Searching for Traces

Searching for Traces

There was little enthusiasm for revisiting the camps in Communist Hungary. Author Imre Kertész refracts that reluctance in fictional form.


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.

The reader, like the commissioner, must look for clues; “a color that they had forgotten or been unable to change” is an important one. Kertész wrote The Pathseeker soon after the publication of Fatelessness. His friend György Spiró remembers him working on the text when they met in February 1976 at the state-run writers’ retreat in Szigliget. Spiró also remembers the reception of Fatelessness, which he had read with awed admiration: “I waited for the critics’ responses to appear. One very nice, laudatory review made it into print, along with two other well-disposed little pats on the back. Nothing else.” At that time in Communist Hungary, there was little enthusiasm for revisiting the camps. The Pathseeker refracts that reluctance in fictional form: Herman’s edginess and evasion give way to vehemence when the commissioner remarks, “As ever, your alibi is perfect, Herman.” “You are not human. No, not human,” comes the angry response. “In a certain respect you are undoubtedly right, Herman,” the commissioner coldly acknowledges, before civility returns. These two have shared experiences that cannot be spoken of, and yet the commissioner insists on searching for traces.

The color yellow, for obvious reasons, is prominent at the beginning of Fatelessness. The 14-year-old protagonist, Gyuri Köves, goes with his parents to a sports shop, which has lately sold its own make of yellow stars despite the general shortage of yellow fabric:

As best I could make out, it was their innovative twist to have the material stretched over some cardboard base, so that way, of course, it looked more attractive, plus the arms of the stars weren’t cut in such a ludicrously clumsy fashion as some of the homemade ones that were to be seen. I noticed that they themselves had their own wares adorning their chests, but in such a way as to seem that they were only wearing them in order to make them appeal to customers.

Köves is sent to work in a factory outside the municipal boundary. He travels there by bus. One day there is a policeman in the middle of the road, just beyond the boundary, stopping buses and ordering those with yellow stars to get off. This is how Köves, like Kertész, ended up in Auschwitz. When Fatelessness was written, in the 1960s, the documentary evidence that explains this seemingly random day of bus-stopping was hidden away. More recently, the political context has been recovered: this was the attempt to accelerate the Holocaust at the end of June 1944, during which the Hungarian gendarmerie (who controlled the countryside) attempted to overrule the regent of Hungary, Adm. M. Horthy, who had forbidden the deportation of Jews from Budapest, for prudential rather than moral reasons. Even without access to these facts, Kertész wrote a historically precise novel: if Köves had not crossed the municipal border on that day in June, he would not have been taken to Auschwitz. It was being on the bus that made the difference.

“Where does the bus leave from?” the commissioner asks in The Pathseeker, rudely interrupting a conversation between his wife and Herman. When they reach the bus station, he begins to panic and doubt himself: “Expectation builds on monotony, the risk was of going to pieces. Would it be possible to hold out on two sticky leatherette seats that had been warmed up by the sun blazing through the closed window?” Before the bus has even started, there is a disturbing episode where a woman with ducklings in a basket on her knee wrings the neck of one that is particularly persistent in poking its head out for air. “So this is the only way, then? Are we not human beings?” the commissioner’s wife asks. But he immediately dismisses the significance of her question: “Yes, of course. Still, we do eat ducks, after all.” They are the only people who get off at a deserted stop.

The commissioner sets off alone to find a factory. He discovers tourists there, but not only. There are also “unknown acquaintances who were just as much haunted by a compulsion to revisit in the way that we always yearn to see tormenting dreams again, perhaps in the secret hope that a time will even come when we understand them.” He is tempted to join them, to try to reassure himself that he is not alone, but that would mean relinquishing his assignment. Instead, he hurries back to the bus and his waiting wife. Back in the town they dine in a restaurant Herman has recommended. Here, once again, the commissioner is tempted to abandon his solitary work, “to redeem this truncated day” with shared delectation of ordinary life. But while his wife is in the bathroom freshening up, he is approached by a veiled woman who says slowly, leaving a pause between each and every word, “My father, my younger brother, my fiancé.” He tells her he is there to redress the injustice. She asks how, and with what. “The commissioner all at once found the words he wanted, as if he could see them written down: ‘So that I should bear witness to everything I have seen.'” The Pathseeker can be read as a commentary on, or companion piece to, Fatelessness. But the commissioner is not Kertész the self-examining writer reflecting on the creation of Fatelessness, any more than Köves is Kertész the 14-year-old taken to Auschwitz. To elide those gaps is to deny the novel’s freedom and form; subjects that fascinate all novelists to a certain extent, but Kertész more profoundly than most.

In his Nobel speech, Kertész recalled how “I once said that so-called socialism for me was the petite madeleine cake that, dipped into Proust’s tea, evoked in him the flavor of bygone years. For reasons having to do with the language I spoke, I decided, after the suppression of the 1956 revolt, to remain in Hungary. Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but as an adult, how a dictatorship functions.” In Detective Story, Kertész explores the sickening logic of dictatorship from the perspective of a secret policeman. Antonio Martens is in prison awaiting trial after the collapse of the oppressive regime he served somewhere far from Europe. He reflects, coolly, on his involvement in the “Salinas case: Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son, proprietors of the chain of department stores that are dotted all over our country.”

In another fictional universe, perhaps this is the same family that owns the sports store in Fatelessness. The Holocaust is in the past, but it is ever-present. Martens remembers a colleague, Rodriguez, reading a book with “Auschwitz” in the title: “I’d heard something about it, of course: it had been a long time ago and also a long way away, somewhere in that scummy Europe, in its eastern half. The hell if I could make out what it had to do with us, and how it entered into things.” Inspired by the book he has read, Rodriguez commissions a statuette of a “Boger swing” for his desk, then a life-size model for his “operating theater.” It is simply a horizontal rod, suspended between two vertical forks, around which it is possible to loop a human body by bending it backward and handcuffing wrists to ankles. “He flicked the diminutive doll on the head with an index finger. It spun a few times, then the momentum died down, and it just swung on the rod, head down. You could see the thighs and the crudely carved buttocks, not omitting what lies in between. To Rodriguez’s credit, it should be made clear that it was a male doll.”

From book, to statuette, to torture chamber: this is the infernal sequence that Detective Story exposes. Kertész is scrupulously economical. The reader is never taken into the “operating theater”; emotive details are used extremely sparingly; it is the underlying logic of wrongdoing that preoccupies Kertész. “Our line of work is hazardous,” Martens reflects. “Once you get started, the only way back is to carry on straight ahead.” His first-person narrative attempts to reconstruct the series of events that lead inevitably to the destruction of the Salinases. To do this he draws on the son’s diary. Enrique is wryly amused that his captors have allowed him to keep the diary with him in his cell: “I have it really soft in here, I can’t complain. There’s no two ways about it: with us, requests like that were unlikely to have been honored, as the wiseguys who make the rules are in the habit of phrasing it.”

The diary reveals Enrique to have been little more than a child, thirsty for “life, action, friendship, and love.” Among other things, it recounts a romance blighted by politics. One day, Enrique takes his fiancée, Jill, on a trip to the coast to join a group of student friends on the beach. Driving her home in his Alfa Romeo, he slows below the minimum speed limit on the road that passes a state building “equipped with all the necessary paraphernalia: fences, electronics, watchtowers, and whatnot.” The car is stopped. Enrique is interrogated and dismissed with a mild warning: “You’d do better hitting your study books than bumming along the highway!” Hardly a traumatic encounter, but enough to end the romance; and enough to ensure that months later, when the secret police are looking for someone in particular to call in from their many photographs of students, they pick on him. “From that moment on Enrique Salinas did not take a step without our knowing about it.”

“So be a good boy, open your mouth. Or are we going to have to open it for you?!”
 ”Who’s your go-between?”
 ”Where’s the envelope?”
 ”Where’s your weapons dump?”
 ”When are you planning for the atrocity to happen?”
 ”Which group do you belong to? Spit it out!”
 ”You’ve no choice anyway. Let yourself go, be sensible!”
 ”Be sensible, then you’ll soon be rid of us.”
 ”Your accomplices have hung you out to dry. Do you want to carry the can alone? In their place?”
 ”Not talking, then?”

These questions fired at Enrique are disconcerting: a reader can easily imagine them being fired at detainees in any number of historical or contemporary contexts. Detective Story is a superb exploration of the banality of evil, one that recalls and resonates with Hannah Arendt’s. What antidote is there to the cynicism of someone like Antonio Martens? Kertész has his character reflect on the logic of what was done to the Salinases: “That logic was not without its flaws. Who said it was? It was initially more just an idea; only later did it become logical.”

In explaining something of the weight and importance of Kertész’s subjects and creative achievements, it is hard to convey simultaneously the deftness and vivacity of his writing: his sheer joy in making something new with words. Tim Wilkinson must be deeply responsive to Kertész’s delight in language to convey it so pervasively in his translations. There is something quintessentially youthful and life-affirming in this writer’s sensibility–like Gyuri Köves, arriving in Auschwitz and noticing a football pitch: “Green turf, the requisite white goalposts, the chalked lines of the field of play–it was all there, inviting, fresh, pristine, in perfect order. This was latched onto straightaway by the boys as well: Look here! A place for us to play soccer after work.” Kertész explains that for a long time he thought he must have been mistaken in remembering the football pitch because he never found another reference to it in his extensive research on the Holocaust. Eventually, he found corroboration in one of Tadeusz Borowski’s short stories, translated into Hungarian in 1972 in a volume called Kövilág (The World of Stone). Yet fiction is not just a repository for the small details that other kinds of narrative leave aside. It also preserves the life-affirming hope that, even in Auschwitz, flushed the heart of one boy with joy.

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