A Literary Lion in Winter (Extract)

The Hungarian writer George Konr?d reflects on his life and on the rise of a far-right group in his country

01konrad (photo credit: Other Press)
(photo credit: Other Press)
Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A girl stands by the icy Danube River where it flows through Budapest, with a group of adults. A death squad from the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Fascist movement that helped the Nazis murder Jews, is ready for them. The entire group is shot dead, except the child, because the machine gunner has run out of ammunition. He growls: "Get back and be a good girl." She returns home, and all she tells her cousin is: "I saw Aunt Sarah killed. Don't tell Mummy, she might get upset." This scene is from "A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life," the autobiography of best-selling novelist and literary legend George Konrád. The book won the Jewish Book Council's 2007 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Biography, Autobiography and Memoir. Konrád is regarded by many readers worldwide as the epitome of the dissident East European writer. One critic wrote that he "takes the ultimate journey of the modern European, piling horror on horror on the way: the Holocaust, the Gulag, the carnage of World War II, the postwar purges in Eastern Europe, the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising." He built his literary reputation on such widely translated novels as "The Case Worker" and "The City Builder," which took an unsparing look at the failings of communism as reflected in the lives led by ordinary men and women. But he has also published essays on Jewish topics, defending his secular Jewish identity and his decision to stay in Hungary rather than make aliya. After the fall of communism, his former leading role in the democratic opposition has ensured that his voice has continued to be heard. Controversially, he opposed NATO's military intervention in the former Yugoslavia, yet supported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though critical of some of the aspects of post-communist society, he has taken a consistent stance in favor of freedom: "European experience has proved that the dignity of the human individual is an unvanquishable virtue," he wrote in 2000. Recognition has brought him recognition: Notably, he was president of International PEN between 1990 and 1993. He also won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1991. I met the author at his home in the gentle Buda hills a few days before Hungary's March 15 National Independence Day celebrations that brought neo-Nazi thugs onto the streets in violent demonstrations. Some of them managed to set each other on fire with their own Molotov cocktails. Many of them were members of the recently formed Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary body modeled on the Arrow Cross, adopting its uniforms, insignia, and red-and-white striped flag, and creating tension in Budapest with their formation marching through the streets. The Hungarian Chief Prosecutor has initiated proceedings to disband the organization, but the courts allowed it to turn the initial hearings in March this year into what amounted to a membership recruitment event. Uniformed neo-Nazis physically prevented journalists from entering the courts while their supporters chanted: "We're not interested in Tel Aviv!" an apparent reference to the extremists' belief that the Hungarian media are under Jewish control. "I've been a Jewish-Hungarian or a Hungarian-Jew at various stages of my life," says the sprightly 75-year-old Konrád. "Today, I am a Jew when I hear people say that the Jews are miserly, mean, and pushy. And I am a Hungarian when I hear people say that the Hungarians are fascists. "I love Budapest with its many moods and faces," he went on, "even despite its present gloom and nervousness. I nowadays use fewer words and see fewer people than I used to. I best enjoy life when I retreat to my study either here or in my house or in the country. Occasionally I still venture abroad, but mostly I spend my time enjoying my family and friends. I have grown into an old man just about able to work for as long as my physical and mental health permits." That is probably an exaggeration. Konrád is still fired with boundless curiosity, participating publicly in relentless political debate: Immediately after the interview ended, he had to rush off to address a gathering of authors and readers. He maintains a steady, robust literary output, and enjoys the warm and loving support of his much younger wife, the author Judith Lakner, and their daughter. "A Guest in My Own Country" comprises two interrelated pieces, published in Hungarian earlier in this decade. One is "Up on the Hill at the Solar Eclipse," describing the author's personal experience of the rise and fall of communism in Central Europe and the erratic present transition to liberal democracy. The other part is entitled "Going Away and Coming Home," a child's view of the slaughter in wartime Budapest, and in my opinion one of the finest works of all Holocaust literature. The memoir relates how the author fortuitously sought shelter as a child with his older sister in the troubled capital just one day before all the Jews in his home village of Berettyoujfalu, in Transylvania, were deported to Auschwitz, and opens with a neat account of the moral dilemma facing a boy imbued with a love of his homeland about the meaning of loyalty to a nation that has betrayed him. "Autobiography?... I was 6 years old when the Second World War broke out," he writes, "11 when a combination of good luck and good sense spared my life and 12 when I survived National Socialism. At 15, I witnessed the energetic introduction of communism, I have aged along with it and had passed 56 when at last it expired... All major circumstances in my life have come about from my adolescent decision to become a writer." This quotation sums up concisely how Konrad's tenacity in pursuing his literary career helped him both combat and survive the totalitarian regimes that threatened to submerge Hungary. How does he respond now to the march of another paramilitary racist organization on the streets of his beloved Budapest? "I have not yet had a personal encounter with them. There are many such organizations in Western democracies. In Hungary, they are effectively illegal because here the state holds a constitutional monopoly over military organization. And this is at last being recognized by the authorities." Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.