is very much worth the effort, as Szabó’s observations and narrative skills capture the reader. Although the cast list is small, the author has included a dramatis personae, which is very helpful in allowing the reader to sort out the relationships between these characters, as starting the novel is rather like watching a film having missed the first third, and trying to establish relationships without the introductory scene-setting.