Magda Szabó — The Door (1987)

Setting: Late Communist Hungary.

What it’s about: A domineering maid enters the life of a writer, who gradually peels away the secrets of her life.

Through the book, the author tried to “draw together the true co-ordinates of her being”.

The cleaner, Emerence, wuietly runs the small world of the neighbourhood, maintaining a gravitational pull on the community around her:

The front porch of her flat was like a telex centre”.

When the author adopts a dog, it immediately obeys the cleaner first.

The best book from Hungary? I was not quite ready for the raw pain of Imre Kertesz’s books about the Shoah, but there is a darkness behind the character of the cleaner, Emerence, the dark history of Hungary. Did she profit from the misery of others? The insinuation is that she stole the possessions of deported Jews, that she sided first with the Nazis, then with the Communists. The author is haunted by:

The thought of helping herself to the contents of someone’s shattered and abandoned home.”

Imagining Emerence hoarding the possessions of those who never came back, “still fresh with all their associations” she reflects bitterly on Hungary’s dark past:

One had to respect those animal-lovers who had watched without regret or protest as the sealed cattle-wagons rolled into the distance — the malicious rumours that there were people locked inside were so obviously lies.”

When she visits the town Emerence the cleaner comes from, she again reflects on the unseen history behind every sight:

I stood gazing at the trees lined up in rows like soldiers, contemplating the memories the land must hold, with so much blood, so many dead, and all their dreams, all that failure and defeat. How could it bear to go on producing, with a burden like that?”

Why you should read it: For its reflections on the nature, and legitimacy, of art and the artist class. We start with the fear that the cleaner has a dark past, but by the end we see that she is the only honest person in a degraded society that has buried its past the way the cleaner locked up some mysterious past behind the door of her house — and challenges the hypocrisies of the author’s own class.

She saw our names on the books, She returned them to the shelves duly dusted…

She was forever putting questions to me that no writer, journalist or reader can answer: how did a novel come into existence out of nothing, from mere words? I couldn’t explain to her the familiar, everyday magic of creation.”

You will like it if you liked: Zorba the Greek, Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros

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