György(George) Konrád was a Hungarian novelist and essayist who led PEN International from 1990-1993.
A Hungarian Jew, Konrád and his sister had escaped their hometown of Berettyóújfalu after his parents were taken to Austria to a concentration camp.
The children spent World War Two in a Swiss sponsored safehouse in Budapest and the family were re-united after the war. They were the only Jewish Berettyóújfaluto survive the Holocaust.
The experience left Konrád with a lifelong distrust of the sort of populism and totalitarian politics which characterised both fascism and communism and he was critical of these political systems throughout his life.
He served in the Hungarian National Guard during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union.
In addition to his own novel-writing, he also worked in publishing, editing the work of others from Gogol to Balzac, and immersing himself in the literary culture of Europe. However, he remained dedicated to politics publishing ‘The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power’ in 1974 which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for incitement against the state. His work was viewed as highly dangerous and subversive in Hungary and his writing was banned in his home country until 1989.
Konrád ’s first PEN Congress as President was in Paris in 1991. This was a crucial event in many ways as the organisation struggled still to address the Rushdie case and to deal with the aftermath of the Cold War.
He described the organisation he had come to lead as itself the institutionalisation of a cause, free expression, whose task of ‘defending colleagues in prison as also a kind of self-defence.’
He addressed the Cold War directly in his speech arguing that PEN must always ‘support the fundamental freedom of literature’ because ‘literature had always suffered from dictatorship and authoritarianism.’ He argued that PEN Centres must detach themselves from the national because ‘in the past individual writers in East Europe had regarded the P.E.N. Centres there with some suspicion as being in the service of cultural diplomacy’, or of trying to advocate for the national political regime or ideology rather than for writers themselves.
During this period, PEN was trying to move outside Europe and develop more global networks. It organised a series of meetings regionalised meetings to unite East and West across the Middle East, India and Asia.
It was also in the midst of one of the biggest free expression cases of its history – that of #100PENMembers’ Salman Rushdie.
As PEN International’s President Konrád wrote to the UN Secretary General and to the President of Iran to reiterate PEN’s stance on the case as Rushdie reached 1000 days under threat of death. He also attended the meeting in February 1992 to further make the case.
Konrád – as PEN International Director Carles Torner remembers – welcomed Salman Rushdie to the PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela in 1993 by telling him: ‘You represent all writers around the world who have been punished, sentenced, even to death, because they wrote what they wrote.’
Following his time at PEN Konrád served as President of Berlin’s Academy of Arts but he is remembered by his colleagues in PEN for the literary and political activism which characterised his life.