By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
There are periods in history when the ground beneath the feet of a nation suddenly shifts. The French Revolution, the era following World War I, and the 1960s are all cogent examples of how this seismic restructuring can disrupt the status quo and create a rift between a stupefied generation in the process of inheriting the world of their parents and a radical youth set on tearing that world apart.
This is not a phenomenon that is unique to the modern, postmodern or post-factual era. One of the most salient instances of such a cultural upending came during the time of Jesus. This is clear in one of the most famous passages from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says that he does not bring peace, but, rather, a sword.
While there is some debate about the meaning here, the controversy seems like
an issue of the theologian kicking up dust to complain she cannot see. Jesus is
not speaking of a real sword to vanquish an enemy; rather, he is hoping to use
the sword to sever the connections between generations. After all, the
following verse reads, “For I have come to turn 'A man against his father, a
daughter against her mother, a daughter in law against her mother in law—a
man's enemies will be the members of his own household'” (Matthew 10:35-36).
Jesus came to disrupt a world that was founded upon a tradition of heredity.
The Bible aside, there is no shortage of literary works that focus on this rupture. Much of it focuses on the relationship between the forward-looking child and the traditionalist parent with the former cast as protagonist and the latter as antagonist. Love stories during these best and worst of times are also popular. Magda Szabó,
however, focuses upon a very different familial relationship that abandons the
epic in favor of a more nuanced reading of how the aforementioned sword can
affect the nuclear family in her novel Iza's Ballad, which was
originally published in Hungary in 1963. Following the success of the
translation of Szabó's later novel The Door into English in 2015, Iza's
Ballad was translated by George Szirtes and published for the first time in
the United States in November 2016.
Set in Hungary in 1960, half of the story takes place in Budapest, while the other half of the book is based in a provincial town. There are also numerous trips down each character's memory lane—though such proverbial meanderings sometimes prove difficult because the younger generation's world seems to have been superimposed on top of the landscape that the older generation had come to know. These reminiscences stretch from the pastoral days of the fin de siècle to the end of World War II. While these remembrances initially seem to only exist to flesh out the characters of the book and to give readers a better understanding of their motivations, it later becomes apparent that these histories serve another purpose: They allow Szabó the opportunity to make critiques of the Soviet world in which she inhabits without openly denouncing it.
However, such criticism is not in favor of American-style capitalism; it is, rather, a more universal longing for a more pastoral existence and a lament for the world that must be destroyed in order for progress to triumph. The younger generation wants to embrace the urban and the process of rapid industrialization and modernization, which requires they cut ties with their rural past. However, there is substance and authenticity in the rural past. This is something that the older generation recognizes. To fully abandon it, Szabó suggests, demands a type of person devoid of warmth or joy or humanity. One winds up alienated and hollow.
Iza's Ballad focuses on both those who embrace the new and urban and those who remain attached to the past, like ghosts. Though the primary focus is on the relationship between a mother, Ettie, and her daughter, Iza, that gets cultivated in the aftermath of the death of Vince—the husband of the former and father of the latter—once Ettie moves into Iza's modern apartment in Budapest, the strongest moments of the book examine the way in which Ettie recognizes that she is something of a living relic, someone who has no real purpose and feels far too estranged from the modern world to ever fully belong to it. Once she is in Budapest with her Iza, she finds herself not only an inconvenience to her daughter, but almost constantly in a state of suffocating boredom. Iza, meanwhile, feels overwhelmed as she tries to give Ettie simple tasks to do so that her mother may feel important, but even the most mundane chore somehow proves too difficult for the old woman.
The character of Ettie is far more than the familiar archetype of the bumpkin who can't make it in the city or the aging widow reminiscing about bucolic days gone by. Iza is far more than the familiar archetype of the cold, rational force of progress. This becomes all the more obvious as the book progresses and the history of the family comes to light. The novel also becomes more captivating and unique as the chasm separating Ettie and Iza expands. By not focusing on the epic struggles against fascism or pandering to a vision of bureaucratic benevolence favored by the Soviets, the novel is allowed to speak to the more universal and existential drama that arises when two people who love one another suddenly find themselves left with nothing in common.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.