Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker
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).
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
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