“As soon as the child who needs no stories comes into this world, we should all start to fear.” —György Konrád, A Guest in My Own Nation
It is as youngsters we first uncover that literature enchants us because it opens doorways and exhibits us worlds we didn’t even know existed. We never outgrow that enchantment with stories, and in 1987, on the age of 37, I stood captivated in a bookstore in Atlanta, once I picked up a replica of The Case Worker, by György Konrád and started studying. I felt a door opening earlier than me.
A yr after that, I did certainly step by way of a door: the door I closed to my home in Atlanta after I bought all the things I owned in America (apart from my books, in fact) and flew to Budapest. That was adopted by the door I knocked on in Buda and Konrád himself welcomed me into his residence. Then there was the gate, not likely a door, of the Farkasreti cemetery that I went via final month, Sept. 25, 2019, once I attended Konrád’s funeral, who died at age 86.
Earlier than that day in 1987, I had never learn a Hungarian novelist—or any author from Communist Europe, but because of Philip Roth and the Penguin collection of Writers from the Other Europe, I was discovering fiction so totally different from anything available on the market that I started hoovering them up. In any case, I used to be reading principally American Jewish novelists and Southern fiction. None of those writers have been being arrested, thrown out of their nations, or have been smuggling manuscripts out with foreigners. Words just seemed to have more weight over there. Roth himself summarized it in an interview within the Paris Evaluation when he stated he lived in a society the place “all the things goes and nothing matters, whereas for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and every part matters.”
For me, Konrád’s The Case Employee was all about what issues. Right here an unnamed social employee in what we presume is Budapest oversees instances of abandoned youngsters in a social welfare office, and in 180 pages, the social worker takes us into the filthy flats of suicides, ill-lit bars where the hopeless sit and drink, and his own dingy workplace the place “I query, explain, show, disprove, comfort, threaten, grant, deny, demand, approve, legalize, rescind. Within the identify of the legal rules and provisions I defend regulation and order for want of something better to do.” Not exactly the socialist paradise Communism was making an attempt to point out to the world.
When the ebook was launched in Hungary in 1969 it bought its complete print run of 6,000 copies in a day, however the publisher was not allowed to reprint it. Nor would any of Konrád’s novels see print in Hungary till the late 1980s, aside from a badly mangled version of The City Builder. He was interrogated by the police, jailed every now and then, but he refused to emigrate, all whereas his international status grew exponentially, especially in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria.
Once I moved to Budapest in March 1988, one among my first stops was to see Csaba Csikes, the U.S. Embassy public affairs officer well-known for supporting political dissidents. Once I advised Csaba how a lot I liked Konrád’s work, he scribbled down his telephone number and tackle. “Go see him. He likes company. Simply as long as it’s not the police.”
Turns out I used to be dwelling close by. (Not “can I borrow a cup of sugar” shut, however close enough.) As an alternative of phoning—I couldn’t bear to think about what a fanboy of a Hungarian dissident novelist appeared like on the telephone—I made a decision to knock on his door.
Which I did, and while standing within the doorway, Konrád listened as I informed him I was dwelling in Budapest and beloved his work, and he replied, in a voice so deep that it barely registered, “Ohhhhh (he often obtained three syllables out of that word) do are available,” and as he shuffled (he all the time shuffled) into his not surprisingly booklined front room, stated, “what do you imply, you reside right here?”
I advised him that for the previous three years I had been photographing and writing about Jews still dwelling in Communist nations and had spent most of my time in Romania however felt if I have been going to do issues right I’d need to stay within the area, and Budapest made probably the most sense because it had more Jews than the remainder of the region combined.
György, or as his American publisher referred to as him, George, and as his pals referred to as him, Gyuri, took me into the kitchen to satisfy his wife, Judit Lakner, who was feeding their two young children. All of us sat on the table, slices of bread and cheese went round, and after a couple of tales and comments about politics, Judit stated, “Come back any time.”
Konrád with fellow dissident and dearest good friend Miklos Haraszti, 1988 (Photograph: Edward Serotta)
I did return, typically with the Konráds’ associates, Miklos Haraszti and his wife Antonia Szenthe.
Miki was, like Gyuri, one in every of Hungary’s greatest recognized dissidents and had written Employee in a Employee’s State, concerning the grim circumstances on the assembly line. One German intellectual referred to as it the Winnie the Pooh for younger leftists. It additionally landed Haraszti in jail and on trial. As I watched the 2 of them converse in Konrád’s residence, it was clear Konrád was one thing like an older brother. I took the image of the 2 of them right here in late 1988. And it might be Haraszti who gave one of many emotional, tear-streaked eulogies at Konrád’s funeral 31 years later.
As the Communist Get together tore itself aside in 1989 with divisions between reformers and hardliners, I requested Konrád if it really would cut up. “Ohhhhhhh,” he stated, “the get together is like a very dangerous marriage. Each side hate each other however neither aspect needs to surrender the home.”
However the social gathering did cut up and Konrád and Haraszti turned founding members of the Liberal Social gathering. I took one of many footage here of Haraszti speaking with metal staff in the industrial town of Salgotarian; I even drove him there and back simply so I might observe how a rustic hatches a multiparty democracy, meeting by assembly, one dialog after another.
Haraszti campaigning for his political celebration, 1989 (Photograph: Edward Serotta)
After democracy got here to Hungary, various individuals thought Konrád ought to develop into the nation’s president, however as an alternative, Konrád accepted the presidency of the world PEN Club between 1990 and 1993; three years later he and Judit and their youngsters (there was now a daughter) moved to Berlin, where Gyuri served as the top of the distinguished Academy of Art—the first foreigner to carry the publish.
All of the whereas, his earlier novels have been revealed at house and he appeared on tv and on radio commonly. He additionally produced enough nonfiction to fill volumes of collected essays in a number of languages, all while accolades and awards piled up at his door all through the 1990s and early 2000s.
Once Hungarians might learn Konrád’s banned novels, and as they discovered a broader audience abroad, readers found the unexpurgated version of his experimental second novel, The City Builder, which was adopted in 1982 (in English) by The Loser, his longest novel but at some 316 pages.
The setting came to Konrád when he was unemployable and had taken a job in a mental institute. In The Loser, his protagonist, locked in an asylum, seems to be backward to his Orthodox Jewish grandparents in rural Hungary, his spendthrift, womanizing father, his personal escape from the Nazis and becoming a member of the Communist regime earlier than going towards it within the 1956 rebellion. Kirkus Assessment referred to as it “tremendously ugly” however “grimly memorable,” whereas Richard Sennett in The New York Occasions referred to as Konrád “the Proust of disillusion.”
Konrád went on to put in writing two well-received novels that have been less experimental. A Feast in the Garden was his most autobiographical and was revealed in 1989; nine years later got here Stone Dial. In each novels his characters take us to Budapest and Konrád’s hometown, which he calls Újfalu, and it appears each time Konrád’s typewriter met the reminiscence of his childhood, he was at his most adorable. However it was a childhood that turned to horror.
In both A Feast in the Garden and in his memoir, A Visitor in My Own Nation, (revealed in English in 2007), Konrád wrote that when the Germans occupied Hungary in April 1944, his wealthy mother and father have been arrested and sent to a labor camp in Austria—but not as Jews—as conflict profiteers, as an area baker had knowledgeable on them. It saved their lives. Gyuri was 11 years previous, and simply in case, his mother and father informed him where they buried their documents and some cash, and his mother had—once more, simply in case—sewed gold coins into his and his sister’s garments.
Together with his mother and father now gone, Gyuri took the documents and money to the local police chief, acquired the stamps of their documents they would wish to travel, and left together with his youthful sister by practice for Budapest.
The very next day, the Jews of his village, Beretttyóújfalu by identify, have been rounded up and despatched to Auschwitz. Virtually none returned, and the Konráds can be the only intact Jewish family on the town.
In his memoir and in A Feast in the Backyard, Konrád recounts the horrors of the Budapest ghetto in skin-crawling element. He turned his head when his sister referred to as his identify, and just as he did so, a bullet tore via the pot of soup he was cooking. It might have gone by means of his head. On Klauzal Sq. he appeared right into a bakery to seek out only an enormous stack of corpses inside, which he additionally noticed often on the road.
In A Guest in My Personal Country, his neighbor, a teenager by the identify of Mário, was shot on the banks of the Danube, tied to his father, then thrown in.
However Mário managed to free himself and being only wounded in his arm, managed to free himself from his father’s corpse and crawl out of the freezing river. When an Arrow Cross soldier saw him coming towards him, Mário was far past caring.
“Shoot me into the Danube once more if you would like.”
“Jews are like cats,” stated the previous Arrow Cross man. “They hold coming again to life. Right here he’s hardly out of the river and he will get cheeky. When it’s all over, they’ll have the nerve responsible all of it on us.”
What György Konrád has given us via his fiction, his stand towards the Communist state, his memoirs and in his essays, is that one lives by a moral code. Regardless of how small and powerless one is, regardless of how hopeless the chances, one simply does what’s proper and uses the tools one has at hand. It’s what comes via in The Case Worker. As grim as things are portrayed—and Konrád piles up five pages in a single sentence on the finish of the ebook itemizing the homeless, the unloved, the lonely, the deserted, the discarded—Konrád’s social worker invitations them all in: “at the least we shall be collectively.”
György Konrád’s funeral, 2019 (Photograph: Edward Serotta)
I used to be reminded of how Konrád treated others one night within the fall of 1989. The Hungarian Communist Social gathering was in a complicated state of collapse, Poland already had its first non-Communist prime minister, and I used to be in the Konrád’s kitchen talking with Judit and the Harasztis. Gyuri was in the living room speaking with a journalism scholar from Kansas, who was stumbling by way of an interview and who sounded virtually as naïve and fumbling as I did a yr earlier. But Konrád—who knew what endurance was—treated the lad with deference.
Instantly there was a knock on the door and the bureau chief of a serious American newspaper burst in and advised Konrád he wanted a quote and his opinion on one thing that was breaking in the news right then.
Konrád came to the door of the living room, smiled and stated—slowly, and in that deep plate-rattling voice of his—“Oh … I’m sorry … I am with one other journalist,” and he waved his arm to reveal the scrawny kid on the couch who had a tape recorder on knees pressed together and a pocket book on his palms. “Please come back in an hour or two.”
The reporter stated he couldn’t. He was on a deadline. It was essential!
“I’m sorry,” Konrád stated as he shrugged, and with that he gently closed the door and went back to the scholar, whose eyes have been as large as saucers.
At the least we will be collectively, I assumed.
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