All of the writings of Hungary’s only Nobel Prize-winning author, Imre Kertész, orbit around one central experience: surviving the Holocaust, then rebuilding his life amidst a society marked by trauma, oppression, and complicity.
Born in an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest in 1929, Kertész was only 15 when he was taken to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Half of his family perished in the camps. He, however, survived. After spending two years in concentration camps, he returned to Hungary in 1945 to finish high school. He then had a series of menial and white collar jobs before becoming a full-time writer and translator, aged 24. He sustained himself by translating Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Elias Canetti, and other significant thinkers into Hungarian.
Among his novels, his debut, Fatelessness, is possibly the most radical. Yet Kertész is also known for his series of relentless, obsessive works that sit somewhere between essay, memoir, and diary. His universe has something of the subdued, opaque violence of Albert Camus, the dispassionate wit of Samuel Beckett, and the dark, obsessive solitude of Thomas Bernhard. It’s a world where you know that you can be shot dead any time, in the same way you know that the sky is blue.
Kertész holds an uncomfortable mirror to post-Second World War Europe: he refused to view the Holocaust as an exceptional tragedy removed from the world that produced it. “What would I have experienced without Auschwitz? Whatever other people experience,” Kertész said after he received the Nobel Prize in 2002. He also spoke of an exhaustion over having become a cog in the “Holocaust machine” and dryly diagnosed himself as a “Holocaust-clown”. Kertész keeps his readers on their toes, disregarding socially accepted orientation points, taboos, silences, while maintaining extreme intellectual autonomy and pitch-black humour throughout.
A staunch critic of dictatorship and the censorship that came with it, Kertész nevertheless felt equally disgusted by the demands of the market. The need to write something “interesting”, something appealing to readers was, for him, the toughest censorship of all. His diaries, long essays and novels are documents of relentless self-analysis, a life given over to be remade in sentences. The end of this life is rather tragic: in his last years, an almost paranoid hatred enveloped Kertész, reducing his former brilliance to a xenophobic parody of itself. His last interviews before his death in 2016 are painful to read, but his life’s work remains acutely relevant.
Published in 1975, Fatelessness was Kertész’s first novel, a coming-of-age story about a young boy’s experience of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Its protagonist, Gyuri Köves, speaks with the slightly cumbersome and anxious voice of an eager student throughout the book, painstakingly detailing his arrival at the camp, the banal and carefully planned workings of the infrastructure of destruction there, and the lives of the other prisoners.
His dispassionate voice uses the same words when remembering life before Auschwitz, so the account becomes a flat collage of orders, regulations and tasks; forces that eventually manage to erase, or at least suspend, his personhood, as Gyuri reaches the precipice, becoming skin and bones, barely able to speak. In the lucid, intense concluding chapter, set immediately after the camp is liberated, and Gyuri returns home, we follow his encounters in the bombed-out streets of Budapest, where he takes the first steps towards telling his story — alas, the strangers he confides in are utterly unable to listen, let alone comprehend it. By then, the eager student is gone, replaced by someone alone, extracted from the human theatre of relations and obligations.
“No!” is the opening of Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and the word feels like a deeper cut once you plunge into the middle-aged narrator’s obsessive, detailed introspection that follows. The question that prompts this “no” is whether he has any children. He does not. “No,” he says to his wife too, when she suggests they have a child together. “I could never be another person’s father, destiny, god.”
Kaddish is a harrowing, lacerating, yet cathartic monologue told by a middle-aged writer and translator, written a decade and a half after Fatelessness. The novel, if it can be labelled as such, is a repetitive meditation that circles around the act of bringing another human being to this world. As is everything in Kertész’s oeuvre, the stakes of this dilemma lie in his knowledge of the world as continuous with the one that was capable of the Holocaust. Refusing to forge another human being’s destiny, he sinks ever deeper in the only form of creation he is willing to engage in: writing. He works his way through his refusal, orbiting around his own obsession with self-erasure.
The word “Kaddish” stands for a Jewish mourning prayer sequence, read upon the death of a close relative, as well as a part of the daily liturgy. True to its title, the book is so raw, it might prompt one to look away.
One of his lesser-known works, The Pathseeker is a novella Kertész wrote after finishing Fatelessness. The story starts with an unnamed commissioner in an unnamed country, travelling with his wife for a site inspection. He decides to take a detour, reopening an old case — a crime he had been involved in, though it is unclear whether he was a perpetrator or a victim. The Pathseeker is a powerful book about what it means to have been a witness to a harrowing event, figuring out what the present might look like, holding the weight of the past, while other accidental visitors of the scene are “diligently carrying off the significance of things”.
One of Kertész’s best-known essays, Holocaust as Culture, outlines his take on memory and morality in a concise, compact manner. The essay brings together his experiences of living under Nazism and communism in Hungary. Comparisons between the two regimes are often made by Eastern European governments, in an attempt to describe both ideologies as externally imposed, oppressive political projects. In that optic, local participation becomes an instance of victimhood. Kertész does not indulge this discourse of twinned evil and national victimhood, and instead focuses on cultures of complicity that allow for mass oppression to flourish. Holocaust as Culture is a warning against the instrumentalisation of memory. Throughout it, the author expresses a suspicion of rituals replacing experience and testimony, dislocating the moral possibilities of remembrance.
Dossier K. takes the form of a dialogue with an unnamed interlocutor. Like many of Kertész’s works, it is autobiographical, but he approaches his life material as a policeman would approach a crime scene. The text is dispassionate, the personal detached, objectified. Its quest is intimate: it starts with the realisation that “there exists only one reality, and that is me, my own life, this fragile gift bestowed for an uncertain time, which had been seized, expropriated by alien forces, and circumscribed, marked up, branded – and which I had to take back from History, this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone, and I had to manage it accordingly.”
But what does it mean to retrieve a life that had been thrown into History? Kertész found the capacity of modern states, both socialist and capitalist, to turn human fates into mass products alarming, and much of what he wrote could be read as a documentation of an attempt to work against the brute forces of bureaucratic alienation and external demands to conform. It mattered little to him whether this was done through the centralisation and censorship of state socialism or through the crude market forces of capitalist regimes.
He saw writing as the only tool for claiming back individual fate, a daily exercise of self-preservation. Dossier K. is an exquisite rendition of open-ended, meticulous reflection, the daily practice of intellectual self-preservation.