Imre Kertész (b. November 9, 1929), Hungarian novelist

"When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz."

Kertész was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history", becoming the first Hungarian to receive that honor. He has a small but devoted following in Europe, but only two of his novels have been translated into English. His reception in his native country has been mixed, probably because his work tackles issues that are too sensitive and relatively fresh for his countrymen: Nazi genocide and communist tyranny.

Born into a Jewish family in Budapest, he was only 14 when he was sent to Auschwitz when the Nazis came to town in 1944. Later he was transferred to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. In 1948, he worked as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Világossá, but was fired in 1951when the publication adopted a hard party line after the communists took power. From then on he supported himself as a translator of German language authors such as Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though Kertész was never censored, success in his native land eluded him as long as the communists were in power because he refused to join the Party’s official writer’s association.

It took ten years for Kertész to find a publisher for his debut novel, Fateless (Sorstalanság, 1975). It was the first in a trilogy featuring protagonist György Köves. Like the others that followed, it was an "autobiographical novel" based on his experiences, but not strictly autobiographical, as the author has said he does not want to write about his own life. Köves is a 15-year old in Buchenwald ostracized by other Jews because he can’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, but learns to cope and survive. In Fiasco (A kudarc, 1988), Köves is a bitter middle-aged novelist whose book about his experience in Buchenwald is published. Instead of the solace he is seeking, Köves reacts with distaste and sadness. In Kaddish for a Child not Born (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, 1990), Köves refuses to bring a child into the world which permitted the death camps and says a prayer (the Kaddish) mourning the child’s nonexistence.

Those who write about Kertész take pains to note that he is an amiable and humorous man who doesn’t seem to be tortured like the characters in his novels.

Gale Contemporary Authors database
New York Times, October 11, 2002

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