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Kertész, Imre

(1929– ), writer and translator. The first Hungarian writer to receive the Nobel Prize, Imre Kertész was conspicuous for winning it as a Jew who wrote about the Holocaust. Kertész identifies himself as a Jew without adherence to Judaism, Jewish tradition, or Jewish nationhood. He wrote his major work, Sorstalanság (Fateless; 1975), about the experience of Auschwitz. Although the novel is written in Hungarian, Kertész in other ways saw his residence in Hungary as a kind of internal exile. He explains in his novel Kudarc (Fiasco; 1988) that he returned to Hungary from Buchenwald by chance, and that the only reason he did not leave in 1956 was because he could write Sorstalanság only in Hungarian; afterward, however, he had no reason to remain. For 35 years, he lived with his first wife in a 28-square-meter apartment, in which he shut himself off from the country’s social, intellectual, and political affairs. This self-exiled existence lies behind the dramatic strength and spiritual independence that can be felt in his work.

Until 1955, Kertész lived a life similar to that of other writers of his generation who had encountered the Holocaust in their early youth. Having survived the concentration camps, he completed his high school education, worked for a Communist newspaper, and joined the Communist Party but was soon ejected as a class-alien. He continued working as a laborer until he was called up for military service. Later, as press secretary of a government ministry, he wrote light dramas and operetta libretti. In this period, under no external compulsion, he chose his solitary path. In his diary entries, in Kudarc (where he describes how he wrote Sorstalanság), and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he makes sparing allusions to a mystical call to break with his deceptive, Communist-accommodating life. He gives 1955 as the exact date of this call, which originated in Auschwitz from the condition brought on by the “Muselman” state, the extreme physical exhaustion that almost always ends in death (e.g., when camp guards deemed a prisoner too ill or weak to work and sent him to be executed). Nostalgia for the Muselman state made Kertész submit to the call and be himself by renouncing everything.

Kertész suddenly vanished from the bohemian world of Budapest and began not to write about Auschwitz but to plan how to do it. By that time, many historical and fictional works about the Holocaust had already appeared both in Hungary and abroad. The answer to the question of how to write his own work was simple: differently. Out of this meditation on a great spiritual journey came his diary, published later as Gályanapló (Galley Diary; 1992). Kertész had no illusions about the post-Auschwitz world. His achievement was that out of the horrors he experienced, he managed to create positive values or, as the title of one his essays (“A holocaust mint kultúra” [The Holocaust as Culture]; 1991) indicates, a “culture.”

Kertész did not participate in the resistance movements of the 1980s, an elegant abstention he describes in his short story “Az angol lobogó” (The British Flag; 1991). He spent 12 years writing and rewriting the slim volume of Sorstalanság that was first published in 1975 and again in 1985 (English ed., Fatelessness; 2004) without receiving the slightest response of any kind. Sorstalanság presents the Holocaust through the eyes of a teenage boy as he passes the stations of rejection from Hungarian life: the isolation from society at large, the wearing of the yellow star, the forced labor, the days in the brick factories, the train ride, the arrival at Auschwitz, the all-determining selection, the life of the camps, and the homecoming. The great novelty of the book, its dispassionate voice, shows—as Kertész admits—the influence of Camus’s The Stranger. The ingenious element of Kertész’s construction is that every sentence suggests the multitude of philosophical questions raised by the phenomenon of Auschwitz.

For 20 years after his enormous effort, Kertész did no writing of his own; he worked as a translator of German writers including Joseph Roth, Nietzsche, Freud, and Elias Canetti. The change of regimes in Hungary moved him out of his self-imposed imprisonment. In the novella Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért (Kaddish for an Unborn Child; 1990 [English translations, 1997, 2004]), he contemplates the tragic decision not to bring children into the world after Auschwitz. In Kudarc, he struggles with the belief that his great testimony was in vain. In Felszamolás (Liquidation; 2003 [English translation, 2004]), begun before but completed only after he received the Nobel Prize, he again examines the effects of Auschwitz, retelling Kaddish from another point of view.

Kertész’s path from anonymity to the Nobel Prize is no less a miracle than his return from the Muselman state. Unlike Hungary, which failed to confront the memory of the Holocaust even after Kertész’s Nobel Prize, postunification Germany was searching for a work of fiction that would allow such a discourse to begin. After a number of fortunate coincidences, the German public got to know Sorstalanság and its German-speaking author, with whom it was possible to engage in dialogue. (That dialogue resulted in several outstanding essays, written by Kertész at the request of German organizations and on the occasion of receiving prizes.) German publishers and writers’ organizations recommended him for the ultimate literary prize. In recent years, Kertész has been living in Berlin.

Suggested Reading

János Kőbányai, ed., Az ember mélye: Írások Kertész Imréről a Múlt és Jövőben (Budapest, 2003), a collection of articles that have appeared about Kertész in Múlt és Jövő, in whose first years of publication Kertész was a regular contributor; János Kőbányai, Jób díja: Hattér és recepció (Budapest, 2003); János Kőbányai, Kertésznapló (Budapest, 2003); Péter Szirák, Kertész Imre (Budapest, 2003); György Vári, Kertész Imre: Buchenwald fölött az ég (Budapest, 2003); Louise O. Vasvári and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, eds., Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature (West Lafayette, Ind., 2005).



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein