Thursday, 31 March 2016

"The Only Way to Freedom": a meeting with Imre Kertész

In late November 2002, I travelled to Vienna from Budapest, where I then lived, to interview Imre Kertész, who had just been announced as Hungary's first-ever Nobel Prize winner for literature.

The piece was, sadly, never used. But I am publishing it here to commemorate this remarkable man, who died on March 31, 2016.

I used some quotes from this interview for an obituary of Kertész available on the Financial Times' website.

It seems somehow appropriate that a meeting with Imre Kertész should start with a pointless, frustrating mix-up.
Kertész, who on December 10 will become the first Hungarian to receive the Nobel prize for literature, has made a career out of chronicling the absurdities of life, especially life under totalitarianism. A Holocaust survivor, his first novel and masterpiece Sorstalanság (Fatelessness) recounts the experiences of a 15-year-old Jewish boy taken suddenly away from bourgeois Budapest to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. The story closely parallels his own.
Sorstalanság: proof of Communist
censors' taste in novels.
I have secured a window in his frantic schedule in the run-up to the Nobel prize-giving ceremony. Currently living mainly in Berlin, Kertész - who worked for years as a translator of German writing - is in Vienna for a matinee reading from his works. We have an appointment with him afterwards for coffee at the Hotel Sacher, one of the swankiest of Vienna’s many fine hotels.
The Sacher seems a good place to discuss the destruction of the bourgeois Central European society of which Jews were a vital part. The hotel - behind the famous Vienna opera - still looks much as it did when Franz Josef II dominated Central Europe as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Its main claim to fame is that one of its patissieres invented the Sachertorte - a chocolate sponge and apricot cake still served in vast quantities across Austria and Hungary. In cake-guzzling Central Europe, this makes the hotel very famous indeed.
Kertész will be the 13th Hungarian Nobel laureate. It is eloquent testimony, however, to Hungary's 20th century history that he will be only the second person to receive such a prize while a Hungarian citizen. The others were all exiles, many Jewish scientists who fled the persecution which sent Kertész to Auschwitz.
We arrive 25 minutes before the interview’s scheduled start, announce that we are here to see Herr Kertész and are told he has yet to come back. We ask where we should wait and staff suggest the bar.
An hour later, a series of mobile phone calls reveals that Kertész came down from his room at the appointed time, was told by staff that no-one was waiting and left. Staff swear - none too politely - that he has since checked out.
Yet he turns out still to be in his room, preparing to leave for the airport. Something over an hour after the scheduled time, he arrives in the lounge, accompanied by a solicitous hotel manager.
A famously likeable man, Kertész is full of apologies and shakes hands warmly. After posing - very professionally - for the hotel manager to take a picture, he settles down to espresso coffee on a plush sofa. Once he has moved to a higher chair - his knee is bad, he explains - he becomes engrossed in conversation. He seems to forget about the car outside, waiting to whisk him to the airport.
Budapest: the once-genteel Central
European city from which Kertész
was deported
Kertész says it is impossible to represent the Holocaust - his central theme - in literature. The novelist just has to work out how to get readers closest to the experience.
His main interest, he says, is how totalitarianism strips people of their ability to make decisions.
"It’s a state that can be compared to losing one’s personality," he says. "People are deprived of their freedom. They’re deprived of their responsibilities and of everything that makes people human."
It is a state Kertész calls fatelessness. It is because it infantilises people that he chose a child as the central character and narrator in Sorstalanság.
Like Kertész at the same age, György Köves, the narrator, has not had any religious education, does not speak Hebrew and knows nothing about Jewish culture. But, to the Nazis, he is still a Jew.
Also like Kertész, Köves goes on to reject the labels which Hungary’s new Communist authorities seek to put on his ordeal.
"The paternalistic language they devise is made up of words such as ’fascist’, ’victim’ and ’the fight against fascism’," he says. "These concepts already feel rather alien to him. His individual fate has become part of others’ fate."
The insistence that everybody is an individual makes Sorstalanság an exciting and disturbing read. The Germans are not all monsters. Köves, meanwhile, finds himself guessing which of the Jews arriving at Auschwitz will be fit for work and which sent to the queue leading straight to extermination.
There are jokes at the expense of Köves’ more religious relatives, as well as at those who trust the Communists.
A vintage steam locomotive at Budapest's
Nyúgáti Palyaúdvár, from which many
Jews started their journeys to the horrors
of the death and labour camps.
When Kertész finished the novel in 1973, the Communist authorities were, unsurprisingly, horrified.
"They said it was written in a bad style, that it could offend the readers, that it was anti-semitic - and other, similarly well thought-out reasons," he says, with sarcasm.
Even when it was finally published, in 1975, print runs were tiny. Kertész’s work was, until the prize announcement on October 10, better known in German translation than in Hungarian.
Kertész’s wife, Magda, herself a writer, has now joined us. She sits drinking cappuccino as, in the background, waiters rush about carrying Sachertorte.
Mrs Kertész throws in the occasional comment but also brushes her fingers over her husband’s hands and face. He reciprocates, blowing her kisses. Kertész’s sharp mind and boyish zest for life belie the slight frailty, the only hint that he is 73.
Kertész admits that some Hungarians have been shocked at the Nobel award to a relatively little-known writer. But his work, he thinks, has had to overcome not only the Communists’ obstruction but also Hungarians’ reluctance to be reminded of uncomfortable parts of their history.
Admiral Horthy, Hungary's wartime dictator, deported the Jews mainly because of pressure from his German allies. However, the country had anti-semitic laws from the 1920s onwards.
"The country has not had time [since the end of Communism] to face its own past," Kertész says. "The way people think of the Holocaust in the west is not the consensus opinion in Hungary."
Earlier this year in Hungary, a right-wing figure close to Viktor Orban, prime minister for four years until April’s general elections, suggested that the Holocaust was a minor detail of the second world war.
The Neue Synagoge, Orianburger Strasse, Berlin:
restoration of this and other Jewish monuments
in Berlin has been a hallmark of the readiness
to confront history that made Kertész
more comfortable for much of his later life in the
capital of his one-time oppressors than at home.
In Germany, Kertész points out, there has been a serious public debate.
"In western Europe, there’s a political consensus around the Holocaust, that it should not be repeated," Kertész says. "That’s the minimum people agree on."
Hungary needs to have the same debate Germany did, Kertész thinks.
"The only way to freedom is through self-control and reflection," he says. "That’s the only way to create a great nation, not denying or negating what happened."
The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel literature prize, has handed Kertész an excellent platform from which to start the debate. Hungarians have been buying his books by the hundred thousand since the award announcement on October 10.
"I’ve become the most popular writer in Hungary,” he says, with excitement.
The award citation says that Kertész’s writing upholds "the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history".
But as he gathers up his coat and wide-brimmed hat to head for the waiting car, it is almost hard to remember how tragic his life has been. The lasting impression is of a man who has finally got the recognition he deserved - and is having enormous fun.

Robert Wright