Detective Story

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

Detective Story

by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson

Harvill Secker, HK$168

Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz survived the Nazi death camps only to live under communist rule for four decades. Unlike those who believe that using Auschwitz as a metaphor violates its historicity, Kertesz is drawn to the Holocaust as a paradigm of universal tyranny. His compact novels explore how the mechanisms of Auschwitz continue to structure society.

Kertesz's autobiographical novel Fatelessness ends with its narrator proclaiming the 'happiness' of the concentration camps, opposing efforts to sentimentalise his experiences as an affirmation of human values. In the tortured stream-of-consciousness monologue of Kaddish for an Unborn Child, the survivor-narrator explains his decision not to have children as a rejection of patriarchy, which he associates with totalitarianism. The tight-knit mystery plot Liquidation finds a survivor's marriage ending after his refusal to become a father in a world responsible for Auschwitz.

The incarcerated narrator of Detective Story awaits probable execution in an unspecified South American country. He recalls a fellow secret-police agent reading a book about Auschwitz. His colleague, he remembers, labelled all insurgents 'Jews' despite the country's minute Jewish population.

Detective Story was published in Hungarian in 1977, when the South American setting was necessary to out-fox the state censors. But if genre is a benign form of tyranny where literary convention reigns supreme over character, then Detective Story serves as a resistance of another kind by subverting the title genre: perpetrators and outcome are known from the outset. Federigo Salinas, the wealthy owner of a department store chain, and his son, Enrique, are dead. One of the offenders has eluded the authorities and another has been sentenced to death. From his cell, the third culprit, Antonio, writes the memoirs we read.

Antonio's stock phrases reflect the hollowness of someone unable to think for himself. He was, as he often rationalises, 'just a new boy with the Corps'. He narrates his recollections as though describing a foreign person, without any insight into his motivations. At moments when conscience might assail him, he develops recurrent headaches.

His voice is studded with 'I means' and 'you knows' - stuttering that fills him with shame and hints at possible moral unease.

Tim Wilkinson's translation doesn't always convey Antonio's voice consistently. One wonders how 'dilettante' might feature in the vocabulary of someone who spouts such jaunty colloquialisms as 'lambkin' and 'helluva'.

The author's refusal to restrict the cruel logic of Nazi totalitarianism to a particular historical moment makes him a marginal figure in the canon of Holocaust literature. Detective Story continues Kertesz's exploration of the existential plight of the individual under tyranny's jackboot. It is a masterful addition to his other translated novels.