Kertész, Imre (9 November 1929 - )

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Imre Kertész (9 November 1929 - )

Éva Forgács
Art Center College of Design, Pasadena

2002 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Kertész: Banquet Speech

Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2002

Kertész: Nobel Lecture, 7 December 2002



This entry was expanded by Forgács from her Kertész entry in DLB Yearbook 2002. See also the Kertész entry in DLB 299: Holocaust Novelists.

BOOKS: Sorstahnság (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1975); translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson as Fateless (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1992); translated by Tim Wilkinson as Fatekssness (New York: Vintage International, 2004);

A nyomkeresõ (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977);

A kudarc (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1988);

Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (Budapest: Magvető, 1990); translated by Wilson and Wilson as Kaddish for a Child Not Born (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1997);

Az angol lobogó (Budapest: Holnap, 1991); translated by Wilkinson as The Union Jack, in Hungarian (Quarterly, no. 168 (Winter 2002): 3-28;

Gályanapló (Budapest: Holnap, 1992);

A holocaust mint kultúra (Budapest: Századvég, 1993)– includes “Hosszú, sötét árnyék,” translated by Imre Goldstein as “Long, Dark Shadow,” in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman and Éva Forgács (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 171-180;

Jegyzőkönyv, bound with Élet és irodalom by Péter Ester-házy (Budapest: Magvető-Századvég, 1993), pp. 7-37; translated by Wilkinson as Sworn Statement, in Hungarian Quarterly, no. 163 (Autumn 2001): 45-58;

Valaki más: A változás krónikája (Budapest: Magvető, 1997);

A gondohtnyi csend, amig a kivégzőosztag újratölt (Budapest: Magvető, 1998);

Sorstalanság filmforgatókönyv (Budapest: Magvető, 2001);

A számúzött nyelv (Budapest: Magvető, 2001); translated by Ivan Sanders as “The Language of Exile,” in Guardian, 9 October 2002;

A stockholmi beszéd: Elhangzott 2002 December 7-én a Svéd Akadémia ünnepi ülésén (Budapest: Magvető, 2002);

Felszámolás: Regény (Budapest: Magvető, 2003); translated by Wilkinson as Liquidation (New York: Knopf, 2004);

Kalauz, by Kertész, Esterházy, and Péter Nádas (Budapest: Magvető, 2003);

K. dosszié (Budapest: Magvető, 2006).

TRANSLATIONS: Friedrich Nietzsche, A tragédia születése (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1986);

Sigmund Freud, Michelangelo Mózese (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1987);

Joseph Roth, Jób (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1987);

Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, “Az árnyék nélküli asszony,” in Menekülés a homályba: Osztrák elbeszélők (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1988);

Arthur Schnitzler, “Menekülés a homályba,” in Menekülés a homályba: Osztrák elbeszélők (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1988);

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Észrevételek (Budapest: Atlantisz, 1993).

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész in 2002 for “writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history,” as the citation read. Kertész’s writing, although inspired by his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and by living in the totalitarian system in Hungary, addresses more than the political turmoil he had to endure. He examines the threat to the existence of the individual as an historical and cultural construct, a twentieth-century literary theme explored by writers such as Robert Musil in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften: Roman (1930-1943; translated as The Man without (Qualities, 1955) and Elias Canetti in Mass und Macht (1960; translated as Crowds and Power, 1962).

Acceptance of the world as an objective reality meant, under the particular circumstances of the regimes Kertész lived in, compliance with totalitarianism. In his essay “Hosszú, sötét árnyék” (1993; translated

as “Long, Dark Shadow,” 2003) Kertész writes, “A totalitarizmus, a totalitárius állam, a totalitárius párthatalom–e század minden pusztító hitnél pusztítóbb szörnyetege, ragálya, pestise . . . alapjaiban rendített meg . . . mindent. A totalitarizmus számzi önmagából és torvényen kívül helyezi az emberí” (Totalitarianism, the totalitarian state, a totalitarian ruling party–this plague, this pestilence, this monster of our century . . . has shaken the foundation of . . . everything. It is man, the human being, that totalitarianism banishes, outlaws, puts beyond the pale). As he explained in his Nobel Lecture, however, totalitarianism did not absolve the individual from responsibility:

Én viszont 1955 egy szép tavaszi napján váratlanul arra a gondolatra jutottam, hogy egyetlen valóság létezik csupán, ez a valóság pedig én magarti vagyok, az én éle-tem, ez a törékeny és bizonytalan időre szóló ajándék, amelyet idegen, ismeretlen erök kisajátítottak, államosí-tottak, meghatározták és megpecsételték, s amelyet az úgynevezett torténelemtôl, ettôl a szornyuséges Molochtól vissza kell vennem, mert egyedül az enyém, s ekként kell gazdálkodnom vele.

(Whereas I, on a lovely spring day in 1955, suddenly came to the realization that there exists only one reality, and that is me, my own life, this fragile gift bestowed for an uncertain time, which had been seized, expropriated by alien forces, marked up, branded–and which I had to take back from “History,” this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone, and I had to manage it accordingly.)

Kertész has regarded it as his “egzisztenciális feladat” (existential task) to give as accurate an account of the European catastrophe as possible, as he said in his short after-ceremony talk in Stockholm. He took upon himself the task of not only fathoming the most barbarous event of Christian European civilization, the Nazi Holocaust, but also creating a language in which it could be adequately narrated. The language of literature, he found, could no longer convey what had happened. What he wanted to grasp was the gradual process of disintegration and vanishing of the human being in the totalitarian machinery: the demise of the citizen who had been the bearer of the culture that produced literature. To this end he had to invent a dispassionate language in which he could not only narrate the indifferent universe of the concentration camp with great precision but also offer insight into its very structure, which systematically destroyed the individual. He created a prose that eschews action, character, and expressive language. Alluding to the twelve-tone musical scale pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg, Kertész has said his aim was atonality in the language. He pointed out a coincidence in the word he chose as the title of his first novel, Sorstalanãan-ság (1975; translated as Fatekss, 1992): “Sorstalanság: Tizenkét betû. Véletlen ugyan, de jellemzõ véletlen” (Fateless: twelve letters. It is accidental, but characteristically so).

One of Kertész’s central pursuits is his penetrating examination of the fabric of totalitarianism. He scrutinized the smallest details of the deportation process both in his own and many former inmates’ memories, and compared them to the photographs taken of deportees arriving at the ramp of the Birkenau extermination camp. As he mentioned in his Nobel lecture, there was a remarkable difference between what he and others remembered, and what the pictures documented. What was erased from memory but is clearly visible in the photographs is the good faith and readiness of most deportees to comply with their captors and executioners:

Megdöbbenve néztem ezeket a képeket. Szép, mosolygó női arcok, értelmes szemû fiatal emberek, teli jó szándékkal, a közremuködes készségével. Most már megértettem, miért és hogyan mosódhatott el bennük a tétlenségnek és a tehetetlenségnek e megszégyenítő húsz perce. S ha arra gondoltam, hogy mindez ugyanígy ismétlôdött, naponta, hetente, havonta, évek hosszú során át, bepillantást nyertem a rettenet techni-kájába, megtudtam, hogyan lehetséges az ember élete eilen fordítani magát az emberi természetet.

(I looked at these photographs in utter amazement. I saw lovely, smiling women and bright-eyed young men, all of them well-intentioned, eager to cooperate. Now I understood how and why those humiliating twenty minutes of idleness and helplessness faded from their memories. And when I thought how all this was repeated the same way for days, weeks, months and years on end, I gained an insight into the mechanism of horror; I learned how it became possible to turn human nature against one’s own life.)

Kertész examines the Holocaust from the perspective of the entire European historical, philosophical, and literary tradition since the Enlightenment. He regards it as the failure of European culture rather than a particular Jewish catastrophe. His dry and unsentimental prose made him controversial in the eyes of the book publishers and book censors in the Hungary of the 1970s. Not only was he one of the first to break the taboo of writing about the Holocaust, but also he did so from a perspective that fundamentally differed from that sanctioned by officialdom. In Kertész’s analysis, looking back from Soviet-dominated Hungary, the Nazi Holocaust was a link in the chain of totalitarian regimes, supported by the education and views of generations of erudite Europeans. He called Auschwitz a “világélmény” (world experience), which revealed the absurd but not quite illogical outcome of the rationalism-based organization of state power. He did not study the particulars of the history of the Jews in Germany and the specifics of that particular country’s embracing Nazism, since he was more concerned with the scandalous fact that a European state apparatus came to create a well-oiled mechanism for the ultimate deprivation of a group of individuals of their free will, language, time, and personal characteristics.

Kertész was born on 9 November 1929 in Budapest. He comes from an assimilated middle-class Jewish family. His paternal grandfather, Jakab Klein (who Magyarized the family name to Kertész), having full confidence in his homeland, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, had invested all his fortune in war bonds during World War I; he ended up losing everything. Kertész’s father was a timber merchant, and his mother worked as a clerk. He was an only child, and his parents, who divorced around the time of his birth, later sent him to a boarding school. A promising student, Kertész was enrolled in the newly formed “Jewish class” of the Madách Gymnasium in Budapest in 1940. In the summer of 1944, while he was working as a laborer, he was held up in the street and deported to Auschwitz. Selected for work, he was transferred to the Zeitz labor camp and, intermittently, to Buchenwald. A survivor, he had the option to start a new life in another country after the war, but he returned to Hungary in July 1945. Back in Budapest, he became a journalist at Szikra (Spark), a publication of the Hungarian Ministry of Heavy Industry, in 1946. He graduated from high school in 1948 and started to work for the Social Democrat journal Viiágosság (Illumination) but was fired in 1950. He became a factory worker, then was drafted and served in the military until 1953. When discharged, he decided he would no longer accept regular employment. He married a woman named Albina in 1953 and co-authored musical comedies, which were produced in various Budapest theaters and paid well enough to give him some financial independence. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, Kertész translated literary and philosophical works into Hungarian, including books by Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kertész lived isolated from the literary community, teaching himself how to write a novel and discovering the writers who had a great impact on his thinking and writing. He was a particularly avid reader of Nietzsche and singled out Albert Camus and Franz Kafka who, both as thinkers and writers, profoundly influenced him. He greatly admired Camus’s succinct prose and precision, particularly L’Etranger (1942; translated as The Stranger, 1946). He read Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Blaise Pascal, and Wittgenstein, and was much influenced by German writers from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as Thomas Mann. He is familiar with the Holocaust literature and is profoundly influenced by those writers who, having survived the catastrophe, later took their own lives: Paul Celan, Jean Améry, Tadeusz Borowski, and Primo Levi. Kertész systematically read documents and memoirs on the Holocaust and studied maps and photographs. He saw Auschwitz as the quintessential twentieth-century catastrophe, and he was prepared to write about his concentration camp experience, but not as his personal history. Rather than making his novel Sorstalansag an account of events, he reduced this first book to the bare representation of the totalitarian machinery and its methods to transform the individual into a mere functional entity: a numbered item. On this account Sorstalanság was often compared to Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (1947, If This Is a Man; translated as Survival in Auschwitz, 1961).

Kertesz worked on Sorstalanság between 1960 and the early 1970s. When he first submitted the manuscript in 1973, the publisher MagvetŐ summarily rejected the book because of its objective stance, which greatly differed from the eloquent tone expected from those who described the sufferings of the Jews during the Holocaust. In communist Hungary, the Holocaust was by and large still a taboo subject. Official politics tried to circumvent the fact that Germany had been one country at the time of the Holocaust and tried to project the political difference between communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany back into the war years, suggesting that the Nazi past belonged to the West only. Discussion of the Holocaust had to condemn that Germany; it had to be “humanist,” “anti-fascist,” and, most of all, it had to fit into the language that had been created for it within the Hungarian communist cultural context. Moreover, any mention of the Holocaust had to refer to it as a closed chapter of history, hermetically sealed from the present–whereas in Kertész’s writing, as he stated in his Nobel lecture, “A Holocaust az én írásaimban sosem tudott múlt idoben megjelenni” (the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense). Such writing as Kertész’s was not desirable at a time and place where fathoming the reality of the concentration camps as the epitome of the totalitarian system disagreed with the interests of officialdom.

After the initial refusal from MagvetŐ, Kertész did not believe there was any other forum that would get the book out. However, he was persuaded to approach Szépirodalmi Kiadó, another major literary publishing house, which brought his novel out in 1975.

Sorstalanság is a rigorously constructed novel rather than an autobiography, but it is based on Kertész’s actual experience. Fourteen-year-old György Köves, the narrator, is in the midst of adolescence, feeling out of touch with his Jewish middle-class family. His story starts in the spring of 1944, when the wearing of the yellow star and conscription for forced labor service has become the rule for Jews in Budapest, generally accepted as part of ‘Jewish fate.” A whole infrastructure is in place to cater to the particular needs of the draftees, but all the Jews do about it, including the Köves family, is to say prayers. The only character of the novel who sees this situation as nonsense and feels rebellious about it all, while desperately trying to understand the reasons for the discrimination against Jews, is a teenage girl in a neighboring apartment with whom Köves might get involved, were he not propelled into a different orbit. The boy’s journey to Auschwitz starts on a bright sunny summer day amid all the good fortune a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy in the Budapest of 1944 could hope for. Not only does he have work, but, more important, as an employee he has a pass that enables him to leave the checkpoints of the capital city at a time when most Jews do not have a presentable ID card.

On this early summer morning a soft-spoken, blue-eyed policeman stops outbound buses at a checkpoint and kindly asks Jewish passengers to get off. The boy follows the order and finds his fellow workers-boys like him–already there, held up from their own respective bus rides. Amid the frequent and random ID controls and unexpected police raids of those times, it is the “natural” course of things for Jews to be held up. The boys almost enjoy having fun in the cool customhouse rather than having to sweat while working. They have the feeling of vacation. After several hours, while the policeman keeps on calling his superiors for further orders, the group is taken to the other end of the city, the premises of a brick factory, where a great number of Jews have already been gathered.

When, after a long, idle time, an official calls for volunteers to work in Germany, young Köves gets almost enthusiastic. He thinks of Germany as a clean, tidy, and well-organized country, where he can do something better than his present lowly work south of Budapest. After all, he has a high-school education and is ready to go abroad. Also, volunteers are promised to fare better than those who do not volunteer, because, as rumor has it, all of them would be taken to Germany anyway. The young boy does not see through the language or the fact that the instructions, which Kertész identifies as a key feature of the Nazi machinery, come in controlled installments. One event leads to the next, and it all seems to him as a chain of serendipitous events rather than a scheme.

After a three-day-and-night train ride in a sealed car, of which Kertész gives a reticent description, the transport arrives in Auschwitz. In a flurry of events and great haste, while he is being advised to declare himself to be sixteen rather than fourteen years old, Köves finds himself in front of a doctor with the other boys. When the doctor has ordered some of the men to go left, and others to go right, the boys are still quite pleased: “Minden mozgott, minden mûködött, mind-enki a helyén, s végezte a magáét, pontosn, derûsen, olajozottan. Sok arcon láttam mosolyt, szerényebbet vagy magabiztosabbat” (Everything was working well, everything ran smoothly, everything was in its place and attended to its function, precisely, cheerfully, like a well-oiled machine. On many faces I saw smiles, rather humble but more self-assured). Walking toward the barracks under the supervision of SS soldiers, the boys see a few tidy, well-kept houses and gardens, and a soccer field. “Minden ott volt, hivogatóan, frissen, jó karban, a legnagyobb rendben” (Everything was there, inviting, fresh, in good condition and in the best of order), the protagonist muses. However, on the evening of the same day, already shaved bare, given prisoners’ clothes and ill-fitting shoes, he smells the nauseating smoke coming from the Auschwitz crematorium chimneys and knows it all. He understands how those who were sent by the doctor to the other side were processed by the fast and efficiently organized system.

After three days the boy is taken to Buchenwald and then on to a work camp in nearby Zeitz, where the captives slave for a rubber factory. Robotic, they get up at dawn, are minimally nourished, report for work, work all day, then march back, report again, are counted and minimally nourished, and go to sleep. From an older inmate who helps him, the boy learns a few survival skills, which include carefully cleaning himself every day, always putting aside a little food to avoid the feeling of starvation, and opting for minimum visibility in the middle of the row when marching. But he can control all that for only so long. After a few months he is giving up: he develops lesions and is on the verge of dying of sepsis. Useless for work, he is taken back to Buchenwald–”vissza a feladónak” (return to sender)–to die. Reduced to the subhuman, his flickering thoughts of consciousness still propel around his wish to live: “valami halk vágyakozásféle lopott, mintegy az esztelenségtől szégyenkező, s mégiscsak makacskodó szavát: szeretnék kicsit még élni ebben a szép koncentrációs táborban” (senseless, but yet consistently stubborn in their persistence: I would so much like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp).

He is one of the few to be taken to the camp hospital, where doctors and nurses, an international team of captives, work in what appears to be a tacit collaboration against the rationale of the camps, and try to help the sick survive. The boy has the strength that makes recovery possible, and one day, still on his hospital bed, hears an announcement over the megaphone that the camp is liberated. The nightmare is over. He has the option to go to Sweden or some other European country, but he chooses to return home to Hungary, a fatherland that had deported him to die in Auschwitz. He travels home burdened with an experience that he knows will be hard, if not impossible, to share.

Kertész’s second volume, A nyomkereső (1977, The Path Finder), includes short stories and a short novel titled Detektívtörténet (Mystery Story). The title story is the tale of a former concentration camp inmate who revisits the camps and encounters a mysterious, veiled woman who had lost her husband to the Holocaust and, as the narrator learns from the local newspaper while waiting for his outbound train, has taken her own life. This story was one of Kertész’s attempts to articulate that Auschwitz was an indelible, irreversible, and insurmountable event.

Detektívtörténet is set in an unidentified state of South America (possibly Chile), where a young, idealist student, Enrique Salinas, scion of one of the country’s prominent families, is burning with desire to become an activist against the dictatorship. Unrelated to this wish, the random but ample information gathered by the ubiquitous secret service targets him, as well as his father, among a great number of equally suspect citizens–in fact, everyone is suspect–as potential dangers to the existing order, and both are ground beneath the wheels of the machinery of the totalitarian state. Here Kertész repeats, in a reductive and fictitious form, his quintessential Auschwitz experience: deprivation of a personal fate. A faceless, blind mechanism is at work, operated by the usurpers of power and needing to be fed incessantly. Human personalities are reduced to cases, files, and, according to the system’s logic, inevitably, corpses. Innocence–one of Kertész’s recurring thoughts–is an anomaly in the system. It irritates the mechanism and challenges its bureaucrats: the innocent, who has ethical power, has to be eliminated.

Throughout the late 1970s Kertész slowly established himself as a writer in Hungary. Sorstalanság was increasingly recognized as an important novel, although it received limited attention in literary criticism during the first few years following its 1975 publication. It eventually earned for Kertész the Füst Milán Jutalom (Füst Milán Prize) in 1983 and the Forintos Díj (Forin tos Prize) in 1986. In the spring of 1980 Kertész traveled to Germany on a study grant, but in general he supported himself and his wife with translations in the early 1980s.

The title of A kudarc (1988, Failure [or Fiasco]) is a key word in Kertész’s work. A novel about a novel, this book continues the autobiographical postwar account of György Köves, who, in a slightly Kafkaesque opening, “arrives” by an airplane to exactly where he had set out from: back in Hungary, as if on a trip. His surrealistic arrival is followed by a realistic account of events: he is fired from his job as a journalist and is thrown into the 1950s Budapest nightlife, where the homeless mix with those who do not go home in order to dodge a possible police raid and their evacuation as a “class enemy.” He takes up work in a factory, returns to journalism only to be fired again, then is drafted, and after two years of military service he decides to embark on writing a novel. This book is the history of his birth as a writer. Ending at the beginning of the 1956 revolution, A kudarc gives a vivid description of the grim Budapest under totalitarian rule during the early 1950s. Clear-cut, impressively described characters populate the cafeterias, restaurants, and apartments. They fear the secret police, try to outsmart them, fall prey to them, kill themselves, lose their minds, struggle to survive, try to take advantage of the few loopholes in the system, or surrender to it. Kertész’s descriptions are objective and reticent, but full of life. The individual stories of the appearances, disappearances, and reappearances of some of his characters reflect the whims and turns of political events, and they connect up as the fabric of life under a dictatorial regime. “Failure” is seen as the quintessential experience in Eastern Europe. As Kertész said in a 1991 interview:

A kudarc struktúráját utánozták az események; a nagy öneszmélést és a nagy visszahullást. Ráébredtek a saját egzisztenciájukra, az eleven létükre, tettvágyukra, s aztán az egész visszahanyatlott a káosz örvényébe.... Ez így néz ki: trauma, elfojtás–majd a katartikus tisztázás helyett regresszió következik be, visszaesés a trauma által kiváltott tünetekbe.

(Events [in Hungary] imitated, if one can say so, the structure of Failure: the cycles of awakening to a new self-consciousness followed by falling back. People came to see their own existence, their real life and desire to act, in a new light, and then reclined back into the fulcrum of chaos. . . . As if obeying the pattern of trauma, suppression, and then, instead of catharsis, regression: a fall back into the syndromes of the original trauma.)

Kertész inserts in A kudarc the beginning of a novel written by one of the characters, Berg. Titled “En, a hóhér” (Me, the Hangman), it is an independent chapter in which Berg, a suffering, idiosyncratic thinker and another alter ego of the author besides the main character, discovers the reservoirs of cruelty and sadism within himself. These ideas square with what Kertész said in an acceptance speech in 1997: “[hogy felfedezzük magunkban] mind az áldozat, mind pedig a hóhér szerepének rémületes lehetőségét” ([we have to discover in ourselves] the horrible potential of the roles of both the victim and the hangman).

Kertész’s first postcommunist novel, Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (1990; translated as Kaddish for a Child Kot Born, 1997), starts out with the narrator’s definitive, emphatic “No” to the idea of having children. Lucid and sad, the novel tells the story of the narrator’s marriage, which fails because the narrator (known only as “B”), who had been in Auschwitz, is marked for life by the experience. His young wife, the daughter of Holocaust survivors herself, wants life and a future, to raise a family. The narrator, once again a writer, is in love with his wife and understands her wish, but, with his concentration camp experience haunting him, is unable to participate in the life she desires. The only task he has cut out for himself is to leave testimony of what he had witnessed: “hogy megbélyegzett zsidóként Auschwitzban lehettem, és hogy a zsidóságom revén mégiscsak átéltem valamit, és a szemébe néztem valaminek, és tudok, egyszer s minden-korra és visszavonhatatlanul tudok valamit, amibŐl nem engedek, soha nem engedek” (I was allowed to be in Auschwitz and on account of my Jewishness I experienced and survived something and faced something; and now I know something irrevocably, once and for all, something that I won’t let go of, will never let go of).

Sorstalanság, A kudarc, and Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért have been considered a trilogy, especially in the German literary press. They are connected by autobiographical elements, although each is a work of fiction and a book in its own right. Each of them discusses the horrible enigma of Auschwitz and the Hungary of the 1950s, and each is narrated by a main character that bears many of the author’s own characteristics.

Az angol lobogó (1991; translated as The Union Jack, 2002) is a brief work, but, as literary critics such as Lajos Márton Varga have observed, a whole life is needed to put those few sentences into context. At the heart of the story is a flash of memory of the sight of a military jeep covered by the Union Jack roaming in the Budapest streets in the days of the revolution in October 1956. People make way for it and applaud it as it passes them, and, in response to the applause, a hand sheathed in a buckskin glove appears from the jeep window and slowly waves to the crowd lining the street:

Integetés volt ez, baráti, üdvözlő, tán egy kissé részvétteli mozdulat, mindenesetre fenntartás nélküli helyeslést tartalmazott, és mellesleg a szilárd tudatot is, amivel ez a kesztyus kéz nemsokára a repülőgepről a betonra veuető lépcső korlátját tapintja majd, hazaérkezve a távoli szigetországba. Azután kocsi, kéz, és angol lobogó–minden eltunt a kanyarban, és a tapsok lassan elhaltak.

(It was a friendly, maybe somewhat sympathetic salute, expressing unreserved approval, as well as the firm awareness of soon touching the rail of the stairs leading from the aircraft to the ground after landing in the remote island. Then the hand, the Union Jack–everything vanished in the curve of the street, and the applause slowly subsided.)

But that is not the whole story of the English flag. In a few days, the narrator adds, tanks emerged from the same curve of the same street, albeit from the opposite direction–Russian tanks. The Union Jack, symbol of far-away freedom and civil liberty, is replaced by the monstrous military. This image of October 1956 spells catastrophe and loss of hope for the Hungarian revolutionaries. The fleeting glimpse of the gloved hand stands for the limited, at best moral, support from the West in a curt, single, elusive gesture.

Gályanapló (1992, Galley Diary) includes excerpts of Kertész’s diaries written over thirty years, starting in 1961. He recorded reflections on readings, ideas, events, and experiences. The notes reveal a bold, idiosyncratic, sensitive thinker, open to lucid theories as well as to the truths he discovers in sudden moments of inspiration.

Since the early 1990s Kertész often has been invited to participate in and give talks at international conferences on the Holocaust. The substantial essays he wrote for these occasions were published in various periodicals, and then in two volumes: A holocaust mint kúltra (1993, Holocaust As Culture), and A gondolatnyi csend, amig a kivégzőosztag újratöt (1998, Moments of Silence While the Execution Squad Reloads). The latter of these collections also includes three interviews with the author.

One of the most significant among the essays, “A holocaust mint kultúra,” was written for the Jean Améry Symposium held at the Vienna University in October 1992. Here Kertész defines the Holocaust as an event in European culture ranking with the Crucifixion. An original crime, the killing of the innocent, it has already been processed (in Freudian terms) through the periods of oblivion and suppression and has been saved from oblivion. Erudition and education, he says, referring to both Améry and Borowski, failed to make a difference. The great European culture did not help the camp inmates nor inhibit the perpetrators and murderers. However, bearing witness and creating written monuments will empower the once powerless, he claims. There is power in representation, he asserts, quoting Améry, and continues with a phrase from A kudarc: “alannyá változtatni örökös tárgyiságomat, névadónak lenni megnevezett helyett” (which can turn me from eternal object into subject, and into name-giver from the one who is given a name). Kertész poses the question: Can the Holocaust create value? His answer is that “felmérhetetlen szenvedések révén felmérhetetlen tudáshoz vezetett; és ezáltal felmérhetetlen erkölcsi tartalék rejlik benne” (at the price of immeasurable suffering, the Holocaust has opened up immeasurable knowledge, and thus, an immeasurable moral reservoir). And this knowledge, he trusts, may lead to a new catharsis in the future.

The short work Jegyiőkmyv (1993; translated as Sworn Statement, 2001), published together with a piece by Péter Esterházy, is based on an experience the author had in the early 1990s with duty officers who made him undergo a humiliating bureaucratic process because he had a slightly greater amount of Austrian currency in his pocket than permitted by law when traveling to Vienna. Instead of appearing at a scheduled meeting in the Austrian Ministry of Culture, where he was expected, Kertész was returned to Budapest. His bitter description is an accusation of the mindless, rigid, and unchanged bureaucracy that still complicated the lives of Hungarian citizens after the fall of Communism. Although he does not explicitly mention Auschwitz, Kertész could not help recognizing his archenemy in his treatment. It was the spirit of the camps, the same mindless obedience to rules, and the total and deliberate disregard of the individual. In sympathy with Kertész, Esterházy wrote about a similar experience in his part of the book; another Hungarian writer, Mihály Kornis, demonstrated solidarity and paid tribute to Kertész by performing an adaptation of Jegyzőkönyv on stage.

In 1997 Kertész published Valaki más: A változás krónikája (Someone Else), a collection of fragmentary essays and diary excerpts in which the author searches for that elusive, familiar stranger that is commonly called the self. In contrast to the closed world of his novels, Kertész now shares his impressions while traveling through Europe. He records his perceptions of the European landscape and cities, discovers Rembrandt’s dramatic work, and enjoys the freedom of driving on the freeway with the accompaniment of triumphant music. He commemorates his wife, who died in 1995 of a brain tumor, and their “boldogtalan házasságban élve, oly nagyon szerettük egymást” (unhappy marriage in which we loved each other so much). With his characteristic keen, relentless analysis he explores his past and revisits yet-unanswered questions, the mystery of life and the mystery of his own being above all.

In Valaki más, at long last, Kertész finds happiness against the background of the dark years he had been through. Writing about one of his trips with Magda, his new companion (whom he married in 1996), Kertész considers the miracle and enigma of being: “Hannah Arendt állítja, hogy minden írásának egyetlen indítéka: megérteni valamit. De ránk hagyja a ‘megérteni’ szó homályát” (Hannah Arendt claims that the only motivation of each of her writings was her desire to understand something. But she leaves the fogginess of this word “understand” to us). The unfathomable mystery of existence and of the self humbles Kertész: “‘En’: ez egy fikció, amelynek legföljebb a társszerzöi lehetünk” (“Me” is a fiction, of which one can be, in the best of cases, a co-author only).

Since the demise of socialism, Kertész has become recognized as one of the most important writers in his own country and has gained international attention since the 1990s as his works have been translated into many languages. His many awards include the Brandenburgischer Literaturpreis (1995) and three prizes in 1997: the Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung, the Jeanette-Schocken Preis, and the Friedrich Gundolf Preis. In 1998 he was awarded the Kossuth Díj, the highest cultural prize in Hungary, and the following year Rohwolt Verlag (Reinbek) published a complete edition of his works. He also has won the Herder Preis (2000), the Internazionale Premio Flaiano (2001), the Peter-Chamisso-Preis (2001), the Die Welt Literaturpreis (2002), and the Hans Sahl Prize (2002). In 1998 he was named a member of the Darmstadt-based Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (German Academy of Language and Poetry), and in 2001 he became a member of the Orden pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste (Order for Merit in Sciences and Arts).

In 2002 Kertész became the first Hungarian writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The news elicited a mixed response in Hungary. There was official jubilation and pride, but also some expression of disappointment that a relatively obscure (in Hungary) writer, and a Jew (whom right-wing nationalists therefore did not accept as “truly” Hungarian), had won this honor. The prize inspired him to reassess his work and to confirm, once again, that writing is a powerful weapon against oppression:

Tudnunk kell hogy Auschwitz, egy bizonyos értelemben legalábbis–felfüggesztette az irodalmat. . . . Auschwitz igazi problémája az, hogy megtörtent, és ezen a tényen a legjobb, de a leggonoszabb akarattal sem vál toztathatunk. E súlyos helyzetnek talán a magyar katolikus költő, Pilinszky János adta a legpontosabb nevet, amikor “botránynak” nevezte; s ezen nyilvánvalóan azt értette, hogy Auschwitz a keresztény kulturkörben esett meg, s így a metafizikai szellem számára kiheverhetetlen.

(We must know that Auschwitz, in a certain sense at least, suspended literature.... The real problem with Auschwitz is that it happened, and this cannot be altered–not with the best, or worst, will in the world. This gravest of situations was characterized most accurately by the Hungarian Catholic poet János Pilinszky when he called it a “scandal.” What he meant by it, clearly, is that Auschwitz occurred in a Christian cultural environment, so for those with a metaphysical turn of mind it can never be overcome.)

Kertész, however, addresses his work to the future as well as dedicating it to the millions who died: “Amikor Auschwitz traumatikus hatásán gondolkodom, ezzel a mai ember vitalitásának és kreativitásának az alapkérdéseihez jutok el; s Auschwitzon gondolkodva így, talán paradox módon, de inkább a jövön, semmint a múlton gondolkodom” (Whenever I think of the traumatic impact of Auschwitz, I end up dwelling on the vitality and creativity of those living today. Thus, in thinking about Auschwitz, I reflect, paradoxically, not on the past, but the future).

Kertész’s first post-Nobel book, Fehzámoiás (2003; translated as Liquidation, 2004), is a short novel narrating the last years, love affair, and suicide of a writer, again known only as “B.” Reviewing the English translation of the novel, Ruth Franklin observed in The New York Times Book Review (19 December 2004): “At times almost playful, at times harrowing, the novel weaves multiple voices and textures into a meditation on reading and writing, activities here inseparable from life itself.” Originally intended as a drama, the novel takes place in Hungary after the fall of Communism. It is an addition to the trilogy, turning it to a tetralogy, since it too discusses the ultimate impossibility of life after Auschwitz.

This “B” is younger than the protagonists of the previous novels, since he was born in Auschwitz. He not only takes his own life but also manages to have his former wife execute his spiritual suicide by burning his unpublished work in the fireplace. Through the web of broken friendships and love affairs Kertész once again– as he said in many interviews, for the last time–demonstrates the poisonous legacy of the Holocaust as well as the totalitarian regime in Hungary.

Imre Kertész continues to work and live in Budapest and Berlin. Whether he writes again about the Holocaust, his legacy is clear. His relentless inquiry into that catastrophe and his vision of it as the most formidable lesson that mankind–not solely Jewry–has been taught in the past century makes his writing fundamentally important to the understanding of history and human nature.


Katalin Budai, “‘A müvészethez elég az igazság’: Beszélgetés Kertész Imrével,” Magyar Napló, 1 November 1991, pp. 14-17;

Tamás Szõnyei, ‘“Magyarországot mindenütt szeretik’: Intervjú Kertész Imre iróval,” Magyar Narancs, 12 December 2002, pp. 6-7, 35.


Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Unerbittlichkeitskünstler. Von Imre Kertész,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 June 2001;

László F. Földényi, “A Large Truth,” Common Knowledge, 7, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 7–14;

Földényi, “Az erkölesi magány terhe,” Magyar Lettre Internationale, no. 25 (1997): 2-3;

Zsuzsanna Gahse, “Das Unerwartete und Imre Kertesz: Eine Laudatio,” Horen: Zeitschrift fur Literatur, Kunstund Kritik, 42, no. 2 (1997): 67-73;

David Holley, “Hungarian Holocaust Survivor Is Awarded Nobel in Literature,” Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2002, p. A3;

József Keresztesi, “Leverkühn slágert fütyöl,” Magyar Narances, 20 November 2003, pp. 32-33;

Judith Klein, “‘ . . . als wäre ich selbst der Dichter’: Übersetzen als Thema und Metapher literarischer Texte (an Beispielen von Isaak Babel, Aharon Megged und Imre Kertész),” LiLi: Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik, 99 (1995): 155–160;

Péter Nádas, “Kertész munkája és témája,” Élet ésirodalom, 18 October 2002;

Sándor Radnóti, “Auschwitz mint szellemi életforma,” Holmi, 3 (1991): 372-378;

Ilma Rakusa, “Von Trauma zur Zeugenschaft, Erzählungen und Essays von Imre Kertész,” Neue Züricher Zeitung, 1 February 2000;

Alan Riding, “Hungarian Holocaust Survivor Is Awarded Nobel in Literature,” New York Times, 11 October 2002, p. Al;

Tanje Rudtke, ‘“Eine Kuriose Geschichte’: Die Pikara Perspektive im Holocaustroman am Beispiel Von Imre Kertesz’ Roman eines Schicksallosen,” Arcadia: Zeitschrift fur Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, 36, no. 1 (2001): 46-57;

Gábor Schein: “Összekötni az összeköthetetlent: Megje gyzések Kertész Imre prózájához,” Jelenkor, 12 (2002): 1296-1303;

Bernhard Schlink, “Happiness as a Duty: Bernhard Schlink’s Eulogy of Imre Kertész during Presentation of the Die Welt Literary Prize,” Die Welt, 9 November 2000, pp. 17-19;

György Spiró, “A hatvan éves Kertész Imre köszöntese,” Élet és irodalom, 46 (1989): 7;

Péter Szirák, “Emlékezés és példázat: a létezés negatív aspektusa (A Kertész-olvasás),” in his Folytonosságés változás (Debrecen: Csokonai, 1998), pp. 82-88;

Steven Totosy de Zepetnek, “And the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature Goes to Imre Kertész, Jew and Hungarian,” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture (2002), <http/>;

Lajos Márton Varga, “A tanúságtétel perspektívái,” Jelenkor, 12 (1991): 1051-1054;

György Vàri, Kertész Imre: Buchenwald fölött az ég (Budapest: Kijárat, 2003).