Literature prize for Holocaust survivor

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

IMRE KERTESZ, a Hungarian novelist and Holocaust survivor with a small but devoted readership in Europe, won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature for what the Swedish Academy described as writing that "upholds the tragic experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history''.

Kertesz, 72, a secular Jew whose work has been shaped by the time he spent as a teenage prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was largely unknown even in Hungary until the collapse of Communism. Since the early 1990s, he has been acclaimed in Germany and has won a loyal following in Sweden and France. Only two of his novels, Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born, have been translated into English.

In its citation, the Swedish Academy said that Kertesz explores how an individual resists the enormous pressure of social and political conformity. "For him Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence that like an alien body subsists outside the normal history of Western Europe,'' it noted. "It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern existence.''

Kertesz, who was working in Berlin when he learned of the prize, said he considered it a tribute to Hungarian literature. "It is a great honour for me and perhaps it now means I can have a quieter life, at least financially,'' he told reporters.

Kertesz is Hungary's first Nobel literature laureate. While Kertesz once noted that "when I am thinking about a novel, I always think of Auschwitz,'' his writing was also influenced by living for four decades under a Communist dictatorship to which he refused to submit. Particularly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he once noted, many intellectuals accepted self-censorship in exchange for small privileges. "I refuse to adapt or integrate myself,'' he explained. But this meant that for 25 years he was a solitary figure in Budapest, devoted to reflection on the two repressive political systems that came to dominate his life.

Born in Budapest on November 9, 1929, Kertesz was only 14 when he was deported to Auschwitz in Poland during a massive round-up of Hungarian Jews in 1944. The following year, he was sent to Buchenwald in Germany, where he was liberated in May 1945. When he was 19, he began working as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper, Vilagossag, but he was dismissed in 1951 after the Communists seized power. From then, he lived off translating German-language authors, including Nietzsche, Schnitzler, Freud and Wittgenstein. Kertesz completed his first novel, Fateless in 1965, but it was 10 years before it was published in Hungary and, even then, it went unnoticed. For many contemporary critics, though, it is the cornerstone of his work, not only the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy that includes Fiasco (1988) and Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1990), but also the book that spells out his philosophy of life.

In Fateless, Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year-old Jewish narrator, is arrested and taken to a concentration camp where, arriving unaware of what awaits him, he gradually discovers the horrors of a death camp. He learns to survive, noting at one point that "one cannot start a new life, you can only continue the old one.''

The Swedish Academy remarked on the absence of ready-made answers neither moral indignation nor metaphysical protest to the atrocities that Koves describes. "Both perpetrators and victims were preoccupied with insistent practical problems, the major questions did not exist,'' it said in its citation. "Kertesz's message is that to live is to conform. The capacity of the captives to come to terms with Auschwitz is one outcome of the same principle that finds expression in everyday human existence.''

This is not, however, how Kertesz has lived his own life. Although he remained in Budapest, he preferred obscurity to conformity. Asked recently how a grown man could recover the memories of a 15-year-old boy, Kertesz remarked with characteristic good humour that the "goulash socialism'' of Hungary after 1956 served as the Proustian madeleine that enabled him to recall the concentration camps.

While his life and work have been moulded by the fact that he is Jewish, however, this identity also troubles Kertesz. "My work is a form of commitment to myself, to memory and to humanity,'' he explained in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais last year. "My Judaism is very problematic. I am a non-believing Jew. Yet as a Jew I was taken to Auschwitz, as a Jew I was in the death camps and as a Jew I live in a society that does not like Jews, one with great anti-Semitism. I always have the feeling that I was obliged to be Jewish. I am Jewish, I accept it, but to a large extent it is also true that it was imposed on me.''

But when he visited Jerusalem earlier this year amid Palestinian suicide bombs and Israeli military incursions into the West Bank, the experience reinforced his Jewish identity. "I am not impartial and, moreover, cannot be,'' he wrote in an essay. "I have never assumed the role of impartial executioner. I leave that to European and non-European intellectuals who embrace this role for better and often for worse.'' He added: "They have never bought a ticket for a bus ride from Jerusalem to Haifa.''

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