In Memoriam Imre Kertész


imre7 April 2016

‘Imre Kertész was a giant of world literature. His life, which mirrored many of the tragedies and upheavals of 20th-century European history, served as a backdrop for his novels and led us to a complex understanding of our times.’

– Jennifer Clement, PEN International President.

Imre Kertész was an author, Holocaust survivor and first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertész was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 14. He narrowly avoided the sentence of immediate extermination as a child by pretending to be a 16-year-old worker. Of his time in Nazi concentration camps Kertész later said, in a 2002 interview with Newsweek, ‘To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all’. Returning to Hungary after his liberation Kertész found work as a journalist and translator. However, in 1951 after increasing intrusion of the Communist regime he lost his job at the journal Világosság because of his refusal to compromise on freedom of expression.

In 1975 Kertész’s first work Fatelessness (Sorstalanság) finally found publication after rejection by censors. The novel describes the experiences of a 15-year-old boy who survives the Holocaust, and despite its links with the author’s own life, Kertész denied that it is autobiographical. The novel has been praised for its nuanced approach to the Holocaust and its objectivity in confronting the horrors of the concentration camps. Two further novels, also with themes of the Holocaust and its aftermath, A kudarc (Fiasco, 1988) and Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (Kaddish for an Unborn Child, 1990) brought Kertész international recognition despite remaining relatively unknown in his native Hungary.

In 2002 Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy commending him, ‘for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history’. The honour, however, was not universally celebrated and there were criticisms within the Hungarian press of Kertész as being ‘un-Hungarian’. Kertész’s critical look at Hungarian society drew ire from some commentators who claimed he only received the prize because the Holocaust was a theme guaranteed to win acclaim. Remarking on the negativity surrounding his award Kertész commented, ‘never in my life have I experienced so much infamy since winning the Nobel Prize’.

Several of Kertész’s earlier novels, which were widely translated following the recognition brought by his Nobel Prize – for example Detective Story (Detektívtörténet, 1977), The Pathseeker (A nyomkereső, 1977) and The Union Jack (Az angol lobogó, 1991) – are notable for their implicit criticism of all aspects of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Second World War. As a writer he struggled to find a publisher and suffered an isolated position in Budapest rather than submit to the self-censorship some other writers accepted under Communist rule. Later, when asked why he chose to reside in Germany rather than Hungary he replied, ‘Germany is the only country that apologized’. In contrast he has said of Hungary that it has never done any ‘soul searching’, that there has been no discussion of any of the issues of the Holocaust. Josef Haslinger, current president of German PEN, has said, ‘Imre Kertész embodied the guilty conscience of Hungarian collaborators. And they always let him feel this.

Szőcs Géza, president of Hungarian PEN, writes, ‘Imre Kertész, Hungary’s Nobel Prize in literature, has died after a long illness. Kertész was against any and all kinds of totalitarianisms, whether on the right or the left, whether it was a death camp, an oppressive political system or just the emptiness of human relations devoid of compassion. He thought that “resistance was the only way to preserve human autonomy and freedom. Under any and all circumstances.’

Imre Kertész was born on November 9, 1929 to a bourgeois Jewish family. At the age of 14, he was deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  This provided him with material for his most famous work, Fatelessness.  Upon the liberation of the camp, Kertész returned to Hungary, finished school and began to work as a journalist.  But when Communists took over the country, he was underemployed for a time.  He worked in a factory, then made his living as a freelance writer and translator.  His translations into Hungarian included Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Elias Canetti. He wrote his most famous work Fatelessness between 1960 and 1973.  It was rejected at first by the Communist regime, but it was later published in 1975.

He then wrote parts a Holocaust series, Fiasco and Kaddish for a Child Unborn.   These works were also critical of the Kádár Communist regime.  Then his novel Liquidation took place in Hungary’s change from Communism to democracy. 

As he felt neglected in Hungary, even after the change, he moved to Berlin.  There he met with much greater appreciation; nevertheless, he continued writing in Hungarian and he was published in Hungary.

Kertész refused to be pigeon-holed.  He was a great spirit. His independence and freedom could not be questioned, as he refused to bend the knee to any ideology.  Hungarian PEN looks on him as a model.