Call for Chaos

The City Builder

by George Konrád, translated by Ivan Sanders
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 184 pp., $7.95

This is George Konrád’s second novel to appear in English. The first, The Case Worker, astonished and stirred critics in the West who saw in Konrád not only a new talent in fiction but a new development in the postwar literature of Eastern Europe. Here was something highly ironic. The regimes, at first with threats and bribes but later on with resentful speeches at the congresses of writers’ unions, had always demanded “positive literature,” engaged with social problems. Most of the social-realist writing had proved poor: the best work was written in opposition and was individualistic, subjective, treating contemporary societies either not at all or from an essentially political point of view. Konrád seemed to have gone a step further. He wrote about society seen through the eye of a social worker—an eye not only imaginative but trained and analytic. At the same time, his criticism of that society and its ruling bureaucracy was merciless. His own originality, and the relative tolerance of the Hungarian literary gendarmerie, had allowed him to combine political opposition and a modern, science-based social awareness.

This isn’t, of course, unknown in contemporary Western literature—although it is significantly rare. But it has its own meaning in the east of Europe. Is there any sense in talking about “East European writing,” or is this phrase somehow a dismissive and illegitimate category, like “women’s novels”? I think that we can use the expression in an elementary sense. This is writing carried out under a much greater pressure than that which encloses the artist in Western Europe or North America: say, six atmospheres as opposed to three. Fish at depth acquire their own characteristics under pressure, and some will explode, die, or simply cease to function effectively when brought close to the surface. The story of East European writers who have moved or been deported to the West is often a sterile coda, sometimes a tragic collapse.

This special meaning of Konrád’s “social opposition” in fiction is that he lives in a country where it is no longer simply a matter of “them or us,” of tyrants and victims. Konrád said this plainly in the lecture he delivered recently in Venice, reprinted in the January 26 issue of this magazine, when he talked about his brief arrest three years ago and tried to break down the apparent “polarity” between an avantgarde poet and a secret policeman.

They are both young, are perhaps the graduates of the same university, and in many ways have the same cultural background…. It’s possible that for the young detective it is unpleasant to interrogate his classmate; on the other hand, the young avant-garde poet could conceivably approve of all the advantages intellectuals enjoy in state socialism…. The conflict between autonomy and respect for hierarchy affects both of them. We could not understand either man in terms of old-fashioned dichotomies; nor can we see them as romantic incarnations of good and evil.

He is interested in the role …

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