Tag Archives: fathers and daughters

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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Three Floors Up: Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up from Israeli author Eshkol Nevo takes a look at the lives of three residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. The novel is split into three sections, each told by a first person narrator. While it may seem that the commonality here is proximity, gradually it becomes clear that all three narrators live on the fault lines of a fractured family. Each of the three characters are drawn, unwillingly, into moral dilemmas that will change their lives.

Three floors up

Arnon, a retired officer tells his tale to a writer, an old friend from the army. Arnon is married to lawyer Ayelet. There’s the sense that Arnon’s professional life hasn’t quite worked out as he planned, and he often recalls his time as a soldier. Tension exists and simmers in the marriage between Arnon and Ayelet. They have two daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. There are already indications that there were personality clashes between Ofri and her mother before Yaeli’s birth, but Yaeli’s ill health seals the divide in the family. Ayelet favours Yaeli, or at least Arnon sees it that way. Before long, the family unit is subtly divided into two, with Arnon and Ofri on one side and Ayelet and Yaeli on another.

Arnon and Ayelet are in the habit of leaving Ofri with their elderly neighbours, Ruth and Herman. Arnon has indications that perhaps this isn’t the greatest idea, but he goes ahead anyway, and when a crisis occurs, the fault lines in his family explode.

In every fight, there’s a moment when you say something you shouldn’t and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean? So that’s what happened. And what did I actually say to her? “If it was Yaeli, you wouldn’t be so calm.”

It isn’t a state secret, right? Just one of those little kinks that families have. Even in the bible, in the story of Jacob and Esau, it’s obvious that Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Esau was his father’s. The point is that it’s natural for a parent to prefer one child over the other. Even love him more. What isn’t natural-it turns out-is saying it out loud. Those little kinks are supposed to be transparent, invisible. But I just couldn’t control myself. She was sitting there in her prim lawyer’s outfit with her hair pulled back, talking to me in that patronizing way, like she was civilized and I was a savage. So I had to put her in her place. Every once in a while, you have to put them in their place.

The second narrative takes the form of a letter from housewife, Hani to her friend in America, Netta. Hani is known as “the widow” by her neighbours due to her husband’s continual absences. Hani, at home alone with the children, remarks to Netta that she married her husband thinking he would be a good father, but even when he’s home, he doesn’t get involved in family life.

Hani’s letter recalls the events that took place when her estranged brother-in-law showed up at her apartment. As a major embezzler, he’s on the run from the police, his former clients and even loan sharks.

The third narrative is told by a retired judge, Devora, whose husband, also a judge, died the year before. Devora’s tale is told by her to her dead husband, and she relates how she became involved in local demonstrations.

Of the three sections, Arnon’s is the strongest, possibly because we’re not quite sure how much is reality and how much is guilt. Plus an undercurrent of suppressed violence flows under his words, and this makes his side of things more complex (and epic as it turns out.)  Hani’s letter to Netta is also slippery, and the actions of her brother-in-law are highly suspect. Devora’s tale also presents a moral dilemma as she recalls a decision she and her husband made regarding their son.

The skill here is in the narrative, and the way each creates an intimacy with the reader, so that we become the listener to these confessions involving the most private moments. But even beyond that, as each story evolves, we ask ourselves what we would have done? What choices would we have made?

review copy

translated by Sondra Silverston

Marina Sofia also read and reviewed Three Floors Up

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Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

“Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best.”

Rodrigo Hasbún’s novella Affections concerns the real-life Hans Ertl and his family of three daughters. Ertl was a cinematographer who worked for Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose most notorious work is Triumph of the Will. While the author chose the word Affections for the title of his book, the two main people in the story, Hans and his daughter Monika, are driven by strong, overriding passions, and while the novel is based on real events, the plot illustrates how the sins of the father are delivered upon the heads of his children.

Affections

Affections follows the relocation of Hans Ertl, his wife Aurelia and their three daughters in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s 1955, and Hans Ertl, a restless egomanic, photographer/explorer comes and goes into the lives of these women, his neglected chain-smoking wife and the three girls: Monika, Heidi and Trixi who are all quite different from one another. When the book begins, Hans returns only to plan his next departure:

Man’s communion with nature is what really matters,” he went on, his beard longer than ever and as dark as his faintly deranged eyes. “The chance to reach places God himself has forsaken is what matters. No, not forsaken,” he corrected himself at the start of one of his interminable monologues, the ones he always gave when he got back, before the silence grew again, and with it the desire to set off on a new adventure.

Heidi is the first narrator, and she sees how, when their father speaks, Monika and Trixi “hung on his every word, transfixed, Mama too, naturally. We were his clan, the women who waited for him.

And as is usual for women who wait for men … they are inevitably disappointed, but that’s still off in the future. Ertl arrives home only to announce his next trip “in search of Paititi” an Inca city “buried deep in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.” This time he takes Monika, who suffers from panic attacks, and Heidi along for the ride. One of Ertl’s grand schemes is to set the rainforest on fire with the oil they carried with them while he films the carnage:

Very quickly the flames began to give off a dark smoke, and you could hear the animals’ cries. A flock of parrots took flight and several vultures appeared. They circled us from above and dived down into the fire, reemerging with animals clutched in their talons. Chaos reigned.

The story moves ahead in time through multiple narrators (the sisters, Monika’s lover and Monika’s brother-in-law) and while Hans drops off the page after he abandons his family, the story is then picked up by narrators. The episodic narration shows the disintegration of the Ertl family as they disperse and their connections become tenous. Monika becomes the trophy wife in a loveless marriage; it’s an ill-fitting role which serves to deepen her unhappiness and estrangement from her own life.

Monika eventually becomes a guerrilla, and … the rest is history.

At one point, Monika tells herself that “phantom fathers don’t get a say in the fates of their children,” and while there’s no argument there, it can be argued that his abandonment led to other, significant events. For Monika to take such steps, to embark on such a path, she must have been influenced by her father’s connections. I’m thinking of the documentary Hitler’s Children and its argument that the activities of the parents burdened their children–sometimes so much so that they took drastic action.

Affections is episodic in nature, fragmented; reading the novel can be compared to flipping through a photograph album. I never quite got a handle on the Ertl daughters–except to say they were troubled in various ways, haunted by displacement and their father’s legacy.  They seemed to be lost souls without an anchor.

If you’ve never seen the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, then do yourself a favour and watch it. This deconstruction style film is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen

Jacqui’s review

Review copy

Translated by Sophie Hughes

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Filed under Fiction, Hasbún Rodrigo