"The words on paper will be cited, interpreted, debated, the experiences will be forgotten, only the language will remain. So you have to fashion the right language."
This is an excerpt from an interview with Imre Kertész, conducted by Thomas Cooper, and published here by courtesy of The Hungarian Quarterly. The interview, as virtually every act and utterance by the only Hungarian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, created a scandal in Hungary, as the writer used the word 'censorship' in connection with The New York Times.
Thomas Cooper: You have written that the Holocaust destroyed language. Can you clarify this?
Imre Kertész: Language was a tool of the total dictatorship, and it was the most important tool of this dictatorship. Somehow it made a horrifying ideology a palatable part of everyday life. After all, it’s not the deranged madman who kills millions of people. You can’t entrust a task like mass murder to a madman, you need efficient, reliable workers, a good assembly line.
T. C.: I am reminded of a comment you made in the essay “Holocaust as Culture,” you remarked that at his trial Eichmann had said that he had never been an anti-Semite, and the people present burst out laughing, but you said that you found it perfectly plausible.
I. K.: Absolutely, the totalitarian state relies on efficient organizers. Hannah Arendt touches on this in Banality of Evil. You can imagine what it was like for me, in Hungary, when we finally got access to these kinds of works! There I was, writing my novels and feeling as if I were in complete isolation, which I was, as you know initially Fatelessness was rejected for publication partly because it didn’t have villains in it. That’s a long story, let’s just say it didn’t fit the official narrative. And in the meantime someone else in the West was writing something very similar. And many others too, Borowski, Primo Levi.
T. C.: I recall a passage in Fiasco in which the narrator makes the observation that mass murder must have been tedious work.
I. K.: Yes, and this is the question I ask, how did perfectly normal people become murderers? How did a bookkeeping clerk become a torturer? I am thinking in this case of Ilse Koch, the witch of Buchenwald, as people have called her. Semprun made her the embodiment of evil, cruelty, but that’s just a caricature. And even if it weren’t, she’s still only one case, one person. What about the others? How were people made part of the machinery of the Holocaust? I ask this question, and this may be one of the reasons why my works are read in Germany, people are interested in this question. Indeed I have gotten letters, to be honest thousands of letters, from Germans thanking for having helped them understand what happened to them. They were always written on as if they were brutes, but they were humans. Auschwitz was a human creation, so if we want to understand it we must understand the humans who created it.
T. C.: And you feel this effort is appreciated in Germany?
I. K.: I do, but I don’t want to overstate again. I don’t want to say that I am understood in one place and not in another. But yes, I have the impression that my works are read in Germany. I was asked not too long ago to open a conference in Germany, and I declined for health reasons, but I would like to, because yes, I feel that my ideas are received with interest.
T. C.: I understand you have given the material of your oeuvre, manuscripts and such, to the German Academy of Sciences. Is this because you felt that there was more interest in your work in Germany than in Hungary?
I. K.: There may be more interest in my work in Germany, but I wish to emphasize, I turned my corpus over the German Academy for two reasons, one, because they asked for it, indeed they had been asking for it for a decade, but the second and perhaps most important, because I knew it would be in good hands. It’s not that I didn’t want to leave my work here in Hungary, Hungarian institutions simply never asked for it. Had they, perhaps I might have, but in the case of Germany I know that it will be treated with the proper care. It will be available for research, for study.
T. C.: So it was not that you did not wish to turn the materials over to the Hungarian Academy, for instance?
I. K.: No, they didn’t ask. Had they asked, and had I been confident that it would have been in the hands of properly equipped professionals, I would have left it here, in Hungary. Last summer a reporter came from The New York Times to do an interview with me. He asked what I thought of the situation in Hungary. I replied that situation was fine, that I felt fine, and he was surprised. He seemed to have the impression that I felt threatened, given the political mood. He asked why I had given my work to the German Academy, and when I told him why, well, he didn’t seem to like the answer. He interpreted this as some kind of expression of my misgivings about Hungary, which it emphatically was not.
T. C.: It was not a symbolic gesture?
I. K.: Not at all. And the question was not sincere. He thought I was going to speak out against Hungary, or Hungary today or something. And I didn’t. He had come with the intention of getting me to say that Hungary is a dictatorship today, which it isn’t. That only means that he has no idea what a dictatorship is. If you can write, speak openly, openly disagree, even leave the country, it is absurd to speak of a dictatorship. And this is what I said. I am not pleased with everything happening in Hungary today, I do not think there was ever a time when I was pleased with everything happening here, but certainly Hungary is no dictatorship. This is empty, ideological language, to call Hungary a dictatorship today. And the interview was never published. Which a friend of mine very accurately said is a kind of censorship, if someone gives an answer you don’t expect, then you don’t publish it.
T. C.: Do you feel that there are attempts to politicize your works?
I. K.: That is a complex question, I’d rather not go into it because anything I would say could be politicized. When Viktor Orbán held a speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, I attended. I had been invited. I was perhaps the only Hungarian who went. I have held presentations there myself and it was an honor to be given an invitation. So I went. And of course it was an important moment for him before the elections, and people criticized me, Hungarians criticized me, for attending this speech.
T. C.: People who do not share his political views?
I. K.: Yes, people on the left. Well, one of them was very critical, asked me how I could attend a speech held by this conservative, but he himself had worked in the service of the Kádár regime for years. He himself had attended all kinds of speeches held by representatives of that regime, which was a totalitarian regime, make no mistake about it, and he criticized me for attending a speech held by an elected prime minister. Which is absurd. I am not saying with this that I support the government, nor am I saying that I don’t, not at all. But I didn’t go to support him, I went to listen to him.
T. C.: And this is interpreted as an endorsement?
I. K.: Yes, or by some at least. But regarding my works and the German Academy, this was not a symbolic gesture. I have never spoken out against Hungary. Of course all kinds of things happen and are happening that I do not necessarily look on favorably, but I do not speak out in condemnation, nor have I ever spoken out in condemnation of Hungary. The political dialogue on important questions simply isn’t a dialogue. There are unresolved parts of our history that we haven’t managed to confront. In Germany there was a revolution from this perspective in 1968, when children began to ask their parents about the war. In Hungary there was never open discussion because the regime didn’t tolerate it. Open discussion would have threatened its narrative.
T. C.: Is this an example of how language is saturated with ideology?
I. K.: Yes, the Holocaust became part of a strategic narrative, a tool of communist ideology. This is one of the reasons I choose a child as the narrator of Fatelessness, I was trying to find the appropriate language with which to tell the story, to show how language becomes the tool of the totalitarian dictatorship. You know, it is hard to trade in your experiences for words on paper, to know that the words on paper will supersede the experiences. The words on paper will be cited, interpreted, debated, the experiences will be forgotten, only the language will remain. So you have to fashion the right language. What is the right language after Auschwitz? Well, I tried to create one.
T. C.: A language free of ideology?
I. K.: A language that retold the experiences, as they were experienced. Not a language of outrage, a language of living, of living through. Because that was how I had experienced the Holocaust. I had lived through it. And I wanted to document, but of course the process of composition became fiction.
T. C.: So when you took pen in hand there was a desire to document the past?
I. K.: Of course, to write down what I had experienced. But of course on paper the words seem different, distant. They become fiction, and you do not recreate the experience, you create a narrative.
T. C.: A work that is inevitably fiction?
I. K.: Fiction and document. You can document the past, but what is this documentation worth? What is its function? How does it enrich our understanding of the past, or the present? Inevitably it becomes a tool of some narrative, and so it becomes part of fiction. And fiction can become distortion. We need documentation in order to interrogate fiction. We use life and reality to hold fiction to account. But we use fiction to hold life and reality to account as well.
(Photo by Gábor Valuska)
Tags: Imre Kertész