My Crazy Life (Alan Riding, The New York Times, April 29, 2007)

Kapcsolódó könyv:
A guest in my own country: A Hungarian life - Other Press Books, 2007

A Hungarian Life.
By George Konrad. Translated by Jim Tucker. Edited by Michael Henry Heim.
303 pp. Other Press. $15.95.

My Crazy Life 

The New York Times
Published: April 29, 2007

In the end, George Konrad was lucky. He alone among his Jewish classmates survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary. He joined the 1956 uprising against Communism and escaped arrest after it failed. And, later, as a dissident writer who was acclaimed abroad and banned at home, he avoided all but one short detention. When Communism finally expired in Eastern Europe in 1989, he was only 56, still young enough to enjoy another life. From 1990 to 1993 he was president of International PEN and from 1997 to 2003, president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin.

This more upbeat finale, which includes a third marriage and three more children joining an earlier son and daughter, is the prism through which Konrad recounts the past in his lively memoir, “A Guest in My Own Country.” It is a story inescapably dominated by the Holocaust and a Communist dictatorship, but it is also very much a personal story, one in which tragedy, fear, resistance and tedium are accompanied by humor, mischief, successes and a good deal of skirt-chasing. It is also a story that Konrad can now tell with some detachment, knowing more or less how it ends. “Every life is better than no life; every life, including the pain that goes with it, is good,” he writes. “True, getting through the daily grind is like wading through seaweed, but I can get through all sorts of things, therefore I am. And given the fact that I am alive, the question of why is as inane as fly droppings on a grape.”

Ably translated by Jim Tucker and edited by Michael Henry Heim, the book, which combines and abridges two volumes previously published in Hungary, has its idiosyncrasies, not least a chronology that bounces around. But it works. Along with his own comings and goings, Konrad offers touching family portraits and droll anecdotes as well as meaty reflections on life and literature. It is like listening to a charming old uncle reminiscing over dinner: he may be a bit hard to follow, but no one wants to interrupt him.

The book’s title can only be sardonic. What a way to treat a guest! Raised in the small town of Berettyoujfalu, Konrad was 11 when his parents were arrested by the Gestapo in May 1944. (They survived, although five of Konrad’s cousins, five aunts and an uncle died.) All the town’s Jewish residents were rounded up a month later, but the day before, Konrad and his sister had joined relatives in Budapest, where they hid until Soviet troops arrived. (They were among the few Jewish children from Berettyoujfalu to survive.)

Returning to his hometown after the war, Konrad was told to write an essay called “Why I Love My Fatherland.” He was puzzled: “What was I supposed to write? Things were far from simple. I believed my fatherland wanted to kill me.” Yes, he had had an image of the fatherland as “the good place,” a place of safety and rootedness. “But once you have been driven from your home and observed your fellow countrymen accepting it (indeed, rejoicing in it) then you will never again feel at home as you once had.”

Once the Communists took over, Konrad had new reason to feel excluded: because his parents, who owned a store, were considered bourgeois, he faced obstacles to his education. Yet he opposed his parents’ plan to migrate to Israel. After the 1956 uprising, he refused to follow many fellow intellectuals into exile; and after his arrest in 1974, he rejected an invitation to emigrate. For this, the unwanted guest paid a price: “Thus began the decade and a half of my life as a banned underground writer.”

His arrest and blacklisting came after the police found the manuscript for an essay called “Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power,” which he wrote with Ivan Szelenyi. His first novel, “The Case Worker,” based loosely on his job as a child welfare supervisor, had gained him some renown in Hungary, but his subsequent books — the novels “The City Builder,” “The Loser” and “A Feast in the Garden” (his most autobiographical book) and the nonfiction essay “Antipolitics” — could be published only in secret or abroad. Still, the royalties kept him alive.

Engagingly, Konrad casts himself as neither victim nor hero. “Too lazy and inept to handle the organization that went with oppositional activities,” he writes, “I did not get much involved, especially since political activism started early in the morning — my best time of day — which I never would have considered giving up. I stuck to formulating and distributing antipolitical texts.”

In 1976, to his surprise, the regime allowed him to accept an academic position in Germany, but he went home two years later. “My feeling was that since I had started out as a Hungarian writer I might as well finish as one,” he writes. And while he took up other posts abroad, he always returned to Hungary. In fact, in the journey of this memoir, he does finally find peace there. “Home,” he writes, “is in the middle of the Elizabeth Bridge, where, coming home from my travels, I murmur, ‘How beautiful!’ ”
Alan Riding, the European cultural correspondent of The Times, is a co-author of “Opera,” a book in the Eyewitness Companions series.