Magda Szabo, The Door (1987)

It’s really a shame that I can’t remember who recommended me this book (this recommendation came from more than one place, but whether it was a IRL friend or a book blogger, I really can’t say). It also came with the halo of the French Femina prize, which is sort a big deal. Which is the reason why I stuck with it for so long, despite my good resolutions to abandon books that don’t grab me. All those people must have seen something I don’t see… just yet… maybe?

In The Door, the narrator is a female writer who lives in a building with a caretaker, Emerence, who is very special. Emerence and the narrator develop a long-standing relationship over the course of twenty years, with many untold rules and promises, taboos and secrets. Emerence is the servant of the narrator, works tirelessly, but she also does everything as she pleases. She is also the center of the neighborhood, knowing everyone and their secrets, ruling over other servants and talking back to generals and policemen. Emerence seems to have no fear but she doesn’t allow anyone inside her own flat.

It’s a slow-paced book (although things escalate by the last quarter), and you can read many things between the lines, both historical and symbolic. The book was published in 1987 in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, so I couldn’t help but wonder how an officially socialist country like Hungary could have housekeepers. Also there are many references to church-going and religion and I was a bit lost. What was Szabo allowed to write and what was I meant to understand by omission? The little building and the neighborhood over which Emerence ruled seems so far from history and politics, except for references to World War 2. This is so different from the atmosphere of the dreary Democratic Germany!

The writing was good and the secrets that Emerence kept were powerful, but both Emerence and the narrator grated on my nerves, and I had little patience for their love-hate codependency relationship. That’s how I started the book in July and finished it in November. I’m quite glad I stuck until the end but I’m in no hurry to start another book by Madga Szabo.

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