Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
T, a dedicated Hungarian Communist. A man in his fifties, he has fought all of his life for a just society. Rejecting the hierarchical system of his family, he risked his life to fight the Nazis, only to be distrusted by his supposed Soviet brothers. In the postwar reorganization, during the brief uprising crushed by the Soviets, and in the following decades, he has gained influence only to lose it because of his intellectual honesty. He has suffered arrest, imprisonment, and torture, and at last been released, only to be once again confined. At the beginning of the novel, he is freed from a mental institution but no longer feels at home in the outside world.
T’s wife, a translator. Seventeen years younger than T, she is small and almost childlike, a bright, exuberant creature. During twenty years of marriage to him, she has kept her capacity for joy and hope. When T becomes incapable of giving himself to her emotionally, however, she leaves him for a young lover.
Dani, T’s younger brother. A dark-bearded, charming man, he has always been mercurial, infatuated with danger but essentially selfish, willing to inform on others, even his brother, to save himself. When his girlfriend blocks his attempt to escape to the West, in frustration he turns on her, killing her and then eventually hanging himself.
Teri, Dani’s girlfriend. A girl with a fair complexion, an appealing mouth, and an insatiable sexual appetite, she is unprincipled and disloyal. Because she cannot bear to lose her power over Dani, she informs on him. He chokes her to death.
T’s grandfather, the owner of a hardware store. A small but forceful man, he is respected for his sincere piety, his generous and forgiving nature, and his courage. His home, where T and Dani were reared, was full of kindness and love.
T’s grandmother, the mother of a large family. From the time of her marriage, she would flout tradition, for example, refusing to cut off her luxuriant red hair. Tenderly and joyfully sensual, she is adored by her pious husband. In temperament, she is much like T’s wife.
T’s mother, the daughter of a landowner. Given to her Jewish husband because of his wealth, she was a cold, bitter woman and a defiant shoplifter. While still young, she died of cancer.
T’s father, a large, lusty, red-haired man who died at the age of fifty-five in pursuit of a young woman. Like T’s grandparents, he symbolizes a richer, warmer life than is possible under Communism.
Sophie, an art teacher, T’s mistress, and his fellow revolutionary. A sensitive woman, she fears arrest and torture. When the Nazis try to break T by torturing her in front of him, he chooses to let her suffer rather than betray his companions; thus, he begins his long process of emotional death. After she is taken to Auschwitz, Sophie kills herself.
V., a Hungarian Communist. A cheery man, he is above all a survivor. Taken to the Soviet Union, he becomes a Soviet colonel; returning to Hungary, he establishes a sound economy, avoids trouble during the difficult decades when T is so often in prison, and finally becomes the general manager of a coal mine.
G., a Jewish tailor and a dedicated Communist. A small, balding man with a skimpy mustache, he is so ordinary in appearance that he is an ideal spy. After the war, when he is haphazardly appointed police chief, he seizes power and, with his torture chamber, becomes the most feared man in the new society. Eventually, he arrests and tortures almost all of his former companions, including T. At one point, however, he is imprisoned.
R., a Communist whom T befriended when they were both in Moscow. He depends on G. for his power, although he despises and fears him. Eventually, he is blamed by the Soviets for excessive murders and is himself taken to the Soviet Union and killed.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
T and the other Hungarian Communists, like Konrád himself, had hoped for a new freedom which would enable people of all classes to assert their individual wills, as T’s prosperous parents and grandparents, and others of their class, had been able to do in a hierarchical society. They were disillusioned to discover that the Communist society in practice allowed freedom to no one. The characters in this novel are divided between those who insist on being themselves, even in a repressive society, and those who submerge their personalities and structure their utterances, even their thoughts, in order to seem like everyone else.
T is by nature an intellectual, a person who examines every event and every theory in the light of reason. His willingness to envision change makes him a revolutionary; when the new society develops, however, based on unthinking acceptance of simplistic theories and the practice based upon them, T has no place in it. Throughout the novel, T contrasts himself with those who choose not to question, such as the director of the asylum, and the academics who would teach him how to succeed without doing any significant thinking. T cannot surrender his mind, even to preserve his physical self. Unfortunately, as he lives more and more in the mind, he loses the capacity to live in the heart, and thus his marriage is the final sacrifice to a society that has driven its brightest members into conformity or into themselves.
T’s wife is a bright, outgoing person who is similarly stunted. Generous and imaginative, she cannot be at ease in a society where secretiveness is a necessity. When T can no longer reach out to her or to anyone else, she finds a young lover and abandons the effort to reach her husband.
Dani, T’s untrustworthy younger brother, has been both a revolutionary and an informer, just as he has been both the lover and, finally, the murderer of his beloved. Adventuresome, emotional, unstable, he seems to court death as the final adventure. Needing freedom as much as his older brother needs it, he responds to deprivation with violence. When he learns that Teri has informed on him in order to prevent his leaving the country, he knows himself to be imprisoned by her and by his society. He had predicted that if he did not make it to the West and freedom, he would explode. He does, murdering Teri and then killing himself.
The other characters in the novel are presented through T’s eyes as well as through their own words and actions but appear and depart as he recounts his life story. Sometimes, like the Cossack of World War II, the character will reappear in order to reveal his fate. The Cossack, unlike T, is a successful adapter. Twenty years after his initial encounter with T, he is a successful Soviet politician. When he encounters the protagonist once again, it is to define freedom, which, he says, is the ability to lie in bed, drink vodka, and chase women, while convincing everyone that you are superior. Such characters as the director of the asylum, the Cossack, the lieutenant colonel who conducts the house search, and the brand bank manager, whom T sees as a double at the end of the story, cannot understand those who refuse to conform to society’s demands. Thus they provide a significant contrast to the individualists: the narrator, his wife, and his brother.
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