Detective Story by Imre Kertész (translated from the original Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)

The Hungarian-Jewish author, Imre Kertész, received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He’s a survivor of Auschwitz, currently resides in Berlin and is 82 years old.  Detective Story was published in 1972 and at 112 pages can (more correctly) be considered a novella.

It’s always interesting picking up a book by a Nobel Prize Laureate…  I’m never sure what to expect.

Detective Story takes place in an unidentified country, which immediately gives everything an unreal, fable-like quality.  The narrator is Antonio Martens, one of three former members of the “secret police” working directly for the government (which I believe is a dictatorship headed by a mysterious figure referred to as “the Colonel”).  The story is about a past case, a situation Martens was involved in at the beginning of his career.

At its center is Enrique Salinas, the son of a prominent businessman.  His father has remained lucrative under the current regime – as, we are given to understand, he has under past regimes.  This has been accomplished through avoiding politics and political ideology – by not taking sides or passing judgement.  Easier to say plainly – he kept his head down.  The son, Enrique, wants to take a different path. He has convinced himself that his life has no meaning unless he joins those opposing the dictator. Interestingly Kertész does not seem to hold the boy or his élan in particularly high regard, despite Enrique’s moral righteousness.  Or perhaps it is Martens who looks down on the boy, as the story is being presented to us from his perspective.  Either way – Enrique’s convictions are portrayed as foolish, stemming from an lack of purpose and boredom.  No one takes him seriously.

Until the secret police learn of “an impending atrocity” and begin watching Enrique.  Eventually they will arrest him, his father and question all their known associates.  Salinas, father and son, will be tortured.  Circumstances are set into motion and the cogs of the machine begin moving with frightening efficiency. Victims and perpetrators alike are powerless to shut it down.

All this is being told to us long after the events described have transpired. Frequently Martins refers to himself as the “new boy”, as if this will in some way absolve him. The dictator he served under is no longer in power, one of his partners is dead and the other has fled.  Martens’ future appears uncertain.  Kertész reveals all this slowly through asides and allusions.  The reader quickly comes to understand that Martens is recounting only one horror among many – and quite probably not the worst that he and his colleagues perpetrated.  These acts were not fueled by hate, a sense of morality or political motivations – Martens simply performed a job.  It is the most chilling component of the plot: as the story unravels the reader comes to see that Martens sensed something was amiss, yet chose to do nothing.  He, like the elder Salinas, is guilty of indifference and acquiescence.

This mirroring of victim and perpetrator, along with the inevitability of ones fate, give Detective Story all the trappings of a Greek (or Shakespearean) tragedy.  The book is undeniably political, but in the end both the idealist and pragmatist suffer.  Testament, perhaps, to the arbitrariness of absolute power and corruption.

Where Detective Story fails for me is in its most important character.  Antonio Martens makes an unconvincing (not to be confused with unreliable, though he’s probably that as well) narrator. He and his partners are brutes, bullies and thugs – inarguably.  But they lack that additional layer that identifies them as “police”.  For example, when they tell a suspect during interrogation that he’s “been rumbled” do they mean “rolled on”?  Would these men, who I just described as thugs and bullies, refer to attack on the regime as an “upcoming atrocity”?  Or look at this passage, which inexplicably makes an obscure American reference for no apparent reason –

The shaggy-haired weirdos all went into hiding.  We circulated their details nationally but with about as much success as if we had been searching for, let’s say, for half a dozen irregularly yellow-striped Colorado beetles in a twenty-five-thousand-acre field of potatoes.

I can’t say for certain whether or not Imre Kertész wrote about Colorado beetles – still, it feels completely random, don’t you think? And jolting, as up until this point the author has completely obscured the setting.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.  I don’t read Hungarian, so I can’t speak with any authority.  But the translation reads as if stilted.  In addition to what is described above, other word choices appear awkward – often they feel too literal.

Language aside, Detective Story isn’t badly written. The mood, the message and the philosophical questions Kertész poses are all interesting and exceedingly well-handled.  He leaves much to the reader’s intelligence and imagination – which I believe is exactly how to develop this type of narrative.  But, because we’ve been given a weak and implausible narrative voice, whatever Kertész seeks to accomplish has been severely handicapped.  I couldn’t emotionally invest in Antonio Martens.  Or, consequently, in the story he tells.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, London (2009).
ISBN:  978 0 099 52339 0

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One thought on “Detective Story by Imre Kertész (translated from the original Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)

  1. Hi tolmsted,
    I read Detective Story when I was very young ( I was a whodunnit fan and the name misled me to think it would be something similar). I didn’t enjoy the book a whole lot, and as you say, the language feels stilted… I might read it again someday with a more mature eye.

    on an unrelated note, i transferred my blog to its own website. Please do have a look, and please follow! I’ll be updating here from today.


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