By Magda Sz­abó, trans­lated by Ge­orge Szirtes, New York Re­view of Books, 328 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Iza’s Bal­lad, Tokyo Story. Tokyo Story.

Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion sees life in a dif­fer­ent way, which can cause ten­sions in the re­la­tion­ships par­ents have with their grown chil­dren. This theme is ex­plored mas­ter­fully in Ya­su­jirô Ozu’s 1953 film, In the movie, an el­derly cou­ple goes to Tokyo to visit their adult chil­dren, but as the visit wears on, they sense they are a bur­den. They even­tu­ally re­turn, weary and dis­il­lu­sioned, to their town. Magda Sz­abó’s 1963 novel set in post-World War II Com­mu­nist Hun­gary, and re­cently reis­sued by New York Re­view of Books, is a lit­er­ary

Af­ter Vince’s death, his daugh­ter Iza, a med­i­cal doc­tor, makes what by any stan­dard could be con­sid­ered a gen­er­ous move. She in­vites her wid­owed mother Et­tie to live with her in Bu­dapest. Iza also packs up her mother’s house and ac­cepts a sur­prise of­fer from Iza’s di­vorced hus­band, An­tal, to buy the house. In ad­di­tion, she re­or­ga­nizes her Bu­dapest condominium, where a house­keeper, Teréz, cleans and cooks, to en­sure Et­tie will be as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble. And yet, Et­tie feels for­lorn in her new sur­round­ings. Why?

Iza’s ap­proach is part of the prob­lem. Et­tie takes more pride in be­ing use­ful than in be­ing com­fort­able. Et­tie brings to Iza’s condo a bun­dle of dry twigs, which she has painstak­ingly col­lected so that she will be able to light warm­ing fires in her daugh­ter’s house, a fa­vor she imag­ines her daugh­ter will ap­pre­ci­ate. But Iza has no need for fires. Her ra­di­a­tor’s heat would wither any house­plant. “It was hot here, too hot, and she glanced here and there look­ing for a stove. There was no stove in the room, only a red-coloured ra­di­a­tor, its con­trols shaped like slices of le­mon, like a kind of laugh­ing red mouth.” Un­set­tled, Et­tie throws the dry twigs in a bot­tom drawer so her daugh­ter won’t see them.

The cen­tral mys­tery here is about the past. Iza is an em­bod­i­ment of per­fec­tion, both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional. So why did An­tal, also a doc­tor, di­vorce her? In an im­pres­sive dis­play of re­straint, Sz­abó un­spools this ques­tion all the way to the end of the novel, when Iza’s true char­ac­ter is fi­nally re­vealed to us. Then we ex­pe­ri­ence as a body blow what was in front of us all along. While the end­ing is bril­liant, for a mod­ern reader, it also raises a flag about how Iza’s char­ac­ter is drawn. Pro­fes­sional women are all too of­ten stereo­typed as be­ing coolly ef­fi­cient. Iza needs to be a worka­holic in or­der to suc­ceed in a male­dom­i­nated world, and it is a pity that the novel treats that as some­thing of a flaw.

Et­tie’s char­ac­ter is the real mas­ter­piece here: She is painted with such in­ti­mate strokes that she re­calls that rel­a­tive who we might think we know, but who re­tains an edge of un­pre­dictabil­ity. Al­most eighty, Et­tie yields a num­ber of sur­prises, one of which is how deep her love for her late hus­band runs. Be­ing privy to Et­tie’s stream of con­scious­ness is a strangely mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “She no longer dared of­fer the slight­est help, not even the sim­plest things such as emp­ty­ing an ash­tray, or tidy­ing the room when Iza was sud­denly called away some­where. Once she had thrown out a tea­spoon along with the cof­fee grounds and the dog ends. The jan­i­tor brought it back up in the morn­ing and Teréz made such a fuss about it that she was too scared even to throw out dead flow­ers. Gen­er­ally, she went in ter­ror of Teréz.” Sz­abó em­ploys shift­ing points of view in the novel, and other than Et­tie, the per­son we want to get to know most is Iza, who al­ways man­ages to keep us at arm’s length.

A few years af­ter An­tal di­vorces Iza, he be­gins to see the woman who had nursed Iza’s fa­ther, Vince. The nurse is more emo­tional than Iza ever was. This plot is a fas­ci­nat­ing case study of how so­ci­ety and cul­ture so­cial­ize women in ways that are, at the very least, de­mor­al­iz­ing. Iza is praised for be­ing a tal­ented doc­tor, but she is pun­ished for os­ten­si­bly not be­ing warm enough. Even today, our so­ci­ety is wary of an in­tel­li­gent woman who doesn’t smile enough, whereas the same com­bi­na­tion of char­ac­ter­is­tics are ac­cepted as a sign of in­tro­spec­tion or even ge­nius in a man.

Ge­nius or not, Iza has a gen­uine de­sire to help oth­ers. As a girl, she didn’t like to hear her fa­ther sing a pop­u­lar bal­lad about a vir­gin who had died. She begged her fa­ther to re­vive the vir­gin (if only in song). Still, the in­ten­tion to help a per­son doesn’t al­ways guar­an­tee that the re­cip­i­ent’s suf­fer­ing will be al­le­vi­ated. Iza just wants her life, and the life of her mother, to go smoothly. But Et­tie comes from a gen­er­a­tion for whom life is not worth liv­ing if it doesn’t con­tain cer­tain in­de­fin­able sat­is­fac­tions, such as feel­ing that her money-sav­ing savvy or her tra­di­tional cook­ing are ap­pre­ci­ated. This rich novel is a star­tling re­minder that it is pos­si­ble to speak reg­u­larly, and with good in­ten­tions, to fam­ily mem­bers with­out ever com­ing an inch closer to un­der­stand­ing one an­other.

— Priyanka Ku­mar

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