Monday, December 23, 2013

The Persistence of Suffering

The Case Worker by George Konrad

let all those who want to; one of us will talk, the other will listen; at least we shall be together.

“If there is meaning in life at all,” writes neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in his landmark study, Man’s Search for Meaning, “then there must be meaning in suffering.” By this he is not suggesting that one’s suffering serves a  higher purpose, that it is part of some divine or even biological plan, only that in its recalcitrance, its sheer ubiquity, it has the potential to teach us things—things about each other, things about ourselves.

The Case Worker—the first of five fine novels by Konrad to be translated into English—is a strange and strangely moving tale. Set in Soviet-controlled Hungary in the early 1970’s, in a Budapest so grim, so beleaguered, it bears little resemblance to the charming, spa city of postcards and films, the story follows the life and musings of an ordinary social worker, “an underpaid, disabused, middle-level official,” “a burden bearer without illusions,” “a professional child-snatcher,” whose charge is to sell indifference and normalcy, and to protect the interests of the state, a job he performs diligently, if with a mounting sense of impotence, despair:

Go on, I say to my client. Out of habit, because I can guess what he’s going to say, and doubt his truthfulness. He complains some more, justifies himself, puts the blame on others. From time to time he bursts into tears. Half of what he says is beside the point; he reels off platitudes, he unburdens himself. He thinks his situation is desperate; seems perfectly normal to me. He swears his cross is too heavy; seems quite bearable to me. He hints at suicide; I let it pass. He thinks I can save him; I can’t tell him how wrong he is.

Like Dante in the Inferno, the bewildered narrator of this story finds himself falling into a “deep place” (basso loco) where the sun itself is silent, a “gray-brown realm of unrelieved weariness,” a drab, phantasmagoric world crowded with every variety of misfit and tortured soul whose “anguish [is] massive, tentacular, and incurable”. The Budapest of this novel is a special ring of hell in which the damned suffer daily a state of perpetual siege without even the consolation of knowing that their pain matters—somehow, to someonethat it serves the lot of humankind, that, finally, it is homiletic, the handiwork of some remote and sagacious god.   

At one point the eponymous case worker recalls a story he’d heard about a disenchanted rabbi (a tale closely  reminiscent of that of the Buddha’s enlightenment as a young and naïve prince) who, weary of threatening his congregants with the wrath of “Yahweh Ineffable” deserts his synagogue and ventures out into the world to discover it anew. There he finds an old woman dying in her filthy hovel who implores him, “Why was I born when as long as I can remember nothing but misfortune has been my lot?” To which the helpless rabbi replies, “That you should bear it.” Drawing the sheet over her face, he decides from then on to be mute. The next person he encounters is a young beggar girl carrying her dead child on her back. When in reference to her baby, she asks the rabbi, “The poor thing got nothing, neither pleasure nor pain. Do you think it was worth his being born?”—a question to which the helpless rabbi nods his head. Thereupon he decides to be deaf as well as dumb and hide away from the world in a cave. There he finds a ferret with an injured foot, which he heals with bandages and special herbs. Soon the two grow fond of each other. Then one day a condor swoops out of the sky and carries off the ferret before the rabbi’s eyes, so that he decides to close them for good. Yet—since blind, deaf, and dumb—he can do nothing but wait for death, he returns to his congregation, where he “did what he had done before, and waxed strong in his shame.”

The protagonist of The Case Worker, a man all but overwhelmed by the futility of his work, and by the boundlessness of human suffering, is on the verge of following the rabbi’s example when he is trapped, shackled to this world and its pain by the life of a hideously misshapen, nearly feral orphan named Feri. At last, again, I turn to Frankl: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”

György Konrád (1933- ) is an Hungarian-Jewish writer whose first novel, The Case Worker (1969) was based on his experiences as a children’s social worker for the state.  In this and other writings he treats the social and spiritual problems of Eastern European life under fascism and communism, as well after the collapse of Soviet control. Among his other and highly recommended works of fiction are The City Builder (19175), The Loser (1980), A Feast in the Garden (1989), and Stonedial (1998). (Thanks in part to The Columbia Encyclopedia) 

Peter Adam Nash

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