Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Konrád’s major theme, the human need for freedom, is specifically spelled out in the sixth chapter, when the city builder, who once envisioned perfect cities in which human beings were efficient machines, expresses his new realization, that ideal cities must contain struggling, arguing, changing human beings, who are free to pursue perfection. After the Revolution has come a new stagnation. Born of independent thinking, the Revolution forced its own free spirits into fearful acquiescence. The new society punishes free thought of the kind which created it.

In Konrád’s spoiled society, human beings learn to obey rather than risk dissent, to suppress original ideas rather than be suspected of treason, to praise the present rather than pursue a better future, to seek conformity in order to succeed, to live in fear. Communism, which moved to elevate the masses, has reduced those very people who would be the hope of its future to the level of its most dishonest, its least idealistic. Moreover, the prosperity which was its promise is not in sight, primarily because prosperity does not come from people who fear innovation. Therefore, Konrád points out, even the basic necessities are beyond the reach of most people, and thus private life cannot provide a pleasant refuge from the repression of the public world. Because the economy fails, deprived of the stimulus of ideas, salaries are low, and workers must struggle for food; because state-provided housing is insufficient, again because of the suppression of ideas as well as the overwhelming corruption, several generations are stuffed into tiny flats, where they quarrel, making home life as miserable as factory work.

The city builder hungers for a society not controlled by bureaucrats and spies, for a society in which differences of opinion are reflected in public meetings, in school discussions, in newspaper articles, in free elections, in real universities, in sidewalk performances, and even in graffiti. Clearly, those in power have betrayed the Revolution for which so many died. In an earlier time, the city builder’s son would have been a leader in the struggle for freedom. In the society which pretended to bring freedom to the oppressed, he has been destroyed; sadly, the destruction of its natural leaders by this society frightened of ideas is leading the society, and the city which represents it, to its own stagnation and decline.