Miami Herald // Dossier K by Imre Kertész

I’m told that my review of Dossier K ran a few weeks ago in the Miami Herald, but I never saw it online so I’m pasting my unedited file here. It may differ from the published version. I’m not sure.

Imre Kertész is one of those rare authors, like George Orwell or Franz Kafka, whose work is so insightful about the sinister threats made against the human condition that his name should be used as an adjective. Kertészian fiction is often characterized by philosophical complexity, close attention to childhood trauma, the psychic scars that remain from the Holocaust, and it always seems to possess an air of autobiography. In 2002, he won the Nobel prize for fiction that “upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.”

            The Hungarian author’s best-known novel on our shores is probably Fatelessness, but Liquidation and several of his novellas have also been translated into English by the indefatigable Tim Wilkinson. When he was fourteen years old, Kertész was shipped off to Auschwitz and, later, to Buchenwald. As one might expect, his fiction deals in many different ways with the Holocaust and its aftermath. Dossier K represents his first and only memoir and it takes the form of an extended self-interview in which he acts as his own grand inquisitor.

            The topics range from the young Kertész’s difficult relationships—with his parents in Budapest, with his own Judaism, with the Soviet regime in which he toiled for decades after the war, with his own humanness—to what he calls “the unfathomable relationship between fiction and reality” and “ratio of fiction and real life” in his oeuvre.

            “After Auschwitz,” he tells us, “I felt the correct thing to do was not to base my relationships on personal feelings but on the principles of social progress.” He follows that up with: “It was bloody stupid of me, as I soon realized.”          

            Of his improbable survival, he writes: “[T]here is still no way that I can consider it rational that I, of all people, and not someone else should have been rescued from there. If I were to accept that as being rational, I would also have to accept the notion of providence. But then if providence is rationality, why did it not extend to the six million others who died there?” I’m not sure one could ask bigger questions than this one.

            Dossier K never tries to clarify anything—be it history or religion or guilt or pleasure. Instead, it does what every great work of art does. It luxuriates in complexity and does so without apologizing for it. “I take delight in contradictions,” Kertész writes and, accordingly, there are no easy answers here. How could there be? That his vision is grounded in one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century makes books like Dossier K all the more engaging and devastating. Of course, there simply aren’t very many books like Dossier K.