Authors: Imre Kertesz
Tags: #Literary Criticism, #Biography & Autobiography, #Jewish, #Personal Memoirs, #Russian & Former Soviet Union
Originally published as
by Magvető Kiadó, Budapest, 2006
© 2006 Imre Kertész
Published by permission of Rowohlt Verlag GmbH,
Reinbek bei Hamburg
Translation © 2013 Tim Wilkinson
First Melville House printing: April 2013
Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
A catalog record for this title is available from the Library of Congress.
The conversation that I conducted with my friend and editor Zoltán Hafner over the course of 2003 and 2004 by way of a so-called “in-depth” interview filled maybe a dozen magnetic tapes. A file containing a transcript of the edited material caught up with me at my hotel in the little Swiss town of Gstaad. Having looked through the first few sentences, I set the bundle of the manuscript to one side, and with what one might call an involuntary movement opened the lid to my computer … That is how this book came into being—the only one of my books that I have written more because of external prompting than out of any inner compulsion: a veritable autobiography. If one acknowledges Nietzsche’s proposition that the prototype of the novel as an art form was to be found in the Platonic dialogues, then the Reader is in fact holding a novel in his or her hands.
you write: “When I was fourteen and a half, through a conjunction of infinitely inane circumstances, I found myself looking down the barrel of a loaded machine gun for half an hour.” I suppose that must have happened in the barracks of the gendarmerie. Why was that episode left out of
From the novel’s perspective, it was a purely anecdotal element; that’s why it had to be left out.
Yet from the perspective of your own life it must nevertheless have been a fairly decisive element
Does that mean I’m going to have to say something about things that I never wished to talk about?
Then why did you write about it?
Perhaps precisely so I would not have to talk about it.
Do you find it that difficult?
You know, this is just like the interviews with elderly survivors in that Spielberg series. I hate all those kind of
statements like “They herded us into the stables … They drove us out into a courtyard … They took us off to the brick works in Budakalász,” and the like.
Isn’t that what happened?
In the novel, yes, it did. But then a novel is fiction …
Which in your case I know is based on reality. How was it that you came to be in that narrow courtyard at the gendarmerie barracks?
All things considered, exactly as I described in
. In the middle of the night—I was fast asleep, resting against the knees of the person behind me, and the person in front of me was resting against my drawn-up legs—I wakened to the sound of shouting and sirens wailing. A minute later and I was standing there, in the yard, under a moonlit sky across which successive squadrons of bomber aircraft were passing. On the low walls, drunken gendarmes were squatting behind machine guns trained on the mass of people who were crowded into the barracks courtyard—on us. But there’s no point in my telling you this; you can read a much better account of it in
Yes, but there it seems that the boy hasn’t a clue about the whole thing, about how he came to be there
That, in essence, was how it was.
Were you never interested in what I might call the historical background to that scene?
Of course, it’s just that the circumstances weren’t so easy …
The reality, you mean, not the fiction
I wouldn’t draw such a sharp distinction between the two, but let’s drop that for now. The trouble was that under the Kádár regime it was extraordinarily difficult to get hold of any documentation—particularly during the Sixties, when I was writing
. It was as though they were in cahoots with the Nazi past, the way that all documentation was hidden away: one had to pull out the mostly deficient material from the very back shelves of libraries, and publishing at the time drew a total veil over the past. Nevertheless, I finally managed to piece together that what had lain behind my arrest was a gendarme putsch that had been planned to go ahead in late June 1944. The aim of the putsch, in essence, was to enable the deportation of the Jewish residents of Budapest to Germany to proceed. As we now know, once Horthy saw what the outcome of the Second World War was going to be, and bearing in mind the declaration the Allied powers had made that when the war was over, anybody who had had a hand in the extermination of Jews in Europe was going to be called to account, he ordered a halt to the deportations from Budapest, which was the area over which he had tight control. The gendarmerie
wanted to revoke that. As a first step, they threw a ring round Budapest one day at dawn and set up control points at the city’s administrative boundaries. As you know, the gendarmerie’s sphere of action did not extend to the capital: while they were the arm of the law in the provinces, in Budapest it was “the boys in blue.” Anyway, the gendarmerie somehow managed to pull in the regular police, and on that day the police arrested all the people wearing yellow stars who stepped over the city limits, whether or not a person had a specific permit to do so. That was how I was arrested along with my companions, eighteen of us, all boys of fourteen or fifteen, who were working at the Shell Oil refinery just outside the city limits.
As far as I know, the gendarme putsch eventually failed
That’s right. Lieutenant General László Faragho, who, alongside His Serene Highness the Regent, was joint head of the gendarmerie, got notice of the brewing putsch in time, and for his part, he concentrated the regular army troops under his command and duly won the gendarmes round to giving up their plan.
But by then they had caught you. Did that also happen the way you described it in
So, it was the reality that you wrote down after all. Why are you so insistent on the term “fiction”?
Look here, that’s a pretty basic issue. A couple of decades later, when I decided that I was going to write a novel, I was obliged to sort out, for my personal use so to say, what the difference was between the genres of the novel and the autobiography, “memoirs,” if only to stop me from adding yet another book to what already back in Sixties had swollen into a library of, how should I put it …
Holocaust literature. Isn’t that what you wanted to say?
Yes, that’s what it’s called nowadays. Back then, in the Sixties, the word “Holocaust” wasn’t familiar; it only came into use later on—and incorrectly at that. I’ve just recalled what it was called back then: Lager literature.
That’s a better classification?
Let’s not get into considering the point now.
Agreed, but we shall come back to it later on. What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to
as an autobiographical novel
Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections; it’s a matter of extraordinary importance that you write everything down exactly the way it happened, as it’s usually put: that you
don’t varnish the facts one little bit. A good autobiography is like a document: a mirror of the age on which people can “depend.” In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.
But as far as I’m aware—and it’s something that you have repeatedly confirmed in statements you have made—your novel is absolutely authentic; every facet of the story is based on documented facts
That’s not inconsistent with its being fictional. Quite the opposite. In
I describe just how far I went in the interests of summoning up the past, in order to reawaken in myself the atmosphere of the camps.
You used to sniff the strap of your wristwatch
Yes, because somehow or other the whiff of freshly tanned leather reminded me of the smell that used to build up between the barrack blocks in Auschwitz. Slivers of reality like that are, of course, very important for fiction as well. But there is still a crucial difference, in that while autobiography is a recollection of something, fiction creates a world of some kind.
To my way of thinking, remembrance is also the recreation of a portion of the world
But without going beyond that portion of the world; yet that’s what happens in fiction. The world of fiction is a
sovereign world that comes to life in the author’s head and follows the rules of art, of literature. And that is the major difference that is reflected in the form of the work, in its language and its plot. An author invents every aspect of a fiction, every detail.
But you can’t mean to say that you invented Auschwitz?
But in a certain sense that is exactly so. In the novel I did have to invent Auschwitz and bring it to life; I could not fall back on externalities, on so-called historical facts outside the novel; everything had to come into being hermetically, through the magic of the language and composition. Look at the book from that point of view. From the very first lines you can already get a feeling that you have entered a strange sovereign realm in which everything or, to be more accurate, anything can happen. As the story progresses, the sense of being abandoned increasingly takes hold of the reader; there is a growing sense of losing one’s footing …
. Non habent sua fata libelli—
books do not have their own fate—as György Spiró put it in his memorable 1983 essay, which as it happened was the first major assessment of
that had been printed in Hungary since its publication in 1975. But that is getting far beside the point; we have digressed a long way from that barracks courtyard. We were at the point where the gendarmes
Declared that they had seen us signaling by candlelight from the stables to the RAF aircraft.
Not at all; that really is what they said. At first I too took it to be some sort of joke, but then I could see they weren’t joking at all. If so much as one bomb were to be dropped near us, they would “hack us to pieces”—that was the threat, and it was clear that they could hardly wait for that bomb to be dropped. They were in a murderous mood, most of them dead drunk, like hyenas that have caught the scent of blood. It was a brilliant scene, in fact, and yet it didn’t fit into
. It almost broke my heart to leave it out, but then there you are: that’s fiction for you. Remorseless in its laws. But then I managed to salvage the scene in
How can you be so … so
I didn’t want to say it
You won’t offend me. I look on my life as raw material for my novels: that’s just the way I am, and it frees me from any inhibitions.
In that case, let me ask: What did you feel that night, when you had not yet acquired enough of that … I would not say cynicism so much as irony to maintain your detachment? The irony with which, after all, you came face to face with death? Weren’t you afraid?
I probably was, but I no longer recall. What was much more important, though, was a kind of recognition that I managed to formulate many years later in
: “I grasped the simple secret of the universe that had been disclosed to me: I could be gunned down anywhere, at any time.”