Hungarian writer Imre Kertész was born in 1929. Not an auspicious time or place for a Jew; at 14 he was taken to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. He was released in 1945. He knows the Holocaust but intensely dislikes the term. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written that the term was an attempt to understand a death that was without cause, incomprehensible, Kertész tells us in his memoir, Dossier K, published in translation in 2013 (Melville House, Brooklyn, London). Kertész says he takes the term for what it is: “a euphemism, a cowardly and unimaginative glibness.” (Later in the book he adds the descriptive designation “kitsch” and applies it with loaded contempt). But because the term is unavoidable he uses it as a readily recognized shorthand, a sign.
_Dossier K_ is an odd form, as unavailable to definition or description as is its subject. It is set as an interview—questions and answers. Kertész alternately says it is an autobiography, a memoir, a novel. Interview implies documentary, a hoped-for truthfulness in answers given to straight questions, the intention of which is to elicit understanding. There appears such closeness between the interviewer and his subject as to suggest one person answering his own self-querying. A kind of analyst and analysand in one, switching between leather couch and upholstered desk chair in pursuit of self-knowledge. So close in knowledge and understanding are the two parties that the length of—sometimes the question, sometimes the response—the text uttered by first one speaker and then the other—reads like a soliloquy. James Wood, the American literary critic tells us that de Cervantes conjured Sancho Panza to travel with Don Quixote so the seeking knight would have someone to talk to (_How Fiction Works_, 2008, Farrar, Straus and Giruox, New York). “The novel begins in the theatre,” Wood writes, “and novelistic characterization begins when the soliloquy goes inward.” So interior in its quality is the conversation in this novelized memoir.
I’m prepared to be duped, seduced and thoroughly drawn in whenever I open a book. Kertész said the impetus for Dossier K was a transcript of a conversation he’d had with his friend and editor, Zoltán Hafner, over the period 2003 and 2004. He described the event as the file having caught up with him at a hotel, his reading the opening sentences, setting it to one side and beginning to write. This, he says, is the only one of his books provoked by external prompting. A “veritable autobiography” and also a form of novel. And the barely discernible shift from one voice to another. It’s my best guess that the hectoring and the prodding tone of approbation along with what seems an oddly stated detachment would be tolerated best in a situation not face to face but face to mirror. So, first-person narrator or omniscient third?
George Steiner, the American writer and teacher, was also born in 1929, but in Paris not Budapest. His father was a successful Viennese businessman and as early as 1924 correctly read the darkening political climate in Austria and moved with his wife to Paris and then to New York where George grew up. Two Jewish writers—Kertész and Steiner—sharing Austro-Hungarian origins and the historic weight of being Jews. From there, their fates differ, one could almost say mortally.
Kertész’s subject is the Holocaust; at one point in his memoir he comments that it is the only story that interests him, that he thinks of little else. He can write because he survived. He can write because he knows the subject. He is caught, pincer-caught, because his existence, his having survived, is as inexplicable as the event itself. “Maybe that is one of the reasons it is so hard to accept, to come to terms with the exceptional and anomalous existence that survival stands for.” Survivors were an accident, a breakdown in the machinery, a flaw in the enterprise, not part of the well-oiled design, an unanticipated outcome. “Truth belongs only to the dead, no one else.” How then to carry on? Who will report?
If he casts doubt on his own credibility and licence, is it possible to write about the Holocaust at all? Any writing would carry a distance that discredits the subject and the writing, and fails to do justice—a freighted and hollow word in this context—to the horror. Theodor Adorno’s noted statement, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” could be understood as confirmation of the impossibility of the task but Kertész’s assessment of Adorno’s statement is to label it “a moral stink bomb.” His elaboration is persuasive. The subject, he agrees, and knows first-hand, is not material that would elicit aesthetic pleasure but great poets wouldn’t do other than write well and carefully on this topic. The idea of an exclusivity that holds suffering to an assigned and diminishing few survivors is as distasteful to him as the glib use of the designation Holocaust and would consign it, finally, to simply past history.
The fact of birth is a necessary element in a memoir or autobiography. Kertész’s account is accusatory. No debt of gratitude is owed his father; instead, he holds him responsible for bringing him Jewish into an unfriendly, indeed hostile world. He is unremittingly aggrieved at not having had a say in his own natal fate and rational or not, the emotional distance that he felt from his father remained. George Steiner, an ocean and a world away, loved and admired his father and while the tone is as different as the worlds they inhabited, Steiner wrote, “Every Jewish father is at some point in his life and paternity, an Abraham to an Isaac,” and also “When he begets a child, a Jew knows that he may be bestowing on that child the inheritance of terror, of a sadistic destiny.” Steiner describes the Judaism of his father as a proud and “messianic agnosticism.” Kertész’s Judaism, we know was a burden bequeathed to him at birth, but it was the Holocaust that made him Jewish, a Jew by designation. What did this identity mean to you, his interlocutor inquires. Kertész is dismissive in his response. It meant nothing, nothing. He had no identity, claimed he didn’t miss having one and was content to live “concealed in my insignificance.”
He does acknowledge to his interrogator, however, that since he is a writer he is always working on his identity, seeking it and then losing it again, handing it off to one of his characters. He has written in his book _Fatelessness_ about Auschwitz, “Whatever I think about I am always thinking about Auschwitz. Even if I may seem to be talking about something quite different, I am still talking about Auschwitz. I am a medium for the spirit of Auschwitz, Auschwitz speaks through me. Everything else strikes me as inane by comparison.” Fate designated him a survivor and its apparent randomness made the surviving an absurdity. Over and over he wrote his despair, recognizing that what he produced failed the subject. He sat at his desk, he told his questioner, a young man in a crisis of “existential angst.” Decades later he produced _Fatelessness_, a book he felt able to write because it wouldn’t be fiction and the subject was material he knew well. _Dossier K_ raises the same issue of the shift from truth to fiction, confusing memory with fabrication and reading autobiography as a novel. In _How Fiction Works_ James Wood says his book’s summarizing theme is that fiction includes all the genres _Dossier K_ might be. Fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, he suggests, and both possibilities can reside in a single work. Is realism real, Wood asks at the book’s start, a question he answers near its conclusion with a quote from an essay by George Eliot: “Art is the closest thing to life.” An almost-life, or an amplification? Kertész is interested not in truth, in calling a person to account, he says, but in an accurate portrayal. Wood notes the accurate portrayal is in the fine elaborations, in the “thisness” of things, by which he means, “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centres our attention with its concretion.”
Kertész survived the untenable existence of the death camps by withdrawing into a dream world. As a writer, calling on that life from memory which was alternately occluded and searingly acute, he engaged his imagination as well. He recognized this state as a kind of reality or a necessary stand-in when mind failed or reality was simply beyond reach and experience. It would have to be a shift from reality to fiction to explain the death camps and the intentions that implemented the large plan.
It was in the transcription from reality to fiction, that is, in his beginning to write, that the truth could become credible. “Up until that point,” he told his interviewer, “the facts—the reality, as you would put it—rested mutely within me like a dawn dream.” As always with memory, it’s when attempting to make it concrete by writing it down that it becomes both problematic and diminished. He contained and was later able to conjure this grotesque period’s history, in a sound state of mind, by seeing it as fiction, as material to be used to make something—a book, a story.
Haunted by the absurdity and subsequent shame of having survived the death camps and unable to attribute it to anything rational or providential, he did, however, describe his having had a youthful, elliptical conviction that there might just be something. He said that only a few writers have been able to write well and accurately about the camps. Among them he named the Austrian born Jean Améry, who survived the duration but later committed suicide. Améry wrote about the necessity for _Weltvertrauen_, which he translated to mean a “trust in the world.” Without this, he believed it was impossible to live among people. Kertész claimed to have possessed this attribute from the outset.
Very little of _Dossier K_ shows anything even touching on optimism. How could it, given its subject, but Kertész’s interviewer asked him if he believed that the period after the war, when Kádár’s Communists replaced Hitler’s Fascists, would ever end. The startling answer was yes, every day he thought it would. Because, he said, “life will only temporarily tolerate its own denial.” The duration was something he couldn’t predict. His favourite Franz Kafka saying: “There is plenty of hope, no end of hope, only not for us.”
“I always doubt every sentence I utter,” Kertész told his interviewer, “but I never for a moment doubted that I have to write what I happen to be writing.”
In spite of having lived through and written about what we wish were unimaginable, Imre Kertész has spoken, in _Dossier K_, about trust, hope and faith. Hard hard won. Astonishing.