György (George) Konrád: Kerti mulatság (A Feast in the Garden)
Somehow this novel does not seem to work as well as his previous ones. Partially it is because it is less focussed and partially because he set such high standards in his first three. He tells the semi-autobiographical story of the writer, David Kobra. Most of the narration is by Kobra himself but there is also narration by other characters and it is this that jars, for not only do these extra characters not have their own voice – they all sound too much like Kobra, i.e. Konrád, to establish themselves – their inclusion breaks up the narrative in a manner which does not enhance the novel as a whole.
However, having said all that, this is still a very fine book. What makes it so fine is the story of Kobra/Konrád’s village in rural Hungary and his family. His father was a well-to-do merchant till the war and the family survives for a while. But the village has a large Jewish population and most of them are killed. Amazingly enough, the Kobra family is the only Jewish family in the village to survive intact. Kobra and his sister go to Budapest, where they see daily atrocities and are nearly killed, while his parents are sent to a concentration camp but survive. The family gets back together but the Kobra shop is expropriated by the communists and they leave the village. All of this mirrors Konrád’s own experiences.
This plot is not, of course, told in linear fashion. We pick it up as we go along and Konrád’s Central European style – cynical but stoic – coupled with his other adventures and the adventures of his friends, with Konrád fully in control of what he is saying and his wit, admirably translated by Imre Goldstein, make this a fine book, if not his best.
First published in Hungarian 1989 by Magveto, Budapest
First published in English 1992 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Imre Goldstein