Dossier K., by Imre Kertész (translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson), by Benjamin Balint. Melville, 224 pages, $18.95
Seen in the rear-view mirror of his newly translated memoir, the life of Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz appears as a series of enlightened refusals. He refuses not only forgetfulness and conformity, but the corrosions that would have destroyed a lesser spirit: the brutal degradations of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; the stultifications of a repressive Communist regime; the disappointments of obscurity as his highly personal novels − flesh of his flesh − were published and then neglected and ignored upon publication.
Kertesz’s unconventional autobiography (originally published in Hungarian in 2006) takes the form of an interview with himself, conducted by a fictional literary critic who seeks to pin down his evasive subject. By means of this insistent self-questioning, and with his characteristic blend of the casual and the caustic, Kertesz circles around his remarkable journey from concentration camp survivor to the stage in Stockholm, where he became the first Hungarian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2002.
Born in Budapest in 1929 into a lower-middle class Jewish family (its original name was Klein), Kertesz grew up in a climate of fear under Hungary’s so-called Jewish laws, which were gathering force before the German occupation of the country in early 1944. He recalls as a boy running home through dark side streets with his father to avoid the crowds streaming out of a screening of the infamous 1940 German propaganda film “Jud Suess.”
In 1944 Kertesz was deported on a cattle truck to Auschwitz, and later to Buchenwald. Like the inquisitive but disaffected narrator of his first novel “Fatelessness,” prisoner number 64921, as Kertesz was branded, was 15. This was old enough to fathom, he writes, how culture conceals “that you have long been a well-oiled component of the machinery that has been set up for your own destruction.” That being so, he adds later in the memoir, “every single survivor attests purely to a breakdown in the machinery that has occurred in an individual case.”
The rumble of a different sort of machine − General Patton’s tanks − announced his liberation in April 1945. After the war, Kertesz learned that his maternal grandparents had been murdered and his father had perished in a Nazi labor camp. Yet he says he somehow never lost a childish trust in the world.
On returning to Budapest, Kertesz finished high school in time for the 1948 Communist takeover. Attracted by the promises of radical social progress, and “hoodwinked,” he says, by the need for a sense of belonging, the young man briefly joined the Communist Party and worked as a journalist. In 1951, he escaped military service by feigning a nervous breakdown, and then scraped together a living by composing librettos for musical comedies and translating into Hungarian various German-language authors, including Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Joseph Roth and Canetti.
Thrown from a Nazi dictatorship into a Stalinist one − two worlds “where only lies were taken seriously” − Kertesz began to reflect not only on the ethics of survival but on the ways in which dictatorships expropriate one’s own fate. In that sense, the regime of Janos Kadar, Communist leader of Hungary from 1956 until 1988, may have been an era of “cheap conformity” and of “provincial stillness,” but it also served as Kertesz’s petite madeleine: “it revived the tastes of Auschwitz,” allowing him to understand as an adult what he experienced as a child. Of his Auschwitz ordeals he writes, “I would never have come to understand them if I had grown up in a democracy.”
These were bleak decades, then, but devoid neither of illumination nor of hope. “I lived as if the regime might come to an end at any time − and I was quite sure about that, by the way, because life will only temporarily tolerate its own denial − it was just that I couldn’t be sure that I myself would live to experience it. At the time, I had a favorite saying from Kafka: ‘There is plenty of hope, no end of hope, only not for us.’”
Largeness of mind
For Kertesz, the Communist years were also decades of some exceptional writing. Kertesz is not the only Hungarian chronicler of the Shoah. (He rejects the term “Holocaust” for its “cowardly and unimaginative glibness.”) There are others, like Erno Szep, author of “The Smell of Humans,” and Bela Zsolt, author of “Nine Suitcases.” But coupled with his largeness of mind and a fineness of observation, he seems the most driven by the wish to prove, as Laurence Sterne put it, that he had “used my suffering wisely.”
As he relates in “Dossier K.,” Kertesz’s taste for transmuting his pain into the written word yielded a trilogy of semiautobiographical novels. The first and most acclaimed is “Fatelessness” (1975, made into a 2005 film by Lajos Koltai), an unsentimental coming-of-age story which Kertesz describes here as “a kind of passion play” that follows its teenage hero, George (Gyorgy) Koves, through the camps and back into an uncomprehending Budapest. Thirteen years in the writing, “Fatelessness” was rejected by several publishers. When it finally appeared, it was met in Hungary with crushing silence.
That silence inhabits the heart of Kertesz’s second novel, “Fiasco” (1988), in which Koves is now a middle-aged author whose autobiographical novel about the Holocaust is repeatedly declined by publishers. Having failed to establish himself as a writer, and taking a pessimistic view of the Communist regime that stifles him, he does not want to write another book. “But in order not to have to write any more books, he would still have to write a few more.”
In the third novel, “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (1990), the writer’s alter ego Koves, an introspective and inconsolable survivor of Auschwitz, lets loose a first-person stream-of-consciousness manic monologue that amounts to a long resounding “No!” to his wife’s desire to have a child. “What happened to me, my childhood, must never happen to another child.”
In his memoir and his fiction alike, Kertesz rejects the usual consolations. He refuses to moralize. He also refuses the notion that the extermination of the Jews is “inexplicable,” that it stands somehow outside of history. “Auschwitz has been hanging around in the air since long ago,” says the narrator of “Kaddish,” “who knows, perhaps for centuries, like dark fruit ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable disgraces, waiting for the moment when it may at last drop on mankind’s head.”
Nor does he allow himself to take much comfort in Jewishness or the community it affords. Kertesz tells his imagined non-Jewish interviewer that he is “repelled by Jewish self-pity,” that he is by conviction “Jewish − but a Jew who has nothing in common with any of the Jewish modes of life that were known before Auschwitz.” Having as a child experienced Jewishness as something imposed, rather than chosen, he feels himself a Jew because he was persecuted as a Jew.
For most of his life, Kertesz reports, he lived in the margins, an outsider to the Hungarian literary scene, “a dissonant voice in a convention of self-deception.” He was not university-educated; he never joined the state Writers’ Association. In a state in which literature was nothing if not state-controlled, the authorities and censors did not find much use for his probing novels. Only after the bloodless “quiet revolution” of 1989, when Kertesz published the first German-language edition of “Fatelessness,” did his international literary reputation began to take flight.
Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize a decade ago, and is celebrated in some Hungarian-speaking quarters, he remains to this day out of favor at home among those who prefer not to reckon with their country’s authoritarian past. “It is no exaggeration to say,” writes the Hungarian-born historian Istvan Deak, “that between the late 1940s and the 1960s, scarcely an honest word was published in Hungary about the Hungarians’ role in the Holocaust or about the Holocaust in general.” To which one might add that in the telling of Kertesz, the climate has not much improved since.
Kertesz has lived for the last decade or so in Berlin; he says he feels better appreciated there than on his native ground. Now quite ill of health, he has decided to house his archive in Germany rather than in the Hungary currently led by the right-wing populist prime minister Viktor Orban, a place where some critics openly ask when the first “real Hungarian” will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In looking back over this remarkable writer’s lifelong attempt to come to terms with a horrific history, or as he puts it, “to depict the human face of this history,” we may add this to the repudiations of Imre Kertesz: the refusal to be rendered faceless or fateless.
Benjamin Balint, a regular contributor to Haaretz Books, is author of “Running Commentary” (2010).