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HU 1993

Judit Fenákel: Levélária (Working Title "They loved the opera")

Novel, 151 pages (Hungary, 1993)

This novel recounts the history over half a century of the love between a man and a woman, filled with doubt and despair, guilt and absolution, a shared childhood, and a shared love of opera.

Anikó Grossman is a high-school student, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish lawyer living not far from Szeged. She is preparing for her birthday party and is thinking about her presents, but she also thinking constantly about a young man who—as soon becomes apparent—is unattainable to her.

Nine Years Later:
Anikó survives the war and the Holocaust. The first performance of the new opera season is “Madama Butterfly.” She would like to lose herself in Puccini’s music, but the seat next to hers is unexpectedly taken by the man on whom she had long ago had a crush, Kálmán Turián, the son of a prominent judge. He has aged considerably and gives the impression of weariness.

Nine years earlier, they had also sat next to each other for Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Then, her father was waiting for her in the foyer and said, “It is brave of him to appear with a Jewish girl. You can’t expect anything further from him.” They parted with Mascagni, and met again with Puccini. The two performances separated more than nine years, indeed an entire world. Anikó had lost her parents in the concentration camps, Turián had only recently returned from being held as a prisoner of war. What a difference: voluntarily to depart life like Cho-Cho-San in “Madama Butterfly” or to be gassed like Anikó’s parents.

Anikó and Turián see each other only at the opera. They look forward nervously to the next performance, “Rigoletto,” each fearing that the other will not appear. They listen to Count Monterone’s curse, “…until for the crime that you commit, a stern judge grants me atonement,” and they begin to worry.

Turián wants to meet outside the theater. “You have changed so much,” he whispers in her ear. “How so? What was I like before,” Anikó asks in surprise.

Since they cannot converse at the opera, they begin to bring each other letters to the performances. These letters speak of more than memories of earlier nights at the opera.

Turián finally induces Anikó to meet with him outside the opera. He learns that in the hopelessness of her love for him, she had married a poor young Jewish boy, who was shortly thereafter called up for war work and died shortly thereafter. Her only “memento” of him is a child. On account of her daughter, Anikó entered into a loveless marriage.

The next operas are “Tosca” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” Many of the arias and the accompanying emotions displayed on the stage have a shared symbolism for Anikó and Turián.

Anikó and her second husband, Péter Körösi, become more and more estranged. An unskilled worker, he belongs, according to the Communist ideology, to the “privileged class.” Körösi is “pushed” into a managerial position. He begins to drink and gradually comes to believe that he has been called to something greater. He becomes colder toward his wife and stepchild. He suffers from feelings of inferiority.

Anikó has difficulties at work. Because of her “immoral” romantic attachment she is summoned by the authorities in the name of socialist morality, and a short while later is released. Things go no better with her husband. The time comes when shared drinking sprees and party loyalty no longer suffice for one to hold a managerial position.

Kálmán Turián becomes ill with Ankylosing spondylitis. He marries his therapist, who bears him a son. But from the outset, their relationship was not based on deep feelings. Turián becomes lonely and isolated.


Two old people sit on a bench in a park in winter. A man and a woman. Beside them, a portable radio is playing “Rigoletto.” They simultaneously reach for the search button. Then the woman’s hand glides into the man’s.

“I wanted to listen to music with you,” says Kálmán Turián. “I was thinking of ‘The Barber of Seville,’” replies Anikó. “You owe me that one; there the lovers are united.”

Commentary on the novel:

“Judit Fenákel’s books speak for themselves. One does not need to point out their worth to the educated reader.” —Imre Kertész

Kritiken / Reviews:

Élet es Irodalom (HU)

More works of this writer:

Lili utazásai (working title: "Lili's Travels")
Az igazi nagy nö (working title: "A Woman of the World")
Az elhallgatás (working title: "The Silence")
Magántörténet (working title: "The Temptation")
A kékezüst hölgy (working title: „Olga's three lives“)
A fénykép hatoldala (working title: "Backside of the Picture")

<-- Judit Fenákel