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György (George) Konrád: Cinkos (The Loser)

The narrator is telling us his story from an insane asylum (In here, it’s us madmen against you idiots. … Go ahead and be scared of us.) He is telling his story to us and is helped in doing so in that some of the people who have crossed his path in the past have now joined him in the asylum. He is not only telling his own story but also the story of the other denizens of the asylum, both the innocent and the guilty, mixed in arbitrarily. And is the asylum a microcosm of Hungary? You bet.

He remembers his brother, Dani, who dices with death and the rest of his family, as he grew up, a sympathetic portrait of pre-war Jewish Hungary. He joins the Communists during the war and starts a relationship with Sophie, a high school art teacher with whom he shares his legal nights and illegal days. She is arrested and beaten and then it is his turn. Both are tortured and Sophie eventually dies in Auschwitz while the narrator is sent to the front. He has to fight for a forced labour unit but eventually escapes and joins up with the Russians. He becomes a communist party member and an anti-fascist agitator. We then follow him through his career, as an academic, as a communist party member and as a”counter-revolutionary” for which he is arrested more than once. We also meet his wife and his lovers, his parents, brother and sister-in-law. To all of them, he is undoubtedly a failure.

As in his other books, Konrád is not out to paint an invigorating, life-affirming story. Our hero is an abject failure by pretty well any standards. Indeed, it is only in the insane asylum that he feels anything like secure, even successful. What Konrád does portray in this story is a wonderful portrait of Hungary during one of the most convulsive periods of its history, not a pretty portrait but a witty, lively story of a man and a society where nothing is settled, where life is arbitrary, vicious and where the lunatics really are in control of the asylum.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1989 by Magveto, Budapest
First published in English 1982 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich