Between the Covers
Insight Into the Mechanism of Horror
By James H. Johnson
Mar 13, 2008

Imre Kertész began his 2002 Nobel Prize lecture by speaking of a “dispassionate observer” whose presence he suddenly felt as he left behind obscurity and entered into literary fame. The fashion by which the “observer” is characterized is typical of Kertész: the description is brief, with few adjectives (“detached,” “cool”), and indeed it is more figure than flesh. But then, we learn, the figure is part of Kertész, and the Famous Author is less essential than we would imagine.

But this personal schism informs Imre Kertész’s readers about the Famous Author, who survived a childhood in Auschwitz and the perilous life of an artist under communist rule. He emerged from those experiences less a writer who finds in his art a forum for experiential expression, but more so a figure whose art continually defines the man. 

His writing, Kertész claims, is deeply personal and deeply tied to his experience. The writing shows the writer who he is. As Kertész describes it: "What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history."

In earlier novels – Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Fatelessness, and Liquidation – Kertész plied the intellectually bleak waters of existence after Auschwitz. The works are bleak, despairing, multilayered, and important chronicles of the world that once was, as well as the world that could be.

The newest addition to the Kertész library available in English is Detective Story, which breaks from the thorough focus on Auschwitz to tell the story of three government inspectors – shadowy KGB types – who monitor the populace to protect a nameless Latin dictatorship’s hold on power.

The main character, Antonio R. Martens, is a new member to “the Corps” who has neglected to leave his moral sensitivity at home. Martens, along with the emotionally cold Diaz and the sadistic, anti-Semitic Rodriguez, investigate the clandestine operations of a group of rebels (actually, a handful of intransigent college-age kids). 

Enrique Salinas, a metaphysically bored young man who wants to aid the resistance, tries to break into the group. He can’t fully ingratiate himself to them, however, because his father is a wealthy, successful merchant whose business flourished under the current dictatorship. The plot follows the intertwined fates of these characters. It is fate and decidedly not free will that determines their tragic ends. Finally, Detective Story’s crime is perpetuated by the enforcers of the law; the victims are the innocent.

Kertész lets the story fall into place via successive manuscripts. An explanatory essay (written by detective Martens’ lawyer) introduces the actual tale as the words of a condemned man who wished to “speak out and make sense of his fate.” The story that follows marks Martens’ entrance to the Corps and moves on to the tragic, humanly stupid, events that led the young Salinas to fall into their grasp. Intermittently, Martens quotes long passages from Salinas’ diary, which briefly marks the only break from the tale’s cold directness. These welcome excursions last just long enough for us to watch a young man fall in love:

That a mouth could have the shape (and movements) of a flower (a flower in a breeze) is quite incredible. And yet there is such a mouth.

And, of his lover:

Like someone in whom the sun shines inside. I sunbathed all day.

But Enrique Salinas is young, insubordinate, and focused on doing something to alleviate his mirthful ennui, which he weakly describes as “mediocrity.” (“Mediocrity is a sickness,” he says.) His outlet is rebellion, and his fate – unlucky, improbable, nonsensical – bears out the notion that under authoritarian rule, an individual’s fate is determined by the whims of the state.

Clearly, this is not a detective story in the usual sense. The central mystery is the inflexible role of a state’s power over its subjects, a vacuum of freedom in flux as much in 21st-century America as in Kertész’s vague country – a chaos that “reigns over our lives with the whim of a death squad.” The questions he raises fit Guantanamo a little too snugly.

But Kertész’s purpose is not merely the familiar, Orwellian instruction to beware omnipotent systems that govern us, nor the bureaucratic paranoia that Kafka effused. Rather Kertész places personal responsibility on both the reader and himself. Our responsibility, as he said near the close of his Nobel speech, is to “make our peace with the absurd order of chance…”



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