Beaten but unbowed (well: perhaps a little bowed), I delved straight back into the literature of Nobel laureates after my recent failure. After falling in literary lust with Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, I was pleased to see them expanding into modern fiction, with the unsnappy but unarguable Contemporary Art of the Novella series. That, plus at just over 100 pages, I felt this was a Nobel winner even I could get through.
I have mixed feelings about the way I found this book. On the one hand, it was the blurb which interested me in it ahead of others in the series, and yet I know my enjoyment – and puzzlement – could have been enhanced if I had approached it cold. The description sounded, probably to misuse an overused term, Kafkaesque (Martin Amis points out that the word has become so devalued that a long queue in the Post Office is now described as Kafkaesque). Perhaps a better one would be ‘Ishiguroish’: I’m thinking in particular of his wonderful but overlooked 1995 novel The Unconsoled. Its atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, an unknowable man with an unclear purpose in a strange town, seem just right for the blurb of The Pathseeker:
In a mysterious middle-European country, a man identified only as “the Commissioner” undertakes what seems to be a banal trip to a nondescript town with his wife – a brief detour on the way to a holiday at the seaside – that turns into something ominous. Something terrible has happened in the town, something that no one wants to discuss.
In quoting this I have stopped short of the giveaway words, of which there are two: one repeated just in case you didn’t pick up on it the first time, and one which kills stone dead the vaunted sense of mystery, the sort of word which comes with its own capital letter. For the blankness and openness of the story itself, the white, uncluttered cover seems to suit it nicely.
This is a new translation, but The Pathseeker is one of Kertész’s earliest works – though ‘early’ is not quite right, as it was published when he was 47, two years after his debut and most famous work Fatelessness (also published in English as Fateless). Tim Wilkinson has done a fine job as translator, and in the Michael Hofmann tradition has thrown in a free afterword, which helps the reader with some of the more obscure references in the book, and suggests a tangential connection with Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’.
So what can I say about this book, or story, without spoiling it? It has a dramatic opening, where the Commissioner, visiting the unnamed country and hosted in the home of a man named Hermann, in the middle of a friendly conversation, suddenly becomes an unwelcome guest.
He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the objective of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale.
The Commissioner proceeds with his investigation, and along the way Kertész makes references to relationships of predation and submission, and how willing people are to submit to power. Even passengers on a train – a symbol pretty heavy with meaning in this context – are “blind instruments of a higher design, they faithfully fulfilled their roles, dutifully meeting the calculation that was attached to them.” The Commissioner admits he wants “to make a splash with his presence, advertise his superiority, celebrate the triumph of his existence in front of these mute and powerless things,” which leads to notions of the objectification of human life. He visits a factory, with German language ironwork on the gates, and an exhibition of “defunct instruments of past ages, contraband curiosities … cheerfully illuminated.”
What could this collection of junk, so cleverly, indeed all too cleverly disguised as dusty museum material, prove to him, or to anyone else for that matter? Its objects could be brought to life only by being utilized. The only test of their efficacy could be experience.
The Pathseeker is both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path. There is a ghostly creepiness to it, and the sort of calm silence around the setting which settles after a period of calamitous noise. Tim Wilkinson tells us that the story took twelve years for Kertész “to wrestle into a form he was happy with,” and was then rejected by the publisher he submitted it to. And more than three decades after that, it has been finally been translated into English, so we can benefit. The Pathseeker made it at last.