I started the Hungarian book, Katalin Street, written by Magda Szabó (trans. Len Rix) back in February. It’s not a particularly long book, and yet it took me a particularly long time to finish. Then again, what is time in the age of Rona? Initially it was difficult to get my bearings in the book because of its ghostly omnipotent voice dropping in facts from the long arch of the story almost immediately and throughout the story without respect for our linear dependencies. Not to mention the changing perspective of the story being told: first Blanka, and then Henriette, over to Irén, all with discomfiting unpredictability. But once familiar with the characters of Katalin Street, the second problem I had to confront was its depressing content. It is a tale of families turned upside down by World War II. Obviously, the horror and senselessness of the German occupation drove the story.
I am not one who reads to escape—or at least escape into a romanticized or Hollywood ending-esque daze. Of course, reading is always a sort of escape, but I am more prone to the kind that offers commiseration, or a cathartic airing (preferably with some gallows humor) laying bare the pain and confusion we sentient beings of the world are all too familiar with to simply read away. But, I will admit, these past months have really highlighted the limits of that sort of reading. Things are bad. Things are weird. And wow did I feel even worse after a chapter or two of Katalin Street.
A big Covid19 take-away (or “take-in” as we are really all still very much in the midst of this strange pandemic present) is that so much of what we thought mattered, doesn’t. I spent a few days with a simple question pinging inside my head—what’s the point? Sometimes, for variation it was— what is the point? I finally came to the banal conclusion that of course there is no point. We must smoke ’em while we got ’em as the late great John Prine said. We have to find joy. Epicurus taught us that joy is easy to find. And it is, of course. A budding apricot tree is enough.
However, I have, unfortunately, always been something of a contrarian. And so, Katalin Street’s counter-point messaging…well, I have to admit, it resonates. Yes, there is joy. There is always joy. But things get fucked up too, and often—they stay that way. There is no heroic fortitude we can look forward to in our stubborn resilience; it’s just messed up, depleting, and exhausting. The inhabitants of Katalin Street express this bleak truth with rigor. They know, we ALL know, what might have been—what should have been, but what absolutely could not have been once the disaster of World War II swept their lives into the dustbin of history. It is sad and it is too true. There is no glamour in suffering.
There are only little lives. And those little lives are all of our lives. Now, (I will flag this part) we are getting to the inspirational conclusion of my post, but don’t blame me, blame Blanka. Through Blanka we find our way towards our consolation: truth and love. These are the only pure things. They elude us constantly, but we must always strive to make our way back. Grasp at our glimpses while we can.