Books

Hungarian writer György Konrád dead at 86

The writer and sociologist was an iconic figure of Hungary’s dissident movement while the country was under communist rule.
György Konrád pictured in Brussels in 2012. (Associated Press/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

György (George) Konrád, a writer and sociologist who was an iconic figure of Hungary's dissident movement while the country was under communist rule, died on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 at his home in Budapest. He was 86.

Konrád's family said he had been ill, but gave no specifics.

Known internationally for books like his 1969 novel The Case Worker and his 2007 memoir A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life, Konrád was considered a steadfast advocate for individual freedoms. He was president of the writers' association PEN International from 1990 to 1993 and president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin from 1997 to 2003.

After the communist regime lifted a publication ban on him, Konrád described himself in a 1990 piece: "A 57-year-old novelist and essayist. Hungarian in language and citizenship. Of the Jewish faith. The father of four children from two marriages. Wardrobe rather modest, but does own several typewriters." He later had a fifth child, born in 1994.

Born to a prosperous Jewish family on April 2, 1933, in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, Konrád and his immediate family survived the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of numerous relatives. He spent his childhood in Berettyoujfalu, near Debrecen, until his parents were deported to Austria in 1944.

Allowed to visit relatives in Budapest, Konrád and his sister Eva, along with two cousins, survived by finding refuge in a safe house under Swiss protection. A day after their departure from Berettyoujfal, the remaining Jewish residents of the town were deported and nearly all killed in Nazi death camps.

In Budapest, he studied at the Department of Hungarian at Eotvos Lorant University and finished his studies in 1956 despite being expelled twice. As punishment for his role in the aborted anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, he lost his job and was unemployed from 1957 through 1959. He had joined the National Guard during the uprising, but, as he wrote, "never used my gun, only took it for walks."

In the early 1960s, Konrád got work as an editor at a literary monthly, then between 1965 and 1973 switched to social work and wrote studies on urban sociology.

His first novel, The Case Worker, was inspired by his job as a children's welfare officer. The book described the lives of the poor in a working-class district, painting a picture in stark contrast with the official line about the "happy workers building socialism."

The novel, published in 6,000 copies, sold out in days. A second edition was not allowed until after the collapse of communism in 1989.

Konrád was blacklisted almost permanently between 1973 and 1988 and many of his works were first published abroad.

The essay-like The City Builder, a perspective of totalitarianism through the experiences of an architect, was banned for political reasons in 1973, though a heavily edited version appeared in 1977.

Along with friend Ivan Szelenyi, Konrád wrote The Road of Intellectuals to Class Power, but the manuscript was confiscated by the secret police in 1978 because it dared to contradict the party notion that workers constituted the ruling class.

Konrád and Szelenyi were both arrested and held for a week. They were given the option to emigrate and Szelenyi left. Konrád by then had thrown in his lot with the dissident movement, the democratic underground, and opted to stay, publishing his books in the alternative — and illegal — "samizdat" press.

His work was rewarded with the prestigious Herder Award, conferred by German and Austrian universities, in 1983, an event not announced in Hungary at the time.

During his stint as president of Berlin's Academy of Arts after the fall of communism, Konrád worked to promote writers and artists from Eastern Europe. He also received high state awards from Hungary, France and Germany as well as numerous prizes in recognition for his literary and human rights activities.

Konrád is survived by his wife, Judit Lakner, and his children.

Konrád spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company in 2005. You can listen to their conversation below:

The celebrated Hungarian author, known for books such as "The Case Worker" and "A Guest in My Own Country," spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in May 2005. Konrad died on Sep. 13, 2019. He was 86. 56:13

Alex Bandy, a retired reporter for The Associated Press, contributed to this obituary.

With files from CBC Books.

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