The City Builder

George Konrád

translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders
Dalkey Archive Press 2007 [1977]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
The narrator of The City Builder, or perhaps more accurately its observer or imaginer, is the city planner in an unnamed Eastern European provincial city, who has clung to his humanity as he climbed the ranks of bureaucracy.

The City Builder moves around in time and space, but individual sections have a thematic focus and structure as stories or parables. There is no narrative progression, with drive provided instead by the sheer power of the language, which approaches poetry and includes long passages where every sentence is an aphorism. It is the narrator who provides continuity, though he is given substance only through his memories and his perspectives on the people and the world around him.

He wakes in the morning and recalls his wife and her death. He describes the city, its industrialization, and a flood. He looks back at his childhood and family, events of war and genocide, and the birth of his son. He ruminates on his rise to power as a planner. He engages in a dialogue with God, presenting Moses and Christ as alternative kinds of planners.

"I was a city planner in the early phase of socialism. From bourgeois I became a member of the intelligentsia, and was servant of law and order, agent of an open future, wizard of upward-soaring graphs, and self-hating hawker in an ideology shop, all in one. My father was a private planner, I was a planner employed by the state. To make decisions about others he needed money, I have my office. What makes others envy me, what enables me to imagine in arrogant moments that I am what I am, are wealth and power, and of these we both had more than our share."

He revives memories of wartime espionage and of conflicts with his son. He remembers the death and funeral of his father. He describes meeting his wife on a cruise. He envisages an earthquake and a torture chamber. And he views a New Year's Eve celebration.

"You must live for the holiday; tonight boredom is a capital offense. Destroy the silent night, reclaim the world with joy, banish routine; if you waste this hour, tomorrow will not back you up. A crazy year is over; what have you done all this time? Where are the circled dates on your calendar? It is up to you to pry open locked minutes, to tremble with the stage fright of freedom, to look at horrible window displays in utter bafflement. You sit in each other's silence; you think you know all there is to know about the other person, but that voiceless explosion with which the soul cuts loose from its mooring and becomes a white arrow in the sky, you dare mention only with a hesitant smile. Humiliate yourself; make your face burn more intensely than a riverbank on the morning of the longest day of the year. Let this face be your gift to yourself — live, don't snuff out your senses. Tomorrow you may hang yourself; or you may emigrate from your passport picture into an equatorial-polar denial of that excessively narrow and moderate zone where you have been fretting up to now. Keep walking until you clutch a fence post and slowly sink on your knees; or remain immobile until unclasping your hands will seem like a miracle. You are terrified; they can still touch you and tell you things you do not dare hear. Defy them all and say the word that takes your breath away; daub your face, your house, your world with the images of your terror, carve your ideas on tree trunks, your freedom on blocks of ice. Don't build new wings for your prisons, don't burn live offerings before the false gods of resignation; instead, enrich your moments in the quick oven of existence, let its light penetrate your lunar nerves. No reward or recognition can make you become your own friend; no one can surpass you in your thirst for defeat. Do not be modest, drink to every life in this city that you made yours. Your technique was childish, your self-justification inadequate, your achievements pathetic. But save, save what you can; your misfortunes are not sewed under your skin — this celebration is fast becoming a revolution. Stop bartering and manipulating; stop brooding over your troubles; say no lovingly to your inquisitors; stretch out on the body of time, and in the midst of erupting seconds, air your room, change your bed sheets, listen to the bells, and say your cruel goodbyes."

The City Builder was originally published in 1977. This edition has an introduction by Carlos Fuentes written in 1987, which now seems dated. It also emphasizes Konrád's work as an essayist and intellectual rather than as a novelist. I would recommend reading The City Builder first and then considering the introduction.

October 2007

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%T The City Builder
%A Konrád, George
%M Hungarian
%F Sanders, Ivan
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2007 [1977]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781564784698
%P 184pp