08. 23. 2014. 08:38

Imre Kertész received Hungary’s highest award

On the Hungarian state holiday of 20 August, Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész was awarded the Order of Saint Stephen, the highest Hungarian state award, provoking mixed reactions.

Kertész’s oeuvre is a precise anatomical description of what dictatorships do to the human soul, President János Áder said, adding that, at the same time, this oeuvre is a testimony to the possibility of experiencing inner freedom.

Though the writer, who is severely ill, did not give an interview after the ceremony, his wife Magda Kertész told the Hungarian public media that in accepting the award, Kertész was driven by "a desire and an urgent need for reconciliation."

The only Hungarian Nobel Prize winning writer has been the subject of bitter controversies ever since he received the prize in 2002, at the of 72. Before that, he had been relatively unknown to the Hungarian reading public, though much valued and respected by literary circles, especially since the publication of Fatelessness in 1975. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Kertész moved to Germany where he had lived until last year when he moved back to his native Budapest after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

A bitter polemic ensued in Hungarian media and society when, in a 2009 interview with Die Welt, Kertész stated that he considered himself a Berliner, and would not like to be "labelled" as a Hungarian.

A 2013 interview with Die Zeit, one of Kertész's last interviews to date, also stirred up a controversy. (See one sensitive response here.) In it, Kertész said that after receiving the Nobel Prize, he was overwhelmed by the "Holocaust business," and felt he was powerless against those forces. "I became a brand. A brand called Kertész," he declared bitterly.

A few days before the ceremony on 20 August, the holiday of the foundation of the Hungarian state by King Stephen (1000 AD), historian Mária Schmidt, one of the chief ideologues of the Orbán government, wrote a long tribute (available in English) to Kertész, emphasizing that the writer’s oeuvre is as much a critique of Communist as of Nazi dictatorship. Schmidt praises Kertész for interpreting the Holocaust as a crisis of European values rather than solely the darkest episode in the suffering of Jews.

Quoting the above-mentioned 2009 interview with Die Welt, the extreme right party Jobbik now protested against the decoration of the Nobel Prize winner, claiming that a writer who used his influence to repudiate Hungary should not be awarded the Order of Saint Stephen.

Certain leftist journalists and critics, in their turn, called upon Kertész and asked him to reject the state award, warning the writer that he was being used to legitimize the Orbán government. Referring to Schmidt’s article, literary critic György Vári voiced his opinion that granting the award to Kertész was a symbolic act, showing the efforts of the ruling party to establish a new Hungarian anti-Communist literary canon. Others intimated that Prime Minister Orbán was taking advantage of an old and sick man who fails to understand what is going on around him.

On the Hungarian Jewish cultural blog pilpul.net, literary critic Márk Pályi pointed out, with relevant quotations from Kertész’s works, that by accepting the award, Kertész was completely faithful to his oeuvre, since the reason why he was granted the Nobel Prize was precisely his depiction of how Auschwitz was present in the small compromises of ordinary life. By taking part in the everyday life of a totalitarian regime, one inevitably becomes "tainted," Kertész seems to conclude.

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Imre Kertész