Magazine article The Spectator

A Still Small Voice

Magazine article The Spectator

A Still Small Voice

Article excerpt

CASTLES BURNING by Magda Denes

Doubleday 16.99, pp. 350

Part of me fell in love with the voice of Magda Denes and part, flipping back more frequently as the fascination grew, with the face in the photo on the flap. Both are searching, vivacious, tragic, ironic, utterly stripped of illusion, utterly unforgettable. And both belong to a woman who, at the time of her death last December, was a professor of psychoanalysis in New York - and at the time of this wonderful memoir a child in wartime Budapest.

`When you come down to it,' writes Denes, `fear is an entertaining emotion. It keeps everything inside you buzzing.' Young Magda, Jewish and five years old when the second world war breaks out, has plenty to fear. Her father does a bunk to America (liquidating the family assets to do so); her mother, aunt, doted-on elder brother Ivan, her grandparents, and cousin Ervin are the family with whom Magda faces grim changes, till in 1943 they vote on whether to commit suicide together. Magda's is the casting vote.

From then on, life straitens to reduced and horrible circumstances: hiding in ovens, head lice, fake papers, bombing raids friendship and petty advantage, told in a laconic, disabused tone that is part 60year-old and part precocious child: 'I am vermin-infested, I thought, and immediately fell asleep.' Elsewhere, 'I was too weary to pray. I waved good night to God and went to sleep.' This is exhaustion, irony, and sheer survival.

They survive in an annexe of the Swiss consulate where 3,600 cram into a space that might tolerably house 400. Nazis and Nyilas repeatedly threaten its safety, but the Russians liberate their district of Budapest on 6 January 1945. Magda is out on the street for the first time in months:

To the left, a huge crumpled Russian tank sat, its metal twisted in a thousand tortured angles. To the right lay a dead horse, a snowdrift growing on its bloated belly . …

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