A lifetime ago–in January, pre-Covid pandemic–I read a book review about a novel called Abigail, first published in the author’s native Hungary in 1970, but only now brought to us in English by the New York Review Books. Hungarians ranked it 6th on their list of 100 favorite books of all time, which included the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings. Of all Magda Szabo’s critically acclaimed books, Abigail is the most beloved in Hungary. Today, having read the novel during the U.S. lockdown–a continent away and fifty years after it was first published–I too am a fan. And something more.
In the fall of 1943, fourteen-year-old Gina Vitay is sent to boarding school in the village of Arkod, far removed from her home in Budapest. Her life is nothing like Harry Potter’s in that she’s not an orphan living with a dreadful family like the Dursleys. Gina is the only child and beloved daughter of a widower who’s a General in the Hungarian army. However, as with Harry Potter, certain people may wish to abduct Gina or have her killed. She knows nothing of this at the start; rather, she assumes her father wishes to remarry and that his future wife wants Gina out of the way.
After a long day’s journey, the General leaves Gina at the Bishop Matula Academy, warning her to tell no one in Budapest where she is. The Academy is like a fortress: gaining entrance or escape is almost impossible. To her horror, Gina finds it an oppressively pious girls’ school where strict conformity is the rule. Uniforms, hairstyles, the supervised weekly phone calls with her father in which she’s not allowed to whisper a word of discontent. Adolescents being what they are, the girls in Gina’s class find small ways to rebel (one in particular is hilarious) but Gina thinks their defiant antics are juvenile. As for the mythic Abigail, the statue in the school garden, Gina scoffs at the girls’ claim that Abigail comes to the aid of anyone who needs her, simply by placing a handwritten plea in the statue’s urn. But as the days grind into endless weeks–after Gina has betrayed and alienated her peers and attempted to run away–she begins to wonder if there’s a real person “hiding” behind Abigail, a real person ready to help someone in dire need.
Meanwhile, in the village of Arkod, a political dissident is posting anti-Nazi messages in public spaces, a dangerous activity in a country that is one of the Axis powers supporting Germany. Gina’s father visits her to confide he’s part of the resistance that’s tried to make a deal with the Allied powers, angering Hitler. He tells her there is nothing left but to try to save as many people as can be saved, before the Germans invade. When Abigail provides Gina with forged documents that could protect some of her Jewish classmates, Gina realizes the person “hiding” behind the statue and the town revolutionary may be one and the same.
Don’t let the fact that Gina is fourteen dissuade you from picking up this novel. If anything, it might be best appreciated by older readers. The adult characters–the General, the teachers, the director, a former student–are complex. Some of them are not what they seem, and the story becomes increasingly suspenseful with every turn of the page. Beautifully written and plotted, it’s a literary mystery that transcends the genre.
Along with Gina, it’s impossible not to bridle at the Academy’s inflexible rules and restrictions, and yet you realize it’s the safest place she could possibly be. Like sheltering in place during our current pandemic. It won’t last forever, but maybe just long enough to give her (and you and me and our fellow Americans) a better chance to live out our lives.
Abigail made me a fan of author Magda Szabo, but it also made me want to circle more of the globe through literature. To quote Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”
The novel’s English translator had this to say about Hungary’s part in WWII:
“The Hungarian people then, for all their political misadventures, were and are not so very different from ourselves. They too have been a centre of high European civilisation and have contributed much to our common culture. It is only by accidents of place and history that we in the West were spared the horrors they endured, and we need to know far more than we currently do about them; if only to understand our own lives and place in the world better.” Len Rix, the translator of Abigail, in a January interview with Hungarian Literature Online