Imre Kertész: Luck and Catastrophe

Imre Kertesz and his wife Magda
Imre Kertész and his wife Magda the day after Kertész became the first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Photo: AFP).

Imre Kertész, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature, was born in 1929 in Budapest, and at 15 was deported to Auschwitz. The author of a trilogy of literary works on the Holocaust that began with his 1975 novel Fateless, Kertész is the first Hungarian to win the award.

Are you happy?
I am normally happy. But now I am even happier.

Isn’t happiness, for Imre Kertész, the salvation of the little man from the tragedy of existence?
Happiness is a duty. We are here on Earth in order to be happy, the Lord would tell us, if there were a God.

Now you are a rich man—if you wanted to, you could buy the plains of Pannonia.
My wife is rushing into the shops of Berlin and calling out: “My husband has won the Nobel Prize, show me your champagne, bring me your caviar!”

In your book Gallery-Diary 1961-1991, you say, “I will always be a second-rate, unrecognized, and misunderstood Hungarian writer. What I create is an illusion, and I am wasting my life on it.”
I have lived in an upside-down world. Bad artists were good artists, and vice versa. As an unrecognized East European artist with a non-Indo-European mother tongue, I did not have the slightest hope.

Will that hopeless writer still be present when you meet the king of Sweden?
He is always there. The question is: Who will be meeting the king? Kertész, the name, has become kind of brand, a trademark like Mercedes.

Your journey from a 15-year-old concentration-camp inmate to decades of working in a tiny Budapest apartment, then on to the royal palace in Stockholm is an unparalleled European success story. Can the soul keep up?
It cannot keep up. In Hungary I have become a national hero. I must assume this mantle, for the country is in a very complicated situation. We are divided—the liberals and the nationalists are unreconcilable opponents. My task now is to make peace.

The trademark [Kertész] will do that. What about the other Kertész?
There is the guy who is always present; whenever anything happens to him, he is totally there. And there is another guy, who has an immovable point of view from which he observes life. This immovable point of view has not changed since my childhood. It was there in Auschwitz, too....I can sometimes give voice to this point of view.

An existential voyeurism...
...the gift of observing; but it is not me; I am not doing it.

What is the voyeur saying now?
He is there, and laughing.

Are there any memories of Auschwitz—and the young man there—that you haven’t yet turned into literature?
(Laughs) I commercialize everything. I have now written a screenplay from Fateless, so I saved a few memories for that.

What I mean is this: Does your magnum opus, which has been entirely devoted to your experience in the death camp, now stand between you and the living person of that time?
Slowly it has come between us. After each book, I am emptier and emptier. The stone of Sisyphus gets smaller and smaller, and the pages, fuller and fuller. In the book I am working on now, there are no longer any characters who have personally experienced the concentration camps.

I can never forget one sentence written by Imre Kertész: “There is, after Auschwitz, nothing that refutes Auschwitz.” Will that be true for the third and fourth generations, too?
Everyone wants to mark an ending to things, and I do as well. When I was young, I used to tell stories about Auschwitz like old soldiers talk about their experiences at the front.

For my small daughters, the Holocaust may be something equal to Sept. 11. That is only natural. But whatever your children think later, the great rupture will remain in Europe’s soul. And if you want to search for the sources of Sept. 11, you will encounter Auschwitz....But if your daughters rediscover Auschwitz in 20 years, there is hope. We cannot do anything; we can only remember. Perhaps your daughters may be able to create a culture from it.

In Germany, there are now voices claiming that we must move beyond the shadow of Auschwitz. Is there a new, modern anti-Semitism?
Yes, I think there is. During the elections for Germany’s Bundestag, it was obvious that a new language of anti-Semitism exists. People pretend to be criticizing Israel but it is immediately clear that it is not about Israel, but anti-Semitism instead.

You have not read Martin Walser’s Death of a Critic. But even so, does literature enjoy so much freedom that it is permissible to take an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor and caricature him as an ugly, slobbering cretin with a speech impediment who likes to screw pregnant girls?
Yes, it is free to do that. As far as I know, Mr. [Marcel] Reich-Ranicki [German literary critic] is the object of this caricature. Mr. Reich-Ranicki is no Adonis. That is true. But there are handsome Jews. Why should it be anti-Semitic to make a character in a novel ugly? The character is unattractive, and by chance he is a Jew. But most of all, he is a critic. And most Jews are not critics. Why shouldn’t a writer hate his critics?

But this hatred has a long tradition.
Yes, that is true. The [Nazi era] caricatures in Der Stürmer come to mind. Those ugly, lustful Jews fondling pretty girls. But I do not believe that Mr. Reich-Ranicki is the prototypical Jew; that would be really awful. Nor do I believe that Martin Walser finds all Jews unappealing. He dislikes this one Jew. One must be free to do that; Germany is mature enough to allow it.

Is it also ready to step out of the shadow of its terrible history?
Yes. One struggles to mark an ending to things, and it doesn’t work. And this process is much more interesting than any taboo.

Is it possible, then? Remembrance and marking an end to things peacefully coexisting?
Each person speaks with his own fate in mind, and they can and must stand next to each other. If it weren’t for these two voices confronting each other, the whole idea would die.

You are shockingly pluralistic.
One must be shockingly pluralistic.

But there is only one truth.
Truth changes. Since there is no longer an absolute God, there are no more absolute truths.

In Fateless, the young hero abandons humanism as he gets off the train in Auschwitz, and he follows the logic of history with no will of his own. Martin Walser’s Ein Springender Brunnen (The Springing Fountain) takes place at the same time; the hero is the same age as your inmate, but he knows nothing about what is happening; he lives in the innocence of his subjectivism. It is hard to imagine two more opposed views of mankind. For Imre Kertész, there is no currency that would make it possible to buy humanism back.
It is impossible that there could be a young man in Germany in 1944 who did not know. In my opinion, it is a historic lie. I have rarely encountered this in Germany. I believe that the German intellectuals have gained through their confrontation with the past; they have become richer. The German internationalism that I experience in Berlin would have been impossible without this confrontation.

And in fact, you are not here with just a suitcase; you have a home in Berlin, as well.
In Hungary, this confrontation never took place, and a conspiracy of silence, a “culture of hinting,” continues to reign. I could not work there. You cannot imagine conditions there. There is overt anti-Semitism. Self-described Nazis, aggressive nationalists, speak out in the media, and they are not as elegant as Mr. Walser. It is almost as disgusting as it was in the late 1930s.

That means that you are living in exile in Berlin?
Yes, in fact. Although things appear to be changing in Hungary since the elections. I live in both cities; after more than 70 years I am entitled to be a citizen of Europe. I like Budapest, its humor and its atmosphere.

You cannot write without existentialism. Are books by Kierkegaard and Camus still on your nightstand?
You can be sure that I will not be writing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech without rereading Camus’ [Nobel Prize] speech first. Postmodernism and its relativization are past now. We need to take positions again. There is once again a need for a literature that takes itself seriously.

Can such a literature provide more than sublimation and relief? Is there, for you, deliverance at the end?
For deliverance, one needs a redeemer. My new novel deals with this. Of course, one fails. But one tried.

To find salvation.
Or keep Auschwitz at bay.

Freedom from Auschwitz?
Freedom from Auschwitz, for one who suffered it. Catharsis. Reconciliation between two people.

The soul alone will not be saved?
No, there must be love.

Man and woman are the beginning and end of the world. The last book is a love story?
A love story.

Is there anything you still wish for?
My wishes have all been fulfilled.

Would you change your past life, if you could?
I would not like to change my past. I have had a wonderful life.

You would not like to take away Auschwitz?
Auschwitz is my greatest treasure. The closeness to death is unforgettable. Life was never so beautiful as in this long moment.