Imre Kertész: Memoirs of a survivor

Imre Kertész came back from Auschwitz, endured Stalinism and years of neglect in Hungary – and then won the Nobel Prize. Tibor fischer meets him in Budapest
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'Everyone asks me that," replies Imre Kertész when I ask, isn't it ironic that he spends so much time in Berlin? "It's not ironic, because it was in Germany that I made an impact as a writer, where my book was understood and published. I felt I could say something. I could do something. And anyway it was here, not Germany, that I first experienced fascism."

We are in Budapest, in the café of the Gresham Palace. Kertész has arrived with his second wife, Magda, smiling as if he's just heard a good joke. Somehow you expect a Nobel Laureate, a man who was shipped to Auschwitz at 14, pronounced dead at Buchenwald and who spent decades living a hand-to-mouth existence as an unfashionable author working in a language only spoken by 15 million people, to be less... good-humoured. His smile is partly the smile of the victor, partly the smile of a man at ease with fatelessness.

Berlin has become a second home for several Hungarian writers. Many British writers would be hard-pressed without German royalties, but most established Hungarians simply wouldn't be able to eat. There's an element of "sorry we tried to gas you" in relation to older Jewish writers such as György Konrád and Kertész, but the links of history and geography are strong in any case. "There was great interest in the Holocaust," says Kertész of his reception in Germany in the 1990s. "I didn't moralise and they understood something about the past with Hungarian help."

Talking about the Holocaust in London is very different to talking about it in Budapest, where 437,000 citizens were transported to Auschwitz. The Gresham Palace is a few yards from the Danube, where in the final days of the Second World War, when marshalling them became too tricky, Jews were shot and dumped in the river.

Kertész's first novel, Fatelessness, was published in 1975. He didn't have an easy time with his semi-autobiographical account of the camps. "There were two publishers in socialist Hungary. One rejected it on the grounds that it was anti-Semitic. I still have the letter." But publication doesn't guarantee acclaim. Here is the entire entry on Kertész from the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature: "eg. Imre Kertész". His reception back home was little better.

There was a curious attitude towards the Holocaust in the Communist era. On the one hand, it was the work of the Fascists, and therefore highly eligible for condemnation, and was in its rightful place in the history books. On the other hand, no one really wanted to dwell on it too much. It's hard to say whether this was an anti-Zionist stance (Israel having sided with the West), good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, or a reflection that so much Jewish property had ended up in the hands of the Communists. The ex-communist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány lives in a villa expropriated from a Jewish family.

Kertész made a living writing musicals and doing translations, publishing short works every few years. He was well-respected, but when he won the Nobel Prize in 2002, a wave of "Imre Who?" swept the country. Fellow-novelist Akos Kertész, no relation, also enjoyed a boost in sales.

"I lived through Auschwitz. I lived through the 1948 Communist takeover. It was a harsh dictatorship. Stalinist. I lived through it. Kádár's crushing of the 1956 revolution [and] the consequent consolidation created a type of man... it reshaped the population in an awful way. They assimilated to the 'soft' dictatorship." Surprisingly, Kertész adds that his insight into one totalitarian system was as much inspired by another – the regime of János Kádár, put into power by the Soviet Union in 1956. "The Kádár system brought about the viewpoint of Fatelessness." So why didn't he leave with the other 200,000 Hungarians who walked out to the West? "I was 27 and I wouldn't have stayed if I hadn't started to write. At 27 I couldn't learn how to write in another language. It was because of language that I didn't leave."

I can remember how Hungarian writers were aggrieved by the lack of a Nobel Prize. They really did discuss this, in private at least. The genius in Hungarian literature is probably its poetry, the least translatable product, and the poets had a habit of dying tragically young. Hungarians have won several Nobels in the sciences, but Kertész was the first for literature. He agrees there were predecessors worthy of the honour: "Of course, there were others... there are great writers whom even the Hungarian public don't know: Dezso Szomory for example, he was such a master of prose, such an artist; he wrote dazzling books." Kertész also endorsed fellow-Hungarian chroniclers of the Holocaust such as Ernö Szép and Béla Zsolt.

Hungary is a land of counter-histories and counter-news. An insistence circulated that the Swedes had given Kertész the prize because they wanted to sell jet fighters to the Hungarian government. The ethos may be summed up by one of my friends, a Hungarian novelist whose work was published in the US. She was amazed that someone she didn't know had published her novel, that someone she didn't know had reviewed her novel favourably (and without asking for anything in return). Not in back-scratching Budapest.

Fatelessness was Kertész's cool, dispassionate reflection on life in the concentration camps. The good news, according to Kertész, is that you can be happy anywhere, even in the camps. Indeed, happiness is an "unavoidable trap". The bad news is that you're not safe anywhere.

Liquidation (2003) was a skilful evocation of the Kádár era, where intellectuals had a great deal of freedom because Kádár had figured out they didn't matter much. The central character is an Auschwitz survivor, who had been born there. The Holocaust is very much Kertész's beat and the A-word looms in nearly all his writing.

Detective Story is in many ways the odd one out in Kertész's oeuvre. Originally published in 1977, only now is it appearing in English (translated by Tim Wilkinson; Harvill Secker, £12.99). The book is narrated by Antonio Rojas Martens, a cop in a nameless Latin American country who investigates a father and son who may be plotting against the regime. Even here Auschwitz takes a bow, as interrogators refer to the "Boger swing", a torture device accredited to an SS officer. "Detective Story shows how a certain police chief can undermine parliament to the extent that parliament will support a putsch and illegal methods of interrogation," says Kertész. "It's more political than my other writing."

And what about politics in the new, democratic Hungary? "Democracy is a word which has been completely devalued. I really don't know what it means.... Democracy, I'd say, is not a political system but a culture." Kertész looks out of the window at the grey sky. "Hungary's a bit of a morose country at the moment".

The creation of the "Magyar Gárda" (Hungarian Guard), a right-wing organisation that likes dressing up in uniforms and marching around, has caused some consternation in Hungary, and I've seen crude anti-Semitic literature on sale. Is it better that anti-Semitism is out in the open? "Anti-Semitism is very peculiar in Hungary. It's harmful, destructive, heartfelt but it's not active. We have the only rabbinical seminary in Central Europe, apart from Russia. It was here under Kádár. The largest Jewish community is here.

"The Hungarian Jews were smart and really wanted to be Hungarian. There were three layers of Jewish society in 1944 when the Germans came in: the really rich, the middle-class Jews, the doctors, engineers etc., and then the poor Jews. There was no solidarity... in the Jewish community."

I mention that on my flight I was sitting a row ahead of a loudmouth who launched a long harangue on fiction, saying that it was "silly" and "just words". What would Kertész have said to him? "My opinion is that everything is fiction. My autobiography should begin that at the age of 14 I was put on the train to Auschwitz so that I could win the 2002 Nobel Prize. But they didn't put me on the train so that I'd get the Nobel Prize... Events dictate completely."

He adds that "Fiction as a form is much more truthful... I invented myself as a novelist and stuck to fiction. Who knows what would have become of me if I had stopped? The whole of life is on a razor's edge."

Biography: Imre Kertesz

Born, of Jewish descent, in Budapest in 1929, Imre Kertész was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and also imprisoned in Buchenwald and Zeitz camps. After the liberation he returned to Hungary and became a journalist, but lost his job in 1951 under Communist pressure. He became a freelance writer and translator. His semi-autobiographical novel about the camps, Fatelessness, appeared in 1975. It was followed by Detective Story (1977), Fiasco (1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990) and Liquidation (2003), as well as volumes of diaries and essays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. In Britain, Fatelessness, Liquidation and now Detective Story are published by Harvill Secker. Imre Kertész lives in Budapest and Berlin.

Tibor Fischer's latest novel is 'The Thought Gang' (Vintage)