Review – 17th February, 2006

Imre Kertész and the question of identity

Ivan Sanders

Review–17th February, 2006


Imre Kertész was the topic of a panel discussion at a recent American Slavist conference in Toronto. A member of the audience expressed the opinion that to a committed American Jew like himself, Fatelessness is an artistically distinguished, even exquisite example of Jewish self-hate.

Imre Kertész was the topic of a panel discussion at a recent American Slavist conference in Toronto. Here a member of the audience expressed the opinion that to a committed American Jew like himself, the novel Fateless (Fatelessness in the just published new English version) is an artistically distinguished, even exquisite example of Jewish self-hate. As one of the participants of the round table discussion, I was astonished by the statement, although it was not the first time I had come across such a view.

Obviously, it is more difficult for an American Jew, born under a more favourable constellation to accept and understand the identity problems of a Central European Jew. Imre Kertész has pointed out often, in essays and interviews, that because of his particular upbringing and socialization, he did not know even as a child what to make of the Jewishness that had been thrust upon him: “What kind of a Jew is one who did not have a religious upbringing, speaks no Hebrew, is not very familiar with the basic texts of Jewish culture and lives not in Israel but in Europe?” Numerous Hungarian writers, poets and other intellectuals posed the same question in the twentieth century. We could quote similar lines from disclaimers composed by a whole array of writers, from Miklós Radnóti to Sándor Radnóti. Miklós Radnóti, for example, in a letter written to the critic Aladár Komlós, states: “I do not feel Jewish. I was never taught to be religious, I do not feel a need for it, I don’t practice it. Race, blood ties, unseverable roots, ancient pangs quivering in every fibre—I consider such things utter nonsense, and not the defining characteristic of my intellectuality, my spirituality or my poetry. At the same time Radnóti considers himself, wholeheartedly and irrevocably, a Hungarian poet, and regards János Arany and Ferenc Kazinczy as his ancestors. For Imre Kertész, however, his Hungarian identity, too, is rather problematic, and the whole question has an existential cast. In his Gályanapló (Galley Diary), he continually returns to this question:

I for one have no “identity problems”. The fact that I am “Hungarian” is no more absurd than the fact that I am a “Jew”; and the fact that I am a “Jew” is no more absurd than the fact that I “am”.
What folly to exacerbate one’s Jewish fate with a Hungarian one! But that being the case, I have to distance myself from both states until they merely define (and also stress) my ontological solitude, causing a friendly voice to call out to me: “It’s not worth being wrong about this condition”.

And a movingly terse entry from 1975:

My homeland is exile itself.

It is no coincidence that Kertész’s favourite modern Hungarian writers are Gyula Krúdy, the great loner, and Sándor Márai, who spent half his life abroad as an émigré.

But the question of identity for Kertész is even more crucial and complicated. In a volume entitled Valaki más (Someone Else) and published in 1997, he explores all aspects of this question, discovering his “otherness” in every new situation. After 1989, Kertész’s world opened up, too; he travelled more, gave lectures, made a name for himself in Western Europe, and also witnessed the reappearance of anti-Semitism in his own country.  His sense of alienation became a constant, and in this book he confronts the problem more explicitly and pointedly than before.

Living under the hammer and sickle, I could only see things through a double glass, very darkly, so I used metaphysical language to describe my true condition: a stranger in a strange world, etc. Which was true of course, but the world around me was, and is still, called Hungary, and the real name of my “strangeness” was “Jew”; and for a Jew to be accepted in Hungarian society today, (and this today has lasted now for a good seven decades) certain conditions have to be met, conditions which ultimately lead to self-denial.

At the same time, when visiting Israel, Kertész is aware that – though he is impressed by many things there – “the homecoming experience eludes me… I’m not a Jew after all? What am I then?” Among orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, he has the feeling that “I am a different sort of Jew. What sort? No sort at all. I have long ago stopped searching for a home, an identity. I am not like them. I am not like all the others. I am not like myself.” But when at the Tel Aviv airport he is directed to a separate queue as he is a non-EU citizen with Hungarian passport, he thinks: “Now, in addition to my fate as a Jew, I have to face up to discrimination directed against Hungarians.”

Kertész’s ambivalence, which has become more pronounced in the last decade, was actually part of his everyday life before 1989, too. For example, at the end of Gályanapló (Galley Diary) he writes: “One last time on my so-called identity: I am one who is persecuted as a Jew, but I am not a Jew.” An entry written several years earlier seems to contradict this assertion. There the diarist recalls that he struck up a pleasant conversation with Dutch visitors at a writers’ retreat in Szigliget. Responding to a congenial Dutchman’s question whether or not he was Hungarian, Kertész says “evasively”, “I am a Jew. (I say it in German: ‘Ich bin Jude’.) And sense fleetingly that the declaration does not make me feel one bit uneasy. And the visitors don’t appear to be embarrassed by it either. If anything, they are a little more friendly after that.” Another entry, from 1981: “Yesterday an evening stroll along a cold Danube embankment. In front of Parliament a Pole accosted me in bad German. From Krakow. A Jew. We talked a bit, I don’t know what about, but with sadness and a kind of other-worldly understanding.” A shared fate, in this case presumably Auschwitz, is more important for Kertész than anything else. (“I don’t know what Jewishness is,” he has said in an interview. “I know individuals.”)

Kertész’s ambivalence manifests itself in other ways, too. As a secular writer steeped in European culture, he regularly visits European cities — Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin — that are important to him, and he manages to stop in at the local synagogues, although once he is inside, he feels somewhat strange. (To a Vienna synagogue guard who asks that he identify himself, he says that he is Hungarian writer who has “touched on the question of Jewish existence in his works.”) In interviews given in recent years, Kertész emphasises that while he is not a follower of any organized religion, he is not an unbeliever, “although it would be difficult to talk about my faith.” He predicted in his diary years earlier that there was going to be a change in his spiritual outlook and therefore in his work as well. After he finished his novel A kudarc (Failure), he noted that “this …is the last novel written still in the spirit of naked existence. I can feel the pull of mysticism.” Later he continued and refined this thought:

Being a mystic, I don’t like it when mysteries are mystified. Mystery is incommensurate with our language; we cannot make it speak… We have to use the ordinary common sense language of reason and note with satisfaction that from time to time our voice will falter or break.

The impassioned style and religious symbolism of Kertész’s novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child does show the change, though I agree with Sándor Radnóti’s subtle analysis of the novel, in which he points out that even here Kertész does not transcend rationality or step outside the “circle of the bourgeois world”. In his Nobel lecture, the writer himself expresses similar sentiments:

I, too, am inclined toward the rational approach; mysticism and unreasoning rapture of all kinds are alien to me. So when I speak of a vision, I must mean something real that assumes a supernatural guise…

What has always been present in Kertész’s work, and has caused incomprehension, even consternation, is the notion that for him his Jewishness was an extremely negative experience, which he could not relate to normally, but from which he could not free himself. This conviction is expressed most passionately and grippingly in a diary entry made in 1975, the year Fatelessness was first published in Hungary.

I never thought that I was a Jew except in moments of extreme peril. My Jewishness therefore does not come “from within”, it appears always as negativity, restriction, an external determinant — the experience is akin to viewing yourself as raw food in a shark-infested sea or in a jungle that is full of tigers… So if I say I am a Jew, I am saying that I am denial itself, a denial of all human arrogance, a denial of safety, quiet nights, a peaceful inner life, of both conformity and free choice, a denial of national glory — I am a black page in the annals of triumphs, a page on which the letters do not show, I am denial, not really a Jew but universal human denial, mene tekel upharsin on the wall of total oppression.

In an interview given years later, he sums up his position in a more direct way:

Auschwitz means much more to my Jewishness than does, say, Hasidism. It is my one real Jewish experience and not the religion, which, owing to my upbringing, I had never been exposed to.

As with most of Kertész’s important perceptions and realizations, such thoughts attain their final, crystallised form in his novels, above all in Fatelessness. Upon his return from the camps, the novel’s adolescent hero, Gyuri Köves feels that “I would now be able to tell her [a girl he had met before he was deported] what it means to be ‘Jewish’: nothing, nothing to me at least, at the beginning, until those steps start to be taken. None of it is true, there is no different blood, nothing else…” (translated by Tim Wilkinson) Here the boy falters, perhaps because for him only what he experienced in the camps exists, and he cannot allow those around him now to interpret these experiences in their conventional way or to reduce them to clichés; he cannot allow them to rob him of that which now makes him who he is. At the climactic point of his desperate self-justification and confession, the narrator of Kaddish for an Unborn Child also draws the conclusion that only Auschwitz made him a Jew:

…from this unique perspective alone am I willing to be Jewish, exclusively from this unique perspective do I regard it as fortunate, even especially fortunate, indeed a blessing, not to be a Jew, because I don’t care a hoot… what I am, but to have had the opportunity of being in Auschwitz as a branded Jew and yet, through my Jewishness, to have lived through something and confronted something; and I know, once and for all, and I know irrevocably, something that I will not relinquish, will never relinquish…

It would be a great mistake to call all this Jewish self-hate. For one thing, Kertész acknowledges in a recent essay that “no one whose Jewish identity is based primarily, perhaps exclusively, on Auschwitz, can really be called a Jew”. On the other hand, he scorns truly self-hating Jews, even if the self-hater’s name is Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his diary Kertész has this to say about another prime specimen, Otto Weininger:

His attempt to label typical minority petit bourgeois characteristics (the type must have been familiar to him from Vienna) as Jewish characteristics betrays a deadly stupidity, which attracted many followers. The most appalling part of this attitude is the brutal self-hate, which is by no means an inherently Jewish but rather a minority petit bourgeois sickness – I mean this awful surrender, this eagerness to put your head on the block. From this point of view, Auschwitz with its horrific flames could be said to have cleared the air. When seen in the light of that blaze, Weininger seems like a particularly perverse kapo who in his spare time tortures not only others but himself as well.

There is no question that it would not be hard to extrapolate a negative image of Jews from Fatelessness. After all, Gyuri Köves is a child of his time: he adopts or rather internalises the values and prejudices of his Jewish and non-Jewish environment, despite all efforts by the author to present him as a detached and passive participant of the unfolding tragedy. For example, the seemingly impartially and innocently described Jewish relatives and neighbours in the novel are to a significant extent caricatures; it is impossible not to feel the satiric edge of the description. What does the boy notice at the important family conference in the first chapter? His step grandmother’s “distinctly martial, conical”, feather-adorned hat; the “two withered flaps of skin dangling from her neck, which gives her the appearance of a very alert, discerning hunting dog”;  Uncle Willie’s “pear-shaped head; Uncle Lajos’s fingers, “the uppers of which were covered with tufts of hair and the undersides slightly moist with sweat”. And the grandmother who, at first, “was in tears on account of my father, but then after a while her own troubles started to displace that worry to the back of her mind. Her head ached, and she moaned about the rushing and roaring that her high blood pressure produced in her ears”. Types familiar from Jewish anecdotes and jokes are behind each of these figures. Even more revealing is Gyuri’s observation the moment he arrives in Auschwitz. When he sees inmates with yellow stars on the ramp, he muses: Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect. I found them suspect and altogether foreign-looking.” Later he calls a “Finn,” that is, a Yiddish-speaking Jew from the sub-Carpathian region a “lousy Jew,” after being told by him that “Di bist nisht ka yid, d’bist a shaygets” (You’re not a Jew, you’re a goy.).

Despite all of this, a reading that emphasizes a negative Jewish image in the novel is both one-sided and superficial. Fatelessness is a remarkable work because it forces the attentive reader to re-evaluate events and phenomena with which he may be very familiar. One perceptive critic, László F. Földényi, alludes to a singular shift in reader response in the closing sentence of his essay on Fatelessness: “I began reading it as an adult, though by the time I reached the end I had become an unknowing child.” Although the author’s depiction of Gyuri Köves follows realist lines, the boy’s experiences leave a variety of emotional imprints in him. Though alienated from both Hungarians and Jews, he cannot help but react to the world around him in these two capacities. When he loosens his rein on his emotions, we realize that he is full of yearning. He witnesses a hanging in Buchenwald and afterwards hears religious Jews reciting the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. In his characteristically overcautious, self-qualifying and correcting manner, he admits:

Indeed, for the very first time, I too was now seized, I don’t know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only for a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.

The boy may be cautious and reserved but he can suggest the difference between Uncle Lajos’s unctuous, rabbinic platitudes and the words of a real rabbi in the camp – words that partly echo Uncle Lajos’s warnings, but that also convey understanding and compassion.

I even registered one or two of the more unusual words or expressions he [i.e., the rabbi] used, such as the point where he admitted that “through the eye that sees and the heart that feels” he was bound to concede that “we here on Earth might, perhaps, dispute the severity of the sentence…”

The phrase “the eye that sees” calls to mind one of the last sentences in Kertész’s story, “Az angol lobogó” (The Union Jack), a question, actually, that seems to imply the existence of a Higher Being: “Who is the one that sees through us?” The writer himself refers to this line in an interview, and adds:

I don’t think that I can go any further than this. But I believe more strongly than ever that no human life is in vain; on the contrary, each life is in itself a mission and at the same time the accomplishment of that mission.

For all his passivity and alienation, the hero of Fatelessness is quite open: he takes in everything and stores it away. He becomes friends with Bandi Citrom, a city clicker from Budapest and a booster for that city; but he gets to like Bohús too, a Hungarian speaker from northern Hungary, who hardly ever wants to speak Hungarian. Gyuri happily quotes Bandi Citrom’s self-confident belief that “he would ‘set foot on the pavements of Forget-me-not Road’”. . . Or: “Now, then, let’s show these guys what Budapesters can do!” Bandi Citrom often sings his favourite labour camp song, the last line of which is:

Come of us what may,
Our dear old home-land,
We’ll not deceive you, at any cost.

At the same time Gyuri agrees with Bohús when he tells Gyuri that “he disliked Hungarians. He was quite right, I had to admit; all things considered, I myself would find it hard to find much reason to like them.”

It is important to note how interested Gyuri Köves is in languages, the foreign equivalents of Hungarian words, and in foreign languages in general. He often quotes the mainly German and Yiddish words and expressions he heard in the camps, and describes his attempts to make sense out of them with his rudimentary language skills. All this is of course part of the novel’s realism; the descriptions are more authentic when key words and phrases are used in the original language. I am not thinking here of the novel’s peculiar style but of the linguistic curiosity and receptivity of its hero; perhaps the only attributes that can be related to his being Jewish. As with everything else in this novel, though, this linguistic receptivity is by no means unambiguous. Language is, naturally, an obstacle; it divides people. Gyuri is not familiar with the words of the Kaddish, he cannot recite it with the others. Pyetchka the Pole brings the news of the liberation “flushed, excited, talking thirteen to the dozen.” At the same time language can act as a bridge. Gyuri is able to get by with his beginner’s knowledge of foreign languages, he sharpens his ears, memorizes the initial letters denoting nationality on the inmates’ clothing, pays attention to accents and in time understands sentences spoken in a mixture of languages. Perhaps the difference between languages is not so great. Still in Budapest, one of the boys Gyuri encounters after his arrest teaches him a little song: “The curious thing about the song was that the lyrics can be rendered in three different languages using exactly the same words: by sticking an es at the end of the words, it sounds German; an io, then Italian; and taki, then Japanese.”

In his extraordinary Auschwitz stories (which had a profound effect on Kertész), the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski describes the language used in the camp as “crematorium Esperanto.” In fact, the assertion, made above, that Gyuri Köves’s linguistic interest and receptivity are Jewish characteristics can easily be challenged. The same interest can be detected in Tadek, the non-Jewish hero of Borowski’s stories. It is also true, however, that Jews in the Diaspora recognised early on the advantages of being multilingual. Both Borowski and Kertész show, by linguistic means, the familiar, international, European character of the concentration camps, and also how much the univers concentrationnaire resembles our own world. Consciously or not, Imre Kertész presents a whole gallery of Hungarian Jewish types in his novel: his hero comes across respectable Neolog Jews, a working-class Jew from Budapest’s teeming Terézváros, Hasidic Jews from the sub-Carpathian region, a dissimilated Hungarian Jew from Northern Hungary that had become part of Czechoslovakia, as well as acculturated though still orthodox “unterland” Jews – he listens to all of them and tries to understand their situation. We find out the actual names of some of them. As Ágnes Heller writes in her tribute to Kertész, the names, the faces are important, even if they appear only for a moment, like the Kollmann family from Kisvárda, or Dr. Kovács from Siófok (who is not a doctor but a lawyer, as the always meticulous Gyuri points out), the ruddy-faced Fodor, etc.

And as long as we are discussing types, it is not difficult to identify intellectual or bohemian Budapest Jews, the habitués of espresso bars and editorial offices, as they appear in the re-imagined Budapest of the 1950s in A kudarc (Failure), another Kertész novel. The question of identity re-emerges far more forcefully and explicitly in Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child. The following passage is notable for identifying two distinct Hungarian Jewish types and lifestyles. Here the novel’s hero recalls a childhood visit to relatives in the country.

Yes, it was here that I lived for the first time among Jews, I mean among genuine Jews, not the kind of Jews we were, urban Jews, Budapest Jews, which is to say no kind of Jews, though not Christian either of course, but the kind of non-Jewish Jews who still fast on the Day of Atonement, at the very least up to noon; no, the “aunt” and “uncle” (I no longer remember exactly how we were related, but why would I remember, they long ago dug their graves in the sky, into which they were sent up in smoke) were genuine Jews, with prayers in the morning, prayers in the evening, prayers before meals, prayers over the wine, but for all that decent people, albeit unbearably dull of course, for a young boy from Pest, their heavy grease-laden fare, goose, bean cholent, and larded, spicy apple flódni  flatcakes: I think the war had already broken out, but here at home, everything was nice and peaceful, they were still only conducting blackout drills and Hungary was an island of peace in a Europe in flames, what had happened and went on happening uninterruptedly in let’s say, Germany and Poland, or in, let’s say, the “Bohemian Protectorate” or France or Croatia or Slovakia, in short everywhere all around, couldn’t happen here, no, not here, no way…

In this excerpt, as well as in the rest of the novel, the narrator lets loose a torrent of words on his interlocutor and the reader. The main motif of the work draws on Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge,” though here Celan’s Margarete with her golden hair and Shulamit with her ashen hair are turned into a bald woman in a red housecoat sitting in front of a mirror. (The narrator recalls seeing his religious aunt one morning without her wig. The image stays with him and becomes associated in his mind with Jewish defencelessness and shame.)  Yet, as the above passage shows, the narrator contrasts deracinated urban Jewish existence with the more meaningful, tradition-rich rural Jewish experience. It’s also true of course that in his bitterness, and because he is relating a bored city kid’s recollections, he emphasizes the dreary everyday life of his “decent” relatives, and the mechanically repetitive nature of religious ritual. The overwrought, even frantic style of the novel, the fevered music of the sentences owes a great deal to repetition and theme and variation patterns. Repetition is sometimes employed quite simply – in this passage, for example, the word Jew appears nine times in a nine-line text; it is a provocative repetition in a cultural environment where the word was virtually banished from print for decades. (A wonderful vignette by György Dalos comes to mind, an anecdote from the grim 1950s, in which an old aunt of the author, upon receiving guests, tells one of them: “Be a dear and get the Jewish apples from the Jewish cupboard — the Jewish relatives are here.” It should be noted that this visit takes place in the Lipótmezo mental asylum.)

Interestingly enough, Imre Kertész, in a brief section of his Nobel lecture devoted to family history, does not mention his more assimilated parents, only his grandparents who “still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland.” What is more, Kertész describes himself as a Jewish writer in the sense that his works are a part of East European Jewish literature. “For the most part, this literature deals with the extermination of European Jewry; its language may vary, but whatever the language, it can never be considered a native tongue.”

That gentleman in Toronto may have been right in a way. Hatred, including self-hatred, is often on Kertész’s and his characters’ mind. When a Budapest journalist asks Gyuri Köves, upon Gyuri’s return from Buchenwald, what he feels at the moment, the boy says: “Hatred.” And whom does he hate? “Everyone.” Six decades later, Kertész is convinced that what has saved him and keeps him alive today is the opposite of hate. He concluded a lecture in Berlin several years ago with this thought: “If I am asked today what still keeps me here… I say without hesitation: It is love.”

The author is Professor Emeritus of English at Suffolk College, SUNY, and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University's East Central European Center. He is the prize-winning translator of many Hungarian writers. This paper was presented at the CEU’s Jewish Studies Program, on 24 January 2006.


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