January 9, 2009
Imre Kertész: Detective Story
Imre Kertész continues to enjoy the privilege accorded to Nobel laureates, of having his books trickle-translated into English, in the most profitable manner possible to the publishers. That’s a bit unfair – nobody will be retiring on the proceeds of these titles. But it’s worth noting that, while Detective Story was originally published in Hungary in 1977 in the same volume as The Pathseeker, here the two books have been published individually, at full price, despite barely scraping 100 pages and 25,000 words each.
Detective Story – perhaps now we’re getting to it – suffers in comparison to The Pathseeker. After a framing preface, it begins like this:
I wish to tell a story. A simple story. You may ultimately call it a sickening one, but that does not change its simpleness. I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story.
An arresting opener, an eye-catching hook. And this is where the problem lies: while The Pathseeker moved by inference and the unspoken, Detective Story is much more straightforward and open, and less interesting as a result.
The subject, as ever with Kertész, is tyrannical regimes and their consequences, though here he has moved the territory to South America. Detective Story is the memoir, or confession, of Antonio Martens, a lieutenant of the secret police in a recently deposed dictatorship, now awaiting trial in prison. The story is introduced by his defence lawyer.
Do not be surprised by his way with words. In Martens’s eyes the world must have seemed like pulp fiction come true, with everything taking place in accordance with the monstrous certainty and dubious regularities of the unvarying dramatic form – or choreography, if you prefer – of a horror story. Let me add, not in his defence but merely for the sake of the truth, that this horror story was written not by Martens alone but by reality, too.
The last sentence indicates Kertész’s wider interest: not that he absolves Martens of his responsibilities, but that he understands his type to be a cog in the machinery of totalitarian power. “Power first, then the law,” one of Martens’s colleagues says, reminding him of the proper ranks in his world, a world where “we take away the offender’s mind, shred his nerves, paralyze his brain.” Martens is accompanied on this task by Rodriguez and Diaz, both of whom frighten him and contribute to his persistent headaches. “A person has to believe in something to be such a nasty piece of work,” says Martens of Diaz, but we discover little of what he himself believes.
Their quarry is Enrique Salinas, the son of well-to-do Federigo Salinas. Once suspicion alights on the boy, all evidence is interpreted to point to his guilt.
Our records had already identified that Enrique was going to perpetrate something sooner or later. As far as we were concerned, his fate was sealed, even if he himself had not yet made up his mind. He was hesitating, playing for time. He roamed the streets or wrote in his diary, raced around in his Alfa Romeo, visited on friends, or popped into bed with some silky-smooth kitten, if he happened to feel so inclined.
This is where one of the problems arises. In order to add complexity, Kertész must allow the reader to have insight into Salinas’s mind, which involves Martens, in his prison cell, being allowed to have Salinas’s diary to hand. “No particular difficulties were raised.” This rank implausibility, which seriously destabilises the reader’s suspension of disbelief, is matched only by the notion that Salinas, putative challenger to the totalitarian regime, should have recorded his activities in diary form. “That was Enrique for you. He loved and hated, he was secretive yet kept exhaustive records of his secrets.” The diaries themselves contain some nicely executed meditations on power and dependence:
This morning the lame woman who sells newspapers … She has a daughter, a delightful child, quite clearly the newspaper woman’s only hope in life. She spends more than she can afford on clothing her, showers her with sweets. This morning the little girl ran away from her and came to a stop farther off in the traffic. The mother called, in vain: the girl teased her from afar, thumbing her nose, pulling faces. The lame newspaper woman kept coaxing her: “Come here, my child, there’s a nice girl. Eat your chocolate!” Finally the child sidled up to her. As soon as she was within reach, the newspaper woman grabbed her and started hitting her – with the tenacity of the wretched and the mercilessness of those who have had their hopes made a mockery of.
Even though Kertész is careful to leave much unsaid, the overall impression of Detective Story is that it is too specific in its particulars. It is weaker than The Pathseeker, which kept its powder dry, or Fateless, which offered a rare new angle on an old subject. Like the Salinas family, if it had said less, it might have fared better in the end.