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György (George) Konrád: A városalapító (The City Builder)

George Konrád is not a writer whom you read for laughs but this book must rate as one of the blackest portraits of the human condition, more so even than his own Case Worker. The hero is a city planner, as the title shows. He lives in an unnamed city (which is not the capital) and is employed by the state (unlike his father before him who, as he markedly points out, was a private sector architect and planner). He and his fellow planners view the city not unlike a scientist would view rats in a cage to be used for a scientific experiment. They are ready to impose their view on the city, rip out its heart if necessary. But this is not a book about the evils of centralised city planning, or only incidentally so. Far more, it is a book about the complete desolation of the human condition under a communist regime, even though many of the ills are not directly or even indirectly attributable to the communist system. The poignant portraits of lives casually lost at the end of the war – the boy killed by stray bullets from a fighter plane or the old Jew shot as the Germans retreat, the suicide of the narrator’s director, when he discovers he has cancer, with the bullet passing through the wall and lodging in a stuffed duck (the 1000th that he has shot), his own experience in prison, with bullying at the hand of other prisoners, and the torture of prisoners and the ultimate humiliation and killing of the chief torturer – all of these and many more episodes are described by a man who seems to have been through hell and how seems nothing left of any value. His son has gone, his wife has left, even the peach (or pear) brandy offers little solace. Liberation? There is none.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1977 by Magveto, Budapest
First published in English 1977 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Ivan Sanders