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György (George) Konrád: A látogató (The Case Worker)

This must be one of the most depressing novels ever written but, at the same time, one of the best to come out of Eastern Europe. The narrator is a social worker for abandoned children at a state welfare organisation. What makes it so depressing is how the narrator describes the horrors of his work. Suicides have been giving me a lot of work lately…. Of all nations, mine has the highest suicide rate. (Latest WHO statistics confirm this.) He then proceeds to a cynical diatribe on suicide mentioning, of course, how these suicides give him extra work, as suicides often leave orphan children behind. And it is not, of course, just the suicides but the beatings, the rapes (At first it was kind of nasty, but after a while it felt good…Three boys at once, you see, is more interesting than just one. At least there was something doing.), the terminal diseases, all the useless, painful deaths and dying.

It is not just the litany of lives gone badly wrong that makes this book so powerful, it is also how Konrád brilliantly portrays the environment in which these people, the dull, grey, nasty environment – the butcher’s shop with suspended rabbits swinging to and fro…pigs’ kidneys, strips of tripe and pigs’ feet…laid out in aluminium trays or the homes smashed up by a drunk or the homosexual upholsterer who trains his four children to be pickpockets so he can support his lovers. There is nothing pretty in Konrád’s portrait of his country. Eventually, even he is affected by it all and frustrated to the point of resigning to look after one of his clients, a difficult child. Of course, he becomes the client as his successor checks up on him as the care-giver of the child. But it is too much for him and he returns to his job.

But the plot is barely relevant. You should read this book not for fun, for it is certainly not fun, but for the superb way Konrád is able to describe the miserable, bleak, nasty world he lives in. The message? Even in hope, there is despair.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1969 by Magveto, Budapest
First published in English 1978 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich