02. 07. 2007. 08:11

Anatomy of a relationship

Magda Szabó: Pilátus (La ballata di Iza)

An old lady whose husband has just died of cancer leaves her hometown to join her daughter, a doctor living in the capital. How the initial relief at not having to live the rest of her life alone, forgotten, dutiless, but as a help to her only child soon turns into bewilderment, then apathy, and finally to death – this is the topic of Magda Szabó's 1963 novel, originally titled Pilátus (Pilate), now published in Italian under the title La ballata di Iza (Iza's Ballad, published by Einaudi).

The story begins with Etelka, the old lady, preparing toast for herself. The essence of the antagonism between mother and daughter is already there in that first paragraph. She does not prepare the toast on the electric toaster sent to her by Iza, but uses the wood-burning stove instead: ”She did not trust machines... she could not get used to the idea of the toaster: she would have missed the crouching posture, the fire and the strange panting of the glowing embers, so much like a living organism.” Iza, on the other hand, is a ”modern” woman: she lives in an apartment full of electric appliances and plastic objects. Today, most of the deplorable objects that make their appearance in the novel fill the reader with a ”retro” feeling, a nostalgia for the 60s, but then and there, in the Hungary of the 60s, they were the embodiments of modernity. For Iza, they are instruments of her flight from the hardships of provincial life as the daughter of a judge who had lost his job in the 20s (for not having condemned some peasants whom he deemed innocent) and was rehabilitated only in 1946.

In Iza, we have a heroine who tries to break away from her past with diligence, dutifulness, decency and a helpfulness that is basically heartless, but who loses everything that is worth living for along the way - everything that her mother Etelka values: the joy of life, the love of animals and objects, etc. Just like Iza was trying to break away from her past, so was Hungary in the 60s: the ideology of the regime was trying, and was quite successful at, drumming into Hungarians that all their past, all their traditions were worthless and had no place in the modern world.

Iza's icy perfection alienates men as well. Her first husband, Antal, a fellow doctor, divorces her for no apparent reason. There was never a loud word between them, the parents say, not understanding why Antal had left their daughter. Even their colleagues at the hospital get annoyed at Antal, saying ”if she is not good for him, who can be?” Antal leaves Iza after the two of them successfully establish a spa-hotel at the place where Antal had spent his unhappy childhood. For Antal, the issue of the spa is important because it is a way to face his past, but for Iza, it is wholly a matter of rational planning, another proof of her capability.

At the time Etelka moves in with her daughter, Iza has a new boyfriend, Domokos, a writer. He is happy with Iza because she gives him the independence a writer needs for work, but at the climax of the novel he realizes that what seemed to be a convenient arrangement was in fact potentially fatal for him, as it was for Iza's mother, who preferred stepping down from a building at a construction site into darkness. ”'If I miss a step, I fall into the abyss', Domokos thought. 'I fall like that old lady did.'” Then and there, in the hardest moment of her life – the death of her mother – Domokos leaves Iza, but her real tragedy is not that. Her real tragedy is that she still does not understand. She is tone-deaf, so to speak: she has not got the slightest idea about why all who are around her flee her, even unto death. She is the Pilate the original title refers to, washing her hands, unable or unwilling to interpret the events. She has given them everything she deemed necessary, but it did not correspond to what they wanted: less perfection, less devotion, and more love and empathy. Fewer things, more life.

This novel should be compulsory reading for all those adults who have an old parent. I haven't read a novel that analyzes with more precision this particularly sensitive relationship – the one between an able, potent daughter and a widowed mother, once able, now totally at the mercy of her child.

French translation:
La ballade de la vierge, Seuil, 1967; Viviane Hamy, 2005
German translation:
...und wusch ihre Hände in Unschuld, Inselverlag, 1964

The new Italian translation:
La ballata di Iza (Einaudi)

Previously on HLO
An interview with Magda Szabó

Terri Hunter

Tags: Magda Szabó