06. 13. 2012. 09:48

The Holocaust as culture: a conversation with Imre Kertész

Literary historian Thomas Cooper talks to Imre Kertész in this new volume published in the Seagull Books series of The University of Chicago Press. An excerpt from the interview and Cooper's fine introductory essay, published here by courtesy of the publisher.

Let me begin by thanking you for setting aside time to talk about your work. I had the pleasure of teaching Fatelessness several years ago when I taught a course on Hungarian literature at the University of North Carolina. For my students, and I confess for me, it was a Holocaust novel, but I recall in 2003 you commented that the book was as much about the Kádár system as it was about the Holocaust, and this comment became the subject of some debate. Can I ask you to explain what you meant?

First, I would never call Fatelessness a Holocaust novel, because the Holocaust, or what people mean when they use that word, can’t be put in a novel. I was writing about the camps, the experiences of the camps. I was born in 1929, so I was a child when I was deported. I began working on Fatelessness in the 1960s, and it was partly the communist system under Kádár that gave me the push to try to understand what I had lived through as a child. I wanted to write down the experiences of the camps, nothing but the events, but I was also interested in the specific way in which, in a dictatorship, the individual is deprived of his or her fate. This was an aspect of dictatorship that concerned me, and the Kádár regime was a dictatorship. Living under the Kádár regime helped me understand the workings of a dictatorship, and this helped me understand my experiences in the camps. I’m not saying Kádár was the same as Hitler, just that the dynamics of dictatorship were all there.

It was one of the peculiarities of the publication history of Fatelessness that when you had completed the manuscript you took it to Magvető and they rejected it, even claimed it was anti-Semitic.

Yes, the old Magvető (“Seed Sower”), they did.

It remains a bit difficult for me to understand this. In what kind of ideological framework could Fatelessness be characterized as anti-Semitic? How did the editors interpret the book?

Well, look, I was twenty-four or maybe twenty-five when I began writing, or rather when I realized that I had to write. I had to think about exactly how I wanted to approach writing, what I wanted to write and how I should work through my own past. When I began writing Fatelessness I wanted to get at the events as I had lived them, and I wanted to avoid any sentimentality. But in Hungary at the time they tried to hush up talk about the Holocaust, or just to treat it as a Jewish affair. Works dealing with the Holocaust were expected to be full of passionate outrage, but there was no place actually to retell the events and experiences.

And Fatelessness did not meet these expectations?

The narrator of Fatelessness is a young boy, and I quickly realized that of course the language had to be that of a young boy, and this ended up playing an important role in shaping the narrative. It is not ideological. I wrote it as a kind of continuous recounting of events, but in the language and from the perspective of a young boy. This came out well, because it had the effect of estranging me from the narrative a bit, the perspective became one of observation. I tried to put down the everyday experiences of the camp. It threw a kind of existential glance on the events, and this may have been surprising for some readers, and it certainly didn’t fit with the regime’s mould. There is no stable system of values in the novel, everything is mocking, saturated with irony. When the boy sees that prisoners are slipping out of the line and fleeing as the police are rounding them up, he thinks to himself, “I’ll be honest and respectful,” even when one of the policemen encourages him to take advantage of the change to flee. Of course what is his honesty worth in Auschwitz?

When I taught this novel at universities in the United States my students were obviously familiar with other Holocaust narratives, usually Elie Wiesel’s Night, but sometimes others. They found Fatelessness troubling as a narrative because it seemed to consist of a fragmented series of events. It did not yield to any allegorical interpretation, as the title suggests, very unlike Night. For them, the passages at the close of the novel, in which Gyuri writes of the joys of the camps, were difficult to reconcile with their knowledge of Holocaust, which of course is entirely a product of other narratives. I would be curious to know why you considered it important, when you wrote the novel, to avoid allegory.

Well, let’s be honest, there are two kinds of Holocaust stories, positive and negative. I mean there are Holocaust stories with happy endings. You think of Spielberg in the United States for instance. But people talk about the Holocaust and inhumanity, well, it was of course humans who were responsible, so I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk about inhumanity.

***

Excerpt from Thomas Cooper's introductory essay

Fatelessness
was rejected by Magvető because it failed to conform to the prescribed opposition between National Socialism and Soviet communism. As he mentions during our conversation, Kertész was expected to provide a narrative that fit the regime’s ‘story of occupation, persecution, and liberation’. Far from offering a veiled parable of good and evil, the novel shies away from grandiose metaphor and metaphysical rumination and dwells instead on everyday life in the camps. The narrator’s focus on incongruous or seemingly inconsequential details and his ability to find plausible explanations for the actions of the perpetrators undermined the narrative of the communist regime in Hungary by presenting a vision of the Holocaust not as a closed chapter in a teleological narrative of progress, but rather as the work of human hands and therefore something that could happen again. (...)

The accusations levelled against Fatelessness by the readers at Magvető exemplify the expectations of the regime regarding Holocaust narratives. The account of a survivor had to intone the voice of indignation and outrage and portray the machinery of deportation and extermination as evidence of the inhumanity of the perpetrators. Kertész commented on this in an interview in 1994, noting in particular the paradoxical proscription against writing about the Holocaust as a tragedy that had befallen European Jewry:

In roughly 1975 the Jewry and Jewish identity were still taboo, and the camps were remembered first and foremost as prisons for communists. There was an ‘expectation’ that if someone wrote about the subject, he or she do so plaintively, as if lodging an appeal against nature, against civilization. Emphasis on uniqueness was mandatory, as was distancing, transformation into ideology, and an obligatory bewilderment: how could what had taken place have taken place. 

Fatelessness constituted a challenge to this sanctimonious pose. Kertész’s use of the phrases ‘naturally enough’ and ‘on the whole’ was unpalatable not because these phrases break the flow of otherwise elegant sentences, but because they typify the narrator’s tendency to see the events taking place round him as ordinary or at least explicable. The regime sought portrayals of the Holocaust as something apocalyptic, portrayals that would fit well with the narrative of communism as a kind of new beginning after a historical conflagration. Fatelessness, however, confronts the reader not so much with the barbarity of the crimes as the perfunctory indifference with which they were committed. Mass executions, as the narrator of The Fiasco writes, are not a matter of an epic struggle between good and evil:

[I]in some degree, over a certain time span and beyond a given number, [murder] is after all tiring, systematic, and harrowing work, whose daily continuity is not vouchsafed by the participants’ likes or dislikes, bursts of ardour or onsets of disgust, enthusiasm or antipathy [. . .] but by organization, an assembly-line operation, a self-contained mechanism which does not permit so much as a moment’s time to draw breath. In another respect, there can be no doubt about it, that is what put paid to tragic representation. Where would personalities who are grandiose, exceptional, and extraordinary even in their awfulness fit in? Richard III wagers that he will be evil; the mass murderers of a totalitarian regime, by contrast, take an oath on the common good.

Fatelessness deflated the mystical ethos with which the regime had sought to invest Holocaust by depicting the perpetrators not as personifications of evil, but rather as human beings responding to demands and constraints of everyday life in the camps.

Kertész was also accused of having shown contempt for the victims, whom he allegedly had depicted in anti-Semitic terms, and indeed the perceptions of the narrator of Fatelessness often seem shaped by traditional stereotypes concerning Jews. One might explain his reactions, for instance his response, upon arrival in Auschwitz, to the sight of other prisoners (‘jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect’), as the internalization of prejudice by a boy who has been socialized in a culture of anti-Semitism. These depictions, however, can be interpreted as another gesture of resistance on Kertész’s part to the transformation of the events of the Holocaust into ideological allegory. Kertész refuses any simple opposition. Perpetrator and victim act out of similar motives, and the willingness of the guards to follow the commands of their superiors is not distant from the ability of the prisoners to accept the conditions of the camp in order to survive. The novel yields no grand moral vision but illustrates instead the conclusion to which Kertész later came following the suppression of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary: ‘the Kantian categorical imperative—ethics in general—is but the pliable handmaiden of self-preservation.’

The Holocaust as Culture: A Conversation with Imre Kertész
Translated by Thomas Cooper
University of Chicago Press, 2012

For more information please go to publisher's page

Thomas Cooper

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