BOOK REVIEW / A human submarine in turbulent waters: 'A feast in the Garden' - Gyorgy Konrad, tr. Imre Goldstein: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH readers coming to A Feast in the Garden three years late (the inevitable delay in translation) might dismiss as passe a novel standing at the crossroads of East European democratisation in 1989. But Gyorgy Konrad was writing before the Berlin Wall fell, before Prague's Velvet Revolution, before Romania. Moreover he, or rather his fictional double, David Kobra, looks back from Budapest to a childhood on the eastern plains of Hungary, down a road which curves so gently and insidiously that it makes the turning points of history seem like everyday life. Admiral Horthy's pre-war Fascist regime, Russian liberation, the 1956 uprising: Hungary has seen as much turmoil as any central European country, but the bullet holes in the walls of Budapest houses attest to poor maintenance as much as national struggle.

With an 'I' that slides between half a dozen voices, all of them Kobra's friends and relations, Konrad produces, in his own words, a 'cosy historical shapelessness'. Cosy, in this context, means having one more drink with your friends. Not for the first time, the distinction between East and West is made in terms of social habits. 'The Western world of self-love' turns friends into convenience items, but in the East friendship is loftier, more selfless than love. But then dreams of convenience are what gives emigration its silvery allure.

Janos Dragoman, an emigre academic, lambasts Hungarians who believe that, as central European exotics, they have only to turn up somewhere new to succeed. In Hungary, people read The Trial and accept that Josef K. has to try to prove his innocence to the phantom court because it is unavoidably part of his everyday life. Janos's American college students wonder why K. didn't just quit town and start afresh elsewhere.

The weight of history, the solidarity of individuals in the face of an indifferent state, love triangles that are philosophical as much as adulterous: these might seem familiar themes, but A Feast in the Garden is saved by David Kobra's stories. They are, largely, Konrad's own. He grew up in the village of Ujfalu on the puszta, the great Hungarian plain that borders on Transylvania, a land so flat that 'you feel more secure on all fours'. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he lived in a society where water was the index of social standing: whether you had it fetched from the well or made do with the town standpipe, how often you boiled it for baths, when you installed an electric pump.

His father could see no reason to leave Ujfalu, and stayed until he was deported to the camps with his wife. David, with his sister, bribed his way to Budapest and took refuge with relatives in the ghetto there. All four survived, and returned to Ujfalu, where their shop was expropriated by the Communists. Set to write on the subject 'Why I Love My Country', David could only wonder whether Hungary ever had much affection for him.

But he stays, as Konrad has done. His childhood friend Zoltan joins the party, recants after 1956 and kills himself a few years later, as much from inertia as remorse. Janos, on the other hand, after years of joking about attaching a propeller to his buttocks and escaping down the Danube as a human submarine, slips over to Trieste one night. In the Eighties, he returns home on his new US passport to enjoy a middle-age crisis in his own country. David Kobra swings between such extremes, the pendulum that always finds the middle ground but can never hold it for long.

The strength (and the weakness) of A Feast in the Garden is Konrad's use of concentrated episodes that stand out from the musings: a freezing train journey east across liberated Hungary in 1945, a visit to Auschwitz 40 years later, Janos's first affair - with a taxi driver's wife who lived next door. And, in a wonderful burst of manic hilarity, there's the maths teacher Bolensky who, conscious of the need to perform and hold the attention of his pupils, imagines bending iron bars with his bare hands and balancing on a circular saw in front of the blackboard. But Professor Bolensky's fantasies end in self-deprecation; even Konrad's grotesques are true Hungarians.