Kertész Imre

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.

Imre Kertész: Fateless

It’s common enough for me to write about the format and design of a book on this blog, but this time that aspect will be more important. Like several other book bloggers, I was offered the chance to try the new Sony Reader by a PR company working for Sony, and being a bit of a gadget-liker, I didn’t resist. I got my choice of book uploaded onto the device for me, and the one I chose was Imre Kertész’s most famous novel, Fateless (1975), on the very reasonable grounds that (a) it’s short, and (b) the paperback cover is horrible anyway, so I wouldn’t be missing much by having it in this format.

The second point is important. As regular readers of this blog will know, I love a good cover design and to me a book can and should be a beautiful object just as much as a beautiful piece of writing. Sacrificing this for a piece of electronic jiggery-pokery is no small consideration. But I do it every time I download an album on iTunes instead of buying the CD, losing the artwork and packaging; and the Sony Reader – even if it’s no iPod – is certainly a handsome device (knocking spots off the Amazon Kindle, at least in looks). It’s also slim and not too big: a little smaller than a slender B-format paperback (the size used for ‘literary fiction’ in the UK).

The Sony Reader is not strictly compatible with Apple Mac computers, but I managed to get around this by downloading the excellent Calibre software, which enabled me to transfer files and order them on my Reader, including the 100 free classics which come on a CD with the Reader. (These include, along with plenty of the usual suspects – Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy – such lesser spotted titles as George Meredith’s Rhoda Fleming and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I was delighted to see. And even though I don’t think the Reader will become a regular plaything for me, it’s nice to have all those volumes holed up together in a sleek sliver of metal and software.)

I chose Imre Kertész as I was impressed with his novella The Pathseeker, and wanted to try his most celebrated work. I think however that I am likely – again – to disappoint anyone seeking insight and intelligent comment on this book, as the experience of reading it in a new format, with its various teething troubles, distracted me from paying it proper attention. One of the reasons for this was the bizarre formatting of the Reader edition of Fateless. The pagination bore little resemblance to the number of pages to be turned: even on the smallest text size, each ‘page’ filled 1½ screens, so page 8 would give way to ‘page 8-9’ and then to ‘page 9-10’ and then ‘page 10’ – in other words, to read ten pages I had to turn the page 15 times; or 270 times for this nominally 180 page book.

This might seem – it is – a trifling point, but on this blog I have always tried to reflect the experience of reading in a real world situation, where we all have many other calls on our time, and that includes (for me) an almost obsessive level of page-count awareness. The perception of reading the book slows down, and a book which seems longer than you were expecting, is also likely to seem duller than you were hoping. This is exacerbated by slow page turns – though this enhances battery life, as the screen only uses battery power when turning the page, not when displaying a page – and odd dangling widows and orphans:

and curious insertion of footnotes in the middle of a page – the following one finally appeared seven pages after the initial reference, when I had long forgotten about it.

These footnotes apply to untranslated German, which arises in the scenes in Fateless which are set in camps in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz, where Kertész’s narrator György is transported through the course of the book. György is a teenager, and so what we have is a half-child’s eye view of the Holocaust. The distinguishing feature of the narrative is György’s sanguine, almost blithe, approach to life in the camps. This comes right from the start, when “the Jews of Budapest” as György’s uncle describes them, seem more concerned about the most hardwearing materials to make their yellow stars from, rather than the meaning of the stars. Only György’s father, heading off to the labour camp, seems to have a more balanced view:

‘You too,’ he said, ‘are now a part of the shared Jewish fate,’ and he then went on to elaborate on that, remarking that this fate was one of ‘unbroken persecution that has lasted for millennia,’ which the Jews ‘have to accept with fortitude and self-sacrificing forbearance,’ since God has meted it out to them for their past sins, so for that very reason from Him alone could mercy be expected, but until then He in turn expects of us that, in this grave situation, we all stand our ground on the place He has marked out for us, ‘in accordance with our strengths and abilities.’

After a family farewell, György observes, “at least we were able to send him off to the labour camp with memories of a nice day.” When he is forced into employment at a petroleum works, he optimistically notes that “I have actually acquired a privilege of sorts, since under any other circumstances those wearing yellow stars are prohibited from travelling outside the city limits.” He engages with other children on the question of Jewishness, and one friend “sometimes … felt a sort of pride but at other times more a shame of sorts.” György cannot “find a reason for these feelings either. Anyway, a person cannot entirely decide for himself about this differentness: in the end, that is precisely what the yellow star is there for.”

This rash of quotes I am extracting reminds me of another aspect of the Reader. There is a bookmark feature, which enables one to ‘turn down the corner’ of any number of pages in the book, but it doesn’t enable me to mark individual notable passages. Really what I want from an e-book reader is a touch screen. I could turn the pages at the slide of a finger. I could flick through the book, as I can flip through my albums using Coverflow on the iPhone. (Page turning is slow on the Sony Reader, so flicking back and forward is impossible.) I could highlight a notable sentence with the swipe of a finger. I could bring up an on-screen keyboard – again, as on the iPhone – to annotate a passage. Perhaps next time, Sony?

Admittedly this means that when I bookmark a page of Fateless for the purposes of writing this, I then have to read all 30 lines of the bookmarked page and identify the passage I was noting. If it doesn’t stand out, then perhaps it wasn’t worth marking in the first place. A corollary of this is the whole experience of the Reader which strips away the usual ephemera of the reading experience: not just the cover and design of the book, but the overdone quotes of praise which raise one’s expectations, and the publisher’s blurb which, when it doesn’t wholly misrepresent the book, reveals two-thirds of the plot. It was a refreshing change to read a book as, theoretically, all books should be read; no foreknowledge or expectations, just words on a page – or screen.

But to return to Fateless. There is black humour in the book as well as dramatic irony. When György is being transported from Hungary, he and his fellow Jews are stopped by a police officer, “impelled by good intentions”:

His behest was that insofar as there were any monies or other valuables still left on any of us, we should hand them over to him. “Where you’re going,” so he reckoned, “you won’t be needing valuables anymore.” Anything that we might still have the Germans would take off us anyway, he assured us. “Wouldn’t it be better then,” he carried on, up above in the window slot, “for them to pass into Hungarian hands?”

Soon, György begins to learn the truth of the camps, though oddly the book retains an even, almost banal, tone. At this point I began to wonder how much Fateless deserved to be classified as fiction, as it seemed to reflect in a fairly unexceptional way the details that I knew of Kertész’s youth. As a straight depiction of life in a concentration camp, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz) is surely leagues ahead.

What finally gives Fateless its punch is its exploration of how the human spirit can become accustomed to, even dependent on, whatever it knows.

“Can we imagine a concentration camp as anything but hell?” he asked, and I replied, and as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell.

“I would like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp,” he adds. However György does understand a larger aspect of his experience.

It had not been my own fate, but I had lived through it, and I simply couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get it into their heads that I now needed to start doing something with that fate, needed to connect it to somewhere or something; after all, I could no longer be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistake, blind fortune, some kind of blunder, let alone that it had not even happened.

The title comes in here too. “If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is not fate; that is to say, then we ourselves are fate.”

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker

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.

The Pathseeker

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.