The Long Work of Liberty

George Konrad, translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders

Editors’ Note: This article by the Hungarian novelist George Konrád was read at the Venice Biennale on Cultural Dissent which took place in November and December. (See The New York Review of Books, July 14, 1977, for the background to this event.) Many writers and artists from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who are now living in the West attended the Biennale, including Andrei Sinyavsky, Joseph Brodsky, Leszek Kolakowski, and Joseph Skvorecky. (Among the Western writers attending were Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag, and Claude Roy.) Mr. Konrád was, however, the only writer now living in Eastern Europe who was able to take part; all the other writers in the USSR and in the Eastern European countries who accepted invitations were denied visas to travel to Venice.

Mr. Konrád is the author of two novels, The Case Worker, published in 1974, and The City Builder, which has just been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He was arrested in November 1973 while collaborating with a friend, Ivan Szelenyi, on a book on the intelligentsia in the East and West, and was soon after released. This work will appear in 1978 as The Road of the Intellectuals to Class Power.

Aside from the symposium on literary dissent, which heard Mr. Konrád’s statement, the Venice Biennale also included special sessions on nationalized filmmaking, religious and scientific freedom, and the history of dissent, as well as exhibitions of films and works of art. Stephen Spender, one of the participants in the Biennale, wrote: “I have the impression that this congress of dissidents at the Biennale will be of historic importance…. Its great value for those of us from the West may be that it complicates for us the over-simplified picture we had in our minds of the dissidents—of themselves, their literature, their problems. We are able to see all these as far more complex, varied, and rich than we had supposed.”

I am an Eastern European; I know what repression is like, and my experiences with it did not begin with Stalinism. I attended a small-town Jewish elementary school; out of its 100 students only four of us are alive today. I have known ever since that you cannot trust the state, only a few friends at best. It is also since then that I want private conscience, and not public loyalty, to choose between right and wrong. It’s to make sure this happens that I became a writer.

The death camps provided the twentieth century with the absolute model of evil. Those who built the camps, and who run and defend them, are not demented criminals; they are merely loyal, all too loyal citizens of the state. The true symbol of the totalitarian state is not the executioner, but the exemplary bureaucrat who proves to be more loyal to the state than to his friend.

It is quite easy to be infected by a state religion and very difficult to be cured of it. For me, one of the tasks of literature…

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