Characters Discussed

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The narrator

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The narrator, an aged city planner and former professor in a central Hungarian town. He has been awarded many degrees and diplomas and honored for his role in the technical progress of his city in the early days of socialism. Keenly aware of his own physical and moral degeneration, he at times seems obsessed with death and guilt as he lives alone with his memories in an apartment stuffed with an accumulation of useless objects. In the city all around him, he sees reminders in concrete of the errors of his life, errors that can be erased only by dynamite. As a city planner, he mapped out for society a future that has become an almost unbearable present in a state ruled by power-hungry bureaucrats, chosen for their cynicism and idle chatter and protected by the organizational system. Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, he became a member of another privileged class, the intelligentsia, after private property was abolished. Although, as an idealistic builder of the city following the devastation of war, he attempted to abolish social stratification, in reality he created a modified system of inequalities to replace the former political structure. Once he repeated mindless slogans and believed the hierarchical military to be the most efficient of all organizations. He perfunctorily eulogizes his superior, a former Gestapo spy with thirty-two years in the movement who has committed suicide. Reflecting on the dead director, the city builder admits his own lust for power. Later, he inspects an earthquake-torn city, where, he believes, his own son lies buried in the rubble. Finally, he joins a noisy crowd in the town square on New Year’s Eve. All greet one another in a friendly manner, and all expect to live until the year’s end. the narrator has lingering doubts about the survival of either himself or his society.

The narrator’s wife

The narrator’s wife, an attractive, socially active woman who at the age of forty was killed when her car crashed into a tree. the city builder is haunted by memories of her life and death. He sees her lying on a pathologist’s marble slab after the fatal accident. He relives her cremation. He recalls divorce proceedings in which both he and she stated that they could not live without each other. He remembers her indefatigable sensuality, her fragrance, her shrieks, and her endless activity. She often arrived home late in the evening, laden with intriguing parcels and exuding fascinating stories. She could be vindictive and stealthy. Nevertheless, the city builder is plagued with guilt for his infidelity while she was alive.

The narrator’s son

The narrator’s son, an apprentice city builder, student of philosophy, and radical intellectual who often violently disagreed with his father’s political position. the city builder recalls that from the day his son entered his life, he was a touchy tyrant who usurped the attention of the city builder’s wife and, indeed, the whole household. An amateur man of the theater, the son was arrested at the age of twenty-two for insulting a state inspector who suspected him of subversion. While serving six months in prison, he fought the guards who abused him, and he sustained permanent injuries to the face and eyes. He was gifted in argumentation but emotionally unstable, alternating between states of frenzy and stupor. His father ultimately believes him to be an earthquake casualty but is unable to find his body.

The narrator’s father

The narrator’s father, a private builder and architect and an alderman who enjoyed wealth and power as the head of the third generation to occupy the fashionable family estate. His greatest professional accomplishment was the designing of the city’s neo-Romanesque power plant, a kind of castle for machines rather than people. An authoritarian father given to violence, he paid lip service to religion but reveled in slander and sexual debauchery. His sudden death profoundly affects the city builder, who longs to know what lies on the other side of life.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

Since the characters of The City Builder are seen through the eyes of the narrator, they reveal as much about him as about themselves. His grandfather, his mother, and his father, for example, all belong to a childhood of prosperity and security, of pleasure and joy. After he describes the autocratic grandfather, the important father, the passionate and beautiful mother, the narrator adds that he did not like their kind of life because it was founded on pride. Yet his description of that life indicates that his own memories are happy. The narrator’s father, for example, is a lusty, gossipy, hot-tempered man, given to snatching at the maid, shouting at his son, and conversing with God as his equal. Certainly the bloated capitalist of propaganda, in the narrator’s reminiscences he is infinitely preferable to the slavish officeholders of the new society, who are so busy protecting themselves that they accomplish nothing. Thus the narrator’s own assessments of such capitalists, of whom he does not approve, are belied by the tone of his descriptions.

The narrator’s most-admired women, like his father, are lusty and free-spirited. Acknowledging the peccadilloes of her husband, the narrator’s mother obviously was delighted by him. The narrator details her sexual joy in her husband, a joy much like that of his own dead wife, whose sensuality, forever lost to him, is a constant torment. Both of them share the glitter of the long-dead lady who is described in the third chapter, jumping her stallion, dancing through life decorated with diamonds and furs, attended by colonels. Such individualists are not heroines of the collective.

Nor is the narrator’s son at home in the society which he describes. From his childhood a questioner, he accuses his father of having too much faith in technocracy, too little interest in human individuality. Perhaps, thinks the narrator, he took pleasure in his son’s inevitable fall. A dreamer, a theatrical promoter, a man who spoke his mind, the son was imprisoned because he refused to mouth the cliches of his state. To repression, he reacted with violence. Now hospitalized, he has returned to childhood, to begin again at twenty-two. The narrator examines his own feelings as he tells the story. Did he wish for his own argumentative son’s downfall? Was the boy too much of a threat to his own hard-won assumptions? Or did he try to protect him too much? An intellectual, a natural skeptic, the son was honest with himself, and such honesty, broods the father, must end either in destruction or in a willingness to lie, to live the kind of life which the narrator has been willing to live.

Through the narrator’s reactions to his own characters, through his sympathy with those who demand so much of life and of society, George Konrád suggests that the story of this novel is the narrator’s examination of his own beliefs. His apartment, he says, is strewn with his own failures. In the light of those other lives, vibrant though doomed to disaster or death, the narrator is obviously having second thoughts about his own.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

Kessler, Jascha. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIII (January 22, 1978), pp. 13, 21.

Lardner, Susan. Review in The New Yorker. LIV (April 10, 1978), pp. 141-143.

Sanders, Ivan. “Freedom’s Captives: Notes on George Konrád’s Novels,” in World Literature Today. LVII (Spring, 1983), pp. 210-214.

Sanders, Ivan. “Human Dialogues Are Born,” in The Nation. CCIV (April 23, 1977), pp. 504-506.

Solataroff, Ted. “The Weight of History,” in The New Republic. CLXXXVIII (February 14, 1983), pp. 28-33.

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