An Oracle of Humanism’s Survival


By Joshua Cohen

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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If the number, variety and talent of a country’s writers should be apportioned to that country’s population or size, then small Hungary is operating at an incredible surplus. But if the number, variety and talent of a country’s writers should be apportioned, instead, to the trauma suffered by that country — adjusted to the number and variety of its national wounds, as inflicted by wars and passing regimes — then Hungary’s modern writing wealth seems justified. Living and writing today, Hungary can count Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas and György Dalos among its internationally greatest, alongside the witty and devastatingly intelligent György Konrád, who in English publishes under the nom-de-cognatus George.

Konrád is a leading European mind, a former dissident and past president of the International PEN Centre, whose annual conference he was attending in New York in late April. His brief visit coincided with the American publication of his intellectually remarkable, emotionally inscrutable memoir. “A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life” (Other Press) begins with Konrád’s childhood in the village of Berettyóújfalu, following his younger self as he hides from the Nazis and participates in the Hungarian Uprising, then — practicing “internal emigration,” refusing to abandon his homeland — finds himself censored, placed under a publication ban and, ultimately, imprisoned. The memoir ends after the 1989 establishment of the Third Hungarian Republic, with Konrád’s Western emergence as an eminence of literate democracy, an oracle of humanism’s survival. The Forward’s Joshua Cohen sat down with Konrád at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky hours before the writer addressed an attentive crowd at the Hungarian Cultural Center.

Joshua Cohen: In your most famous novel, “The Case Worker,” you yourself were the model for the Case Worker, wandering the poorer streets of Budapest as an official of the state. Other novels of yours include autobiographical elements: Your characters are survivors of Nazism, oppressed intellectuals and struggling husbands…. What’s the difference between writing these fictionalizations of real experience and writing an absolute memoir such as “A Guest in My Own Country”?

George Konrád: There’s not too much difference. I realized if I kept out fiction [in “A Guest”], what would remain was fiction, too. Speaking from a certain distance, everything that happens to us in our lives eventually becomes fictionalized, a fiction: Our minds fictionalize our memories, which are not as much chronological as they are geographical. It’s as if what we remember are only islands of oil floating upon the surface of a sea of everything that has ever happened to us.

J.C.: You write movingly about the strange, strained relationships between Jews and Christians in your native Berettyóújfalu, in eastern Hungary. After your parents are liberated from a Nazi labor camp, they make the decision not to begin their lives anew in another country, or even in Budapest, where most of Hungary’s surviving Jews gathered, but instead to return to that village. You say your father wanted only “to be at home in his own house, to live where he had made his reputation.” What is the situation in Berettyóújfalu today? What has been the reaction to your memoir?

G.K.: This is a slow process. I have been named an honorary citizen of this little city — it’s now almost a city. On the wall of what was my father’s house, there is a memorial tablet, although the town has no specific Holocaust monument — and this was done just recently, after I wrote my books, after this memoir came out. The synagogue is still a warehouse, a storage depot. These days, there is always an initiative but rarely a change. There are unpleasant feelings….

J.C.: Under the communist regime, you were a noted dissident. You were censored, then placed under a publication ban; you were imprisoned. You write in the memoir about your relationship with your cousin, István, who was a prominent young intellectual with whom you often discussed Marx. István later had “suicide committed on him,” dying as an émigré, under mysterious circumstances in 1960, while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. What was your first encounter with communism, as a theory, before you became its practical victim?

G.K.: I first read about communism in a book about the history of philosophy by an American philosopher, Will Durant. [The book] was very important to me. For my 14th birthday [1947], I was given, as presents, two books: that Will Durant, and then a book called “The Little Physicist,” which was a Hungarian title of popular science. I placed the two books on the table, and I looked at them; I thought I would choose the more interesting one. This had been a fashion in Europe — so-called social science, or talent research. Children would be tested, and then we were told for which occupation or pursuit we would most be suited. The psychologist who tested me told me I could do anything, which didn’t make a decision any easier. Will Durant, and philosophy, won. Marx was an excellent writer, by the way, and he belongs on the shelf alongside all the other M’s: Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu….

J.C.: What was it like, psychologically, as a writer, living under a publication ban for so long?

G.K.: I always made a distinction — between the danger of being killed, by National Socialism, and the later, more moderate danger of being imprisoned. Such danger gave me a cold lucidity. The two consolations [of a publication ban] were almost accidental: I could publish underground, in samizdat, and I could publish abroad. Both required the cooperation of others; both required their taking risks. The people — the young people — I should say, involved with this were always more tempted by political texts and essays than by novels.

J.C.: After surviving two regimes, you seem resigned to living among people who “eat and drink a lot, buy ugly clothes off the rack, and watch television nonstop. They don’t execute the opposition, because there is no more opposition. There are no happy and unhappy people; there is really nothing and no one at all.” Is meaningful dissidence — is any form of dissent — still possible?

G.K.: Consensus is impossible, and every political agenda will eventually organize itself officially — toward the money, for votes. As there is no longer any need, nor purpose, for hidden circles and secret meetings, dissent today is a quite individual notion, and literature is still the greatest medium for that. I always thought it was crazy that the Marxists wanted everyone else to become a Marxist. I would not want any Konrád faction; the world doesn’t need any “Konrádists.”

J.C.: You have always been an advocate for the primacy of the individual. Is this because you yourself have always felt, and been made to feel, as a Jew, outcast, especially unwanted, even as a “guest,” by your own country?

G.K.: A child born in the countryside, like I was, has a wider social view; he sees everything. When he comes to the city, he is better equipped to interpret social status. This was an advantage I enjoyed, an advantage I still enjoy. If you are expelled from any community, you are, in a sense, also receiving a gift. When I was 15, I was excluded from the Youth Alliance [an official, communist-sponsored organization of Hungarian youth]. And because of my views, I supported [philosopher] George Lukács against his enemies — I should say, I was provoked into expressing my views. This was an excellent experience. The period immediately following the war was formative, very important — from 1945 to 1948, or ’49. It was only after this that I began to be “problematic.” My parents remained in our village, while I studied in the cities, in Debrecen and in Budapest. When you live alone, the most familiar place is often the library — where you can sit and read, where you can look at all the beautiful librarians. In 1949 came a new wave of censorship — the Indexation of Books; they made a list of books to be taken from the shelves of the library. One of the important figures of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution had been in charge of that very Index of Censorship; he later died in prison. Such changes are instructive. We are liberated from our own naiveté.

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