Friday, October 21, 2011
Imre Kertesz on the Despair of the Mistranslated Nobel Laureate
November 11, 2004
By Dylan Foley
In 2002, the Hungarian novelist and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Virtually no one in the English-speaking world knew who he was, for “Fatelessness,” his masterpiece novel of survival in Buchenwald, was horribly disfigured by a bad translation in English.
Kertesz’s profile is about to shoot up in America and the United Kingdom. Kertesz has just published a short gem of a novel called “Liquidation” (Knopf, $17), where a Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor commits suicide as communism collapses in Hungary after 1989. Also, new author-approved translations of “Fatelessness” and "Kaddish for an Unborn Child” by Tim Wilkinson have also just been released in the United States.
Recently, the 75-year-old Kertesz made a triumphant visit to New York City, to be honored at Columbia University.
Sweeping into his publishers office at Random House, Kertesz was all smiles. “I really missed not being in touch with American audiences,” says the writer of his second trip to the United States. “My survival was influenced by the Americans. American soldiers liberated me from the camps,” he notes of his starved, near-dead 16-year-old self in 1945. “They were not looking for Imre Kertesz. They were waging a war and were victorious, but they still liberated me.”
Kertesz survived the camps only to be further tormented by the post-war Hungarian communist dictatorship, surviving as a playwright and translator. His novels, including the 1973 publication of “Fatelesssness,” were treated with indifference.
Though bald on top, Kertesz has long white locks that go down to his shoulders. His hands have a slight Parkinson’s tremor, but the intellect is steely and sharp. He brings an entourage of two, a skilled translator and his wife Magda, who was raised in the Hungarian neighborhoods of Chicago.
The new novel “Liquidation” starts as a farce, where B.’s friends are playing parts in B.’s own play about his suicide. The novel then swiftly moves into the tragic love affair of B. and his ex-wife Judit. B. was born in Auschwitz, a small life created in the machinery of death. The Holocaust informs B.’s work and every breath. He offers Judit, the child of Holocaust survivors, a personal Holocaust for two. After B’s suicide, Judit is given the job of burning his unpublished novel.
B. is a caustic character, who sees his life as a mistake. “Quite interestingly, in the camps we had a lot of children,” says Kertesz, a gracious man with intense blue eyes. “In Germany and the Netherlands, I have met people who were born in the camps. B. is fiction.”
“Liquidation" is not only the title of the novel, but also its overpowering theme. It covers the murder of the Hungarian Jews, it is the name of B.’s play, and addresses the incineration of B.’s manuscript and his suicide.
“It is a comprehensive liquidation that is actually boiling under the surface of all my novels already,” says Kertesz. “It is an internal compass that appears to be much stronger than anything else. Without such weight, I would not be in a position to write at all. What would incite me to put anything on paper?”
All of B.’s art is influenced by the Holocaust, as is every breath he takes. The murder of the European Jews and his own brutal two years in the concentration camps have shaped Kertesz's work.
“Every novel I write is autobiographical,” says Kertesz. “When it comes to autobiography, you really look at things in a much more complex, direct way. I am happy to accept that whatever I say is autobiographical.
“With B., there are many similarities,” says a bemused Kertesz. “I have not committed suicide on one hand, and on the other I believe that through my books I have been able to transform the Holocaust into a comprehensive human experience. B. wasn’t capable of doing that because he lived a different life. His survival is an accident.”
The Holocaust has had a horrible post-war toll on its chroniclers. Several of the great Holocaust survivors and writers, including Primo Levi and Paul Celan, have committed suicide. In creating B., Kertesz has explored the suicide of other writers.
“It is an issue that has preoccupied me a lot,” he says gravely. He points to the uncompromising work of survivors such as the French-born Jean Amery and Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski. “These two are radical, major writers,” he says. “They never followed the humanist attitude that Primo Levi adopted. When they wrote, they used a language that was post-Auschwitz. That language never allowed room for old devoid values, obsolete values.”
Writing about the Holocaust experience took Kertesz more than a decade. “I was 46 when the book first appeared. It took 13 years to give birth to the book. I started it in 1960 and finished it on May 8, 1973. I still remember the day. I had been struggling with the language, the semantics, then suddenly I got caught in the whirl of events. I remember the last pages. I wrote them on a park bench, so as not to be disturbed by visitors. That was a feeling of euphoria.”
To create his autobiographical boy-survivor, Kertesz needed distance. “I’ll tell you how I put the boy on the page,” he says fiercely. “I really had to distance myself from him. I did not want the reader to shed tears. This boy does not have any internal relationship with what is happening to him. This estranged personality made an excellent medium to depict the absurdity that was characteristic of the camps.”
Kertesz’s books sell well in Europe, with the best market being Germany. In fact, Kertesz keeps a home in Berlin, where he is comfortable. “The generation that lived through Nazism is not here anymore,” he says.
Kertesz warns that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, though it comes in several flavors. “Anti-Semitism comes in different forms in Europe,” says Kertesz. “In Hungary, you have the classical anti-Semitism that predates the Holocaust. You know who these people are. In Western Europe, the situation is completely different. I call it ‘Euro anti-Semitism,’ which is basically rhetoric against Israel. I don’t say Israeli politics are pure and clear, but people go from discussing Israel to crossing a line into anti-Semitism.”
The horror of being mistranslated had weighed heavily on Kertesz for the past decade. “I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection,” Kertesz says. “The publisher (Northwestern University) was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth.”
The first translators did their own inaccurate interpretations of his work. “The translators didn’t understand what I wrote about,” says Kertesz, cringing at the memory. “The radical nature of my words was something that estranged them. They thought in the interest of the reader, they would make the text more human, to round it off and chisel it a bit.”
The translations of “Liquidation” and the two older books have Kertesz’s ecstatic approval. “I got carried away with Tim Wilkinson’s new translations,” says Kertesz. “I’m extremely overjoyed.”