George Konrad defines an East European as someone who likes claustrophobia. ``Here we are all claustromanians,'' the Hungarian novelist, sociologist, and dissident said during a visit in his dim, graceful apartment on the Buda side of the Danube River. That is why Konrad has returned to Hungary -- where his books are banned -- after a 21-month sojourn in New York's East Village, where he had the pleasure of finding his books on sale in the neighborhood bookshop.
As a true claustromanian -- a word he invented -- Konrad claims his favorite city is West Berlin. ``I like the feeling of being surrounded.''
Dissident status doesn't worry Konrad, who is Hungary's best-known contemporary writer in the West. ``Life in the minority is so much more interesting,'' he says, meaning this not only in terms of being a dissident, but also in terms of being a Jew in a country where much of the Jewish population perished in the Nazi Holocaust.
But the word ``dissident,'' as Konrad attests, has a slightly altered connotation in Hungary from what it means elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. In Hungary, the job of a dissident is not to oppose the government so much as to push it a little further than it wants to go.
``The government here,'' he says in his deep, naturally dramatic voice, ``needs an opposition.''
So Konrad, whose Rabelaisian sagas of 20th-century life in Eastern Europe have been translated into many languages, has purposefully returned to Budapest to do what an East European does best -- manuever within a confined space. ``In this country, all who are not in the Politburo are in prison, and there is no clear border separating one from the other.''
Yet Konrad's eyes, tranquil and distant behind black-framed glasses, hint that all isn't so grim. ``The ideal of freedom is evident, but it isn't possible. Still, while the big door is closed, we Hungarians have the passion to open the little doors.''
To quote from his most recently acclaimed novel, ``The Loser'' (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich): ``We are not a nation that makes history. Whenever we have to make a stand we get beaten, but when we lie low we come out ahead. We melt into the molds shaped by the colonizers, and inside we begin to resemble ourselves. We can grow, but we musn't stick out too much.''
This, in fact, is what has been happening in Hungary since 1968, when party chief Janos Kadar introduced the ``new economic mechanism,'' a creeping form of liberalization which has spilled over into the social and political spheres.
Under this process, the ``official'' or well-known dissidents are treated more leniently than the new ones. Konrad, the most established of any, has not been harassed since his return last June. Though his newest book, ``Antipolitics,'' was attacked in the weekly Uj Tukor (New Mirror), he hopes to publish ``The Loser,'' with certain omissions, in its native language here.
Konrad says the first thing he noticed upon his return was the ``embourgeoisement'' of Hungary. ``The values are now the same as in America. Everyone is talking of making money. The 19th-century romantic writer Mor Jokai tried to make the bourgeois the heroic ideal of the people -- and now you have it under the communists.''
He theorizes that this ``embourgeoisement'' exists in many forms and, in this respect, ``communism may just be another face of it.''
``As the century moves on,'' he continues, ``some other Eastern European countries will follow the pattern of Hungary. Everything can't remain as it is now; that would not be a historical position.''
Konrad explains that he has moved back to Budapest to become part of this slow, inevitable process:
``The Hungarian nation is like the female force battling the male force of
communism. But the female is the stronger of the two and eventually wins out.''