By Imre Kertész
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Imre Kertész – the 2002 Nobel laureate for literature – is a Hungarian Jew born in 1929. As a child and young man, he survived the break-up of his parents’ marriage, Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust, and the Communist dictatorship in postwar Hungary. He has written five novels, two of which are available in English translation. One of them, Fatelessness, based on Kertész’s experiences during the Holocaust, was made into a motion picture.
Dossier K. is a memoir based on a series of conversations between Kertész and his “friend and editor, Zoltan Hafner,” recorded during 2003 and 2004. Kertész began writing the book after he received the transcripts.
The book takes the form of a dialogue. Generally, the conversations consist of questions – sometimes lengthy – posed by Hafner and answers – usually lengthier – from Kertész. Sometimes, though, it is Kertész who asks the questions.
The book, writes Kertész, is a “veritable autobiography.” Then he refers to a dictum of Friedrich Nietzsche that Platonic dialogues were the prototype of the novel as an art form, and thus Dossier K. may be a novel.
Perhaps an Auschwitz survivor is entitled to thusly tease his readers. Later he writes, “A book is either an autobiography or a novel,” and explains the difference in detail. For those who have read Kertész’s novels, this book may illuminate the fiction. For me, Dossier K. was interesting on its own terms, and I will read his novels when I get the chance.
Kertész relates his family history, beginning with his grandparents, and the arguments between his parents when he was a child and in his early teens, as he navigated Budapest between the homes of his parents, both of whom remarried.
The deportation of Jews from Hungary, which was an ally of Nazi Germany, took place in 1944. Kertész was in a forced labour group of Jewish teenagers who worked outside the Budapest city limits, when they were seized and sent to Auschwitz.
Kertész, the only one of the group to survive, recalls the guards vanishing from Buchenwald when American General George Patton’s tanks arrived. In the 1990s, he visited the Buchenwald memorial and found a record that said he died on February 18, 1945. He believes someone forged the record to protect him from being murdered in the Nazi genocide.
Later, he used those events in Fatelessness, and the protagonist in the novel attributes his survival to an “incomprehensible absurdity.” Kertész distances himself from the boy in the novel, but it is clear he thinks the same of his own survival.
Kertész’s cast of mind is absurdist throughout Dossier K. “Where Auschwitz starts, logic stops,” he writes. He is referring to the whole Nazi process in which survival is “really the result of an industrial accident in the machinery of death.”
Having survived the Holocaust, Kertész found himself out of work in Communist Hungary.
“The world order has not changed, even after Auschwitz,” he writes.
When he was referred to a comrade in the Ministry for Metallurgical and Engineering Industries, who gave him a job and protected him, he identified the comrade as a fellow Jew on the basis of “the only thing two Jews have in common is their fears.”
When the interlocutor asks, “What are you, according to your conviction?” Kertész responds: “Jewish – but a Jew who has nothing in common with any of the Jewish modes of life that were known before Auschwitz, neither archaic Jews, nor assimilated Jews, nor Zionist Jews. Or with Israel. That may be the hardest thing of all to say.”
There is no evidence that Hafner, after conducting the interviews, took part in writing the book. It may be that, as in the Platonic dialogues, a lot of the words attributed to the interlocutor were actually crafted by Kertész, so he is answering the questions he chooses to answer.
In the final exchange in the book, which follows a quote from one of his novels, Kertész, is asked, “Don’t you think there is a contradiction here?”
“Of course I do! I see contradictions at every hand, but then I take delight in contradictions.”