It’s only barely three weeks into the new year, and I think I may well have just encountered my book of the year.
Yes, this one.
Magda Szabo’s brilliant piece of storytelling – The Door.
In less than 200 pages, Szabo has managed to plunge me so deeply into the hearts and minds of her two main protagonists that upon finishing the book, I was left with such an overwhelming sense of heaviness and exhaustion, that it was as if I too, had just lived through what they did.
Although I suppose the fact that animals had featured largely in the story was one of the main reasons for the affinity, I know it was certainly much more than that too.
It’s a story that tells of the dynamics and the evolution in the relationship between the narrator, a writer by profession, and her stoic but fiercely loyal and selfless housekeeper, Emerence, over the course of some twenty over years.
Two wildly different individuals forming a complex yet intense bond, leading to eventual traumatic consequences.
The writer, being one who relies on the written word as a form of refuge, and uses them to construct as well as comprehend her reality:
I only know what I have to do on paper. In real life, I have difficulty finding the right words.
Emerence, who has no regards (and even a little contempt) for the written word, who believes that action speaks louder than words, and that true value can only come from solid physical labour.
Emerence was a generous person, open-handed and essentially good. She refused to believe in God but she honoured Him with her actions. She was capable of sacrifice. Things I had to attend to consciously she did instinctively. It made no difference that she wasn’t aware of it – her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing.
It’s also a story that tells about how one’s affections can often fail to be conveyed and expressed in ways that can be understood or reciprocated by the other.
Of how often one’s best intentions and hopes can fail to translate well into the precise words and actions required to bring about the desired results and outcomes.
Of how easily love and affection, when clumsily executed by flawed individuals, can bring about the greatest hurt and damage imaginable.
Of how, despite one’s best efforts, one can still fail to honour one’s word and live up to the expectations from loyalties once pledged.
And of how then, does one live with the echoes of regrets reverberating long into the days, when all is said and done.
I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.
I am reminded of another passage from Thornton Wilder:
Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The ‘door’ inferred to in the title goes beyond just the physical front door that Emerence had kept closed to the outside world for most of her life. It also refers to the door to her heart, which she tries so hard to keep shut too, in order to protect herself from the hurt and suffering that comes from the pain of losing what she loved.
In her own words :
You should never love anyone, or any animal, that much.
This reminds me of a similar quote which I love, from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, with regards to choosing or not, to put one’s heart on the line for anyone or anything.
Reading this ‘miracle of a book’, as a dear friend puts it, will hurt.
Especially if you have ever known what it is like to have loved and cared for an animal unconditionally.
Yes, I’ve told you animals play a large role in this story.
Don’t you see? You’re all I’ve got left. You, and my animals.
And that was how Szabo managed to find her way right into my very core, and tugged really hard.