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This paper was originally presented at the 1996 annual Modern Language Association Conference in Washington, D.C. as part of the Hungarian Literature Discussion Group's program for that year.

Timelessness at Every Passing Moment:
Postmodern Turns in György Konrád's Kerti mulatság (Garden Party)


Steven C. Scheer

The title of the novel itself is Kerti mulatság (Garden Party), but both the cover and the title page have "Agenda, 1" imprinted right above the title. Internal evidence suggests, and this comes up towards the very end of the book, that the narrator, who represents the author himself (more of this in a moment), contemplates the writing of a trilogy of which Kerti mulatság may possibly be the first volume. The copyright page bears the date 1989 which, I assume, is also the time of publication. Many passages in the book are, in fact, reminiscent of passages from Konrád's Antipolitics, which was originally published in English in 1984 (the Hungarian authorities, though reluctantly, refused to publish it at the time). Other passages bear unmistakable resemblance to essays published in 1993. This volume bears the simple title of 91-93 and it contains many essays in which Konrád speculates on the changes which the change from a communist to a free and democratic Hungary based on a market economy is likely to encounter. Kerti mulatság also appeared in English in 1992 under the rather freely rendered title of A Feast in the Garden. This translation, however, is not at all identical with the Hungarian original. The final chapter, Chapter 10, is simply omitted in its entirety. The English translation ends with Chapter 9, but its final section, and the end of the book in English, is the last section of Chapter 8 of the original.

A somewhat random and cursory comparison between the original and the English translation reveals a whole series of sins of omission. On practically every page certain sentences have simply been left out of the English version. These omitted or cut sentences are some of the most important and/or interesting theoretical remarks that punctuate the entire original with remarkable consistency. Nowhere does the English edition own up to these omissions, to the fact that the English version has not simply been abridged but also, even if not radically, restructured. Yet, in some sense, it reads as if it were the same book. In the original (and I haven't verified the fact whether this passage is present or not in the English version), the narrator actually remarks at one point that as the manuscript makes its way from the desk of the author to that of the publisher's and thence to the printer certain sentences may simply be cut or editorially sacrificed. The narrator doesn't seem to mind this. He feels that it is better to be edited and published than not to be published at all (44). Amen, then, to the English translation and its wayward omissions. I take it as a sure sign that we are dealing not with a book in the traditional sense here, but with a text according to a post-deconstructive economy. Deep down, though, I cannot help but harbor the suspicion that the omissions in English are economical in a vulgar sense - the cuts may have been made to cut the cost of production. This, too, may be but a sign of what it means to be postmodern.

Henceforth all my remarks should be understood as referring to the original all the quotations from which shall be in my own translation. The subtitle of the novel is "Novel and Working Diary," and the whole reads as if it were clearly intended to be autobiographical and historical. The narrator who obviously represents Konrád himself is named Kobra Dávid. The fact that his surname (which comes first in Hungarian) is also the name of a kind of snake is itself of some significance. As the narrator remarks, he "is the tempter of the pious author" (14), thus mischievously implicating the garden of the title as among other things the Garden of Eden. On the first page of the novel, in fact, the narrator does talk of "[g]arden, childhood, paradise, which disappear then reappear again" (7). Kobra is, however, not the sole narrator of the novel. Sometimes he gives way to others, to Klára, his cousin and erstwhile lover (or unofficial wife), who gives birth to Regina, Kobra's last wife who may actually be his own daughter (or, in any case, the daughter of Zoltán, another cousin). Then there are Melinda and Dragomán. The former the wife of Tombor Antal, another main character and occasional narrator, and the latter, Kobra's best friend and Melinda's lifelong lover. Regina herself speaks in her own right.

Stylistically it is impossible to differentiate these various narrators. They all speak with the same voice, though each insists on his/her own particular individuality even if not without acknowledging their shared experiences and a more or less common fate. Yet they have very different opinions on many subjects. Nevertheless, they sound alike. At least stylistically. Each, in fact, is rather self-indulgently autobiographical. Which doesn't mean that they are simply preoccupied with themselves. They are, in fact, frequently preoccupied with each other. Occasionally they talk not to the reader at all but (mostly) to Kobra, the amanuensis of Konrád himself. Yet the different narrators read as if they were different aspects of a single personality, now male, now female. Each is engaged in seemingly interminable soliloquies. At certain times they sound like historians and/or family chroniclers. The novel as a whole is repeatedly haunted by certain historical moments of which the most important are the days of the Holocaust in Hungary, towards the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, during the reign of the so-called Arrow Cross Party, the communist take-over of 1949 and the subsequent vicissitudes of the Stalinist/Rákosi era, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the eventual thaw in the 60s, the gradual "liberalization" of the 70s under the leadership of a gradually ever more popular Kádár, and - finally - the mid to late 80s. There are, however, no sure signs in the book of the coming end of communism, though the book is outspoken throughout. Every line seems written either without fear or in total defiance of censorship.

Part of the whole is clearly preoccupied with narrating, with story-telling, with fiction making. Part is preoccupied with time and with the paradox of temporality. This part, too, implicates writing, though, which insinuates itself as that which can perhaps save life from being swallowed up by time. Part is preoccupied with comparing and contrasting the East-European mentality with that which prevails in Western democracies, with special emphasis on the United States. (Dragomán, one of the main characters/narrators lives in the United States for a number of years where he functions as a college professor of literature and an essayist and critic.) Part (and this is an important and interesting part) is devoted to reflections on the human capacity to be beholden to silly and murderous ideologies, to be in the grips of what I have called "societal fictions" elsewhere (e.g., national and/or international socialism). Kobra/Konrád is especially fascinated and horrified by those who are capable of making themselves totally subordinate to the state the leading ideologies of which are clearly formulated by those in power, a power which is ethically/legally both merely self-justifying and epistemologically absolutely unjustifiable. Kobra speaks of this as exemplifying "Auschwitz" thinking where "absolute crime" is born out of the "most general banalities" (300). He feels it his duty to "quarrel with the logic that can make peace with the various stages of a thinking process which leads to mass murder" (301).

The connection between novelistic self-reflection or postmodernistic anti-novelization and the ideologically determined thinking which violates the differences of the other sometimes to the point of death is never made explicit in Kerti mulatság, but it may well be at the heart of the book's matter. In the brief time still at my disposal I should like to make this connection explicit, or at least try to indicate why the postmodern text is unlikely to lead to modern aberrations which in turn lead to the various Holocausts humanity is obviously capable of.

"Writing is a continual transgression, illegal border crossing" (8), says the narrator at the outset. "To the question, what is the meaning of life, all answer with their own autobiographies" (9). "Each person thinks that he or she is right" (11). "I am neither more nor less than the text" (15). "I am writing a novel about an imaginary novel" (45). "There is no action outside the text" (or "[n]othing happens outside the text"-"[n]incs cselekmény a szövegen kívül") (46). "Literature is about the possibilities of writing" (48). One of these passages is clearly an echo of Derrida's "there is nothing outside the text." Whether Konrád is directly indebted to Derrida or not is a moot question. The spirit of the passages I have just cited (as well as the spirit of the book as a whole) is highly deconstructive or at least generally postmodern. Kobra keeps returning to the question of writing. "The novel which is close to my heart," he says at one point, "keeps interrogating the nature of what is real which it, thus, immediately puts into question" (656) "Nothing is real except literature," he adds. "I am not satisfied with the literature of resignation. After deconstruction, reconstruction [Dekonstrukció után rekonstrukció]" (657).

In some sense the connection between postmodern epistemologies and modern dogmatisms or absolutisms is, of course, inverse. As the narrator remarks at one point, "[e]ach person is a letter already written. And the purpose of life is to read these letters with care" (342). The childish ones (and that's how Kobra characterizes them), though, those who are easily victimized by ideologies and therefore become victimizers in their own right, fail to read others. Rather, they regard others as always already read. Thus, as Kobra says at one point, "[t]he concentration camp is a metaphor for total censorship" (302). "I have no absolute principles," says Dragomán at one point (380). "I have always been suspicious of judgments," says Kobra towards the end, "and I have never considered those bad whom most people consider bad. God doesn't judge, only people judge" (651). "What is real if nothing is certain, if everything is destructible?" (657). Kobra regards his vocation as that of the perpetual opposition. He wants to think freely. He wants to understand the world. To understand the world is his avowed profession (644). In contradistinction to this are those who "make history." "History-making is primarily accomplished with guns. Philosophers should not try to save the world, it would be enough if they understood it" (665).

Whatever postmodernism is, it is neither dogmatic nor absolute. It is, if you will, dogmatically absolute in its rejection of whatever is dogmatic or absolute. This tension between the certain (and the certainly fictitious) and the uncertain (and the uncertainly and provisionally true) permeates the entire novel. But there's a final paradox at work in its pages, too. For one thing, there is almost no action in it. Things happen, of course. Generations come and go. Many members of the Kobra family become victims of the Holocaust. When he is 11, one of Kobra's uncles is shot to death by an Arrow Cross man in front of their apartment building on Pozsonyi Road. Having shot his uncle, the Arrow Cross man aims his pistol at the young Kobra but then, out of compassion for his youth, he walks away. "Mistake," says Kobra with apparently self-conscious irony, "two weeks later Klára stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife" (269, the uncle the Arrow Cross man killed was, of course, Klára's father). Yet in spite of such momentous historical occurrences, the novel is remarkably action-free. It consists mostly of telling rather than showing. Gardens are frequently mentioned, too, and one cannot help but think of the end of Voltaire's Candide and its famous injunction that "we cultivate our gardens." Though Voltaire's name is mentioned a few times in Kerti mulatság, I won't insist on a connection here. Let me just remark in passing that certain points in the story are also reminiscent of magic realism. These hinge on unexpected and absurd turns, as when Melinda alone at home summons Dragomán in a kind of waking dream that turns into a nightmare as she imagines him turning on the gas, perhaps to boil water for tea, and then hesitating to light the match to the point of causing an explosion that severely burns him. Though it covers several generations, the novel is remarkably plotless. It also claims repeatedly that all memory, all recollection is fiction, that history is not what happens but what we write about it, and that all that is real is what's on paper.

Yet there is a further paradox at work in the novel that needs to be looked at by way of conclusion. It is the paradox of time. Though Kobra says things like "[e]ternity is continuous, I live in it. Existence is at every moment eternal" (11), or "[t]he eternal is forever present" (or "is continuously in the present"-"az örökkévaló folyton jelen van," 644), he also asserts very early on that "[e]very moment is immeasurably more than its trace" (15). I stated earlier that in this novel writing seems to save life from being swallowed up by time. But writing is not life. It is life's trace and if "every moment is immeasurably more than its trace," then we have a case of romantic nostalgia here. Is such nostalgia unworthy of the postmodern? Somehow that oft-quoted passage of Derrida's comes to mind, the one about two interpretations of interpretation in that early essay which first brought deconstruction to the United States back in 1966 at the Johns Hopkins University. One of these interpretations looks back towards a lost paradise which it hopes to recapture with a final interpretation that will end the need for all further interpretations (this Derrida attributes to Lévi-Strauss), while the other, indebted to Nietzsche, revels in the play of the endless interpretability of the finite. Most readers assume that Derrida favors the Nietzschean free play as opposed to the romatic nostalgia that yearns to rest in timeless certitude. But what Derrida actually says right after the oft-quoted passage is that we can no longer choose between these two interpretations of interpretation but must somehow live with their essential incompatibility. This, I think, is Konrád's final position as well. It is not a question of either/or but of and/both. Writing both saves life and loses it. The life writing saves is, of course, not the same as that which it loses. It is in the endless play between life and letters that we both find and escape ourselves. As Dragomán recalls at one point something someone in his family has said, "[a] human being is the only work of art that's capable of correcting itself" (564). But this can only work if we all become postmodern - that is, if we never again assume that there is an absolute truth and that we are the only ones who know exactly what it is.

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Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.