By Randy Rosenthal
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Melville House, May 2013
Imre Kertész, the Hungarian 2002 Nobel Prize winner, prefaces his memoir Dossier K. by saying that it is the only one of his books that was not written out of an inner compulsion. To be more accurate, Dossier K. was not “written” at all; it is a two hundred page interview that editor Zolatán Hafner conducted with the author during 2003 and 2004. Kertész further preambles with Nietzsche’s proposition that the prototype of the art form known as the novel originated in Plato’s dialogues, and therefore suggests that Dossier K. can be considered a novel. Though highly unorthodox, this notion could be true, for the memoir does indeed tell the story of Kertész’s life, and since much of the conversation explores the difference between memoir and autobiographical fiction, this story is essentially constructed from snatches of reality, just like fiction.
As a teenager, Kertész was arrested for being Jewish, and sent first to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. He lived only because anonymous people forged documents saying he was already dead. Kertész survived to live under successive totalitarian communist regimes, making a living as a heavily censored journalist. It takes him thirty years to write his first novel, Fatelessness, which is considered a masterpiece. This was quickly followed by a succession of other novels, including Liquidation, Fiasco, and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, all of which deal with the legacy of the Holocaust—the “greatest trauma for the people of Europe since the Crucifixion”—and brought Kertész the Nobel Prize and international fame.
Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Kertész’s work, because Hafner certainly is, and he quotes at length from passages that appear to mirror Kertész’s true biography. In addition to being a passionate fan, Hafner is also a persistent interviewer, calling Kertész out when he tries to evade difficult questions with an anecdote, or pushing him to continue a line of thought when the author dismisses his answers as anecdotes that would not be of interest to anybody else. The result is a lively, highly dynamic conversation that abounds with quotable gems of wisdom and pries into the post-modern human condition.
For hundreds of years, Kertész argues, humanity has contrived an illusion that the world order is rational; this belief in rationality is what is our undoing. He states that, “Since Auschwitz, it has become redundant to make any judgment about human nature.” In other words, we now know what we are, and anyone who thinks otherwise is only deceiving themselves. According to Kertész, the world order is “the banal spell of evil.” Art is neither a means of escape nor does it provide answers to the perennial question of why humans commit evil against one another. Yet Kertész’s personal solution seems to be found in writing literature. “Literature,” he says, “is a bottomless turmoil, a blow to the heart from which there is no recovery, an elemental courage and encouragement, and at the same time something like a fatal disease.”
While his books appear to be pessimistic and tragic, he feels relieved by writing them and explains that “writing can only come from an abundance of energies, from pleasure; writing—and this is not my invention—is heightened life.” Indeed, reading Dossier K. is not only pleasurable, but like all great literature, it heightens the experience of living.