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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

As a stylistic innovator and social critic, blending political vision and modernist technique, George Konrád (KAWN-rahd) is one of the most important contemporary Hungarian writers. He was born György Konrád in eastern Hungary, where his father was the owner of a farm machinery shop. During the Nazi occupation in 1944,...

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As a stylistic innovator and social critic, blending political vision and modernist technique, George Konrád (KAWN-rahd) is one of the most important contemporary Hungarian writers. He was born György Konrád in eastern Hungary, where his father was the owner of a farm machinery shop. During the Nazi occupation in 1944, his parents were arrested, along with other Jews. Fearing arrest, eleven-year-old Konrád found his father’s hidden money and escaped with his younger sister by bribing the local police to give them rail passes to Budapest, where their aunt lived. The day after they left, all the Jews were deported. The women and children were sent to concentration camps in Auschwitz, while the men were sent to work as forced laborers on the Ukrainian front. In Budapest, Konrád and his sister were hidden from the Nazis, along with other Jewish children. When they returned home in 1945, they found the Jewish men of their village waiting futilely for their families to return.

After World War II, Konrád enrolled in Madách Gymnasium in Budapest. After graduating in 1951, he began advanced studies at Lenin Institute, but he later transferred to Eötvös Loránd University and completed a degree there as a literature teacher in 1956. He briefly taught at the Gymnasium in the industrial district of Csepel in Budapest, but by 1959 he had become a caseworker for juveniles and held a second position as an editor for the publishing firm Magyar Helikon. Beginning in 1965, he served as a sociologist at the Institute for Research and Planning for City-Building and worked for several years at the Hungarian Academy’s Institute for Literary Scholarship. After 1974, he supported himself on the foreign royalties from his books published abroad.

At first known as a social critic and literary scholar, Konrád published his first novel, The Case Worker, in 1969. His narrator, an anonymous, middle-aged bureaucrat named “T,” recounts a typical day’s experiences in trying to meet the needs of his clients—the indigent, elderly, alcoholic, abused, and abandoned. The narrator confesses that he can do little for his clients except “regulate the traffic of suffering.” Much of the novel focuses on the plight of Ferike Bandula, a five-year-old retarded child whose parents have committed suicide. The narrator abandons his own family to assume responsibility for this unruly child.

In 1977, Konrád published his second novel, The City Builder, another satire of social planners. A disillusioned middle-aged architect recounts four generations’ worth of his family’s history through a series of ten interior monologues. The panorama of Hungary’s recent history unfolds as the architect ruminates on his past within the confines of the city he has helped to build. As the narrator unfolds the political, social, and economic history of his unnamed central European city, it becomes apparent that the city itself is the protagonist—in all of its moods. One critic found the novel an outcry against the social and political contradictions of utopian planners.

In 1974, Konrád and Iván Szelényi wrote The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, a scathing social analysis of the privileges of the Communist Party bureaucrats. The police arrested both authors after confiscating a manuscript of the book, charging them with subversive agitation. Konrád and Szelényi were released after six days in jail, but their book was banned from publication. They were offered the chance to emigrate, but Konrád declined, stating that a writer must accept the risks of his profession.

Konrád remained in Budapest, publishing his third novel, The Loser, in 1980. The protagonist is a fifty-five-year-old intellectual, now confined in a psychiatric hospital, who reflects on his role in his country’s transformation into a communist state. He thinks back to the various betrayals, personal and political, in his past, and to his role as a propagandist for the communist regime and his gradual disillusionment with that regime. For the protagonist, communism has been a metaphysical failure, one that mirrors his bitter recognition of the failures in his own life.

In 1982, Konrád published Antipolitics, a penetrating theoretical analysis of the East-West ideological conflict. Konrád rejects the East-West rivalry as the antiquated product of the Yalta Agreement during World War II. Written from a Central European perspective, Konrád’s work questions the role of intellectuals in supporting the status quo and attempts to look beyond Great Power politics to a world beyond ideology—one in which the power of the state will diminish. His hope is that individuals will once again be able to influence events through networks of personal friendships and direct contact among citizens of competing nations.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Konrad published A Feast in the Garden and Stonedial, two parts of a novel cycle called Agenda. The Invisible Voice: Meditations on Jewish Themes, which appeared in 1999, contains twenty essays written by Konrád between 1985 and 1997. Included are discussions of relations between Israel and Palestine, Diaspora Jews, personal responsibility, and assimilation.

In his review of The Case Worker, Irving Howe hailed Konrád as striding “to the forefront of contemporary European literature.” What transforms the sociological content of his novels is his precise evocation of physical objects, a style influenced by the French New Novel, combined with a passionate sense of social hypocrisy and injustice. Especially in his first two novels, Konrád employs a dense metaphoric style, with harsh, often grotesque urban imagery and startling comparisons (though in The Loser his style is more subdued). Konrád’s literary achievements demonstrate that the art of the novel is very much alive among contemporary Central European writers.

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