The Loser

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.