06. 23. 2008. 09:27

Against what, if nothing is resisting?

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker

Like many of Kertész’s works, The Pathseeker is not about the trauma of the Holocaust itself so much as the trauma of survival. The self may survive but the triumph of that survival is chimerical.

The Pathseeker, a slender novel or thick novella by Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész, is the account of a concentration camp survivor who returns to the place where he had been held only to find himself unable to bear witness to or find catharsis from the injustices he suffered as a prisoner. First published in 1977 in Hungarian as Nyomkereso, it has now been brought out in English translation by Tim Wilkinson, translator of numerous works by Kertész, including the retranslation of his Nobel Prize work, Fatelessness. An experimental novel that adopts contrasting approaches to narration, The Pathseeker, like the rest of Kertész’s oeuvre, explores the experiences of having survived the Holocaust and the protagonist’s inability to find triumph in this survival.

Echoes of Kafka and Beckett linger throughout this elliptical tale, in which characters (except one) go unnamed and even mention of place is oblique. A man identified only as the commissioner journeys to an unspecified country for a conference and to enjoy holidays at the seaside with his wife. These however turn out to be mere pretexts. Actually he is revisiting the scene of an unspecified atrocity. The first chapter narrates his conversation with a local resident, “a man with a complicated family name, Herman by Christian name” (13), who congenially offers to drive the commissioner and his somewhat reluctant wife to the nearby village where the crimes were committed. The tense narrative of the first chapter, in which Herman’s discomfort at the commissioner’s almost accusatory questions gives the prose an element of suspense, gives way to the more meandering narrative of the rest of the book, in which the commissioner’s quest to face the sites and objects of his persecution is continuously frustrated, both by the banal inconvenience of late buses and by the impossibility of conjuring and confronting the past.

The commissioner is in fact not in search of a path, but rather of traces of the past (more literally the Hungarian title means ‘trace seeker’). His first shock comes at his realization that the site of his sufferings has been converted into a museum, complete with tourists “diligently carrying off the significance of things, crumb by crumb, wearing away a bit of the unspoken importance” (59). He meets not only tourists, however. He also comes across paradoxically “unknown acquaintances who were just as much haunted by a compulsion to revisit,” including a veiled woman who slowly repeats to him the inventory of those she lost: “my father, my younger brother, my fiancé” (79). The commissioner informs her that he has come “to try to redress that injustice” (80). When she asks how, he suddenly finds the words he had sought, “as if he could see them written down: ‘So that I should bear witness to everything I have seen’” (80).
The act of bearing witness, however, proves elusive. In the museum he is compelled to wonder, “What could this collection of junk, so cleverly, indeed all too cleverly disguised as dusty museum material, prove to him, or to anyone else for that matter,” and adds the chilling observation, “Its objects could be brought to life only by being utilized” (71). As he touches the rust-eaten barbed wire fence he thinks, “A person might almost feel in the mood to stop and dutifully muse on this image of decay – were he not aware, of course, that this was precisely the goal; that the play of ephemerality was merely a bait for things” (66). It is this play of ephemerality, the possibility that the past will be consigned to the past, against which the commissioner struggles, yet his struggle is frustrated precisely by the lack of resistance, the indifference of the objects he has come to confront. “What should he cling on to for proof?” he wonders. “What was he to fight with, if they were depriving him of every object of the struggle? Against what was he to try and resist, if nothing was resisting?” (68) He had come with the purpose of “advertis[ing] his superiority, celebrat[ing] the triumph of his existence in front of these mute and powerless things. His groundless disappointment was fed merely by the fact that this festive invitation had received no response. The objects were holding their peace” (109).
In point of fact The Pathseeker makes no specific mention either of the Holocaust or of the concentration camps, yet the admittedly cryptic references to places leave no doubt that this is its subject. Above the gate at the camp the commissioner’s wife reads the phrase, “Jedem das Seine,” to each his due, and one recalls the sign above the entrance to the camp at Buchenwald. Further references to Goethe as well as the Brabag factory, where Kertész himself worked as a prisoner, confirm this. Why this subterfuge on the part of the author? Why a third-person narrative with an unnamed protagonist when so many biographical links tie the author to the story? One cannot help but wonder if Kertész sought specifically to avoid binding his story to particulars in order to maintain the ultimately metaphysical nature of the quest. Like many of Kertész’s works, The Pathseeker is not about the trauma of the Holocaust itself so much as the trauma of survival. The self may survive but the triumph of that survival is chimerical.

Translator Tim Wilkinson made the bold decision, in translating the title of the work, not to resort to the obvious. Rather than simply translate Nyomkereső, an allusion to the Hungarian translation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder, back into English, he preserves an element of the unfamiliar in his title. This tendency marks many of the passages of the English translation, in which Wilkinson has opted to preserve the winding and often frustratingly serpentine nature of many of the sentences of the original instead of rewriting them in sleek, familiar English. Indeed he has been criticized for doing so by Joshua Cohen of the Jewish daily Forward. Such criticism may overlook the fact that Kertész’s prose, often extolled by readers familiar only with translations, is frequently far from elegant, at least not in the traditional sense of graceful clauses coupled with appropriate conjunctions. On the contrary, Kertész’s writing derives much of its poignancy from its distancing, understatement, and failure to enact well-rehearsed styles of narratives of memory. The first chapter of The Pathseeker is exceptional for its concision, but the rest of the novel, with its circuitous, often ponderous sentences, is more typical of Kertész’s style. It might be tempting for a translator to tidy up this style, but to do so would be to deprive the novel of the alienating effects that are part of the original and the translation. Wilkinson is to be applauded for having resisted the ever-present temptation for the translator to domesticate the original and reduce the foreign to the familiar.

Kertész himself did return to Buchenwald. In a 2002 interview with the Hungarian periodical Magyar Narancs ('Hungarian Orange'), he remarked that upon his return he experienced no feeling of victory or release. “By the time one might truly feel the miracle of survival,” he commented, “neither he himself, nor the place in which he suffered, nothing is the same.” It is significant that the majority of Kertész’s works deal not with his experiences in the concentration camps, but rather with life after the Holocaust. His works constitute a reminder that the traumas of the past are necessarily the traumas of the survivors. “The story of my life,” Kertész writes in Valaki más: A változás krónikája (Someone Else: Chronicle of a Change), “consists of my deaths. Were I to want to relate my life, I would have to recount my deaths” (367). The Pathseeker can be read as part of the chronicle of these deaths.

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
New York: Melville House, 2008

Thomas Cooper

Tags: Imre Kertész