His radicalism silences us. He leaves no loopholes, shuts off all possibilities for momentary sighs of reliefs. "Do you feel that, to some extent, remembrance in Germany has taken the direction of a kind of Holocaust business?" he is asked, to which he answers: "Not to some extent; completely." To which the interviewer cannot reply but simply changes the subject, with indiscretion masked as politeness. Because the interviewer herself is among those who run this business, just like her paper. And the interview itself. And, of course, the interviewee himself participates in this business, by expressing himself, by giving an interview. Does Kertész understand this? Of course he does. That’s why there is a lump in my throat while reading the interview. He does not lead her on; he does not play the role of the liberal intellectual who feels compelled to see a way out even from the worst predicament, like a good nerd; who believes in solutions and keeps saying, even on the verge of death, that in the end, it will be fine.
Kertész would not be who he is if he did not reflect on the hopelessness and the impossibility of the situation. "I was a holocaust clown," he says about himself. Liberals would of course prefer if he called himself something else. A "crown witness," perhaps, whose role is to keep memory awake. Yes, everyone would expect him to say such things, from the journalist of Die Zeit to the president of the German Parliament or to Angela Merkel. And the audience; the readers who are informed about this in best-selling books, which secure steady income for the publishers. Kertész could as well go on saying such things, with a serious mien – which is just what he did for years and decades, to eventually end up using the expression "holocaust clown." Which is almost as much of a taboo breaker as "the happiness of concentration camps."
"Memory business" is like a road roller of infinite width that is impossible to avoid. If you try, then, rather than avoiding it, you banish yourself to nothingness. This is the conclusion of this interview which seems to break with all illusions: you will either be annihilated, or participate in the business. There is no third way – there is no redemption, no grace. Auschwitz has triumphed, its spirit, its totalitarianism, the logic of all or nothing that everyone seems to have learnt so well ever since – those who operate global financial mechanisms just as well as the believers of the mushrooming fundamentalisms, or those working in the entertainment industry who manage to penetrate into the tiniest recesses. This spirit was not engendered by Auschwitz but by 20th-century totalitarianism, of which Auschwitz is the most pregnant manifestation. "The world order did not change after Auschwitz," Kertész once remarked. In other words: Auschwitz is the modern world order of which everyone is a guard and a prisoner at the same time. "Nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz," Kertész said in his Nobel Lecture. And now, in this interview, he admits that it was all to no avail – as a survivor of Auschwitz he cannot say anything without inviting applause. This is the experience he sums up in the expression "holocaust clown." We are all holocaust clowns. Not only him, whose memory work is to no avail if his voice is stifled by loud applause, but also those who applaud. And those who attack and revile him, the anti-Semites of our time. They are also holocaust clowns.
Is there anything more exasperating than understanding that we all participate in the same dance of death? Perpetrators and victims, givers and receivers of prizes, Jews and non-Jews, anti-Semites and philo-Semites, irrespective of culture and skin colour.
The one moment to which he owes his whole life work, as he reports in Fiasco, was liberating and alienating at the same time. He was liberated from the burdens of life, but he was also alienated from what had seemed all natural until then. He sees himself in a cold light, as if on an operating table, and watches his own tormented self with the same interest as the surgeon watches an inoperable tumour. It is this sense of being an exception that imbues his whole oeuvre: he participated in an exceptional event, the greatest scandal since the crucifixion of Christ. He is understandably happy about this – such completeness is given only to the few. Yet this is why I have a feeling as if he was surrounded with thick slabs of glass. The interviewer’s words at least sound flat and hollow; one feels that no dialogue will ever be possible between them. With the best of intentions, she still misses the one she is trying to gouge; her educated sentences make the impression of awkward prattle vis-a-vis Kertész’s answers, behind which I feel an almost palpable, oppressive silence.
László Földényi (1952) is a critic and literary historian. His essay Melancholy will be published in 2014 by Yale University Press, in Tim Wilkinson's translation. This article was originally published in Hungarian at Litera.hu, as part of a series of reflections by Hungarian writers and critics on a recent interview in Die Zeit with Kertész. (The interview is not available online, see our coverage.)