The Door, by Magda Szabó, trans by Len Rix

The housekeeper with the keys to Hungary's secret sufferings
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The plot of this profoundly moving novel is very simple. Magda, an aspiring writer, decides that she can no longer cope with everyday domestic chores. A friend recommends that she contact an elderly housekeeper named Emerence, who lives nearby in an apartment that no one else is allowed to enter. Emerence arrives for the interview, but it is she who asks the questions and lays down the rules. The young novelist and her husband agree to Emerence's terms. She will only work when it suits her. Thus begins a relationship that survives for 20 years, and The Door is the story of Magda's involvement with the acutely intelligent, but virtually illiterate, woman.

Emerence is an unforgettable character, as rich and varied as anyone in Balzac or Dostoyevsky. The narrator never quite knows where she stands with her and is often reduced to tears of rage and frustration. Emerence is a tyrant, even though she despises those in authority, whether politicians, doctors or priests.

The reader occasionally shares Magda's exasperation with the bossy old peasant, but is soon charmed again. Emerence has had a tough life, in a country taken over by Fascists and Communists, working as a servant from 13, enduring hunger, deprivation and the pain of loving a man who made her wary of intellectuals. She scoffs at Magda's insistence that writing is hard work, this woman who sweeps the street, takes in washing and ironing, and prepares superb meals for her lonely neighbours.

As the friendship blossoms, Magda comes to be party to some of Emerence's secrets. Among her former employers were a Jewish couple who left everything behind them, including their daughter, Eva, whom she brought up in Budapest. It becomes clear that she has always helped people in distress: Germans and Jews alike, whoever has fallen victim to the inhuman dictates of the men in power. She has an instinctive way with animals, especially with the mongrel dog, Viola, that Magda and her husband reluctantly adopt. Viola is beautifully delineated, in all his canine moods.

The Door tells a great deal about the sufferings of 20th-century Hungary through the heart and mind of a single fearless woman, as Magda is taught by example to consider her own inadequacies. Magda Szabó's great book was published in Hungary as long ago as 1987; Len Rix's fluent translation is a belated and welcome gift to readers in English.