The first time Hungarian author Imre Kertesz met Americans, they were soldiers rescuing him from a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
Now, almost 60 years and a Nobel Prize later, his is the much-heralded arrival, marked by cheers and a standing ovation. Excited New Yorkers recently packed an auditorium at the 92nd Street Y, as the 2002 Nobel laureate gave his first reading in the United States.
In his native Hungarian, Kertesz, 74, read from his newest novel, “Liquidation.” Fellow Hungarian Andras Schiff played Bartok and Schubert on a Steinway. Author Thane Rosenbaum read several selections from Kertesz’s books, translated into English by Tim Wilkinson, including “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” and “Fatelessness,” about a young boy’s experience in the German concentration camps.
“It was a triumphant evening,” said audience member Robert Weil, an editor at W.W. Norton & Company who is working on the collected works of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.
“Kertesz has come late to the scene. His perspective is that of an older man with a great deal of wisdom and humor. ... There’s a twinkle in Kertesz which is unusual in Holocaust literature.”
Rosenbaum welcomed Kertesz (pronounced IHMreh CAREtez) to America during a question and answer session with the audience and Kertesz said, “The first ones to visit me were the Americans, when they liberated me from Buchenwald.” It was a meeting, he said, that included chocolate bars and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Though Kertesz, who is of Jewish descent, was imprisoned in the German concentration camp Auschwitz in 1944 and in Buchenwald until 1945, he noted that “Fatelessness” is no memoir.
‘All the way into the whirlwind’Speaking with The Associated Press through his translator, Zoltan Saringer, Kertesz explained, “For me, fiction is what you can actually take all the way into the whirlwind. Prose as an art is there to describe the describable.
“Museums and memorials are very nice. What they do, however, is institutionalize the Holocaust, and further distance it,” he said. “But artists can make sure the whole experience of the concentration camps becomes a genuine human experience.”
In “Liquidation,” he portrays a group of contemporary Hungarians following the suicide of a Holocaust survivor and writer named B. Kertesz’s conversational, often humorous delivery belies his harrowing subject matter. Elegant and erudite, his novels demand alert readers.
“Kertesz reminds us of the absurdity of living in a world so monstrously murderous and indifferent,” Rosenbaum said. “He received the Nobel Prize not only for the beauty of his language, but for being witness to a world so few of us could have seen.”
One of the many arresting passages in “Liquidation” follows B.’s ex-wife, Judith, as she travels to Auschwitz. Looking for answers, she instead confronts a place “teeming with pickpockets” and gawkers who tell her, “You have to go to Birkenau, that’s the real McCoy.”
Although happy with his reading, Kertesz said, “I cannot decipher to what extent American readers will be fertile ground for the problems I write about, and the ways in which I write about them.
“Ten years ago, when freedom was a new and fresh sensation in Hungary, I had great expectations about the future. I thought there would be a process of cleansing purification that would allow the Hungarian people to process the realities of the Holocaust — that half a million Hungarian Jews were exterminated.”
Instead, after enduring a year in concentration camps, decades of oppressive communist rule and literary oblivion in Hungary, Kertesz found that the upheaval caused by political change in 1989 led not to a “great, cathartic moment,” but to a society of anxious, stunned people struggling to figure out their place in the world.
A robust man with a quick smile and a rakish fringe of silver hair brushing his collar, Kertesz seems completely at ease with his place as intellectual heavyweight. And despite the attention brought by the Nobel, he writes for no one but himself.
With typical slyness, he pointed out that writing for an audience would be impossible. “I don’t know what they want, do I?”