February 15, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

  1. February 15, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Your commentary is outstanding as always Emma.

    This sounds very good.

    I find that stories centering on older folks examining their lives have a special poignancy for me. This often also apples for comedies such as this.

    It has been said that in every older person there is a younger person trying to figure out what has happened.


    • February 15, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks Brian.

      I really like that saying. It’s up to us not to let our mind get old as fast as our body. Erzsi let herself go and Paula brings her back. I was glad for her.


  2. February 15, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Bonjour J’ai adoré ce livre, comme la plupart d’ailleurs de Istvan Örkény. C’est un monde fabuleux. à bientôt. Claude


    • February 15, 2015 at 6:27 pm


      Merci pour ce message. Je vais essayer d’en trouver d’autres de lui. J’ai vu qu’on peut trouver Les boîtes et Floralies facilement. Merci aux Editions Cambourakis!
      Avez-vous lu l’un de ces livres?


  3. February 15, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Oui, j’ai lu les deux, c’est aussi bien. J’ai trouvé d’occasion aussi, mais je me le réserve pour plus tard, “la famille Tot”. Je fais durer le plaisir car peu de livres de traduits. Dommage ! bonne journée. Claude


    • February 15, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      Merci. Je crois que Floralies est celui que je lirai en premier.


  4. February 15, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    The first quote made me smile, and I think I’d like this book. Oddly enough, I know a woman in her late 70s who just got a new boyfriend, and it’s improved her temperament quite a bit.


    • February 15, 2015 at 8:23 pm

      Believe me, I’ve witnessed the drama around Sunday balls for seniors and it’s high school all over again.


  5. February 15, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    This sounds like a lot of fun, but poignant too. I love the idea of Erzsi’s life being transformed in this way, one last hurrah.

    I can imagine it working really well as a stage play.


    • February 15, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      I liked the idea too. Viktor is gross but Erzsi realises she likes him more than she cares to admit.

      It must be fun on stage.


  6. February 21, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma. I haven’t heard of Istvan Örkény before – so thanks for introducing me to a new-to-me writer. I love Paula’s approach to life. It makes me remember one of my friends’ dad with whom I used to be friends – he loved reading comics and I used to lend him some of mine and we used to discuss them. My friend didn’t read comics 🙂


    • February 21, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      I liked Paula too because she doesn’t give up on life.


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