Magda Szabó was a Hungarian novelist from Debrecen, the Calvinist capital of the Great Plains, writing dramas, essays, memoirs, children’s tales and poetry, who gained fame for her unique style of writing focusing on the psychological side of the changing socio-political terrain of Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s. Depicting issues which are deeply human, her stories remain eerily resonant, speaking across borders of time and space. Although she is considered to be a widely translated Hungarian author with publications in 42 countries and over 30 languages, the international reading public mainly knows her for her novels (“The Door” most prominently). By choosing “The Sea”, an autobiographical short story, my aim was to call attention to her shorter works as well.
The short story is a special take on coming-of-age narratives with the protagonist sharing an exquisite memory of her past detailing her relationship with her parents and the ways how methods of moral instruction might succeed. It centres on our universal wish to “be nice”, especially in the eyes of who we love, and the dubious ways of parental tenderness.
Originally, I translated the text as a present to someone, but on second thoughts, I believe the story is a gift to all of us. Magda Szabó has been a gift to all of us.
Former Exchange Student English Language and Culture, Vrije Universiteit
Photo: Dénes Szilágyi
Like I said earlier, it’s not only us who were characters of bedtime stories, but there were made-up creatures as well. My dad would tell funny, action-packed tales whereas my mother’s stories often featured a nice young girl. This girl frequently appeared at Christmas and Easter in the accounts, as if she was an inhabitant of a secret world full of sparklers or lambs and eggs, who we were only allowed to bring to mind on special occasions, forming my moral worldview on strictly didactic grounds. The reason why I listened in awe to these stories was because this legendary girl had not one feature like me: she was well-behaved, meek, kind and she never shouted on streets, not once, unlike me, and she never said ahoy to elderly women instead of the compulsory greetings, like me. Sometimes I had a faint suspicion that I should have been more similar to this girl, and perhaps it is for that reason my mother talked about her on so many nights. It was a devastating thought. If there was anyone I wanted to mimic, it was a rowdy lad in our street named Guriga, my hero, dealing with wooden spools, able to curse in a way that would quickly make the old countrymen turn red and go away.
On a December night, this fairytale girl had finally done something for which I also had an ear: she had set a captive bird free. I loved animals and upon hearing the words of my mother, I immediately visualized a hopelessly shivering bird in front of me, whose eyes were filling with diamond teardrops of delight as the girl said “Be free,” the teardrops drumming on the bottom of the cage until the bird finally jumped up to the sky and flew away, forever free. The tale astonished me and it was ages before I could fall asleep, wondering how I could possibly imitate the girl in the story.
In the morning I realized how. I had a little bowl – I wouldn’t label it a tank as it was much too primitive – in which I kept three skinny goldfish, hoping that one day they would become tame and when they spotted me, they would swim to the surface and start dancing to show how much they appreciated my company. Of course, they ignored me completely; they just ate their food and otherwise kept swimming indifferently in their small home.
I made up my mind: I won’t keep them in captivity any longer; I will set all three of them free. For a while, I even cried a bit, that’s how my own readiness to sacrifice moved me, but then I fetched my little net, fished them out, and at the price of a small fight, I kissed one after the other. It was a beautiful, bright winter, December wilderness, ice upon ice everywhere outside. The window of our bathroom was frozen, and the kind of blue light that glimmered through signalled the afternoons before Christmas.
“Be free,” I whispered to the fish as I was taking their bowl to the bathroom, placing it on top of the laundry bin, and in the midst of my tears, I took them out once more with the net, “swim!” According to my idea, the road to freedom, leading to the ocean, started with the drain at the bottom of the bathtub, since every time we let the water out after bathing, a heavy gurgling sound made me sure that the sea should be down there. All of us knew that water used to ramble on the Hungarian Plain in the region of our town, and of course, it had to be hiding somewhere, obviously under the ground where the pipes of the tub lead. First, I tried to let my fish go as they were, through the drain, but they didn’t want to go and kept cavorting around; one of them had even hurt itself as I was pushing them here and there, so I got angry: what an ungrateful animal it is, not wanting to have freedom. I had to think for a while until I realized how I could make the flight easier for them: I filled the tub with water up to an inch and then pulled the plug, so that my fish disappeared in a tiny swirl – their miniature scales seemed to be glittering in happiness. I cried as they disappeared, but I felt so noble-hearted, so selfless, like a really nice girl, as I never was before.
I spilled the now useless water out of the bowl, dispensing the soil, the pebbles, and the sparse greenery out with the sand. Putting these in the rubbish bin, I went back to the room. I remained unusually silent until the night had set in.
Finally, my father came home, went into the bathroom to wash his hands before dinner and returned dumbfounded:
“What happened to my fish? The bowl is empty and they are nowhere to be seen – have they died?”
My mother just stared; she had so many errands on her hands before the holiday season that she hadn’t laid eyes on the laundry bin and hadn’t noticed.
“They are free,” I said, fighting my tears proudly yet unhappily. “I have set the fish free.”
“Free?” my mother asked. “Where?”
“In the sea.”
Silence fell, a huge silence. My father, closer to fifty than forty, had never seen the sea. The word lingered above the table, blue and shiny. I could see my fish jumping around happily beneath the waves, making friends with the really big fish.
“Where is the sea, Dolna?” my father asked. “Where have you set the fish free?”
“In the drain.”
We were having baked potato; my mother broke one slowly into two and laid her beautiful green-grey glance on the plate. My father kept silent, both of them were silent, so much so actually, that a nameless fear took over me, some frightened doubt.
“Why, isn’t it there?”
I looked across the table, almost whining in worry, because I loved my fishies deeply with some sweet passion, and I wanted freedom for them so badly that it had almost broken my heart. I couldn’t have chosen the wrong way when it was the first time I really wanted to be a nice girl, a really nice girl like in the tales?
“Is it not where the sea is?”
“It is where you believe it to be,” my father replied.
He broke another potato in half, pulling my little plate in front of him; they always peeled the skin before they gave the potato to me. I stared at him and my mother’s leaning, weirdly touched face and I thought: good. Nothing has happened in vain. I asked for grease to be put on the potato, I didn’t like butter. The grown-ups didn’t talk during the dinner, my father cleared his throat once or twice.
When I saw the sea for the first in my life, strangely enough, it was December with snow galore and thick icicles on the roofs of the Swedish houses. I looked at the green waves, and I could see them covering my Christmas spent in the Plain, the window of our old bathroom on top of them, and I could see my fish flickering as they obtained freedom from my clumsy hands, disappearing down the drain for ever. “Where is the sea, Dolna?” asked the eternally muted voice of my father in me. “Where is the sea? Where you believe it to be…”
There, on the Scandinavian beach, I knew he had been right, and the tub-ocean of my childhood started swirling in my memories, more realistic than the real foam driven by the winter wind.
translation by Dorottya Pétery
The original Hungarian story, “A tenger” appeared in Ókút (1970).
Published with permission of the heir and foreign rights holder of Magda Szabó’s work
Magda Szabó (Hungary, 1917-2007) wrote novels, short stories, dramas, essays, studies, memoirs, children’s literature and poetry. In 1978, she was awarded the Kossuth Prize, the Hungarian prize for outstanding achievements in arts, culture and science. Although some of her novels were translated to 30 languages – also Dutch and English – her short stories are much harder to find. Szabó’s most famous novel is Az ajtó (The Door / De Deur), for which she received the 2003 Prix Fémina Étranger in France.