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262 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1987
In modern postwar Hungary, an old woman who is now a famous author recalls a nightmare: herself as a young woman. The novel begins after she has passed through a “politically frozen” time and started to be able to write again and to be publicly lauded for it. She and her husband move up a step on the social ladder. They hire an old woman, Emerence, as a servant. Or is it the other way round? “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” Emerence says, coming to see their flat in her “ceremonial” headscarf and taking her time deciding whether they will suit her before she takes over the household, turns up for work whenever she feels like it, and bonds with the dog in a way no one else can.Emerence had her ideas about everything. Even doctors were not to be trusted and God only understood her take on trust, religion and all things human. The church vehemently disagreed, but that was their problem. She only relied on the security that she had created for herself and the animals she so passionately protected against the cruelty of life and humans. She had a belief in animal purity ("They can't inform on us, or tell lies about us"), while never questioning her way of beating animals into near-senseless submission.
Emerence is primitive, demanding, and without religion in a way that makes her somehow full of God’s wrath. There is “something superhuman” about the way she can work. She feeds all the neighborhood sick, sweeps all doorsteps; nothing human and in need is alien to this woman who has hidden refugees across the board from Fascist to Communist.
The narrator('the author'): Once, just once in my life, not in the cerebral anemia of sleep but in reality, a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head.
I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike — all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.
The prize, I reflected bitterly, had already begun to work its influence. I had rushed off in a TV car towards its radiance, away from illness, old age, loneliness and incapacity.... Away from Emerence who was unable to tell the author that she loved her, or needed her. The only way she knew how to do that, was to lash out in cruel profanities and verbal abuse. The author misunderstood her words, just like the Lieutenant Colonel did not speak the same language as Emerence when it came to expressing their feelings and emotions.
Author: So he(Lieutenant Colonel) didn’t grasp my meaning either; or perhaps he couldn’t. We were dealing in such different currencies. Emerence’s dictionary featured filth, scene, scandal, laughing stock of the street and shame. His contained law, order, solutions, solidarity, effective measures. Both phrasebooks were accurate, it was just that they were in different languages.
...unless we read other languages, we miss out on superlative novels like The Door by Magda Szabó. This American edition comes nearly thirty years after its original publication, and very little by Szabó, one of Hungary’s most eminent novelists, is available in English. But The Door is so full-blooded and stately a book that it clearly belongs with a shelf of equally fully made creations by the (now elderly) Szabó, every one of which the reader will want to find after finishing this compelling, funny, and horrifying novel, translated by Len Rix in a rich and calm tone.