Magda Szabo’s novel Abigail was written and published in Hungary fifty years ago. Szabo was born in 1917 and lived in Hungary through World War Two, the Communist Regime and beyond. She worked as a teacher, some of it in church schools of the Reformed Protestant tradition, stern and disciplined and Calvinistic. She has been awarded Hungary’s top literary prizes for her novels and poems written from the 1940s through to the 1980s.
Now as part of a library of mainly European literary works in translation, Abigail has been published in English for the first time. It has been translated by Len Rix who has won prizes for his translation of Szabo’s other novels.
Abigail is the story of Gina, a privileged teenage girl and the indulged only child of a widowed general in the Hungarian army. She is sent to a boarding school in a provincial town in the far east of Hungary in 1943, far from the sophistication and social life of Budapest. Gina is lively, and full of resentment of this disruption to her happy life. She is oblivious to the political situation: as an ally to Nazi Germany, in essence a puppet state, Hungary is under pressure to be involved in Germany’s fight against Russia and to participate in the roundup of Jews. She is determined to escape the strict school and its teachers, and the other students who dislike her superior attitude. After her father visits her and she comes to realise that her incarceration is for her own safety and to protect him, she stops trying to escape. However, she is opinionated and outspoken, always on the edge of trouble with her teachers but eventually gaining the trust of her fellow students. The round of lessons, and study, walks, church attendances, and occasional outing are the framework around which these girls wind irrepressible liveliness and their fantasies of romance.
There is a resounding mystery in the school: Abigail, a statue in the school garden with whom the girls leave notes petitioning for help seems to have a human agent. But who? And even after Gina understands from her father that she is enclosed by the walls and strictures of the school to keep her safe, there is tension in not knowing where the danger lies. The suspense comes about largely through Gina’s ignorance of these dangers and through her youthful and naïve inability to recognise who is friend and who is foe. As readers we can see that the train load of soldiers passing and the baptismal certificates of Jewish students are signs of the dangers, but Gina is absorbed in her own situation. As readers we can see beyond her superficial assessment of characters. She learns that to “dance and say cheeky things to the Director” is to be a child and that heroism is not the domain of the “dashing young lieutenants”. She begins to grow up.
Gina’s cloistered, sheltered view of life gradually expands as she becomes more aware of the circumstances and people around her. As she moves to a more adult understanding of a dangerous world, as childhood innocence is lost, we have a sideways glimpse of a Hungary under the old order, of a stable world, regulated by church and school, the seasons of weather and farming, on the brink of change too. Whatever challenges lie ahead, Gina becomes aware of the strong, kind and loyal people around her. This portrayal of a young girl and a nation on the edge of the unknown is a haunting tribute to the nation of Hungary. It will stay with me for a long time.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Translated by Len Rix, Maclehose Press