January 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson

As a chronicler of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz allows no redemption and no transcendence. If you cry while reading Fatelessness or Kaddish for an Unborn Child, you’ll cry bitter, furious tears, but most likely, you won’t be able cry at all. A terrible white ball of impossibility will grow in your throat and pinch your mind and your soul. His approach to life after Auschwitz is closer to Primo Levi’s (whose poem “Kaddish” curses those who go about their daily lives without considering atrocity, and who portrays the Holocaust not as some historical aberration, but as the truth about humanity) than to Roberto Benigni’s (whose Life is Beautiful was the favorite movie of Pope John Paul II). Even when Kertesz isn’t writing about Auschwitz, he’s writing about Auschwitz.

It’s so fitting, then, that Kertesz has written Detective Story -- a highly staged, hardboiled genre novel, as dark as noir can get. It’s disarming, but shouldn’t be surprising, that this police procedural, set somewhere nameless in Latin America, ends up actually being another Auschwitz story, although “story” is the wrong word. It ends up being another Auschwitz ritual, another Auschwitz chess game, a fencing match with an opponent who will win, no matter what you do, and there you’ll be with that white ball choking you again, making you reckon with yourself.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Kertesz’s best novel available in English, is a cold sweep. It chills you, your bones are more brittle, your life harder, for having read it. And then you read it again. Detective Story is more like Kertesz’s Liquidation than like Kaddish. It’s stylized and enigmatic enough to be demanding of the reader in a different way -- it can be impenetrable and hard to understand. It can feel like taking a test when you haven’t read the book. It lets you in bit by bit until it suddenly, inexorably, sucks you into a void, or sucks a void into you.

Each narrator in Detective Story -- and we are left with several narrations, frozen in the form of dubious documents -- is unreliable, and each fits strangely into a Kafkaesque puzzle, a dead-end hall of mirrors. The lawyer of Antonio Rojas Martens, a secret policeman on trial, offers up a manuscript that Martens has written in his jail cell. Martens, in turn, quotes the diary of Enrique Salinas, a young man now dead, which he has purchased from the head of the confidential archives by “(coming) to an understanding with him… In the matter of certain top-notch brands of liquor.” Each document features deliciously dark characters, like Ramon G., or “Steeleyes”:

Imagine, if you will, a leech, but a leech that is capable of ardor -- and there you have Ramon. He was always sucking someone’s blood, tenaciously, persistently, devotedly. He had a special talent for making people talk. Damned if I know how he did it. But anyone he sank his sucker into started speaking immediately, as if some kind of serum had been inoculated into their body, along with his saliva.

Translator Tim Wilkinson preserves Kertesz’s bone-dry wit and his distinctly Hungarian sense of humor. The black irony of Kertesz’s prose works on many levels, like a machine that makes eight unrelated objects at once. As the plot of Detective Story unfolds backwards and sideways, the troubled elements of dictatorship emerge from the shadows.

Martens writes, of the police surveillance of Enrique Salinas, “Our records had already identified that Enrique was going to perpetuate something sooner or later. As far as we were concerned, his fate was sealed, even if he himself had not yet made up his mind.” Roderiguez, Martens’s colleague in “the Corps” (who are headquartered in a “well-known classical palace”), has a virulent hatred of the Jews, although there are probably no more than a few hundred in the whole country. He’s reading a contraband American book with “Auschwitz” in the title. “Anyone who wants something else is Jewish,” he says, with increasing agitation. “Otherwise, why would they want something else?” And Martens placates him, or tries to, by answering, “Because they’re Jews.”

The university has been closed, but it will reopen soon, yes? And we learn from Enrique’s father that “there isn’t a single rational reason for someone who is called Salinas to be in the resistance,” and that “every faction with a sense of purpose needs its unsuspecting tools. Who are tools even though they are called heroes…” Meanwhile, Enrique is furious and sick at the thought of doing nothing, at bourgeois complacency and mediocrity and patience. He reviles his father’s attitude. He begins his diary after Victory Day, when they have closed his university, and he is irreconcilably angry.

Martens is a chilling figure, a perpetrator of secret police terror, a bland upholder of the needs of the Homeland and the Colonel, a member of an organ that targets and menaces the innocent. Enrique Salinas, with his romantic, poetic young man’s diary and philosophy, is an innocent, isn’t he, riding around in his Alfa Romeo? He writes, “It seems that only one philosophy can succeed the philosophy of existentialism: nonexistentialism, the philosophy of nonexistent existence… There are these police types everywhere, eavesdropping, sniffing around, and they think nobody is paying any attention to them. They’re right, too, people don’t pay them any attention. All it has taken is a few months, and already they have grown accustomed to them.” Martens shares the details of Salinas’s diary dispassionately, flatly. He maintains, Eichmann-like, that he “was still the new boy” in every moment of his narrative. Yet he has a moment of shock, and “uneasy foreboding for Enrique,” at the height of a dirty interrogation -- “He alarmed me because all of a sudden I sensed that he was innocent.” The police plan to uphold order ends in the usual way -- a way that is almost so atrocious as to defy description.

What is the mystery? We start with the bare-bones details of a detective story. We have some documents to piece together. We move backwards, we move sideways, through hardboiled noir, into the dark core of secret police under a Hitler, under a Stalin, under a Pinochet, under George H.W. Bush’s CIA. We end up -- somewhere a long time past Auschwitz, somewhere a long way away from “that scummy Europe, in its eastern half” -- looking at a Boger swing. We end up with a secret police chief, Martens’s boss, who, under the nameless Colonel, can frame the innocent in less than an hour and a half.

“I’ll be hanged,” writes Martens, “if anyone could have put together as speedily as Diaz a watertight investigational file on conspiracy to engage in criminal acts endangering Homeland security... He would never be captured. It is always me whom they catch -- people like me, I mean.”

As in any hardboiled genre novel, you are the real detective. In the end, it turns out that there was no mystery at all.

Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson
ISBN: 0307266443
128 Pages