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 of intellectuals in the socialist states, the way in which they both serve the “state culture” and are part of a quietly growing “parallel culture,” so that “what makes the struggle exciting and tense is that neither side has contestants who are ‘pure’ representatives of their position.” Later this year, if all goes well, there will appear an English translation of The Road of the Intellectuals to Class Power, a study which Konrád and Ivan Szelenyi wrote three years ago and which occasioned their brief and slightly farcical arrest. Until then, Konrád’s thinking is represented by this new novel, The City Builder.
In this book, he is writing about a planner. The narrator, or soliloquist, has lived modern Hungarian history to the full. He is the child of a great bourgeois figure, a private architect who erected the city’s first power station. The war comes: he is taken prisoner and American bombers obliterate much of what his father built. In the first communist years, he becomes a planner of Stalinism. “The state is good; if the state owns everything, everything is good.” The planners, as Konrád puts it, programmed a system and it programmed them; the new bureaucrats considered administrative violence a historical necessity, as they raised hundreds of thousands up and cast hundreds of thousands down. “My father had twenty suits of clothes. I only had two. He had several dozen men working under him; I gave orders to thousands, including convicts in striped clothes….”
His own turn comes to be arrested, to vanish into the underworld of torture and imprisonment. Then he is released into a different, post-Stalinist world. He becomes a new sort of planner: a technocrat, the chief builder of a provincial town. But the different world turns out to be not so different. “We long ago exchanged the coercive patterns of total political planning for the computerized mythology of balance-seeking, pragmatic planning, and classified the fact of economic growth as an ethical prerequisite….” The men with the carpeted offices and long conference tables are still regulating everything and introducing fresh regulations.
Konrád’s planner reflects with self-disgust that his tribe has become invulnerable. “We benefit from each change in the ideology; we can be communists, liberals, technocrats, or ecologists. Wherever systems become complex and the stakes risky, we become indispensable…. The age of ironic reflections has arrived, but we are still the masters. Priests could be ignored, but not we, who proceed from earth to heaven, and are therefore not representatives of divine power.”
Extracting one element like this—the political autobiography of the “city builder”—makes the book sound like a narrative. It is not. Konrád showed signs in The Case Worker of becoming excited by the nouveau roman. In this novel, he has let the excitement take charge and the result is not very happy. Far from achieving “authorlessness,” he has shuffled his narrative elements into a vast deck of associations, metaphors, philosophizings. Sometimes the jumbled mass achieves a wild glitter of sign language: the Hungarian tradition of surrealist writing is still very much alive. Sometimes the reader is slithering through an interminable word-waste, in which simile after simile shimmers off toward infinity. Then the authorly, political Konrád reasserts himself: there is elegance, wit, and the rich but not uncontrolled rhetoric which made The Case Worker so impressive.
Crises of destruction recur: a great flood, the bombing of the city. There is an earthquake: a reflection of the Skopje disaster in Macedonia. Crises of personal tragedy and failure: the planner’s wife is killed in a car wreck, his son struggles against madness, his father dies majestically. There are carnivals: a frenzy of boozing and whoring as fascist Hungary collapses, a New Year rejoicing in the town square, a love affair in summer by the sea. Life repeatedly insists that it will unplan the planners, unbutton those who have got their ideas nicely buttoned up, pour chaos over those who have regulated chance off their desks and into the shredder. Human beings humanize the state “in their slow and cunning way,” even in Eastern Europe.
The planner gives up. “Instead of observing official holidays I want to join a carnival. I would gladly admit that nothing is mine except my death—and the whole world. I want a left-wing city, a destructively constructive, diffusely coherent dialogue about the perils of being human…. Over precarious and crumbling heaps I want unexpected, slender shapes, whose ever-growing possibilities question their own viability—a city that its citizens use to debate and make love in. Through the language of objects they can communicate with the dead, and on their doorknobs shake hands with vanished forebears…the traffic of innovations is never choked off.” That is no bad description of this book, which has its traffic jams but its slender shapes too.
March 9, 1978