PERHAPS THE most idiosyncratic characteristic of twentieth-century despotism was its obsession with historical revision. When considered against history’s many brutal tyrants, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin stand out as pathological rewriters of personal and state history. If, as Stalin said, a totalitarian regime imposed ideological consent through the engineering of human souls, then much of this effort was spent creating and enforcing elaborate counter-histories. “Day by day and almost minute by minute,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the past was brought up to date.”
What ails a polity, however, can also cure it, and the late-twentieth-century’s civil resistance to totalitarianism was not only against the state’s nefarious reach into the present but also the past. Retrospection—in its refusal to participate in the present—became the ultimate technique of antipolitics. Soviet-bloc novelists Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Joseph Skvorecky, Czeslaw Milosz, Danilo Kiš, and George Konrád not only resisted the reigning culture of kitsch; they became vast cataloguers of personal history, practitioners of what can be called the “semi-autobiography.” Their novels served as covert antihistories that, in their non-linearity and depoliticization of memory, refused to accept the pervasive oneness of state history.
“The struggle against power,” Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and through the cloaked ambivalences of memory, the Iron Curtain dissidents critiqued the present—and, occasionally, escaped censorship.
It is no surprise, then, that George Konrád’s long-awaited memoir returns to this tactic. A Guest in My Own Country is a slow, cogitative look at a life lived under various totalitarian regimes. Konrád gave name and idea to the antipolitics movement, and though resistance is no longer a persistent lodestar, his retelling quivers with the politics of the past.
KONRÁD HAS made a career out of the remembered past. His novels are all semi-autobiographical and draw heavily from his memories as Jew and dissident in Arrow-Cross- and communist-controlled Hungary. Plot and character unravel through revealed past. As with Proust, the external world for Konrád is mere foil and metaphor for the memories that lie within.
Konrád’s early novels form a loose triptych of his professions. The Case Worker, his first, captures his gritty encounters as a young, idealistic social worker; The City Builder, a first-person history of failed urban planning and utopianism, recalls his work at the Budapest Institute of Urban Planning; and The Loser, written while the blacklisted Konrád worked at a state-run sanitarium, retraces the life of an institutionalized academic. In all three, a rueful narrator mines a troubled past in search of a more reconcilable present. Underlying these early novels is the guilt brought on by a past fraught with complicity—after all, his protagonists are state employees—and their retrospective narratives serve to alleviate this guilt of collaboration.
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