The Door. Magda Szabo.

Szabo, Magda. The Door. New York Review of Books, New York. In Hungarian 1987. Translation by Len Rix 2005. F;2/18.

Recommended by a friend, this strange tale moved but also perplexed me. It’s hard to tell in a translation what something would have felt like to a native speaker of the original language for openers. Plus, I’ve never met anybody remotely like the central character (and kind of hope I don’t) and she’s also pretty unique in my experience of fictional people. Who/what was she? And how seriously do I have to take her?

Emerence, who some critics compare to Lila in the Neapolitan Quartet (Szabo is to Hungary as Elena Ferrante is to Italy) is an elderly woman, a central figure in the village and a near-incompatible combination of self-sacrifice on behalf of others and vicious personal and ideologic arrogance. As her relationship with the narrator, a writer, develops she divulges terrible personal experiences, and then in the present there is an overriding catastrophe. The stuff of Shakespearean tragedy in a way. But what does this monstrous character represent, and less English-lit-wise is she saying or doing something to us so we can’t help being astounded at her existence, even in somebody’s imagination?

She becomes the narrator’s cleaning lady, but only on her terms. The house is always spotless, but she turns up when she likes, develops a relationship with the narrator’s dog that arrogates the animal’s devotion, and insults her employer’s personal behaviour and beliefs to the point where anybody else would have been fired on the spot half a dozen times.

PLOT ALERT The personal conflict that lurks at the centre of the story and relationship is focused when Emerence gets sick and keeps her secrecy by refusing to let anyone in to help her, and is finally tricked and forced into the hospital by the narrator. Hovering over subsequent events is the awful truth that the writer has at the same time saved the old woman’s life and humiliated her so she would rather be dead, but also rushed away to be honoured publicly and so failed to face that dilemma. END PLOT ALERT

I imagine when someone sets out to write about an unusual fictional character, they face a knife edge where the ideology and emotions they hope will change the reader’s life sits on one side, and with overlap across the knife real and realistic characteristics of some sort of a human being hangs on the other. Here we have what amounts to a superhero on one side of the knife, and a terrifying personal conclusion on the other: our most important decisions and personal actions end up from some inescapable perspective looking like saintly acts and damningly thoughtlessly self-interested moral abandonments at the same time. No matter how hard we try.

I guess to avoid internalizing that kind of thing I say to myself “Hungary. This central Europe that my dad came out of is no reality of mine. This story is translated from a language I’ll never speak. And this ridiculously paradoxical old woman? No, not realistic!” That would be the perplexity I’m talking about, standing in for the courage I’d need to look the good and bad side of everything I do in the face. The Door almost made me try.

9.2/??8.0 (can’t conclude above style in the original language)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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