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Imre Kertész. The stranger

Strangeness, the state of being a stranger, pervades the fiction of Imre Kertész. As a child and as a Jew in wartime Budapest, his early years were blighted by segregation, deportation, and liquidation. After the camps, there was socialism and the compulsion to conform. Authors faced the spectre of the censor; now, when travelling is possible, the isolation brought by writing in Hungarian is the obstacle. Helga Leiprecht travels to meet Imre Kertész in his native Budapest.

Ágnes sits next to me on the train. We're travelling towards Budapest, the countryside is flat; Bruck an der Leitha, the border unmistakably the border to eastern Europe; and then the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom, where the train stops for two minutes. In these two minutes, years ago, Imre Kertész was forced to alight from the train to Vienna. It was shortly after the fall of the Wall, after eastern Europe, and with it Hungary, supposedly became "free". He had failed to declare three thousand Austrian shillings. Hegyeshalom, where Kertész was informed that, as Hungarian, he was to not allowed to board this same train back to Budapest – "apparently, it was an international train". Hegyeshalom, where miniature versions of tower blocks and single-family houses are strewn across the fields, filthy yellow, shit brown, the ugly but universal face of the East, as it always disgusts its critics, and further: an uncultivated landscape, expanses of forest, rivers that haven't been straightened, a Europe which to the nostalgic seems like a relic of better times. "Fly over eastern Europe in a low-flying aircraft", Kertész said in an interview on receiving the Nobel Prize, "from above it's magnificent, but don't try to land, because living there's impossible."

"Ah, you're reading Kertész", says Ágnes on the train. Yes. A small pause and then: "Kertész – I don't know him personally". Why should she? Why should one know an author personally? The other two protagonists of the internationally known triumvirate of Hungarian contemporary literature she does know: "Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, they're public figures, above all Esterházy, the aristocrat, the extroverted, exalted ironist with the worn out trousers and the hair like a god's, and Nádas, the brilliant analyst with the unwavering gaze." But Kertész? Not Kertész. "I'm sorry", she says, "And neither can I sum him up. But I'll think about it. Then I'll write to you."

"Budapest is the prison in which I was confined for forty years." Today, Kertész lives in the city only sporadically, to meet friends, to look after his affairs; the large part of the year he spends in Berlin. This started in 2001, after the nationalist and anti-Semitic climate in the city had sent Kertész into a deep depression which was blocking work on his novel, Liquidation. His wife, Magda, suggested that he rent a small flat in Berlin. "She's discovered I'm able to concentrate much better in unfamiliar places."

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Eszter Orbán
Imre Kertész. Portrait in Hungarian Literature Online.
Magda, who is there where Imre is, laughs. Maybe she was only able to discover this because she herself is so different, the exact opposite. "Imre doesn't need objects that remind him of something, that make his surroundings homely, unlike me. I love objects. I've got a whole series of objects that remind me of various stages of my life." Magda is furnished, domesticated, she is pink and woolly, she has lived in America, she laughs deeply and warmly and opens her arms to take Imre in, to protect him. And he accepts her shelter, after a life so arduous, after the concentration camps, socialism, after a marriage with Albina, who was herself persecuted and tortured, and who died of cancer at the beginning of the 1990s; Kertész has "gone through hell in half an hour". On this afternoon he is fragile, a doctor's appointment looms, and Magda is there with her warmth and strength.

The travelling, after forty years of Budapest and immobility, also began with Magda. "I like travelling, fundamentally, it's the only thing I like doing. I'm the happiest traveller and the unhappiest to arrive, as Bernhard said of himself. I love going somewhere, in other words, being nowhere." And Kertész is often going somewhere: to readings, discussions, Berlin, Budapest, touring, returning, and then the night in the hotel, perhaps also work, free, in an untouched, unused place.

Not that the past forty years were all terrible, but, "you see, to live in a dictatorship means to live with absurdity. In socialism there was no reality. We lived like straw men. Everything was false. Everything was madness and lies." You saw your life ahead of you, and when you reached out to it, it dissolved into air. "The role of money in socialism is a good example: I had money, but I couldn't buy anything with it. I had money that was there for nothing. In 1983, when I travelled to the West on the invitation of the Goethe Institute, I received the grant in German marks. I sat in a taxi, and for the first time in my life gave the driver a tip with real money. I gave him one mark. He said thanks, and I gave him another. That was a great feeling." For a moment, reality corresponded to the idea one had of it. That was in the West.

The false life. Foreignness was forced on Kertész. As a child, as a Jew, he says, he naturally had to attend a special class; later he had to work at the refinery in Csepel, then he went to the concentration camp. Segregation, deportation, liquidation: so went the official programme that Kertész encountered. Then, after the camp, socialism; the order to lead a uniform life, to support an illusory world; and, when one refused to do so, censorship; and above all, exclusion from the world. The Hungarian language, that is accessible to so few non-Hungarians, that for a writer means isolation and the impossibility of emigrating and writing in one's mother-tongue somewhere else – in the mother-tongue that others still dispute, such as the colleague who, after the Wall came down, at a reading to commemorate the Holocaust, congratulated Kertész, the Jew, on how well he was able to speak Hungarian.

Strangeness, the state of being a stranger, has accompanied Kertész from the start; he defers to it. "I'm a stranger in this world. But that's not at all bad." On the contrary: he makes strangeness a principle of life. He chooses it and internalizes it. He lets it into his deepest regions. "I've always hated my name", he writes in Valaki más: a változás Krónikája (published in German translation as Ich - ein anderer ). "Already by my early childhood there was too much shame attached to it. To be precise: I was afraid of my name. I still am a bit. If I hear my name or see it written, to a certain extent I feel that I've been dragged out of the peaceful hiding place of my anonymity – but I'll never identify with it."

This strangeness, which he feels even towards himself, always leaves open a fissure. It prevents identification, identity, idylls. It is sceptical, it queries everything. It knows no limits. Strangeness is another word for unlimited freedom. Perhaps Kertész loves the sea. In Berlin, when he's feeling low, he goes to the Kurfürstendamm and drinks a coffee: "There, I'm surrounded by a very dynamic, very unfamiliar world." Kertész is a free human being, says György Spiró of his friend. He is a stranger in the world that surrounds him, however he extracts its forces, its reality.

And creates another world. A personal world of words and ideas. With Kertész, strangeness is the fundamental prerequisite for writing. "A writer, I believe, must be completely immersed – or be a complete stranger. I believe that the writer is a man who is two. One observes, the other acts. Mostly, the observer does nothing, but is always there. And then, when it's absolutely necessary, he speaks."

Imre Kertész has a face that stands out. A face that always changes, whose contours always alter. A face that moves vigorously, and moves often. Above all, when he laughs. This laugh, which comes so unexpectedly from a person whose entire life has been pervaded with sorrow. This laugh. It opens, of course, but it also creates distance; one laughs with someone or one laughs about something. The object of laughter is seen in a different light, and is kept at a distance. Laughing, says Kertész, is a way of putting up with the absurdity of life. Life during socialism was just one example of it. In the train to Vienna, just before Hegyeshalom, he had to open his bags, he was insulted, humiliated; there he stood, a "Chaplinesque being", a figure of fun, a Little Kaspar. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Thomas Bernhard, Beckett, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and of course Camus, are Kertész's favourite authors. Running through all of them is the idea of everyday absurdity, to which the tragi-comic situation belongs.

Then the strangeness surprises even him, the former prisoner and sleuth who returned to Buchenwald and Weimar. The attempt to make a journey into memory. But the memories refused to come, at least where they were expected. "He felt how his gaze slipped off things and fractured." Things that should have touched off memories are strange, sealed off, "were answerable".

Only in the moment when he no longer had any more concrete expectations, "when his discouraged gaze flew aimlessly and indiscriminately to the top floor of the highest apartment blocks, for example, thanks to a certain angle of light and the impression of a dominant colour, a colour one had forgotten to change, or which one wasn't able to change, did it suddenly meet its target." The innocuous yellow! The memory had no place in fixed images, but went its own way. It nested in accidental details, in smells and colours and tones. Lost time cannot simply be recovered. "When I want to fight against my past self and the constant mutability of the scenes of drama, I have to rely on my creative memory and form everything from new." To dare a different, a new, a strange gaze, to extend the horizon, to lead the gaze out beyond the visible. That is the principle of memory, a universal principle, and it is the principle of poetry.

In the shared apartment block in Budapest where Kertész lives, the lift only works from the ground floor. Whoever comes can call it with the simple push of a button. Whoever wants to leave must use the stairs. Unless the lift has, by chance, stopped at the right floor.

By the way, still no letter has come from Ágnes.


Published 2005-07-20

Original in German
Translation by Simon Garnett
First published in du 757

Contributed by Du
© Helga Leiprecht, du
© Eurozine

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