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György (George) Konrád (b. 1933)

 

Hungarian novelist and essayist. As an advocate of individual freedom Konrád was under a publication ban during most of the 1970s and early 1980s. His works began to appear in Hungary after the formation of multiparty democratic system and the ties to Soviet Union were cut. Many of Konrád's novels are semi-autobiographical.

"As the walls come tumbling down, what once seemed portentous becomes pitiful and ludicrous; the entire structure that supported the now crumbling Iron Curtain in public and private discourse is crumbling in peoples minds as well. When we see the heaps of rubble, when we see the barbed wire  symbol of so many labor camps  turning into rubbish or even marketable souvenirs, we feel a certain self-confidence. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here we are, threading what was once forbidden and forbidding ground. We have prevailed. " (from Konrád speech after the partial opening of the Hungarian-Austrian Border in 1989, in The Melancholy of Rebirth, 1995)

György Konrád was born in Berettyóújfalu, near Debrecen, into a Jewish family. His father owned a farm machinery shop and was able to provide the family a comfortable living during the 1930s. The family had a young German "Fräulen", who looked after the children and listened from the radio Hitler's speeches. Konrád attended the Debrecen Reform College. When the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 his parents were arrested and sent to an internment camp. During Admiral Miklos Horthy's reign, some million Hungarians lost their lives, half of them were Jewish. All of Konrád's classmates Berettyóújfalu were killed in gas chambers. Konrád escaped with his sister and two cousins to Budapest where he lived with his aunt. He experienced the siege of the capital by the Russians and was nearly killed by Hungarian Nazis.

After the war he returned with his sister to Debrecen. Konrád's parents survived their imprisonment, but his father's shop was socialized in the late 1940s and they had to leave their house. Konrád went to live with an uncle. In 1951 he graduated from the Madách Gymnasium in Budapest. Konrád entered the Lenin Institute but transferred then to the Loránd Eötvös University, where he studied literature, sociology, and psychology, completing a degree as a teacher of literature. "I read Stalin's work and I realized that he was a quite bad author, and much worse than Lenin, although Lenin is also much worse than Marx, " Konrád later said.

During the 1956 Hungarian Uprising Konrád carried a submachine gun but he did not shoot anybody. For some time he was a teacher at general gymnasium in Csepel and editor of the magazine Életképek, but the publication never appeared. After a long period of unemployment, he became a social worker and editor for Magyar Helikon. From 1965 he was a sociologist at Budapest Institute of Urban planning. He also worked for several years at the Academy's Institute for Literary Scholarship. In 1973 he had a collision with the political system and lost his position.

When Konrád was given permission to travel abroad, he started to spend more and more time in the West. From 1982 to 1984 he lived in Berlin on a stipend and in 1986 he was a visiting professor of comparative literature at Colorado Springs College. In 1990 Konrád was elected president of International P.E.N., the first Central European to hold this position. He was appointed in 1997 President of the Art Academy in Berlin. Konrád has received several awards, including Herder-Prize (1984), Europaean Essay Prize (1985), Maecenas Prize (1989), and Manès-Sperber Prize (1990).

Before turning to fiction, Konrád published a number of essays on both literature and sociology. Konrád's early fiction reflected his experiences as a social worker and a town planner. His first novel, A látogató (1969, The Case Worker), was translated into many languages and brought him worldwide recognition. The book depicted the life of a social worker and his daily activities. Konrád mixed with the story case histories and reports. His pessimistic view about the situation of the abandoned and abused, the urban physical and intellectual degeneration, received in his own country criticism but in the United States the book was praised for its realism. Especially Konrád's language, sociologically precise and at the same time lyrical, was noted.

With Iván Szelényi he wrote Új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái (1969) and Az értelmiség útja az osztáslyhatalomhoz (1978, The Intellectual on the Road to Class Power). It argued that proletariat is the most oppressed class and intelligentsia is the dominant force in society. The work was not published in Hungary where the police tried to uncover evidence of its circulation underground. After its publication Szelényi used the right to emigrate from Hungary. Konrád essays about censorship and liberty, notably 'A függetlenség lassú munkája' (1977) and 'Az állami ember és a cenzúra' (1981) reflected the limits of the freedom of speech in the most liberal country in the Eastern Block.

Konrád's royalties from works published abroad and various scholarships helped him to continue his career as a writer. His second novel, A városalapító (1977, The City Builder), was about a middle-aged Eastern European architect whose interior monologues reveal his family history and his disillusionment about Socialism. The builder was in his youth eager to sketch out the most daring visions but now he is only glad that repression has not dehumanized him completely.

In A cinkos (1982, The Loser), written while Konrád worked at a sanitarium, the hero recollects in a psychiatric hospital the historical upheavals in Hungary before and after the Communists seized the power. "I walk in stocking feet along a prison corridor and end up in the warden's office. 'I can't get used to being locked up,' I tell him. He puts his hand on my shoulder. 'You are a foolish young man,' he says. 'Try to think of this place as a temple of the mind.'" (from The Loser) The half-Jewish, aging ex-Communist is a composite figure, who is seen in his childhood, as an underground revolutionary, a prisoner, a cabinet minister, an academic, and a mental patient. At the age of 55 he is a loser, who finds himself as part of a world, where madmen are against idiots.

Semi-autobiographical Kerti mulatság (1989, Feast in the Garden) is the first volume of a trilogy entitled Agenda. The novel focuses on five different characters, among them the dissident David Kobra, Konrád's alter ego. David's childhood in a small town in the heart of Central Europe ends, when the Jews are put on trains to concentration camps. He escapes to Budapest, where he miraculously survives Nazi horrors and becomes a barely tolerated dissident intellectual. Agenda was continued in 1995 with Koóra (Stone Dial), a mosaic of nostalgic images put together from moments of the past and the present. The Stone Dial appeared in English in the spring of 2000. In the story, set in the post-socialist Hungary, a celebrated writer returns to his native village, meets three old friends and goes through painful memories from World War II and the 1956 Revolution.

"I think that Europe is the continent which is most interested in other continents and their cultures... I wouldn't draw any sharp borderlines inside Europe. Such borders are as artifical and temporary as the so-called 'iron curtain.'" (from György Konrád rutschar tillbaka in i barndomen by Martti Puukko)

In The Melancholy of Rebirth (1995), a collection of essays, Konrád has examined critically the Post-Communist Central Europe. He sees that the old establishment has taken in the new order the important positions of economic power. The position of the poor has not changed, they are still ignored. "Capitalism is the price we have to pay for democracy," he writes. In The Invisible Voice (2000) he strongly defends human freedom  "European experience has proved that the dignity of the human individual is an unvanquishable virtue." In Europe, Konrád has been one of the few intellectuals, who has defended President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Konrád's inauguration of Berlin's controversial 'Forced Departures' exhibition in 2006 was accused by Polish politicians of historical misrepresentation.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2. ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Új Magyar Irodalmi Lexikon, vol. 2 (1994); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985) 

Selected works:

  • A látogató, 1969
    - The Case Worker (translated by Paul Aston, 1974)
    - Vierailija (suom. Anna-Maija Raittila, 1976)
  • Új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái, 1969 (with Iván Szelényi)
  • Kitörés, 1975 (with Péter Bacsó and Péter Zimre)
  • A városalapító, 1977
    - The City Builder (translated by Ivan Sanders, 1977)
  • A cincos, 1978
    - The Loser (translated by by Ivan Sanders, 1982)
    - Häirikkö: romaani (suom. Anna-Maija Raittil, 1982a)
  • Az értelmiség útja az osztáslyhatalomhoz, 1978
    - The Intellectual on the Road to Class Power (with Iván Szelényi, translated by Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen, 1979)
  • Az autonómia kísértése, 1980
  • Antipolitika, 1983
    - Antipolitics: An Essay (translated by by Richard E. Allen, 1987)
  • Agenda 1: Kerti mulatság, 1989
    - Feast in the Garden (first volume of Agenda trilogy; translated by Imre Goldstein, 1992)
    - Pidot puutarhassa: romaani ja työpäiväkirja (suom. Taisto Nieminen, 1993)
  • Európa köldökén, 1990
  • Az újjászületés melankóliája, 1991
    - The Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe, 1989-1994  (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1995)
  • Agenda 2: Koóra, 1994
    - The Stone Dial (second volume of Agenda trilogy, 2000)
    - Kivikello (suom. Taisto Nieminen, 1997)
  • Útrakészen, 1999
  • Mit tud a levelibéka, 2000
  • The Invisible Voice: Meditations on Jewish Themes, 2000 (translated by Peter Reich)
  • Elutazás és Hazatérés, 2001
    - A Guest in My Own Country (translated by Jim Tucker, 2007)
  • Fenn a hegyen napfogyatkozáskor, 2003
  • Az író és a város, 2004
  • A közép tágulása: gondolkodás Európáról, 2004
  • Kakasok bánata, 2005
  • Csodafigurák, 2006
  • Inga, 2008
  • Harangjáték, 2009
  • Zsidókról, 2011


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