Dossier K by Imre Kertész – review
From Budapest to Buchenwald to the Nobel prize … Read Kertész, says Ian Sansom
n an essay about the work of the Nobel prize-winning Hungarian author Imre Kertész, his English translator Tim Wilkinson quotes a letter from a publisher, politely refusing Wilkinson's offer of a translation: "It's certainly not a question of the merit of the work being insufficient, but simply a keen awareness of the difficulties involved in introducing a new European writer to the UK market." The publishers Melville House either don't recognise the difficulties, or simply don't care. Either way, out of ignorance or in bliss, they have done us all a favour by publishing Wilkinson's translation of Dossier K. Though exactly what kind of favour is not entirely clear.
In his prefatory note, Kertész describes the book as "a veritable autobiography". He then adds: "If one acknowledges Nietzsche's proposition that the prototype of the novel as an art form was to be found in the Platonic dialogues, then the Reader is in fact holding a novel in his or her hands." So, novel, or autobiography? Both, perhaps.
Structurally, the book is also rather ambiguous. Apparently inspired by a series of conversations between Kertész and his editor, Zoltán Hafner – and yet not a transcript of those conversations – Dossier K takes the form of an interview with an unnamed interlocutor.
This, of course, is the characteristic Kertész method – simple and direct, yet somehow also swerving, like a dog across a field. His novel Fiasco (in Hungarian, A kudarc), for example, begins: "The old boy was standing in front of the filing cabinet. He was thinking … He had plenty of troubles and woes, so there were things to think about." And at the beginning of Liquidation (Felszámolás) the hero of the story, the dim, dull, troubled Kingbitter, stands at his window and looks out into the street below: "He was quite capable of frittering away whole half hours of his (as it happened, worthless) time by the window." Kertész, like his characters, stands before the window, or before the filing cabinet, before the facts, and thinks about them. It's an obvious way to begin. An interesting way to proceed. And it certainly leads to some unexpected conclusions.
Born in 1929, Kertész was taken from Budapest at the age of 14 and transported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald. In a memorable phrase in Dossier K he says that he eventually realised it was his job to reclaim his life, "which I had to take back from 'History', this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone". This life's work of reclamation has provided Kertész with his great theme, and a fascination with what he calls fatelessness, sorstalanság – the title of his most famous novel – which he defines here as "that specific aspect of dictatorships, the expropriation, nationalisation of one's own fate, turning it into a mass fate, the stripping away of a human being's most human essence".
Kertész's presence is extraordinary. It consists of a number of attributes and strongly held ideas and opinions. He famously objects, for example, to the word "Holocaust" – "a euphemism, a cowardly and unimaginative glibness". Quizzed by his interlocutor – himself? – about Theodor Adorno's statement that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," Kertész responds clearly and robustly: "Well, if I may give a straight answer, I consider that statement to be a moral stink bomb that needlessly pollutes air that is already rank enough as things are." The stink comes from what he sees as "the assertion of an exclusive right to suffering, the appropriation, as it were, of the Holocaust". Always forthright, he also remarks – as again he has illustrated many times in his novels – that "the only thing two Jews have in common is their fears".
Throughout Dossier K he is unsparing also about his work – "art is nothing other than exaggeration and distortion" – and about himself. "All in all, I'm on the side of cheeriness. My error is that I don't elicit that feeling in others." He even grows impatient with his own questions: "It's been done to death. I've already covered that a hundred times."
And yet Kertész's harsh objectivity – severity, one might say – is matched by a rather sweet strain of melancholy and nostalgia, and much of the pleasure of the book derives from his recalling of details of his early life in Hungary, of matzos crumbled in coffee, and Herzegovina cigarettes, the sound of his father crunching garlic on toast, his childhood enthusiasm for CS Forester's Hornblower novels.
It's important that Kertész should remember and rehearse all of this, because it's being forgotten in Hungary. In a recent, short but important article in the New Yorker, the novelist Hari Kunzru interviewed a number of writers, musicians and intellectuals who expressed grave anxieties about the tendencies and policies of the country's rightwing government. George Szirtes, the Hungarian-born British poet, sounded the most serious warning: "In effect, it wants to return the country to the condition of the 30s … the atmosphere is full of hatred … inimical to the country I have loved and admired. Little by little, I find every part of it is being dismantled and banished." Heed Szirtes. Read Kertész.
• Ian Sansom's new novel The Norfolk Mystery is published by Fourth Estate
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