Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2079
The ldquo;loser” of the title of George Konrád’s latest novel (first published in Hungarian as Cinkos in 1980) is its nameless narrator, identified only as “T,” and what he loses is any sure sense of the course of his country’s history, a history in which he has participated since the beginning of World War II. T is also a loser in the sense of being one who has failed—in his case, he has disappointed himself, his lovers, his brother, and his comrades and just as many of them have disappointed, even betrayed, him. There is, however, no self-pity in T. He does not ask for sympathy and does not engage in special pleading. His brutal honesty has been taken by some reviewers as aloofness, and that aloofness has been attributed to T’s status as a “composite figure” embodying the experiences of several individuals in postwar Hungary. The somewhat disjointed, fragmentary quality of the novel may indeed be the result of Konrád’s attempt to capture the spirit of his time, for each phase of modern Eastern European history has been marked by the violent disruption of social norms and has required a reinvention of the self. If some readers of the novel miss the presence of a complete identity, of a person with whom they can identify, they may wish to reconsider, as T does, the nature of the human psyche. One questions whether T, a survivor of so many struggles for and against himself, can integrate his life, which has often been caught between cross-purposes, into the single story of a well-developed self. T seems to have taken it upon himself, instead, to become the emblematic self of Eastern Europe.
The novel’s first sentence aptly defines T’s state of mind: “I talk all day, I keep hearing things; moments out of the past, like honeycomb cells during extraction, burst open—riffraff overrun my dreams.” He is in an asylum, because—as one learns in part 5—to others he appears catatonic; he has ceased to function as a normal human being. In his mind, history erupts, as though every crevice in his brain were charged with memories of family, war, and politics, all condensed in a dreamlike confusion in which he is one of the “conspirators” looking for “the informer.” He can hardly recognize his brother, Dani, with whom he grapples in his dream for a place on a cot: “We get tired of fighting, he points upward: we see the face of a huge clock on the ceiling, the hands moving around so fast they make us dizzy.” History has moved so rapidly that it has been transformed into phantasmagoria, a mixing of images from private and public life that cannot be easily sorted out. For as one learns later, T has conspired to change history; his brother has informed against him; and both of them will tire of fighting over the cot, an appointed but illusory place of rest in their competitive efforts to secure themselves a place in history.
As an alternative to the nightmares of history, T expresses a preference to “live for a while in the city of my childhood,” but even there, history follows him in the form of a circus, where a clown violinist has his instrument confiscated by “a beet-nosed policeman,” “an authority figure, clearly an enemy of art.” T watches the violinist become his own instrument: “His slight, sardonic tune can be heard, now through his teeth, now from his nostrils.” T urges the clown violinist to teach him his tricks, but the clown refuses and remarks that his is an act he has been practicing for decades: “if you are patient, by the time you are an old man you’ll perfect your own.” Indeed, T eventually, in his mid-fifties, adopts what he calls an aesthetic view of history, an attitude formed by his reading of great novels, while his comrades, the most august ideologists and historians, retain their faith in history as an objective form that is knowable by scientific procedures. For T, history is the art of survival, an art that is predicated on an appreciation of the roles people play, the tricks they have learned in order to surmount the state’s confiscation of personality. The clown violinist’s advice is a lesson T has learned the hard way and then superimposed on his memory of childhood.
T recalls that “each station of my life was an error,” and he governs all of the history presented in this novel by the superimposition of his memory. He recounts how he fought with the underground against the Nazis, served in their forced labor corps, served as an officer in the Soviet occupying army after the war, and worked as a “party functionary of a satellite state.” He has been locked up twice by the very government he helped to establish, interrogated by the young people in state security whom he had trained to be revolutionaries, and is constantly under official surveillance. The director of the asylum is a childhood companion who argues against T’s stubborn independence and therefore against fighting the reversals of history that have thwarted T: freedom is “the obsession of paranoiacs,” the director asserts. He simply wants to find his place in the world, not to change it. He will have independence, but not at too great a price, and he believes that “whenever we have to make a stand we get beaten, but when we lie low we come out ahead.” The director tells T to wait for “a thaw and you’ll again become the person you always were.” T cannot take the director’s advice, however, so long as he is in possession of his formidable consciousness which, he remarks, names, frames, and kills its objects, which “reverts to itself” and regulates and records the world, as the novel’s first sentence suggests.
No doubt the director feels that T leads the life of a loser. In part 2, which deals with T’s family, Dani, who is an extreme version of T, affirms that “one day I’ll rescue the losers inside me.” He is even more frenetic than T in trying to involve himself in the currents of history. He claims to pass on T’s ideas in wittier form, to sense the changes in the currents more quickly than his brother, and to document those changes more assiduously, even though his writing—indeed all of his schemes—comes to nothing. Dani is, in short, a parody of T whom T cannot completely trust or love, especially since, mixed with Dani’s imitation of his brother, is hatred, envy, and ridicule. Dani seems unconsciously bent on proving the absurdity of T’s efforts to master history and on fulfilling their grandfather’s dire words: “Like drunkards, we live in a fog of self-love, and, confusing good and evil, we grope our way in the darkness and laugh when our neighbor falls.”
The brothers, and the family from which they emerge, are not without great fellow-feeling, but as part 3 demonstrates, it is impossible for them not to become part of “the machinery of violence.” T invokes this phrase as something dies in him while he is watching the torture of his beloved Sophie, with whom he worked in the Communist underground against the Nazis. At first he does not speak to save her because he will not betray the other members of the underground, but as her torture continues, he realizes that he is “willing to sacrifice his love and would do the same to his own son, just so that he shouldn’t have to say anything.” His momentary catatonia here foreshadows the longer silence that will estrange him from his wife and the world many years after the war. There is a numbing of fellow-feeling, even a vindictive arousal of the sense of self-preservation when T quiets himself, in the horrible prolongation of Sophie’s agony, by saying: “Do it out of spite.”
Shortly thereafter, T’s memory reverts to his “first killing [that] was as ugly as only a killing can be,” followed in part 4 by his first “real murder” in 1945 as he reenters Budapest with the Soviet army. As one reviewer notes, Konrád gives very little space to the idealism that motivated T to such inhumanity. In a rare passage of self-justification, T does acknowledge that “Communism for me was a metaphysical future, a second creation, the work of man replacing God . . . the thing we would accomplish together, correcting our errors as we went along, an open alternative to familiar oppression.” One who is not conversant with the history of Hungary and of Eastern Europe may not fully value Communism’s appeal to human solidarity and rebirth invoked in these few phrases. One may fault the novel for making T’s idealism excessively abstract. T’s sardonic persona, like that of the clown violinist’s, perhaps makes it difficult for him to revive his very early dedication to the Communist cause. He never fully shared in their kind of humorless togetherness of purpose, as one can glimpse in his first meeting with Sophie. At the same time, T’s insatiable consciousness fastens on the discrepancies between ideology and reality and seems to have predestined him for dissent, so that, like his grandfather, he strays from the orthodoxy of belief to express his peculiar sense of the world.
By October 23, 1956, T finds that he would rather read history than make it, and yet he reveals some satisfaction in another reversal of history of the kind he has failed to achieve. He observes people in the streets rebelling against their satellite state and trying to govern themselves: “The regime’s own slogans turn against the system. During the years of oppression we had to greet our neighbors with the word ’Freedom.’ Now we give the word a little meaning.” Dani is frantically trying to organize the chaos of revolt even as his frenetic efforts expose his want of self-control. T is “some sort of minister at the moment”—this is his suggestive appellation for his tenuous hold on power. He advises against confronting the Soviets in the name of freedom, yet he accepts responsibility for the futile act of delivering the message that asks them to leave the country. This “last political act” liberates T, and he declares “this moment a holiday of the spirit,” perhaps because of his public acknowledgement that his long alignment with the Soviets is finally destroyed. A house search in 1973 comes just after T has confessed that “I am glad I am no longer a soldier, an activist, a political prisoner, a social scientist, or a dissident leader . . . I have fought my way out of my lies but not yet hit upon my truths.” The search itself and T’s interrogation are not nearly so brutal as previous examples of the state’s invasion of privacy, but the principle, T sees, is the same: to worry the state’s subjects into complete conformity.
Part 5 continues with T’s weariness, which develops into catatonia. This grim last section of the novel is relieved only by T’s restless consciousness—a consciousness that cannot conform and cannot relinquish its own measurement of reality to the state. Dani has committed the brutal, nonsensical murder of his girlfriend. T can choose to help the authorities track down his suicidal brother, or he can elude surveillance and confront Dani alone once more. T’s dilemma is exacerbated by his fatigued withdrawal from history, by his desire to make no impression at all on his times, and by his feeling that he is a “fragment” that should return to the asylum, but he knows that he has “never paid enough attention to Dani.” In their final dialogue, each accuses the other of being the bigger loser, and T wryly comments “Two Eastern European brothers, true to form.” There is humor here in the grimmest of situations that lifts T’s spirit into self-knowledge, for he accepts his brother’s failure as part of his own. What keeps T from suicide is his awareness that history may be cyclic, even somewhat repetitive, but it is not redundant or reductive. T’s consciousness will persist, if not prevail, since in this novel, dense with images of life, T admits that “All things considered, it’s more interesting to live than not to live.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74
Blake, Patricia. Review in Time. CXXI (January 17, 1983), p. 70.
Koger, Grove. Review in Library Journal. CVII (September 15, 1982), p. 1769.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 17, 1982, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 26, 1982, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. Review. CCXXII (August 6, 1982), p. 58.
Sennett, Richard. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (September 26, 1982), p. 1.
Solotaroff, Ted. “The Weight of History,” in The New Republic. CLXXXVIII (February 14, 1983), pp. 28-33.
West Coast Review of Books. VIII, November, 1982, p. 43.