The Hungarian writer and Nobel literature laureate Imre Kertész died in Berlin on March 31st. Kertész was born in Budapest in 1929 into a middle class Jewish family that was secular and non-observant. In 1940 he started to attend secondary school, where he was placed in a special class for Jewish students. In 1944 he was part of a group of thousands of Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz. This was an act which he later told Madrid’s El País newspaper, “obliged me to be Jewish. I accept it, but to a large extent it is also true that it was imposed on me.”
On arrival at Auschwitz, Kertész avoided immediate extermination by lying about his age and social status: as a sixteen-year-old worker (as he purported to be) rather than a fourteen-year-old bourgeois student, he could be made useful as a forced labourer and his death at least postponed. Kertész managed to survive Auschwitz and Buchenwald (and the satellite camp Zeitz) and at the war’s end returned to his native Budapest. Emigration to America had been suggested to him as an option but he had no interest in anything, he said, but returning home: “I was like a stray dog,” he said.
In Budapest he found that the apartment in which he grew up with his parents was being lived in by other people, that his entire family had disappeared and that he was on his own. “It was strange,” he said. “As I was still a child, I had to go to school, although I had, one might say, a certain experience of life.”
That experience was to become central to Kertész’s writing life, which culminated, in 2002, with the award of the Nobel Prize for literature.
In postwar Hungary Kertész first worked as a journalist, but he was fired in 1951 for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime. He then worked as a translator (of Freud, Wittgenstein, Canetti, Joseph Roth) a writer by night and a blue collar labourer by day. He also wrote musical comedies in a strange– and perhaps strangely satisfying ‑ response to Theodor Adorno’s ex cathedra judgment that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric.
Kertész spent thirteen years working on his first novel, Fateless (a later translation of the work is known as Fatelessness), but it was not published for a further decade. Throughout this period – until his Nobel prize ‑ he seemed to have a greater audience in Germany than in his native Hungary and he was eventually to move to live in Berlin. “I can perhaps say,” he once observed, “that fifty years later, I gave form to the horror which Germany unleashed upon the world … that I gave it back to the Germans in the form of art.”
Kertész believed that Auschwitz, or the Holocaust, was not necessarily a unique event in human history. It could happen again, and not necessarily in the same place as it happened the first time. A character in his late novel Liquidation says “Evil is the principle of life … What is really irrational is good.” And this is an idea which is pursued throughout his work.
In the nineteenth century, Germany was widely admired in Europe as the land of Dichter und Denker (writers and thinkers). In the twentieth – the phrase apparently derives from the Viennese Karl Kraus and was coined as early as 1909 though it was popularised by a 1955 novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt – it was to become instead known for its Richter und Henker (judges and hangmen). But the German language, Kertész insisted, “remains for me the language of the thinkers, not the hangmen.”
Sources: Le Monde, The New York Times, Wikipedia
In the Dublin Review of Books:
Kertész considered as a Holocaust writer: http://www.drb.ie/essays/point-zero#sthash.KcPn3eFU.dpuf
Kertész on becoming a writer (extracted from the Paris Review): http://www.drb.ie/blog/writers-and-artists/2013/07/31/filling-in-the-blank