In Magda Szabo’s Magical Novel, a Statue Protects Students From the Nazis
By Magda Szabo
Magda Szabo’s novel “Abigail” begins with an ending. When we first encounter 14-year-old Gina Vitay, “the change that came about in her life robbed her of so much it was as if a bomb had destroyed her home.” The change in question — the sudden dismissal of Gina’s beloved governess — is just one of many upheavals soon to launch a cosseted teenager into an abrupt adulthood.
Originally published in 1970, “Abigail” is Szabo’s most popular book in her native Hungary, where it has been adapted into both a TV series and a musical — and where it is even more widely read than “The Door,” the 1987 novel that may be her best-known work outside her country. The English edition of “Abigail” is as welcome as it is overdue. Len Rix’s translation is deft, but Szabo’s frank, conversational prose takes a back seat to her sinuous plotting: The novel unspools its secrets over many pages, and the resulting tour de force is taut with suspense.
It is 1943 when Gina’s father, a general in the Hungarian Army, ships his daughter off to an oppressively pious boarding school in the remote village of Arkod (now the Serbian town of Jarkovac). Despite Gina’s protests, the general offers no explanations. Instead, he warns her to keep her whereabouts a secret from her friends back in Budapest.
[ Read an excerpt from “Abigail.” ]
Gina quickly discovers that Bishop Matula Academy is a bastion of strictly enforced uniformity. As soon as she arrives, her personal effects are confiscated, and her hair is trimmed so that it is indistinguishable from that of her peers. The students look so similar in their identical outfits that Gina struggles to differentiate them; they are even required to use regulation soap.
To add insult to injury, the Matula girls are barred from voicing their dissatisfaction. Gina plans to apprise her father of her misery in her first missive home, but a teacher warns her, “We do not forward letters that mention complaints.” “They have swallowed me whole,” Gina thinks in despair.
Initially, she has no more patience for her classmates’ defiant antics than she has for her teachers’ chastisements. Most juvenile of all is the myth that Abigail, a sculpture in the school garden, comes to the aid of students who drop handwritten entreaties into her urn. Gina is so unimpressed by this childish superstition and so dismayed by her austere environment that she contemplates running away.
But Abigail soon proves more substantial than she seemed at first. It’s not long before Gina has cause to wonder, “Why was I so slow to understand that in this forest of rules and instructions and prohibitions there might be someone, not a mere stone statue but a real person hiding behind it, ready to help anyone with a genuine need?”
Her classmates, too, win her over, and she comes to understand their pranks and traditions as survival tactics — ingenious means of cultivating individuality in an institution designed to root it out. Once Gina befriends her peers, she starts to relish their flair for subversion. “Like hungry little foxes,” her co-conspirators are “always on the qui vive, looking to squeeze out every bit of fun they could in the thicket of rules and regulations.”
Even as the students are fostering a culture of quiet dissent within the academy, an anonymous political insurgent is papering Arkod with anti-Nazi signage. When Abigail stages increasingly daring interventions to protect Matula’s Jewish students, Gina begins to suspect that the town revolutionary and the power behind the statue may be one and the same.
“Abigail” is at once harrowing and mesmerizing, all the more so because we glimpse its dramas through the uncomprehending lens of Gina’s youthful simplicity. Nothing could ruin a book so humane — but to resolve the novel’s central mysteries, especially the enigma of Abigail’s identity, would be to diminish some of its breathless urgency. To learn the truth, you must consult Abigail herself.