I remember exactly where I was on the day that the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. It was a Thursday afternoon, about lunchtime, and I was at my desk at the college where I teach two days a week, preparing to take a class in a little under an hour, having just put down the phone after speaking to one of the editors at The Times Literary Supplement about some unrelated matter, when the phone rang. It was the TLS again, a different editor this time. He told me Kertész had won. Was I surprised? he asked. Yes, I told him, I was. He was the first ever Hungarian to be awarded a Nobel for literature. He wanted to know if I could write him a two-thousand-word article about Kertész by the coming Monday. Taking a very deep breath, I answered that I could.
No sooner had I put the phone down than it rang again. It was The Times, wanting a quick interview about the award. Did I think he deserved it? I didn’t know, I said. Quite possibly. Would Hungarians think he deserved it? Hungarians have thought a number of their writers deserved it and didn’t get it, I replied. It would be a complex matter for Hungarians to sort out, I added. Then the BBC World Service rang up, another interview. I did my best to oblige. Then Hungarian radio. By the end of the day I had also spoken to the Hungarian Press Agency, a New Zealand breakfast show and a BBC literary programme. It was a much disrupted, faintly comical class I led that afternoon.
But what did I actually know? Pitifully little, if the truth be told; though my little seemed to be more than that of anyone else the papers could think of. Kertész’s most notable book, Sorstalanság, was known (if known at all) to anglophone readers under the title Fateless—his only other book in English being Kaddish for a Child Not Yet Born from the same publisher and translators. I had read these and certain other pieces, no more. Despite my several residencies in Hungary since1984, and the long line of translations I had undertaken in that time, no one had thought to introduce us. There had been talk of asking me to retranslate Fateless—Kertész was reputed to be unhappy with the current version—but for various technical reasons the idea was dropped, and I con-tinued writing poems and articles and translating other writers.
This much I knew from my reading: Imre Kertész was a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy living in Budapest in 1944. After the March occupation of Hungary by German troops and the installation of a fascist government, he was caught in a general and somewhat chaotic roundup of Jews and transported to Auschwitz. By the time Kertész was picked up, much of provincial Hungary had been emptied of its Jewish occupants, meaning they were already in camps and dying, most of my own relatives among them. Budapest was the last Hungarian city to begin the process of deportation and genocide. In Budapest, those Jews who survived the war either found shelter in so-called safe houses protected by various foreign diplomats (most notably the Swede Raul Wallenberg) or, like the poet István Vas and the father of billionaire George Soros, went into hiding and lived on their wits.
Kertész came from a small-trade background and was brought up in a liberal tradition that favoured assimilation. The generations that followed this line changed their Jewish or German-Jewish names to familiar Hungarian ones, reduced their overt religious observances and often did not even teach their children Hebrew: they went for zero visibil-ity. The history behind this is complex. In the late nineteenth century, following the unification of Austria and Hungary in 1867, the climate of optimism and enterprise that made Budapest the fastest growing city in Europe involved a considerable contribution from the Jewish population. Jews were caught up in the national mood; they made livings—occasionally fortunes—and increased their cultural influence in all those areas later pinpointed by the Nazis. The brew of resentments and obligations that their success created was made potentially lethal by national defeat and humiliation in the First World War and by the very brief Bolshevik administration of 1919, many of whose leading members were Jewish. When the right-wing author-itarian regime of Admiral Horthy swept to power in 1920, Jews were identified both with the failed hopes of the “corrupt” imperial-commercial system and with the dangerous revolutionary Left. In other words, they could be presented as traitors either way. Defeat and loss inevitably lead to a search for scapegoats and, given ancient historical circumstances, Jews were perfectly placed to reassume their long-rehearsed roles.
In the cause of good citizenship and keeping one’s head down, Kertész’s generation had been culturally marooned. When a scapegoat was needed, though, this assimilation proved of little value. Kertész was, in effect, a Jew by the definition of others rather than by his own. He survived Auschwitz and Buchen-wald as in some dreadful dream, almost floating through it, a philosophically inclined adolescent used to being deferential to his elders, to respecting authority. Fateless is his account of that time. It is unlike other Holocaust survivor memoirs in that it is not told in the first person and is not primarily a catalogue of persecution, deprivation and cruelty, though it is that too. It resembles the accounts of Primo Levi in that it seeks to locate the discourse of the Holocaust in a broader human field. The voice in Fateless is almost disembodied: the physical and the psychological exist in separate realms, as they probably had to in order to survive. There is an odd serenity and reasonableness in the tone that puzzled, or perhaps not so much puzzled as accused, publishers and critics alike. It failed to fit any available party line. Because of Hungary’s almost immediate post-war transformation from a fascist to a Soviet state on the Stalinist model, the chances of objective evaluation were low. On the other hand, the substitution of one oppressive authority for another served as a spur, a useful creative analogy. The book eventually appeared in 1975 after several years of writing and various failed attempts at publication. On its release, the book was officially and critically ignored. Nevertheless, the object was there; it had been published. Kertész’s next book, A kudarc (The Failure, as yet untranslated into English), is partly an account of its neglect.
All of Kertész’s books, in this respect, are elements of the same project: partly history and partly meditation on both the writing and reception of that history. The project was necessary, he felt, because the discourse that awaited him on his emergence from the camps appeared to him restrictive and false, almost another form of confinement. It was not so much that he wanted that discourse to articulate his personal suffering, but that it failed to come to terms with the phenomena in an ontological sense. His own experience as a translator from German of Freud, Nietzsche, Canetti and many others provided him with models against which he could test his own watchful progress. Germany also offered him a serious, critical reading public that—unlike its Hungarian equivalent—was willing, indeed felt it necessary, to engage fully with his perceptions.
Hungarians, Kertész argued, had not come to terms with their history and, unlike the Germans, had no desire to scrutinize their wartime experience. This was not a matter of restitution or apol-ogy, but something deeper: the accommodation of a language to realities that are as much philosophical as moral. In reply, Hungarians would probably point to marvellous twentieth century writers like Krudy, József, Kosztolányi, Márai, Pilinszky and Weöres, to name just some—poets and novelists who, they would properly argue, articulated a more recognizably national historical experience through a fully literary imagination, but were disadvantaged by the language they wrote in and so never received the Nobel Prize. (Kertész himself would add that he is a great admirer of both Krúdy and Márai.)
Why should Kertész receive it? they might ask. Why now? Kertész is not a supreme stylist or visionary humane mythographer, but someone sterner, more solemn, less fully literary. His work is seen as something separate, a minority affair that, for extremists, is distasteful for the mere fact of its being Jewish; for many educated Hungarians, it is oddly challenging, somewhat disturbing, but not at all mainstream: hardly literature.
The political resonance of Kertész’s prize is shown by the way parts of the Hungarian press have treated it. Although the distinction had long been sought and might have been wildly welcomed as an overdue recognition of Hungarian writing, the main nationalistic right-wing paper reduced the news to a paragraph. The Nobel jury, how-ever, was probably less concerned with Hungary’s local politics than with notions of value that it would claim are international and humane.
Irrespective of the politics of the prize, or even the philosophical form of politics implicit in the work, there will now be a wider readership for Kertész. The two books already available in English will be joined by others. Kertész is not so completely a man of mystery that he is without recognition: he had previously won several major international prizes. A quick Internet search will reveal his main works. He is, nonetheless, an enigmatic writer, occupying part of that fascinating hinterland whose most recent eminence has been the late German-born writer W. G. Sebald, a territory where the novel meets other forms and merges with them in order to discover a deeper, different kind of truth. Kertész’s narratives are simpler, more chronological than Sebald’s, more like the stories of a curious, extremely intelligent, slightly distant child to whom things happen to have happened. His work locates itself with enormous precision in a world it has known, a world we ourselves would do well to know better.