Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
The Loser begins and ends in the Hungary of the 1980’s, when the revolutionary fervor of the Hungarian Communists, who had welcomed the Russians as liberators both from the older hierarchical regime and from the Nazis, has been replaced by disillusionment. The narrator, known only as T, who is upper-class by birth but a Communist by conviction, has spent much of his life in forced labor camps, in military service, or in prison. Always somewhat alienated because he is Jewish, always suspect because of his intellectual independence, in his later years he has been confined in a mental institution.
In the first section of the novel, T describes life in the asylum, which becomes a metaphor for life under Communist rule, where, as he says to the director, the people presumed to be insane are actually permitted more freedom of thought and speech than anyone else. At the end of the section, T is released; with his marriage destroyed and his career in suspension, however, he has little interest in life.
The next three sections of the novel trace the narrator’s history in chronological order. The second section begins with T’s farewell to his younger brother Dani, who is leaving that night for the West. Dani, an energetic, irrational young man with a dangerous appetite for excitement, says that he no longer trusts himself with his temperamental, whorish girlfriend, Teri, who is as destructive and untrustworthy as the present political system. If he cannot free himself from the system and from her, Dani says, he may kill either Teri or himself.
After Dani leaves, T recalls his youth: the prosperous, secure environment in which he grew up; his kindly shopkeeper grandfather whose honesty and charity denied the usual assumptions about greedy, bourgeois Jews; his lusty, devoted grandmother. He remembers his delicate mother and roistering father, the nursemaid and the young aunt who initiated him into sexuality, and other characters who were part of a world which seemed destined to endure forever.
In section 3, T relives the collapse of that world. First comes World War II and Fascist domination. Perhaps T’s detachment from life begins with the torture of his mistress, Sophie. He likes to think that it is his loyalty to the other Communists which keeps him from talking and thereby saving her, but perhaps he is only indifferent. At any rate, she is sacrificed and dies at Auschwitz, uselessly, since their comrades are betrayed in any case. During their sufferings, however, the Hungarian Communists dream of revolution and of rescue by their Russian comrades. Thus the narrator escapes from forced labor for the Fascists to fight with the partisans, then flees to the Russian lines. There he is shocked to find that the Russian Communists have no sense of brotherhood with the Hungarian Communists. In the months which follow, T is recaptured by the Germans and then taken by the Russians, who use him to persuade Hungarian soldiers to surrender. Bitterly, he comments on his later sense of guilt, when those trusting Hungarians return to their country only after ten years in the labor camps of the Russians, who had called them to be comrades.
The fourth section of the novel deals with T’s gradual disillusionment with the ideals for which he has worked and fought. When Budapest is “liberated” in 1945, the Communists expect a state ruled by poets and scholars, with free speech, a free press, and an enlightened society. Instead, there is repression. Yearning for the freedom which has been their dream, the Hungarians rise up in 1956 but are defeated by Russian tanks. Once again, T goes to prison, but this time the repressive society is a Communist state. At this point, T seems to have two choices: to leave Hungary for the West or to toady to the authorities by producing noncontroversial research—playing the academic game but actually abandoning both the search for truth and the expression of his own opinion. Like George Konrád himself, however, he chooses rather to stay in Eastern Europe, where he has invested so much of his life, circulating his writings privately and accepting the periodic knock on the door, the house search, the prison term.
The final part of the novel focuses on T’s relationships with the two most important people in his life, his wife and his brother. For two decades, the relationship with his wife has withstood uncertainty and separation. Finally, however, after his confinement in the asylum, T finds that his desire for solitude is stronger than his love for his wife. As he withdraws from intimacy, she finds someone else and the marriage disintegrates. Dani’s relationship with his own girlfriend, Teri, is also unsatisfactory. Just after T has decided to return to the asylum, which he prefers to outside society, he learns that Dani has killed Teri and is being hunted for murder. Returning once again to action, rather than detachment, the narrator finds his brother and helps him to hang himself.