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A Hungarian Book to Read During Christmas – Abigail by Szabó Magda by Lili Zemplényi

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Culture & Society

A Hungarian Book to Read During Christmas – Abigail by Szabó Magda

Magda Szabó (1917-2007) is one of the most widely recognised Hungarian authors, whose work, Abigail was selected as the country’s second favourite book of all time in 2005. Her literary work showed great potential from the very beginning of her career. In 1949 she received the prestigious Baumgarten Prize for her poetic work. However, a couple of hours after receiving the award, the Minister of Culture decided to strip her of it for political reasons. The state socialist regime was mostly consolidated at the time in Hungary, and her work, which was not pro-regime, could not be honoured by the communist establishment. Not only was her award revoked, but she was also fired from her job and continued to be censored for over a decade. She could restart publishing her books only after the regime started to soften after the 1956 revolution. Her books soon become famous and popular in Hungary. From the 1960s onwards, she could dedicate all her time to writing. In her writings she was particularly interested in women’s lives and relationships. In her books she eloquently wrote about how lifestyles changed in the 20th century and how the wars and dictatorships Hungary experienced impacted people’s personal lives. Abigail explores similar topics, focusing on how women’s lives are  torn apart by history. 

The book starts with Gina Vitay, the main character of the book, being accepted to a Protestant boarding school in September 1943, when her father, a general in the Hungarian army, is sent on a secret mission. Gina, having grown up in a prestigious and rich household in Budapest, upon arriving in the traditionalist school is stripped of her expensive clothing and made to wear a modest, long, black uniform. Deprived of her privileged life, Gina has to face constant bullying by her classmates. Hopeless about the future and desperately unhappy with her miserable circumstances, she learns about a legend connected to a statue in the school’s garden. The statue is of a young lady, called Abigail, who holds a jug. Tales say that the statue of Abigail has the power to help anyone who asks her by putting a piece of paper with a message into her jug. When Gina does write a note to Abigail, she receives a response letter which she finds under her mattress. The message warns her to make peace with her classmates, follow the rules and know that the school is not a prison but a shelter from the outside world of war. 

The book vividly describes the tension between two worlds – the childish fantasies of the schoolgirls and the brutalities of World War II

The girls’ world is protected by the school – the boarding school is surrounded by thick walls which isolate it from the outside world. The traditionalist rules of the school make the girls’ life predictable and stable. It is in sharp contrast with the chaotic and tragic world of war on the other side of the wall. As the outside world is gradually descending into madness, the two worlds start to collide. First, the two worlds just briefly encounter one another – when the girls set off to pick apples, they come across a troop of soldiers. The two groups glare at each other for a second, then the teachers quickly make the girls move. But soon, the clash between the two worlds become inevitable – as the war rages, during the air raised the girls need to find shelter in the school’s basement. It is only the fear of death which finally brings Gina together with her fellow classmates. Soon, however, it turns out that those protective walls of the school could not filter out all dangers – there is a mole within the school who tries to use Gina to get to her father who is a leading military figure of the Hungarian resistance…

The book was translated to English by Len Rix in 2020 and was published by the New York Review Books (NYRB) Classics. The translation was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, an award which aims to honour the translations of books written by female authors. Len Rix is probably the most famous contemporary literary translator from Hungarian to English. He has translated such masterpieces as Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, as well as another of Magda Szabó’s books, The Door, which was a major literary hit in 2015, making it onto the The New York Times’ top ten list of books. Honouring Len Rix’s lifetime work translating Hungarian literary classics into English he was presented with the Hungarian Golden Cross of Merit in October this year. The Hungarian Golden Cross of Merit is one of the highest Hungarian state-awards, and it is presented to those who work on enrichening and promoting Hungarian arts, literature, and culture.


Lili Zemplényi, trainee at Danube Institute

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