A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life
by George Konrád, trans. Jim Tucker
The Other Press, 2007, 352 pp., $15.95
The City Builder
by George Konrád, trans. Ivan Sanders
Dalkey Archive Press, 2007, 184 pp., $12.50
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic characteristic of twentieth-century despotism was its obsession with historical revision. When considered against history’s many brutal tyrants, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin stand out as pathological rewriters of personal and state history. If, as Stalin said, a totalitarian regime imposed ideological consent through the engineering of human souls, then much of this effort was spent creating and enforcing elaborate counter-histories. “Day by day and almost minute by minute,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the past was brought up to date.”
What ails a polity, however, can also cure it, and the late-twentieth-century’s civil resistance to totalitarianism was not only against the state’s nefarious reach into the present but also the past. Retrospection—in its refusal to participate in the present—became the ultimate technique of antipolitics. Soviet-bloc novelists Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Joseph Skvorecky, Czeslaw Milosz, Danilo Kiš, and George Konrád not only resisted the reigning culture of kitsch; they became vast cataloguers of personal history, practitioners of what can be called the “semi-autobiography.” Their novels served as covert antihistories that, in their non-linearity and depoliticization of memory, refused to accept the pervasive oneness of state history.
“The struggle against power,” Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and through the cloaked ambivalences of memory, the Iron Curtain dissidents critiqued the present—and, occasionally, escaped censorship.
It is no surprise, then, that George Konrád’s long-awaited memoir returns to this tactic. A Guest in My Own Country is a slow, cogitative look at a life lived under various totalitarian regimes. Konrád gave name and idea to the antipolitics movement, and though resistance is no longer a persistent lodestar, his retelling quivers with the politics of the past.
Konrád has made a career out of the remembered past. His novels are all semi-autobiographical and draw heavily from his memories as Jew and dissident in Arrow-Cross- and communist-controlled Hungary. Plot and character unravel through revealed past. As with Proust, the external world for Konrád is mere foil and metaphor for the memories that lie within.
Konrád’s early novels form a loose triptych of his professions. The Case Worker, his first, captures his gritty encounters as a young, idealistic social worker; The City Builder, a first-person history of failed urban planning and utopianism, recalls his work at the Budapest Institute of Urban Planning; and The Loser, written while the blacklisted Konrád worked at a state-run sanitarium, retraces the life of an institutionalized academic. In all three, a rueful narrator mines a troubled past in search of a more reconcilable present. Underlying these early novels is the guilt brought on by a past fraught with complicity—after all, his protagonists are state employees—and their retrospective narratives serve to alleviate this guilt of collaboration.
His later novels, which make up the uncompleted trilogy Agenda, are his most overtly autobiographical. The first two, A Feast in the Garden and Stonedial, tell the interconnected stories of two prodigal Budapest novelists who have returned to their semi-rural cities of birth. As Jews during the Second World War and political dissidents during the cold war, their itinerant lives are marred “by a fruitless search for a truly safe hiding place.”
Both characters are thinly disguised iterations of Konrád, and the novels open with eponymous George Konrád the Novelist (“I am writing a novel about a fictitious novel”) introducing us to his fictional alter egos, David Kobra, the plaintive, long-suffering dissident, and János Dragoman the philandering raconteur.
Like many Central European novelists, Konrád tells his stories through structure as much as plot. In each novel he is careful to build a proper formalistic edifice to match its internal contents. His early work closely charts the inner deterioration of their protagonists with an ever increasing narrative evasiveness. By the end of these early novels, psychological realism is replaced with garrulous stream of consciousness.
The Agenda novels take this narrative technique even farther. Their quilted pastiche of genres and story lines mimics the manifolds of memory—not only the compulsion to remember. They switch between essay and novel, first-person recollections and omniscient, third-person narrative. No single story line survives the duplicitous folds of the remembered past. “The library of memories,” Konrád writes in A Feast in the Garden, “is neither the truth nor a pack of lies; it is fable; the dance of unreliable fingers on a switchboard.”
In their refusal to conform to a single, realist form, The Agenda novels not only mirror Konrád’s lifelong sense of displacement but are also emblematic of his antipolitics. In their discursive nonlinearity, these novels attack the politicized unity of totalitarian life. “The self, with its own unsurpassable truth, is king in only one place: in literature. Authorial thinking begins where public thinking leaves off.” Art is no longer propaganda; the past, no longer state history; life, no longer vessel for ideology.
It is symbolic that Konrád does not continue this mode of experimental retrospection in A Guest in My Own Country. In his memoir, we get the relaxed storytelling of a master litterateur—one who is now free to write as he pleases—and his narrative is forthright and realist. His memories are sparse and have a quality of the rehearsed. After all, this is his sixth book on his favorite trope—iterative autobiography—and we only need a life in anecdotes.
The Hungarian version of A Guest in My Own Country came out in two volumes: Departure and Return, a devastating account of childhood (if one can call it that) in Nazi-overrun Hungary, and Up on the Hill During a Solar Eclipse, a vigorous and reprobative critique of adulthood in communist Hungary. Though seamlessly abridged into a single volume, the English language rendition does not grant the structural separation needed to divide such disparate experiences.The English translation of A Guest in My Own Country was edited and abridged by the distinguished translator Michael Henry Heim.
Departure and Return, like Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, is an evocative description of a child’s departure from the civil world and his eventual return. It is primarily a study of the militarized and murderous mode of historical revision favored by the Nazis. History books are burned. Cities become battlegrounds. Forests become improvised death camps.
For the Jews of Europe, life was an arduous struggle to escape historical and physical erasure. For Konrád, who was eleven when Hungary signed a treaty with the Nazis, the rise of fascist totalitarianism meant that all semblances of childhood evaporated. “You become an adult the moment you face your own death,” Konrád writes, “which means I have been an adult from the age of eleven.”
This first book, though despairing, ends with revival. After he spends almost two years starving and running, the fascists are defeated, civil society returns, and a thirteen-year-old Konrád, once again acquainted with his parents, begins life anew.
As its title suggests, Up on the Hill During a Solar Eclipse deals with a totalitarianism in which the physical ability to see is countered by a comprehensive desire to manufacture what is seen. The idealistic ending of Departure and Return is quickly usurped by Soviet authoritarianism, and this second volume charts the slower, more internal deterioration caused by civil totalitarianism.
Life in communist Hungary is one of ultimate flatness. Civil society continues, however insipid and disfigured. “In this part of the world, people eat and drink, buy ugly clothes off the rack, and watch television nonstop. They don’t execute opposition, because there is no more opposition. There are no happy or unhappy people; there is really nothing and no one at all.”
As a Jewish story, Konrád’s tale is one of remembered fortuity. When he was eleven, his parents were taken by the Gestapo and sent to an Austrian internment camp. The arrest, however, “bestowed a great fortune upon us”—for after his parents’ imprisonment, Konrád paid 30,000 pengos to help himself, his sister, and two cousins escape to Budapest, where Jews were still under the protection of Regent Horthy. The day after they left, the Jews of Berettyóújfalu were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.
In Budapest, the day-to-day task of survival continued. Soon after their arrival, Horthy was deposed by the Nazis. A murderous cadre of Arrow Cross took over, and marauding gangs roamed the streets shooting Jews at will. “Documents meant nothing: only drunkenness and fear had meaning—and the sympathy or antipathy of the moment.” Even as the Russians approached on the eastern front, the Arrow Cross’s “mood for murder flared up and flagged by turns” and they continued “filling the ice-flow-congested Danube with old ladies and young girls.”
It is remarkable that the Konrád children survived such murderous pandemonium. With the exception of an elder cousin and a set of twins who endured testicular experiments, the Konrád children were the only Jewish children from Berettyóújfalu to have survived the Second World War. “All the others,” Konrád writes, “ended up as ashes.”
Konrád’s parents were equally lucky. Having survived in Austrian internment camps, they returned to Hungary after the war and reopened their hardware store. More than half of Hungary’s Jews were killed during the Second World War.
If Departure and Return is historical testament in the face of physical erasure, Up on a Hill During a Solar Eclipse depicts a struggle against a more insidious reality, and the form of its disobedience, one of methodical, antipolitical cogitation, articulates a much more politically instructive message for today’s society.
Now, Konrád the Adult is a lead actor, first as a gun-wielding rebel in the 1956 Hungarian uprising, then as a novelist and political dissident. Having spent his childhood outside of civil society, Konrád now is a well-known member, and the tepid relationship between citizen and state, once entirely fissured, now becomes an entrenched struggle.
“Living in Eastern Europe,” Konrád writes, “meant being constantly prepared for defeat and backwardness but also to question what it is to be human. There was no real dictator, only a long line of downtrodden individuals, each imagining that everyone in front of them was an informer and everyone behind them a reckless anarchist.”
Early in this second volume, we encounter an anecdote emblematic of Konrád’s method of resistance. During the 1956 uprising, Konrád patrolled Budapest’s public squares and university quads, a “humanist with a machine gun.” However, when faced with the opportunity to use his weapon, he demurred: “I did nothing to appease the popular demand for murder.”
Konrád never picked up a gun again. “Too lazy and inept to handle the organization that went with oppositional activities, I did not get much involved, especially since political activism started early in the morning—my best time of the day.” Instead, he “stuck to formulating and distributing antipolitical texts,” a more subversive—and eventually more successful—method of agitation. “Writing turns observation into physical action,” he wrote in A Feast in the Garden and his antipolitical activism expressed itself in a pacific, literary form of rebellion. His aim was the depoliticization of human existence, an ultimately political aspiration that culminated in the ‘Gentle Revolutions’ of 1989.
The power of antipolitics comes from the intellectual’s stoic refusal to participate in the present political system. Instead of engaging state culture and politics, he or she helps forge a counter society in which all intellectual and cultural spheres are depoliticized and nonideological. “Let the government stay on top,” Konrád wrote in Antipolitics, “we will live our own lives underneath it.”
This method of politics functions in the negative; resistance is fomented through deconstructive efforts. Liberalism is not a political or ideological construct but an individualist posture—one built on its anti-ideological, almost misanthropic distrust. “Why am I a liberal?” Konrád asked in these pages. “Because I am skeptical about everything human, about our collective self; because for me there are no institutions, persons, or concepts that are sacrosanct or above criticism. . . . Liberalism is, first of all, a style: worldly, civilized, personal, ironic.”
In this antipolitical scheme of liberalism, novelized memory is of particular value. To remember, in a police state, is one of the last acts left to the citizen, and the retrospective novel gives Konrád’s deconstructive antipolitics a creative, intellectual base. In its refusal to participate in the present, as well as its playful depoliticization of the past, it reasserts individual autonomy. Konrád writes in A Feast in the Garden:
But what does antipolitics mean today? Central and Eastern Europe no longer exist under oppressive regimes. A burgeoning free-market economics has replaced communism. Civil society is open and culturally vibrant. “There is no denying that lately intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe have achieved extraordinary powers,” Konrád wrote in 1990. “They have overcome the censorship of the communist bureaucracy, created their own institutions, moving in on the state and the media.”
Under these conditions, antipolitics can easily become an excuse for laissez-faire governance—or, worse, political apathy—and after 1989, Konrád was quick to concede that his method of sedition, as a political force, was outmoded. “The intellectuals of our region have outgrown their minority. The opportunity and responsibility of exercising power is theirs.”
But antipolitics is much more than political protest. Konrád’s antipolitical deconstructions are argued to revive the individual in civil society and after historical distillation, antipolitics is ultimately an ethos of civil culture. Its antipolitical resistance is against ideological and political collectivization—not political cohabitation. Its liberalism and democratic spirit exist not as dogma but as pervasive style. Antipolitics is “loose, individual, biological. It grows in the direction of the possible: it feels its way along the path of least resistance. . . . It moves relentlessly, mysteriously, tortuously; it can wait a long time, then suddenly spring.”
An easy temptation when reading A Guest in My Own Country is to understand it in the context of other great survivor memoirs in which the protagonist spends a lifetime surviving the relentless advances of fascism and communism.
However, A Guest in My Own Country is more than historical testament to the peripatetic life of Jews and political dissidents in twentieth-century Europe. Underlying the memoir is the question of Konrád’s “wounded patriotism,” and the memoir is ultimately an embittered account of the tepid relationship between an individual and his homeland—not Europe and its Jews or the Communists and their subjects.
As a memoirist, Konrád resists transforming personal memory into collective remembrance. Primo Levi’s magisterial Survival in Auschwitz was written to satisfy “the immediate and violent impulse” to “tell our story to ‘the rest,’ to make ‘the rest’ participate in it.” Solzhenitsyn called his epic Gulag Archipelago, which gathered testimonies from 227 prisoners, “our common, collective monument to all those who were tortured and murdered.” Even fellow antipolitics writer Czeslaw Milosz prefaced A Native Realm by pointing to the impersonal value of memory. “Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground, one can focus attention on the background, looking upon oneself as a sociological phenomenon.”
However, Konrád’s anecdotal miscellany does not construct a collective portrait from the brick and mortar of the personal. Memory, for Konrád, is political precisely because it ameliorates the confines of historical collectivity, and what ultimately enlivens A Guest in My Own Country, a life story now in its sixth iteration, is its invigorating depiction of the solitary and itinerant outsider.
Near the end of A Guest in My Own Country, Konrád puts forth a final political use of memory. Central to his memoir, as well as his Agenda novels, is the fraught relationship between individual and homeland, citizen and state. In Konrád’s experience, “the official culture around me has always been deceitful and, except for a few exceptional years, hostile.”
Memory, in its meandering unreliability, serves as a metaphor for this sense of “internal migration.” However, the recollected past has also been Konrád’s literary and political modus operandi for over a half century and when, at the end of the memoir, Konrád asks, “Where is home?” we know the answer. Memory is home.