Read 23/02/2020-01/03/2020

Rating 5 stars

How do you solve a problem like Georgina? If you’re General Vitay of the Royal Hungarian Army, you send her to a Calvinist girls’ boarding school.

Magda Szabó’s novel Abigail was written 50 years ago but has only recently been translated into English. The blurb makes it sound like a Hungarian Claudine, about a precocious rich girl who is sent away to boarding school. It’s much more than that. It might be a glib way of looking at it, but this novel put me in mind of The Sound of Music with less singing and more tragedy.

The novel is set during the Second World War, covering autumn 1943 into spring 1944. The backdrop is the tension felt by some in the country between appeasing the Nazis, since Hungary was part of the Axis, and protecting their families. It’s the period when some in Hungary realised that the Axis powers were losing the war and Hungarian lives were being lost for a tyrant’s cause, one not in the national interest.

Two things happened that drew me to this recent English translation of a 50-year-old book. I wrote an article about a Hungarian émigré film director that made me realise how little I know of Hungarian history, and lots of people on Twitter suddenly started chatting about Magda Szabó and this book, due to the publication by Maclehose Press of Len Rix’s English translation.

As I searched the local library catalogue for books about Hungary in the interwar period, the period when the subject of my article was active politically and professionally, Abigail appeared among the non-fiction. I decided to reserve it.

It’s not what I expected.

The main character Gina is a precocious 14-year-old, protected by her military father from the reality of the world outside their villa. When he recognises that the political wind might be turning, he sends Gina’s governess back to France and sends Gina to a strict boarding school in the east of the country. He believes that Gina will be safer there, but he doesn’t convey any of this to his daughter, leaving her to think that he is banishing her.

The school is a curious mix of mediaeval fortress and modernist model of educational standards. Locked inside behind thick stone walls, its pupils are forced to relinquish the frivolities of the outside world and dress in the somber uniform of the school. Although nowhere near as restrictive as the uniform of the Calvinist Bishop Matula Academy for Girls, the uniform of my independent school was equally anachronistic for the times and the source of much amusement for pupils at the local state schools. The nonsensical rules around behaviour and the ingrained school traditions also reminded me of the school that I attended. I had sympathy for Gina’s predicament.

Szabó captures the community of teenage girls thrown together institutionally. They are as one against a common enemy, and cold as ice when one of their own offends in some way. Szabó herself taught in a girls’ boarding school, similar to the Bishop Matula Academy. She taught there from 1940-1945. She was later forced to teach in another girls’ school, a Calvinist one, after the Communist Party in Stalinist Hungary banned her work. Her observation of school life in both situations must have provided her with a rich source of material for this novel.

Unused to the restrictive life of this Calvinist establishment, Gina soon finds herself shunned by her classmates and prevented from complaining to her father about her unwanted situation.

But Gina is resourceful and finds ways to cope with being trammelled by circumstance. Indulged in her previous liberal existence, she also begins to discover new things about herself. She’s assisted along the way by the mysterious Abigail.

Szabó writes Gina’s early experience at the school as some kind of nightmare, a surreal parallel existence that Gina can’t quite get a handle on. It put me in mind of Kafka’s The Castle. The psychological tension was immense and I found myself immersed in Gina’s world.

After Gina attempts to run away, her father reveals why he has sent her to the school. This information causes Gina to grow up very quickly, almost in an instant, and she determines to endure her situation. Gina’s father believes that there is a local member of the Resistance in Árkod who will watch over Gina. Unbeknownst to him, there is also a counter-espionage operative in the city also watching over Gina.

Happily, things change between Gina and her classmates. One aspect of the surreal existence is a mock air raid drill that so unsettles Gina and the other girls that they make their peace.

Cutting through the story is the sub-plot about resistance, both the resistance of draconian rules and the war-time Resistance. Szabó documents the propaganda about war shared by the teachers and the actions of a few who mistrust the official line and try to raise awareness of what a waste of life fighting on the losing side involves. Szabó’s portrayal of the ways in which the local leader of the local civil defence force challenges the official government line suggests that she had sympathy for the Resistance in Hungary. Freedom of expression and freedom from authoritarian restrictions are central themes in this novel.

It’s a brilliant book, exciting, funny, terrifying and sad all at once. I’ll be seeking out the other books by Szabó that have been translated into English.


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