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Hungarian Writer and Nobel Laureate Kertész Dies

Translated Tuesday 5 April 2016, by Arwen Dewey

Imre Kertész, Auschwitz concentration camp survivor and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, died Thursday at the age of 86. This portrait of the Hungarian writer was published in l’Humanité in 2002.

This Jewish writer from Budapest, once a prisoner at Auschwitz, created what is considered one of the century’s most significant bodies of European literary work.

Yesterday, the jury for the Nobel Prize in Literature selected Hungarian writer Imre Kertész "...for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." The Swedish Academy explained its choice by stating, "In his writing Imre Kertész explores the possibility of continuing to live and think as an individual in an era in which the subjection of human beings to social forces has become increasingly complete."

Imre Kertész was born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. In 1945, Kertész was freed from the Buchenwald concentration camp and returned to Hungary. There he began his career as a journalist and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, and Freud. By 1951 his newspaper had become a central institution of the Communist Party, and Kertész was fired. He started writing plays and musical theater.

He wrote his first book, Fateless, in 1975. It was inspired by his experiences in the Nazi camps. But it was only 10 years later, when a new edition was published, that this, Kertész’s first book, became well known in his own country. According to Eberhard Rathgeb, literary critic for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Fateless is "one of the most significant European literary works of the century."

Yesterday, the Hungarian writer György Dalos projected that the awarding of this Nobel Prize constitutes "...worldwide recognition of contemporary Hungarian literature," placing Imre Kertész among other "...grown-up heirs of Anne Frank such as Romania’s Jorge Semprún [1][sic] and Italy’s Primo Levi. At the same time, Imre Kertész’s work is profoundly Hungarian, and all Hungarians should be proud. He is the first Hungarian author to receive such an award."

Fateless is the story of a young Hungarian Jew, wearing the yellow star, who is taken prisoner during a raid in Budapest. The naïve teenager thinks he’s just going to be put to work. The conditions are harsh, it’s wartime, but the boy just doesn’t see what’s really happening. He even jokes around with his friends while the police are rounding them up.
He thinks the German soldiers at Auschwitz are dashing, well groomed, and admirably calm. Even thirty years after the liberation, his liberation, he dares to write that he felt, "something like happiness."

Imre Kertész went on to write several other works, including Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Fiasco, and Valaki más: a változás krónikája [Someone Else: Chronicle of a Metamorphosis], all of which have been translated into French by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and published by Actes Sud. Several other books, not yet translated into French, have been published in Germany, where the author is quite well known.

Unsurprisingly, Kertész was largely unrecognized in France before October 10, 2002. That’s one more reason to applaud the efforts of Hubert Nyssen and his colleagues. They have been promoting publication of Kertész’s works in France since 1995. Actes Sud’s online magazine, Positions, published a paper that Kertész wrote while in Jerusalem. In it, he reflects on the position of a Jewish atheist in a town at war. "It’s my destiny: the condition, which could be called universal, in which I live, this condition that I chose for myself and accepted, is that of a minority. If I wanted to describe this condition, I wouldn’t use any racial, ethnic, confessional or philological notions. I would define this condition of being an accepted minority as a kind of spiritual life founded on the experience of the negative (...) because I consider everything I underwent due to my Jewish origins as an apprenticeship, an initiation into a profound understanding of humankind and its current situation."

In 2015 the author of Kaddish for a Child Not Born and A száműzött nyelv [The Exiled Language] was awarded the rank of Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres [Commander of the Order of Arts and Literature] by the French Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin. His most recent publication in France was L’Ultime auberge [The Last Inn], published in 2015 by Actes Sud.

[1Translator’s note: This is a *quote* in an article originally published several years ago. In the original French version of this article, the first reference here is to the "Roumain Gheorghe Sempran". As far as I know there is no Romanian Holocaust writer named Gheorghe Sempran. I believe Dalos was mixing up two famous Holocaust survivors: Spanish writer Jorge Semprún and Romanian writer Elie Wiesel.

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