The City Builder is a stream-of-consciousness novel, narrated in the present tense, which explores the mind of a Hungarian city planner who has become disillusioned with his stagnant, bureaucratic, and repressive society. Each of the ten chapters has a central preoccupation and is further unified by the settings, characters, and symbolic patterns which are emphasized.
As the novel begins, the narrator is an airline passenger, resolving to withdraw into himself in order to avoid disturbing the fragile peace in the city where he will land. Yet his apartment, which should have been a haven, reminds him of the failures of his life: the ideal city, which was never realized because of bureaucratic corruption; the ideal marriage, which perished when his beloved wife was killed in a senseless car accident; the ideal son, whose own soul and body were damaged when he was thrown into prison and who at the end of the book may well have died in the earthquake which has destroyed the town.
In the second chapter, the airplane setting changes to a train, and the narrator thinks back to the waves of conquest which have swept across Eastern Europe from time to time as the train now moves across the land. The Romans, the Tartars, the Austrians, the Nazis have come and gone, leaving generation after generation of Hungarians to bury their dead, to rebuild the cities, and to begin living again.
Even times which seemed secure have been subject to sudden change. The house of the narrator’s grandfather, on the family estate, appeared secure, and the hierarchical way of life, of which the narrator believes he must disapprove, offered a kind of solidity. Yet time brought industrialization and pollution in the form of a power plant built by the narrator’s own father.
Recalling the birth of his son, the narrator mourns for another lost dream. Idealistic, philosophical, intense, the son fell afoul of the state. After three months in prison, he emerged broken in health and will. Meanwhile, the narrator’s wife had been killed in an automobile accident, leaving only the bittersweet memories of their relationship, with which he must live. Among his memories, too, are those of his own parents when they were young: the lovely mother who had become an old woman when the narrator returned after being a prisoner of war, and the strong father, himself a private builder, defeated by death.
As he searches for something stable in life, the narrator questions God, in a segment reminiscent of Job, except that God does not answer his questions, even with the biblical insistence on his own existence.
At the end of the novel, the city planner is once again in motion, moving first on a ship through an idyllic holiday landscape, then shockingly through a city devastated by an earthquake, into which the military move, this time to rescue, not to subdue. Finally, it is a frozen winter night, New Year’s Eve. The narrator is once again alone. God, he says, has been invited to join them, but has not appeared. Cut off from faith, he wishes to lose his loneliness at least in kinship to the people of his city. Remembering the bloody cruelty of his people, the whimsical condemnations of “enemies” whose only crime was to be different or irritating, the narrator tries, nevertheless, at the beginning of the New Year, to embrace them. The city is celebrating. Everyone seems free. Yet the narrator realizes that this brief respite from hate and oppression will end with the next dawn. The saving revolution has been an illusion.
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