Imre Kertész

The Nobel Dilemma - Now is the Time to Speak!
Fateless Imre Kertész
'Coming to terms with Imre Kertész's Nobel Prize is a difficult lesson for Hungarian culture, and for the author himself,' writes Eszter Babarczy. 'The Nobel Committee couldn't have chosen a Hungarian writer whose name and work could do more to fan the anxiety and aggression associated with the boundaries and meanings of "us".'

Translated from Hungarian by János Széky

"We'll get over it somehow", an almost imperceptible voice whispers in my ear. Unfortunately, the voice is my own, suppressed and ridden with anxiety. I ask other people. Yes, they too hear this incongruous, embarrassing, inscrutable voice speaking in their heads. We'll get over this Nobel Prize somehow, and everything that goes with it. We didn't need it anyway. Oh God, let's forget it as soon as possible. Let's move on.'

We were all very naïve, all of us who wanted a Nobel laureate for Hungarian letters, or rather, all who expected it as something that has been long deserved. The truth is we all but demanded the award. We were naïve in feeling vaguely that a Nobel Prize is like the sun coming out, hard proof that spring is here at last, inviting us to dance and frolic in the light. Little did we know that a Nobel Prize is not presented to a national team to the sound of a national anthem in the final, emotional moments, loudspeakers announcing that "the winner is Hungary". The Nobel Prize honours individual achievement, the sum of the literary career of one person. The yearning for national glory seems somehow to have fused in our minds with the desire to see the achievement of an individual defeat destiny and reap success.

In a way, this confusion of individual achievement and national glory was inevitable. It is natural that any loving or respectful evocation of Hungarian landscapes, the Hungarian people, or Hungarian culture should warm our hearts. All the more so when they come from those who are familiar with other cultures, landscapes, cities, and people. After all, they certainly have grounds for comparison. This kind of praise is hugely motivating. It boosts self-confidence and morale, and encourages a more positive self-image of a linguistic, historical, and political community. A contemporary Canadian political philosopher calls it "the desire for recognition". All cultures crave for the recognition of their existence, their achievements, their own uniqueness. They yearn to be treated on an equal footing with other nations, as every individual yearns for his fellows to accept him. Without such recognition, individual dignity and a sense of the self both collapse. This we see in Kertész's novel.

In Hungary, various regimes and professional ideology-mongers during the last two centuries have tried to raise self-confidence and strengthen the moral fibre of the nation. They have sought to increase national glory and all the motivation it generates. But they did it at the wrong time, relying on the wrong sources, with disastrous consequences. Little wonder then that degrees of indecision, inconsistency, and even panic can be perceived in public life in Hungary today. Maybe this is the reason why we in Hungary are slow to digest cultural conflicts and individual differences. Maybe this is why we fail to accept the ever inevitable collision of partial truths. Apparently, we feel that a view is either "right", and a work of art "great", or that it is not right and not great. The latter means it should be trampled upon, thrown out, and disowned. The vague outlines of the national "us" are enough to fill the leaders of public opinion in Hungary with anxiety and aggression. They either bow to manipulative definitions made by politicians in an attempt to impose a partisan "us" on us, or they escape with alarming speed, clenching their teeth and whispering, just like the voice in my head, "we'll get over it somehow".

Coming to terms with Imre Kertész's Nobel Prize is a difficult lesson for Hungarian culture, and for the author himself. The Nobel Committee couldn't have chosen a Hungarian writer whose name and work could do more to fan the suppressed anxiety and aggression associated with the boundaries and meanings of "us". In part, this just reiterates the experience of former prize winners at home in their native countries: the individual selected never represents the national "us" in a "satisfactory" way - why wasn't it someone else, someone better known, more representative? How shocking that Naipaul didn't represent either British, South African, East Indian, or Trinidadian taste. Then there were the ugly views he expressed of the Islamic world. (Of course, the British did not protest: separating individual achievement and national pride less difficult for them.) However, the lesson is even more difficult in Kertész's case. It's almost certainly a source of embarrassment that he was known to and read by so few people in Hungary. The general public was at a loss as to how to respond to the prize, how to absorb this recognition of "our" literary experience. However, the crux of the matter is not Kertész's having being neglected for such a long time in Hungary, but the fact that he was evidently given the prize for his Holocaust novel Sorstalanság (Fateless), and that Kertész considers himself a writer of the Holocaust. There is no doubt that the prize acknowledged both the quality and the subject matter of Kertész's fiction. Perhaps, as it is sometimes hinted, his being a survivor was to his advantage. Reason for further embarrassment was an interview given by Kertész to a German daily paper during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999. In this interview he claimed he didn't really see himself as a Hungarian writer. Now, in his first interviews since receiving the award, he also expresses hopes that the prize will help Hungarian society "to face" the Holocaust of Hungarian Jews.

Reaction followed immediately. The joy was tainted. Not in official declarations, of course: these expressed delight. However, the press recorded the dilemma presented by the unresolved tension between "us" and "non-us". In the Internet chatrooms, anti-Semites immediately went on the attack, partly denying the author's "Hungarian-ness", partly finding a new "proof" to the old cliché of Jewish conspiracy. On the other hand, news came that the scholars of Israeli literature were asking the question in what sense the prize belongs to them, or whether they should be satisfied with the degree of recognition awarded to "them". Simultaneously, a Hungarian writer proposed that this had been a triumph for "Hungarian Jewish literature". Some promptly asked whether the Nobel Prize of an author who had such a poor opinion on Hungarians and who didn't think of Hungary as his homeland, could belong to "us" at all.

So here we are, right in the cauldron of primitive emotions. This is when that voice whispers in my ears and in other people's: "let's get over it as soon as possible". But maybe this is the very moment we should resist this voice, and try to immerse ourselves in the confusion and babble. Maybe this is the moment to speak and to converse until things become clearer. Now is the time to speak.

Shocking though it may sound, I think what we need to confront is not from the age of the Holocaust. Nor is it in the domain of the only too well known urban versus populist or national versus cosmopolitan split in Hungarian culture. It is not Hungarian anti-Semitism either. Bar a handful of madmen and neo-Nazis, nobody doubts that there was a Hungarian Holocaust. Nobody disputes what it really was. The Hungarian population knows about it. There is a Holocaust memorial day, and there will be a Holocaust museum. We talk about it, and books are published about it. On the other hand, while there is no doubt that Hungarian anti-Semitism exists, its importance and extent is a matter of debate. And as for populist versus urban, cosmopolitan versus nationalist, I suspect these dichotomies would not exist by now if we didn't talk about them all the time.

"Facing it", therefore, cannot mean we should recognize or admit something that we haven't recognized or admitted as yet. Kertész's claim goes beyond that: it has overtones of remorse, a bending of the knees, breast-beating and "mea culpa".This call for looking the Hungarian Holocaust in the eye is a subtle variation on the screaming, screeching rivalry of sins and sinners, victims and criminals in Hungarian public life, all too well known by now. Who is the real victim? Who is the real criminal? Who deserves more appreciation? Who deserves to be apologized to even more humbly? And whose responsibility is it to repent and to apologize? Imre Kertész' words on "facing it" seem to imply these questions, although he may not think in this way. If there is something we need to face, surely it is the culture of guilt, and the dangers which this holds.

If we allow ourselves to be lured by the neat division of Hungarian culture into victims and criminals, we surrender to irrational, emotional hysteria, to deep currents of aggressive self-defence and manipulation exploited by primitive people to promote their primitive aims. That would be a surrender to intolerance, to the mentality of the herd, to self-censorship and fear. These are all products of the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships which were described by Kertész with incredible and cruel precision in Sorstalanság and Az angol zászló (The English Flag). Hungarian culture needs no guilt now. It is too rich, too daring and too European to practice the suppression and the rites characteristic of the culture of guilt. We need cognition, recognition, methods of emotional identification and distancing, but we don't need absolute feelings of "us", glorious haloes of "us" on the one hand, and absolute guilt and self-annihilation on the other.

I first read Sorstalanság in 1985 before I came into contact with Hungarian anti-Semitism when the Holocaust was a distant event, a horror in which some members of my family were killed. Others were killed in the war itself. Until this day, I have treasured that first reading, that interpretation untainted by political hysteria, undisturbed by a pressure to choose. (Where do you belong? Are you victim or perpetrator? Us or them? Which "us" and which "them"?) This reading was about a boy who lost his home. Because of this he has lost the ability to feel. He doesn't know what is due to him, who he is, what his own dignity is, what his own self, his own will means. He is homeless, but not so in the concentration camp. He is homeless among his own family and in his own world, both of which are chaotic, oppressive, false and arbitrary. The book is about a boy who, in the world of emotional deprivation in the confines of the concentration camp, finds a "home" and a "fate" for himself. For him, the return from the camp means losing his fate. He experiences dehumanisation, deprivation and humiliation as successive, logical stages on the same road he first walked, victim of deprivation and humiliation from the very start. For me, this novel is a piece of marvellous, existentialist fiction, framed by the same 20th century historical experience that has been the framework for other stories of deprivation and dehumanisation. Up to this very day, this is the core message of the book for me. Am I still allowed to read it like that after "our" Nobel Prize?

This article was originally published in Népszabadság under the title of 'Nobel-dilemma - itt az alkalom' on October 19, 2002.

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