Dossier Why

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 subjectIt is set as an interview—questions and answersKertész alternately says it is an autobiographya memoira novelInterview implies documentarya hoped-for truthfulness in answers given to straight questionsthe intention of which is to elicit understandingThere appears such closeness between the interviewer and his subject as to suggest one person answering his own self-queryingA kind of analyst and analysand in oneswitching between leather couch and upholstered desk chair in pursuit of self-knowledgeSo close in knowledge and understanding are the two parties that the length of—sometimes the questionsometimes the response—the text uttered by first one speaker and then the other—reads like a soliloquyJames Woodthe 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_2008FarrarStraus 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 dupedseduced and thoroughly drawn in whenever I open a bookKertész said the impetus for Dossier K was a transcript of a conversation he’d had with his friend and editorZoltán Hafnerover the period 2003 and 2004. He described the event as the file having caught up with him at a hotelhis reading the opening sentencessetting it to one side and beginning to writeThishe saysis the only one of his books provoked by external promptingA “veritable autobiography” and also a form of novel. And the barely discernible shift from one voice to anotherIt’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 mirrorSofirst-person narrator or omniscient third?

George Steinerthe American writer and teacherwas also born in 1929but in Paris not BudapestHis 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 upTwo Jewish writers—Kertész and Steiner—sharing Austro-Hungarian origins and the historic weight of being JewsFrom theretheir fates differone could almost say mortally.

Kertész’s subject is the Holocaustat one point in his memoir he comments that it is the only story that interests himthat he thinks of little else. He can write because he survivedHe can write because he knows the subjectHe is caughtpincer-caughtbecause his existencehis having survivedis as inexplicable as the event itself“Maybe that is one of the reasons it is so hard to acceptto come to terms with the exceptional and anomalous existence that survival stands for.” Survivors were an accidenta breakdown in the machinerya flaw in the enterprisenot part of the well-oiled designan unanticipated outcome“Truth belongs only to the deadno one else.” How then to carry onWho will report?

he casts doubt on his own credibility and licenceis it possible to write about the Holocaust at allAny 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 horrorTheodor 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 persuasiveThe subjecthe agrees, and knows first-handis not material that would elicit aesthetic pleasure but great poets wouldn’t do other than write well and carefully on this topicThe 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 autobiographyKertész’s account is accusatoryNo debt of gratitude is owed his fatherinsteadhe holds him responsible for bringing him Jewish into an unfriendlyindeed hostile worldHe is unremittingly aggrieved at not having had a say in his own natal fate and rational or notthe emotional distance that he felt from his father remainedGeorge Steineran ocean and a world awayloved and admired his father and while the tone is as different as the worlds they inhabitedSteiner wrote“Every Jewish father is at some point in his life and paternityan Abraham to an Isaac,” and also “When he begets a childa Jew knows that he may be bestowing on that child the inheritance of terrorof a sadistic destiny.” Steiner describes the Judaism of his father as a proud and “messianic agnosticism.” Kertész’s Judaismwe know was a burden bequeathed to him at birthbut it was the Holocaust that made him Jewisha Jew by designationWhat did this identity mean to youhis interlocutor inquiresKertész is dismissive in his responseIt meant nothingnothingHe had no identityclaimed 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 writercalling on that life from memory which was alternately occluded and searingly acutehe engaged his imagination as wellHe recognized this state as a kind of reality or a necessary stand-in when mind failed or reality was simply beyond reach and experienceIt 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 fictionthat isin his beginning to writethat 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 memoryit’s when attempting to make it concrete by writing it down that it becomes both problematic and diminishedHe contained and was later able to conjure this grotesque period’s historyin a sound state of mindby seeing it as fiction, as material to be used to make something—a booka story.

Haunted by the absurdity and subsequent shame of having survived the death camps and unable to attribute it to anything rational or providentialhe didhoweverdescribe his having had a youthfulelliptical conviction that there might just be somethingHe said that only a few writers have been able to write well and accurately about the campsAmong them he named the Austrian born Jean Amérywho survived the duration but later committed suicideAméry wrote about the necessity for _Weltvertrauen_which he translated to mean a “trust in the world.” Without thishe believed it was impossible to live among peopleKertész claimed to have possessed this attribute from the outset.

Very little of _Dossier K_ shows anything even touching on optimismHow could itgiven its subjectbut Kertész’s interviewer asked him if he believed that the period after the warwhen Kádár’s Communists replaced Hitler’s Fascistswould ever endThe startling answer was yesevery day he thought it wouldBecausehe said“life will only temporarily tolerate its own denial.” The duration was something he couldn’t predictHis favourite Franz Kafka saying“There is plenty of hopeno end of hopeonly 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  unimaginableImre Kertész has spokenin _Dossier K_about trusthope and faithHard hard wonAstonishing
Volume 32, Number 4

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #128, published December 2013.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.