Thursday, 8 August 2013

Detective Story

Detective Story - Imre Kertész

This was my first brush with the Nobel Prize winning Hungarian author Imre Kertész and it won't be my last. It is a spare short novel that explores the mechanics of totalitarianism. Names that came into my head while reading were Beckett and Kafka. The book is light on specific details of time and place and remind you that those details often create a distance from the guilty secrets that lie mouldering in humanity's closet. The book looks at the working of the law in an unnamed South American country recently taken over by a shadowy 'colonel'.

The book reminded me of Don Quixote as it starts with an introduction by a lawyer who claims to be presenting us with a manuscript written by one of his clients: "The manuscript that I am hereby making public was entrusted to my care by my client, Antonio R. Martens. As to who he is, you will learn that from him in due course. All that I shall say in advance is that, given his scholastic attainments, he evinced a surprising flair for writing, as indeed does anyone, in my experience, who for once in his life steels himself up to face his fate." After his introduction, the lawyer will not re-appear. On one hand this is a pretence that the testimony is real but on the other it exaggerates its fictionality. We know this sleight of hand since Cervantes.

Later on, in the literary equivalent of a nest of tables, Martens will introduce the diary of another character, Enrique Salinas, son of a successful businessman. The treatment of the father and son by the police is the central 'investigation' at the core of the book.

Kertész spent time in Auschwitz and has said that all his novels are about Auschwitz. “Auschwitz,” as he has said, “is everywhere.” (from Paris Review) The value of the individual is raised early on, when our lawyer shares his surprise at Maarten's wish to write down some of his experience and his success in doing so. "..I had not supposed that, with his being a lowly cog in a big machine and so having relinquished all powers of discernment and appraisal of a sovereign human person, that person might again stir" "and demand his rights." It sounds more like a description of someone who was a victim of the system rather than a part of it. But perhaps, under some systems, everyone is a victim. Systems only need cogs. "I completed the course; they brainwashed me. Not enough, though, not by a long chalk. All sorts of things were still left in there, much more than I would have any need for, but then they were in a tearing hurry."

We are also told that this is not a detective story but a horror story - "this horror story was written not by Martens alone but by reality, too." Maartens tells us early on that the story will not end well: "I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story." We are not led to expect that things will turn out well.

The story opens when Maartens tells us how he  moved from the regular police to the 'corps'. There has recently been a revolution / coup but the initial energy is already starting to wane: "the flags had wilted, and the street loudspeakers were hoarse from hammering out martial music." Maartens is not a fanatic or a believer but he gets sucked into the system:  "you think you are clever in riding events out, and then you find that all you want to know is where the hell they are galloping off with you."

Although the setting is  some South American country the holocaust and Auschwitz crop up. Maartens works in a team of three, Rodriguez, Diaz and himself. Rodrigrez seems the most fanatical, always carrying around a book of which Maartens tells us - "The only word that I understood from the garish title was "Auschwitz", and that isn't an English word but the name of a place."

Rodrigrez is anti-semitic, and broadly so. "Anyone who wants something else is Jewish. Otherwise why would he want something else?" The logic of 'us' and 'them', the mistrust of the 'other', the desire to hold what we have; all these human traits can be tuned to a frantic pitch by the manipulation of fear. But perhaps it takes something more to cause true horror. "A person has to believe in something to be such a nasty piece of work."

Rodrigrez has, first in model form on his desk and then in a full size working form, a copy of the infamous 'Boger Swing" used to torture and 'interview' prisoners in Auschwitz. It was invented by Wilhelm Boger, who came through the police and belonged to the 'political department', one of the five departments that ran Auschwitz. The purpose is not to get to the truth. Other methods can do that just as efficiently. Rodrigrez says that the problem with other methods is that ""A person" ... "has no direct contact."" It feels like we are making contact with the real dark heart of the book here.

But Maartens says that it is not Rodriguez that bothered him most but Diaz. Diaz, the boss, believes in nothing but power, and although Maartens and Rodriguez have been caught, Diaz hasn't. When Maartens expresses some doubt about what they are doing he is quickly corrected:
""....I mean, I actually thought we were serving the law here."
"Those in power, sonny boy," Diaz corrects me.""

The book makes towards the Salinas investigation. You know something has happened and there is an ominous sense that once you are considered suspicious you will be found guilty. "Enrique Salinas was young, just twenty-two, his long hair, his wisp of a moustache and beard alone marked him as suspicious in our eyes."

Enrique's parents consider how to survive and their plan is to stay outside the circle "of the persecutors and that of the persecuted." However this is not easy as "the circles are expanding all the time." This seems familiar from any number of totalitarian regimes.  But Kertész never quite allows us to distance ourselves fully from the events portrayed. Could they happen anywhere? The system has weaknesses, such as the one that allows Maartens to possess Salinas' diary. "People everywhere are only human, and of all sorts, what is more."

Salinas, unlike Maartens, comes from a privileged background and has to choose if he wants to stand against the system. He listens to people saying that things are getting better, accommodating their lives to the regime. He feels a hatred for them: "With the greatest of pleasure I would have tossed a bomb among them." His hatred of the system alternates with despair. He considers various options, coming finally to this final method of committing suicide - "Of course, living is another way of killing oneself: its drawback is that it takes so horribly long." It is a method that perfectly suits this book and its ominous, inevitable journey towards death.

Other pleasures include some great summing up of character types:  "Those types look like lost souls who can be saved only by the victims" and cynical asides`: "I hated the blindness, the bogus hope, the algal life, the stigmatized who, when they got a days break from the lashes of the whip, immediately start to sigh about how good life is... " It s a bleak book, which grows bleaker the more you think about it. However this is leavened somewhat by humour, although of a very dark variety.

I will leave the last words to Rodriguez, who outlines his philosophy, one in which logic is used to prove that things really are the way you say they are. Logic, when applied with sufficient skill, can make Creation bend to the wishes of its masters.  "Everything is a matter of logic. Events per se mean nothing. Life itself can be regarded as an accident. The function of the police, however, is to bring logic to bear on Creation..."


  1. Not a writer I've tried before, but definitely one to look at in the future. Hungarian lit. has a lot going for it, it seems...

    1. His first novel (Fateless or Fatelessness depending on the translation) seems to be the one with the biggest reputation. It's set in the concentration camps so probably not a barrel of laughs but I don't think light comedy is his thing.