Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. Two years later, his first novel, drawn from his teenage experience of Auschwitz and several other concentration camps, was retranslated by Tim Wilkinson and published under the title Fatelessness. (Previously, the title in translation was Fateless; the title of the original Hungarian novel, published in 1975, is Sorstalanság.) The meaning of “fatelessness” is hard to hear because the antithesis of “fate” is a difficult idea to grasp, but it is one of fundamental importance in Kertész’s work. He is a writer deeply literate in philosophy. After returning to Budapest when the camps were liberated, he stayed on under communism, translating Freud, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, among others, to support himself as a strictly private writer: “Can one imagine greater freedom than that enjoyed by a writer in a relatively limited, rather tired, even decadent dictatorship?” Kertész asked in his Nobel acceptance speech. He also spoke of Sartre devoting “an entire little book to the question: For whom do we write?” and then thanked his lucky stars that he never had to deal with that question.
The achievement of such a radically independent and philosophically sophisticated writer must be appreciated through direct engagement with his texts (or excellent translations of them). There is no simple answer to the question: what is fatelessness? There is the novel of that name, which requires, deserves and rewards attentive reading, as well as other explanations throughout Kertész’s work: this is a concept to which he returns again and again. He brings to his writing the strengths of a philosopher, a political commentator and a Holocaust survivor. But above all, he is a creative artist: “I did not begin writing for a specific reason, and what I wrote was not addressed to anyone,” he said in his Nobel speech. “If I had an aim at all, it was to be faithful, in language and form, to the subject at hand.” It happens to be the case that in stories of a form so condensed, the subjects at hand are gargantuan: fascism and communism.
This year Tim Wilkinson has produced translations of the two short novels Kertész published in a single volume in 1977: The Pathseeker and Detective Story. Taken together, these translations are a wonderful opportunity to deepen our understanding of Kertész. While neither book is explicitly about the Holocaust, both assert the autonomy of fiction in its shadow.
The Pathseeker has an unspecified, seemingly European setting. An unnamed visitor, traveling with his reluctant wife, seeks help from “a man with a complicated family name, Herman by Christian name,” in returning after many years to the scene of an unmentioned crime or incident. “On what else would our constant anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?” the guest asks Herman genially. Meanwhile their wives are “trying out shoes on each other’s feet, totally absorbed in this female whimsy,” and Herman’s young son is sleeping peacefully in another room. The conversation between the men is a form of shadowboxing: polite, stylized and fraught with unspoken hostility. It culminates in Herman offering to escort the guest on the first part of his journey the following day, while the guest counters by accepting the offer only as a favor to Herman. Kertész constructs a brilliant, darkly comic examination of passive aggression. The guest’s wife is dismayed to learn of the plans her husband and Herman have made: she wants only to go to the seaside.
The next morning, delayed by his child’s illness but then turning up anyway with his son cheerful in the back of the car, Herman drives the commissioner and his wife from their hotel to the town where the investigation of the unmentioned crime can begin. The shift in noun, from “guest” to “commissioner,” carries undisclosed weight, conjuring connotations of a police detective. Herman drives “as fast as the town traffic would permit, leaving no time, no anchorage for eyes that were searching for clues–a woeful circumstance” about which the commissioner can do nothing lest he “betray himself and totally surrender.” Despairing of seeing anything, he closes his eyes for a short rest, opens them again despondently and gazes absent-mindedly at the uppermost story of the houses as the car travels on: “now, purely by the aid of a prevailing impression of the angle of incident light and a color–a color that they had forgotten or been unable to change–he had, all at once, achieved his purpose. What color would that be? It radiated uniformly from every building; it was so immediate, so solid and so obvious that the commissioner almost had to think hard to remember what it was called: yellow.” In the presence of the yellow light, the town’s baroque pomp disintegrates, and the commissioner feels confident that the investigation has started well.