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The freedom of Bedlam

Hungarian Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertesz talks with Eszter Radai about his latest novel "Dossier K.", the breed of Euro-anti-Semitism after Auschwitz and how to survive a dictatorship.

"'Dossier K.' is my only book for which motivation came from outside rather than inside: it is an autobiography in the true sense of the word," Imre Kertesz writes in the foreword to his latest novel. The book is a fictional dialogue about the writer's life, parents, loves and career path, dealing also with the achievement of intellectual freedom and the connections between Kertesz' own life and the fate of his protagonists.

Elet es Irodalom: First of all, let's discuss the form: why did you choose to write a dialogue-novel? And why interview yourself when a professional interviewer such as Zoltan Hafner, the editor of your book, could have done it? Why did you decide to ask and answer your own questions instead?

Imre Kertesz: After I was awarded the Nobel Prize, so much nonsense was written about me. In some biographies that got published, nothing was correct and the whole picture seemed so erroneous that my publisher Geza Morcsanyi and I decided we should try to somehow set this affair right in the form of an interview written as a book. Then, for the better part of a year, I met my friend Zoltan Hafner many times. However, when his manuscript, a fairly thick bundle, reached me in a hotel room somewhere and I read my first replies – surely you know best how much gibberish interviewees can talk – I shoved all of it aside and started to write the book myself. And unlike in most previous cases, the work went really well from early on; I wrote one question after the next, and each reply gave rise to the next question.

Did you never glance at the original manuscript after that?

No, not once after that.

That means that all of the questions originated with you.

The character that does the questioning bears no real similarity to Zoltan Hafner – everybody who is closely acquainted with this tender-hearted literary critic knows that. For my own purposes I needed a less pleasant, "pushier" Zoli, who would mercilessly wrest the answers from me.

Did you then "transport" your own antithesis out of yourself?

As it was, the character formed itself autonomously; you might say by itself, from under my pen, or rather my computer…

And who is "he"? Is he some superego?

I don't know if he's superior in any way. Anyhow, as I've just said, he simply appeared at my computer and all of a sudden, a game became possible, as the ping-pong ball of questions and replies started bouncing, and "I" could then step back from the table in all confidence, with the sole responsibility of keeping the game flowing, always providing a fresh ball, a spare ping-pong bat, and ensuring that the spirit of the game never flagged.

So you speak of another, a third "self" if I'm right. Is there a real one among them?

None of them is real. To be more precise, all three of them are. The task was to try to prevent any one of them from becoming dominant or from "winning", as that would have meant the end of the game.

Have you given the readers a novel, or is it more of an autobiography? How does fiction relate to reality for you? You write in "Dossier K." somthing that is also common knowledge: that you don't like to make a sharp distinction between the two.

We can't make one either. We try in vain to recount reality "faithfully" - the moment we start recounting it, we alter it. We lend form to our thoughts and experiences that whirl chaotically, or contrariwise, that lurk in the hidden nooks of our consciousness. The harder we try to render them accurately, the more radically we need to interfere. In other words, everything is fiction, most of all life itself. What's more, even a person is a fiction from the time that he invents himself. Because, at that very moment, his life has been decided in a sense. In my case, that happened some time around 1955, when I decided to become a writer. This moment was the start of fiction, as I imagined myself as a writer, which at the time did not make any sense. In fact, it seemed like a downright implausible decision.

Were there any precursors to that decision?

No, there were not.

Can we say then, that you started to write primarily about your own life?

To write it and to live it. To be more accurate, I started to make my life my own. Like some Baron Münchhausen, I started to drag myself by my own hair out of the swamp of history and mass fates. Later on, I recognized that this path, this process, was at the same time the very fiction that I found the most intriguing. So I began to write about it.

Do I understand this right: You had written a part for yourself into your own drama? When you decided to become a writer, did you start a story, your own, and create a character, yourself, who would write your works?

Well, that makes it sound fairly complicated. At any rate, the process we are talking about is the one that I characterized in "Galley Boat-Log" in the following way: "I have always had a secret life, and that has always been the real one." For instance, in order to write "Fatelessness", I had to live together with it for thirteen years, from 1960 to 1973. I can't say I wrote it for thirteen years, since I first had to solve all the problems that this co-habitation created for me. I had to make decisions – first of all on the three fundamental aspects of the modern novel: the language, the time and the story. Only after I had created the language did it become evident to me that the form of the story would not be that of "recounting" but of a continuous, intense presence.

As far as the story was concerned, I envisaged the whole as a kind of passion play that had its obligatory scenes and obligatory plot: the protagonist gets arrested, then he is ghettoized. After that he is taken to Auschwitz, there he goes through the usual process of selection, and ends up in a labour camp; these are all common stories, passion stories. This is how it happened to everyone. This story should not be allowed to be distorted by incidental, unique, individual experiences.

In "Dossier K." you say that would be kitsch. Why?

Because fatelessness is not only the title of the book, it's the theme as well. Each individual story is kitsch as it escapes from the common experience. Each and every survivor only testifies to the individual breakdown of the system. In brief, I intended to write an objective novel, if not a dispassionate one, then a seemingly dispassionate one. The same is true of all my other novels. Each observes its subject matter from outside, at a certain distance. They are purely fictional pieces disguised as "autobiographical novels."

Let's then look at an objective, detached statement in connection with your own Jewishness and childhood, which you otherwise characterize as "great misery”: "I was commanded into Jewishness, I was given nothing to take on, and thus I was deprived of responsibility…"

… yes, of the beautiful experience of responsibility. It was never explained to me what the matter was about. It was only the praxis that existed, the daily routine, during which we considered every grievance we suffered, and which otherwise would have been intolerable, as a banality, a natural element in the course of life, a task to be solved from one day to the next. At primary school, for instance, I had to be the best in class and pass with straight A's or else I "would not gain admission to secondary school." As you probably know, according to the "Jewish laws" that had been in force for a long time, Jewish students' rights to further education were limited. They were segregated into B classes, and only the most outstanding students were admitted. Consequently, I learned – or, to be more accurate, I was taught – a compulsory Jewish way of behaving, only I didn't understand it, and all the less because, according to their lifestyle, my parents were not really Jewish themselves. If I'd grown up in an Orthodox or even just a religious family I could have made some sense of my own situation, which otherwise seemed devoid of sense. If I wanted to be cynical I would say that everything in the world is only a matter of viewpoint.

I know from "Kaddish" that for a long time, the word "Jewish" meant for you "bald women wearing red bathrobes in front of the mirror."

I was staying at our relatives' house in the countryside as a guest, when one morning I walked into my aunt's room unawares. Of course I didn't know that Orthodox Jewish women shaved their heads and wore wigs. I was utterly dumbfounded by the sight, it struck me as a shocking revelation. And since I didn't know what had been exposed to me, the image remained in me like a burning secret, like an oversized metaphor for the mysterious word "Jewish". The whole affair was only a strange phenomenon to me, and at the same time, it had no real substance, so to speak.

You write in "Dossier K.": "It was the Holocaust that made me Jewish." A lot of people think the same way, and I've often heard it put like this: "I am Jewish insofar as my grandparents were cremated in Auschwitz." You also say that you are "a Jew that has nothing to do with any of the Jewish forms of life known before Auschwitz: neither with the archaic Jew, nor with the assimilating Jew, nor with the Zionist Jew, and not with Israel." Would you please elaborate?

Well, it's not easy. In order to see my own situation clearly and to be able to formulate it, it was first necessary for me to achieve that inner freedom which would make thinking about myself not only possible but also inevitable. I consider myself a person of European education, you might say of European conviction, who, at the same time, is bound to Judaism by a profound sense of solidarity. As on other occasions, I would like to quote Jean Amery: "I am only Jewish in the sense that... I am not actually a Jew but I recognize and acknowledge the world's judgement against the Jews, and I participate in the historic process of appeal. Only so can I utter the word 'freedom'."

I came to realize fairly soon that my own pathway to freedom was not the denial of the fact that I was Jewish, for that would have meant living a lie. Nor would a viable path be to compensate for my experiences in Auschwitz through religious or Zionist extremism. Many such loopholes exist, escape routes that would not have led me to freedom. At one time the most obvious way seemed to enter the workers' movement so that the "classless society" would eliminate our Jewishness. One can try several other ways – still, what proves simplest is to take on the responsibility and consequences for who and what one was born as.

Am I right then, that you think of anti-Semitism as something persistent? That you do not keep the hope that this problem will disappear after some time...

As long as it is considered a problem, it will neither cease nor disappear. In any case, the Nazi death camps established for the extermination of European Jews, combined with the creation of Israel constitute a new development – a new problem, if you like – not only in the history of Jews but also in that of anti-Semitism. For instance, there is no fitting anti-Semitic response to Auschwitz – if not the denial of the very facts of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. At first this denial seemed to be an act verging on the ridiculous. Today, however, it counts as "serious academic pursuit" and if anti-Semitism is ever elevated to the level of the state, if it is considered a state programme, then the officially supported, institutional falsification of history will become possible once again, as we saw in single-party dictatorships.

In democratic states, criticism of Israel provides a new and effective avenue for anti-Semitism – particularly when Israel does something that prompts criticism, which by the way other states do, too, whether or not they have to fight for their existence. A language has developed that I would like to call Euro-anti-Semitism. For a Euro-anti-Semite, it is no contradiction to recall the victims of the Holocaust in mournful tones, and in the next breath, under the guise of criticism of Israel, to utter anti-Semitic statements. Such things have been repeated so often that they are almost cliches. Remembrance of the Holocaust is important to stop such things from happening again. But, in fact, nothing has happened since Auschwitz that would prevent another Auschwitz from happening. On the contrary. Before Auschwitz, the extermination camp was unimaginable. Today, it can be imagined. Because Auschwitz really happened, it has permeated our imagination, become a permanent part of us. What we are able to imagine – because it really happened – can happen again.

I would like to quote a passage from the book, one important to me, about the nature of every kind of dictatorship: "Where Auschwitz starts, logic comes to a halt and some kind of a compulsive cognitive process comes to the foreground, something that is very similar to logic, as it leads the person, only not on the path of logic... something that makes absurdity seem like logic, because in the trapped situation created by Auschwitz, we have no other alternative. And we have already received training in this way of thinking by the life that we take an active part in.”

Yes, because the pursuit of this absurd "logic" seems to be the prerequisite for survival. So it happens that one does not even realize it, because one accepted the impossible as logic yesterday and the day before yesterday as well, and the absurdity of today follows logically from that of yesterday. One collaborates because he cannot do anything else, but in retrospect does not recognize it that way and – for psychological reasons that are otherwise understandable – one is not even willing to see it that way. While in Auschwitz it was not really possible not to collaborate, for instance. Because one wants to live, and although the future is unclear, one continues to hope. And while one has hope, one keeps following the only path that carries the hope of survival. These are still challenging questions to this day.

In your novel "The Failure" you are not only concerned with the victim’s but also with the perpetrator’s situation…

In a sense I am concerned with both together and at the same time.

… and you quote Baudelaire, who said: "It may be good to take turns in being the victim and the executioner." The protagonist of "The Failure" is assigned a task as a prison warder and there he strikes the face of a defenseless inmate: fiction or reality?

It is fiction founded on reality. In 1951, I was actually drafted as a soldier, and after three months' "foundation training" it turned out that our unit was commanded to guard a military court. We had to escort inmates charged with statutory crimes from the prison to court hearings or outside workplaces, to let them out in the morning and in at night, etc. In reality I escaped from this place by feigning an illness – a nervous breakdown – and by first being admitted to hospital, and then the "military film institute," where I had to create educational slide shows. Several decades later as I was writing "The Failure," I was concerned with the "possibility of the aesthetic mediation of violence," and was interested not only in the victim's, but also the perpetrator’s or the "executioner's" psychology, but the novel's plot required me to subject my character to an extreme situation. I had to lay down the foundation for the first deed of a mass murderer, to imagine how a career starts that finally – within the framework of a totalitarian state, a dictatorship – leads to the murdering of thirty thousand people. What is more, my character is not a human monster or a born sadistic murderer. On the contrary, he is educated in accordance with humanistic traditions rooted in European culture, who, in a particular situation, subjugates his own internal resistance and – turning inside out, as it were – commits an act which as a free person, according to his own convictions, he would never do. Because he lands in a situation in which he does not know his way around any more, in which the natural continuity of his life is disrupted and he yields his now burdensome personality to the totalitarian power.

Is this what you call a state of grace?

It is one insofar as it frees a person from the accountability for his own personality and turns him into a component of a closed power system in which he does not need to interpret his own deeds and life any longer. Although there is not enough room here for a detailed analysis, the process of transition has demonstrated that a closed society has its own particular appeal, whereas the spaciousness of freedom fills one with vertigo at first.

In "Dossier K." you write: "I do not know to what extent the pressure under which I have been forced to live and write has been beneficial for my writing. Books like "Fatelessness" or "The Failure" may not have been possible under healthy circumstances.” To use your own word from "Fatelessness," you do not feel "homesick”, do you?

I do not feel homesick for certain. At the same time, I still cannot give a definitive answer to this utterly serious question – of how much I owe in reality to that particular oppression. For that was the freedom of bedlam, but in a particular regard, in a perverted way, it was still freedom, the freedom of subjection and defenselessness, which enabled one to make observations and live experiences that were completely different, which I could even say, that would have been unimaginable and inaccessible in a condition of genuine freedom.

For this reason, the person depicted reality – to which he was exposed and which he knew to be immovable, while he himself had no alternative but to suffer it – from a completely different angle, since the terrible pressure almost liberated his imagination and language and created a new mode of approach, an approach that inside of the bedlam was true and genuine. What happens, though, if the pressure is lifted and those walls around you cease to exist? The question then was whether I could exist without the pressure, in other words: whether I had been broken down or distorted by the dictatorships that I had lived through, whether I had lost my ability to breathe freely, or, to the contrary, if those gruesome systems have helped by forcing me to unfold my creative powers and style in my ambition to write. Therefore it has been vital for me to find out whether I was able to write novels, or to simply write, as a free person as well.

Three years ago in this paper you said to me the following about a writer’s existence: "wherever you are, for that you need to feel a little forlorn”.

You can't get away with not feeling somewhat lost. The atmosphere in my last two books has been slightly different from that of the ones before. There is much more brightness and humour in them, and a lot more playfulness than I'd allowed myself to engage in under the dictatorship. First, however, it was essential for me to find out where the roots of my art reached back to, where they originated, what they clung to. Therefore, at first I had to perform this work, this rather merciless stocktaking so as to be able to sit down to the table to write in the first place. With these two books, "Liquidation" and "Dossier K.", I think I've managed to prove – at least to myself - that, to quote Laurence Sterne, I have "used my suffering wisely."

"Dossier K" will be published in German in September 2006 by Rowohlt Verlag.


The interview originally appeared in the Hugarian weekly Elet es Irodalom,
on July 28, 2006, and was published in German by Perlentaucher.

Imre Kertesz was born in Budapest on November 9, 1929. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. He then worked as journalist, writer and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein, and Canetti, who have all had a significant influence on his own writing. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Translated from the Hungarian by Reka Safrany.

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